Keyboard Review: Masione “Mechanical Feel”

Posted: May 1, 2017 in keyboarding
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The tired old adage says that you get what you pay for. Well, sometimes you do, and sometimes you’re disappointed. In the end, if you fork over long green for a product, the expectation is that you are going to come away with something you’ll enjoy, something that will last. You hope that your investment will turn out to be a warranted and useful expenditure.

If we avail ourselves of the many resources that the modern era provides, it is possible to be a more informed consumer than at any time in history. If someone’s purchased a product we’re interested in, anywhere in the world, chances are that they may have shared their experiences. With common products, there’s absolutely no reason you can’t get a really good bead on what they’re like, and if they have fatal flaws. All it takes is a little time and access to the web.

Thus, our large purchases should, in a world of good and light, be low risk. Not altogether without risk, because this is the real world, and not everything is perfect, or what we expect. But mostly good.

I have more than a few high priced keyboards, some of them well documented here on this forum. I have a strong sense of what to expect when I plunk down big money for a keyboard. I can tell you about what to expect, as well. At least within some frame of reference, anyway. I can help you get what you pay for in that class of high-priced gear.

The situation becomes less clear when the amount of money being spent is far less. I found that, in the current atmosphere, I didn’t have a strong grasp on what one could expect for “average human” money. I understand that most people don’t have any interest in paying over a hundred dollars for a keyboard. Perhaps it’s not something that’s financially feasible for them, even if they’d love to do so. They need a decent keyboard, but they have to look at the bottom line. More likely, they just haven’t taken leave of their senses, as I have.

While keyboards featuring “real” mechanical switches are far less expensive than they once were, the form factors and feature sets of those ‘boards are not always exactly what a normal consumer is looking for. Even looking at spending $40 to $60 for a budget priced mechanical might put some people out of the running. I get that. There are more important things. If you’re having a tough time making the rent or putting food on the table, that’s an extravagance you can’t pursue.

Thus, I’m seeing if we can get a good typing experience, a good quality keyboard, for far less. Here, we are below even the cheapest mechanical designs, down into the territory of a simple peripheral.

The typical replacement keyboard of wired type is going for something like $8 to around $30, depending on brand and features (U.S. money, 2017). Many of them group around $15, give or take a few dollars.

These are straight up rubber dome keyboards, usually with full stroke keys, but some of them featuring laptop-style scissor switches instead. Those are becoming more and more popular. I don’t think it’s a great trend, but I’m not consulted on these things. Which is a shame. I have thoughts. Ah, well.

What I wanted to do was see if there was something that was “better” than what the run of the mill rubber dome keyboard could provide, while still being as affordable as possible. Less than even the cheapest mechanical.

What I found, after some poking around, was that there were some ‘boards being touted as “half mechanical” or “mechanical feel” designs. I found one that didn’t look so outlandish that I would be tempted to regurgitate into it, and ordered an example.

The model I picked was from a company called Masione. It didn’t seem to have a name, per se, but it does say “Gaming Keyboard” on the box. The Amazon listing goes something like “USB Connected Seven Color Backlit Gaming Keyboard with Mechanical Feel Switches.” That’s what we’ll go with. Yeah, the ad wizards were up all night coming up with that one. Very catchy. Rolls right off the tongue. The cost was around $22 dollars, all together. That’s rounding up. It’s not exactly a caviar budget item. Most should be able to swing that kind of money.

What it looks like:

As befits a gaming-inspired keyboard today, this one has LED backlighting, all manner of weird light shows using said lights, and some, ahem, interesting design elements going on. In the main, though, it looks like some of the space saver models from Dell that came out several years ago. You know the ones. They look like they did their darnedest to take every cubic centimeter of extra material off. The Masione is sort of like a garish, less-well-done version of that.

The box it came in was fairly well printed, with a full wrap of information. that information was accurate enough, though it didn’t go into extensive detail. It was described as having “mechanical touch plunger keys”, which was the primary point of interest for me.

How it works:

Though there is no mention of such language in the official literature included, the listing on Amazon called this model a “half mechanical” design.

I don’t believe that there is any logic in the idea of something being half mechanical. I don’t think it’s a state that one could find in a keyboard. Mechanical feel? Sure, I guess.

Here’s how the keyboard works. It is, underneath, a normal enough rubber dome keyboard. The sole component that imparts resistance and tactile feel to the key presses is a dome of rubber. The actuation point of the device is all the way down at the bottom of the stroke. If you don’t press the key all the way, you won’t see a character sent to the computer. The rubber dome has to collapse all the way to initiate the membrane switch below it.

