The Roccat Horde Aimo is a very forward-thinking device, with support for Microsoft’s Surface Dial tech and LEDs that adjust themselves, but its membrane underpinnings and some awkward design choices hold it back.
We’ve seen two attempts at a hybrid mechanical/membrane keyboard so far: Logitech’s G213 Prodigy with its “mech-dome” switch and Razer’s Ornata with its “mecha-membrane.” And I would’ve been happy if that were it, forever. Neither was that great, and it’s hard to convince me to buy an “upscale” membrane keyboard when true mechanical keyboards are so cheap these days. (Shoot, our favorite budget mechanical keyboard, Razer’s Blackwidow X Tournament Edition, is just $70.)
But apparently this is an idea companies will continue to explore, as evidenced by the new Roccat Horde Aimo. Under the hood? You guessed it, a membrane/mechanical hybrid switch that Roccat calls “membranical.” I can’t make this stuff up.
And as if that weren’t enough to unpack, the Horde Aimo is also one of the first keyboards to mimic Microsoft’s Surface Dial tech. So is it any good? Can a bundle of strange ideas add up to a keyboard worth buying? We went hands-on to find out.
Note: This review is part of our best gaming keyboards roundup. Go there for details about competing products and how we tested them.
Dial it in
Usually I’d spend a lot of effort up front dissecting a keyboard’s design, but the Roccat Horde Aimo has a ton going on and I don’t want to keep you here all day. Suffice it to say, it’s fine. Roccat has a very particular aesthetic, a bit busy-looking for my tastes, but it’s inoffensive. Black, with some superfluous edges and a somewhat oversized footprint. If you needed an example of a “gaming keyboard,” the Horde Aimo is it.
The eye-catching feature here is the aforementioned Surface Dial look-alike, which Roccat calls the “Tuning Wheel.” Located in the upper-right corner, it’s an enormous presence that can’t be missed.
I’ll admit, the Tuning Wheel was the main reason I wanted to take a look at the Horde Aimo. (It certainly wasn’t the membranical switch.) Ever since I saw Microsoft’s Surface Dial demo I’ve been intrigued by it as a sort-of mouse replacement, a way to shortcut some of the tedium of various user interfaces.
My first problem with Roccat’s dial: It’s in the top-right corner.
Look at Microsoft’s Surface Dial demos and you’ll see a pretty consistent trend. The person using the Surface Dial is probably holding it in their left hand, because it’s helping them navigate various options while still using their mouse. That in mind, the placement of the Tuning Wheel is baffling to me. In order to use it in the most efficient manner, you’d have to stretch your left arm across your entire keyboard.
It seems—and I’m no hardware designer, so take this as the backseat commentary it is—like the Tuning Wheel would be much better placed in the top left corner, where the Dial-like functionality could be accessed in the proper manner by the majority of people.
Anyway, once I adjusted to that disappointment, I found the Tuning Wheel a pretty interesting piece of tech. Not necessarily life-changing, but as a devoted fan of dedicated media keys, the Tuning Wheel is basically that on steroids.
By default, the Tuning Wheel works a bit like a scroll wheel—maybe the reason for the right-edge placement? Windows 10 allows you to change the default behavior though, and I found it made most sense to emulate a volume wheel.
That’s just scratching the surface though. A row of keys to the left of the Tuning Wheel allow for all sorts of other on-the-fly behaviors. For instance, switching between virtual desktops, or changing your brush size in Photoshop, or scrolling through video footage in Premiere.
Again, a lot of these actions only make sense, or are faster than traditional hotkey shortcuts, if you’re using them in conjunction with a different action on your mouse, which makes the Tuning Wheel’s placement a bummer. Nevertheless it’s a fascinating input device, and I hope the Horde Aimo is just the first of many to support Surface Dial behavior on more traditional peripherals. I found it especially useful in Photoshop and Premiere—always nice to have more shortcut options in programs that complicated.
Membranical? Not tubular
The Tuning Wheel is hit-or-miss, but the Horde Aimo’s “membranical” keys are just miss, period. I don’t like them.
Like the aforementioned Logitech G213, the Horde Aimo is a fine membrane keyboard, but it’s a bad mechanical replacement. That might make it suitable for a certain segment of the populace who’s looking to upgrade their daily keyboard and sees true mechanicals as too expensive—except they’re not. Not anymore. The Horde Aimo lists for $90. The Cougar Attack X3, which has both RGB lighting and true Cherry MX keys, is just slightly more at $100. This whole membranical/mecha-membrane/mech-dome trend is seemingly a solution to a nonexistent problem.