Mechanical keyboards, in the main, have their actuation point at the half-way point of their travel, or a bit deeper in some circumstances. They also feature a resistance mechanism utilizing a sprint of some kind.

A normal rubber dome keyboard has an in-built stem that reaches down below the baseplate of the ‘board, acting directly upon the rubber dome. One of the issues with this design is that the plunger arm that is inbuilt into the bottom of the key cap will often have a lot of surface area that is a friction-bearing zone. This is necessary for key stabilization during the keypress. The negative thing is that, when “stuff” gets into the keyboard, it can easily get into this cylindrical channel and cause the keys to be very sticky or friction-laden. Because these little accidents often only affect a few keys, you’ll get very uneven resistance, with some keys requiring you to smash them down like a concert pianist during a crecendo. Not awesome. Even brand new, the plunger-on dome feeling can vary a lot between keys, and the effect of wear can make things get a lot worse.

Here’s where the Masione’s design comes in. It is a “dome and slider” mechanism. Instead of having the plunger be of the same, possibly not-ideal material that the keycaps are made out of (Likely ABS plastic), the key cap can sit upon a slider that’s built into the base plate. Once pushed onto that slider, the keycap can depress it as normal. The slider, though, can be made out of a plastic and with a design that maximizes stability, while reducing friction and the possiblity of being compromised with contaminants (like your Mountain Dew, Fred).

In the Masione’s case, it uses a slider that mimics the look of the Cherry MX key switch. That is to say, it has a faux switch housing built up from the base plate, and a slider that has a cross shaped top. This design rejects a lot of dust and debris, while being very stable. It also allows people to take the keys off easily and safely, so that cleaning the keyboard is not a terrible job. Finally, because the stems are compatible with all the thousands of key caps out there for the Cherry MX design, you can replace a broken key cap or customize the look of your ‘board, should you desire. (More on this later.)

Dome and slider keyboards have been around for quite a long time. I believe the 90s were the period when they were most prevalent, but the information on this design isn’t exhaustive. At least, my understanding of it is not. They were, typically, not ‘boards that songs were sung about. They were good to fair, for the most part.

Hands on:

The Masione keyboard has a few, ahem, design oddities. The first is a wildly oversize bottom row of keys. The space bar is almost three times the size of a normal model, if we measure from the base up toward the function row. It’s huge. This is the sort of thing that keyboards used to do a lot, but is rarely seen today. The Windows, Function, and Alt keys are likewise massive. What does that mean? it means that you had better not break them, because you won’t find a good replacement.

The next thing to be concerned about is the “big ass enter” key. Yep. One of those. Like it wasn’t sure whether it was an ISO or ANSI format. So it sort of went for both. This design was big in the early 90’s if I remember correctly. The downside? Tiny 1×1 backspace key. The single width backspace takes some time to get used to, and can be really infuriating while that learning curve is curving. You get a lot of this:

maadaem=====

(The big group of equals signs are failed taps at the backspace. This design helps you really steer into the skid.)

These design elements can take some getting used to, but are not outright dealbreakers. They’re deal…complicators.

The huge spacebar, other than imparting an odd sound to the key press, doesn’t really do much to impede your progress. I have found that, contrary to accepted touch typing mechanics, I hit the backspace with my ring finger on my right hand. It should be the pinky finger, but hey. I’m old. That would be a new trick. In any case, that’s a bit of a stretch from the home row, and requires pretty fine motor control. In the course of an evening, I was able to get it down pretty well, but it takes a little forebearance on the typist’s part.

Other than those things, it’s pretty much just like another keyboard you might find. It should be mentioned that there is a nice, heavy aluminum backplane to this keyboard, so that it is a good bit stiffer and more significant in feel than your average plastic fantastic you’d get with your PC.

The key action. That’s where everyone wants to go, right?

Key actuation force is quite light. That’s the first thing to notice. I would say that it is maybe a bit lighter than a Cherry MX Brown. They don’t feel the same, but the weighting is similar.

The keys don’t feel mushy, despite the light weight. There is a nice key control, and a certain level of initial resistance that makes the “give” come on with a sense of tactile response. Again, you can’t float type. You have to bottom out. That’s the technology. That said, because it’s light, and has a fairly “present” feel, it’s easy enough to type with some speed and accuracy. The typing feel is, I suppose, a pale imitation of the Topre switch. The feel is along the same vein. If you liked this feel, you’d dig Topre. Topre keyboards are about ten times as expensive. I’m not kidding. Maybe twelve or fourteen times as expensive, depending on the model.

The feel of the keys is siginficantly better than an of your garden variety rubber dome keyboards. A clear and easy to feel difference. Much more tactile, much less mushy. Generally a much more sorted-out feeling. There is a certain lack of positivity remaining, however. Because the bottom of the travel is touching the rubber dome against a membrane switch, it has a soft landing feel, a sort of padded sensation. For some, this might be their preference. It might decrease the amount of stress coming back into your fingers. On the other hand, there is a definitive, clear sense of a full key press on a mechanical switch, because the key cap is actually hitting the base plate. The “clack” part.

This is not a loud keyboard. I would say that it is approximately the same sound level as a Topre or a Cherry MX Black, if not just slightly less loud than the Cherry model. It has something of the “thock” sound that the Topre produces. Probably not quite as loud. In general, this is not a keyboard that will bug nearby folks with its noise. It just kind of mutters. The only key that really makes much noise is the space bar, but that’s a fairly low frequency sound, and I actually like that particular sound. I took it into work, however, and my nearest co-worker did not agree. At least when I was typing at 100wpm in his ear with it.

Compared directly to a mechanical:

The typing feel and action is pretty good on the Masione keyboard. In the kingdom of cheap membrane keyboards, it is something of a heroic aberration. For a percentage of typists, this will be the exact feel that they want. Light effort, soft landing, plenty of tactile response. Just enough sound that you can have a sense of the typing action taking place. No unpleasant sounds or feelings.

However, all is not perfect in Masione land. I find that the incidents of dropped keystrokes is far more prevalant than with a mechanical. Not because the keyboad malfunctions, but because the keys have to be pressed right to the stops, and any level of float or any lazy press on my part will not register. That’s just a limtation of the technology, and one of the reasons that we have a whole generation of computer users who are sued to typing really hard. They have to.

I could adapt, if this were my daily driver. Sure. No problem. I would just unleash the beast and type hard. I can do it. If I can adapt to the oddities of the layout, I can get the key press requirements down.

The Masione does an admirable job of trying to class up a fairly pedestrian technology. It hits a lot of marks. It does have a certain level of mechanical feel. In a more traditional layout, it would make an even larger case for itself. Even with its dubious design choices, it has a place in the market. I’d still take a MX Brown switch keyboard ten out of ten times, if money were not an object.

Usage Case:

If you want to get a better keyboard, but aren’t ready or able to spend a lot on the enterprise, this little guy will get you some distance toward a better typing experience. There would still be room to grow, room to explore, but you would have your foot wedged in the door to the promised land.

There could be a circumstance wherein you will need a servicable ‘board, but will be reticent to bring an expensive piece of equipment into the theater of operations, so to speak. For instance, you have a terrible keyboard at work, but they won’t buy you a new one. Without going out backward for the week, you could bring the Masione in, and at least have a tool that wouldn’t impede you at every turn.

So, as an inexpensive upgrade or a semi-perishable tool for rough conditions, this could really fit the bill.

Final Thoughts:

I’m indifferent to the gamer design elements on this keyboard. The backlight is reasonable when left in a single color, and can be shut off, should it prove distracting. The typing dynamics are good enough to use without risking a trip bummertown, though some inadequacies of the rubber dome technology persist.

This is a good keyboard. For the money, I don’t know that it would be easy to improve upon it. You’d almost have to comb through a local recycler to find a good used model to do so. That is with the caveat that there will be a bit of learning curve, due to the key placement and shape.

Spending another ten or twenty dollars would get you into a “real” mechanical keyboard that would be more my taste. If you dip into the price bracket of sub-$30, the only real contender is the Velocifire TKL01. It’s a better keyboard. It has its own faults, but it’s a real mechanical. I’d pick that, if for no other reason than because of its normal layout.

If you’re intrigued with the idea of this keyboard, I’d encourage you to give it a try. Even if it doesn’t end up being something that you’re head over heels about, it’s inexpensive enough that it can serve as an emergency spare, or be given to some friend or relative who could really use an upgrade. The Masione would be an upgrade for many of them. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Cheers, and happy typing.

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Comments
  1. Editorial comment: This is listed as Model K801 in the internal literature that comes with the ‘board. Why they don’t list this in the sales page? No clue.

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