So why buy one? Well, you’d have to want a membrane keyboard, and maybe you have a reason for that. Noise is a pretty common one, and indeed the Horde Aimo is significantly quieter than even a Cherry MX Red-equipped keyboard.
But these membranical keys are simply not pleasant to type on, at least for those coming from a proper mechanical. For one, Roccat’s made the odd choice to mimic the look of a membrane keyboard, as evidenced by the half-sized, recessed keys. Other mechanical/membrane hybrids, like the Ornata and G213, use the high-profile keys common on mechanical keyboards even if the underpinnings are still membrane-based, but the Horde Aimo opts for the shallower layout. Maybe it’s my own bias—I use a mechanical every day, and have for years—but I don’t like the flattened feel.
That’s a surface-level complaint though. The real problem with the “membranical” switch lies deeper, in a more granular discussion about how mechanical switches should feel. If you look at force curves for most popular mechanical switches, you can sort them into two categories: Linear and Tactile. Linear switches, like Cherry MX Reds, start each keystroke with low resistance and then steadily increases the force required as you reach the bottom. Tactile, like Cherry MX Blues, are similar, but with the addition of a stiff bump in the middle where the key actuates.
Membrane keyboards, on the other hand, are commonly compared to bubble wrap. There’s a stiff resistance as you begin to press the key, and then this resistance collapses. The opposite of a mechanical, essentially. With less resistance towards the end, you usually bottom-out the key (meaning it hits the backplate). It’s neither pleasant nor ergonomic, with all those bottomed-out keys liable to cause stress injuries or just hand fatigue.
The Horde Aimo…just feels like a normal membrane keyboard. There’s that same feedback curve—lots of resistance at first, then none at all. Looking at the expanded schematic of the membranical switch, it looks like Roccat stuck an extra piece of plastic above the membrane itself. But what is that piece of plastic supposed to accomplish? I have no idea. I think it’s supposed to make it so you can activate a key without actually bottoming out, but in practice this is almost impossible. There’s no natural resistance to prevent you from slamming the keys all the way down.
All that said, there is a difference in quality between cheap pack-in membrane keyboards—you know, the ones you see in offices and such that cost $20 and include a mouse—versus higher-end membrane keyboards. The latter are usually a bit more precise, less mushy. That’s what we have with the Roccat Horde Aimo. It’s a nice membrane keyboard.
And Roccat made one very smart decision: There’s a column of five macro keys down the left side, and they’re recessed to the point of looking like Chiclet-style laptop keys. My main frustration with left-hand macro keys is that I always find myself hitting them accidentally when I meant to hit Control or Shift or Escape. With the Horde Aimo, it’s almost impossible to misfire a macro key—which, ironically, makes me a bit more likely to use them.
Before we wrap up, it’s worth noting that the LED backlighting is way too dim, with noticeable banding when you look at the keyboard from an angle. Backlighting is way easier to do on a membrane keyboard so I’m not quite sure why that’s the case, whether it’s a matter of cheap LEDs or a problem caused by that extra layer of plastic that I mentioned.
It’s a shame, because the Horde Aimo boasts a no-setup lighting function that, as Roccat puts it, “reacts intuitively and organically to your computing behavior.” In non-marketing speak, the keyboard changes lighting configurations periodically, highlighting specific keys and such depending on the program that’s open. Cool idea—but the lighting itself needs to be worlds brighter and better before I recommend a keyboard for a secondary feature like this.
I like keyboards like the Roccat Horde Aimo, insofar as I like reviewing keyboards that try something new. And the Horde Aimo tries a lot of new things—membranical keys, Tuning Wheel, Aimo lighting.
None of them quite hit the mark, and the membranical keys in particular are a disappointment, just like other mechanical/membrane hybrids I’ve tested. But given Microsoft’s support for the Surface Dial, I’ve no doubt we’ll see more models implement Tuning Wheel-style functionality soon, and I think that’s going to be an interesting workflow development for a lot of people. As for the lighting, I’m always excited to see manufacturers try and push their LED lighting to be more useful. The Horde Aimo’s problem is just poor hardware, but the core concept seems sound.
Point being: The Horde Aimo isn’t necessarily a keyboard I’d recommend, but I think Roccat’s exploring some interesting ideas for whatever comes next. I’m excited to see that more-refined model.
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Computers and Peripherals
Hayden writes about games for PCWorld and doubles as the resident Zork enthusiast.