SteelSeries is updating its mechanical keyboards with variations on its new Apex Pro and Apex 7, and some of the changes are subtle in look but significant in practice. Take the $129.99 Apex 7 TKL tested here: It bears a strong resemblance to the company’s earlier Apex M750 TKL, but with some extra flair and functionality, most notably a little OLED display in one corner. “TKL,” for those fluent in keyboard lingo, stands for “tenkeyless,” meaning a reduced-width keyboard without a 10-digit number pad. That’s just about all that this killer keyboard is lacking, though, and it’s not a shortfall. (You buy a tenkeyless keyboard specially for the smaller footprint and the ability to position your hands closer together.) The Apex 7 TKL is attractive, comfortable, and sturdy, and our favorite tenkeyless model of the moment.
Taking Off a Tenner
The Apex 7 TKL can be viewed as an unofficial successor to SteelSeries’ Apex M750 TKL keyboard, and both products share many design features, including a classy, rigid aluminum frame. Both keyboards are available with SteelSeries’ custom Red switches, and the Apex 7 TKL offers the option for Brown or Blue switches, as well. All three key types fall under the umbrella of SteelSeries’ own “QX2” mechanisms. (The overall typing experience on the two keyboards with Red switches should be identical.)
The Apex 7 TKL model that I tested came with the Blue variety of the QX2 switches, which provide tactile feedback when struck and produce a loud click, in the tradition of the classic Cherry MX Blue switches. (See our guide to mechanical keyboards for more on the nuances among switch types.) Although the audible feedback is part of the attraction with keyboards that use Blue-style switches, the Apex 7 TKL will be uncomfortably loud if you use it in a communal workspace or in a household of light sleepers.
Most of the noise produced by the keyboard sounds like it is produced by the keys bottoming out rather than from the actuation of the Blue switch mechanisms themselves. I’ve used plenty of keyboards with Cherry MX Blue switches, as well as Razer models with Razer’s similar Green switches, and while those keyboards were also a bit noisy, the Apex 7 TKL tops them on key clatter. The Brown-switch alternative might be better if you like the tactile bump of a mechanical but have noise concerns. All three switches for the Apex 7 TKL are rated by SteelSeries for a 2mm actuation point, so the perceived keypress depth ought not vary among the three switch types.
Despite the noise, I found that typing on the keyboard was pleasant and in line with expectations for Blue-class keys. The keys felt like they actuated easily, without the need to apply excessive force, and I didn’t feel any finger fatigue while typing this article using the keyboard.
In the upper-right-hand corner of the keyboard is a narrow, clickable scroll wheel that controls the computer’s volume, and below it is a button that pauses or plays any media you have open. Like all of the keys on the keyboard, the scroll wheel and button can be reprogrammed to support other functions.
What sets the TKL apart from most other keyboards, though, is its on-chassis micro-screen. Beside the scroll wheel and button is a little monochrome OLED display with a resolution of 128×40. Though it may just look like dressing at first, this unusual feature makes the keyboard more customizable. By default, the OLED display shows just the SteelSeries logo and brand name, but you can upload other images (including GIF and JPG files) for the keyboard to display. (Animated images display at a rate of 10 frames per second.)
The more useful application of the OLED panel, though, is informational. The panel is designed to work with applications such as Discord (for showing messages and identifying your correspondents) and Spotify (listing what track is being played), as well as to show various game-specific details. The latter vary by game.
You can also use the OLED display to adjust system settings (such as volume), or to switch profiles right from the keyboard display, all without having to reference a dialog or slider on your monitor. SteelSeries implements some of this via an easy-to-use onboard menu system. By pressing and holding the keyboard’s clickable scroll button for a few seconds, the OLED screen will switch to display the menu, which can be navigated using the button and scroll wheel to tweak settings, work with macros, and change profiles. You can even use the menu system to program macros and build profiles without the need of any software on the computer.
SteelSeries also equips this keyboard with a USB passthrough port that illuminates and glows white. In another nice touch, channels on the bottom of the keyboard chassis help with cable management. These tunnels are meant to hold the keyboard’s thick cable and have it exit the keyboard’s rear edge where you like, but they can also be used to help route the cable for whatever device you plug into the USB passthrough port.
SteelSeries also provides a sturdy palm rest with the keyboard. The palm rest has a comfortable, rubbery coating and is held on by a pair of magnets. The magnets help keep the wrist rest lined up with the keyboard, but they aren’t all that strong; they do little to keep the palm rest attached. Picking up or moving the keyboard at all will cause the palm rest to promptly detach and fall to the floor or desk.
Rev Up the Engine
Although you can manage many of the functions of this keyboard from the onboard menu system and the mini-screen, more complex key- and light-programming tasks are always more easily handled on your PC proper. To access all of the keyboard’s features, you will need to download SteelSeries’ Engine 3 software. Certain settings are accessible only via this software, and you will also need to use Engine to upload a custom image to the OLED display.
We’ve looked at the Engine software many times before, so no need to dig too deep here. Our opinion of it holds. Engine 3 is cleanly laid out, with all keyboard functions divided into three tabbed sections (for shortcuts, lighting, and the OLED panel), and it’s both powerful and easy to use, the equal of competing utilities from other gaming-board makers.
Our Top Tenkeyless
All things considered, while the Apex 7 TKL is a loud typer in the Blue sample that we received for review, it remains enjoyable to use. The under-key lights look pleasant, the body is rock-solid, and the small OLED display has actual utility and wow factor in equal measure.
Productivity-minded users likely wouldn’t want to use this keyboard as their everyday driver, due to its lack of a number pad, but that misses the point for the serious gamers and tweakers it is meant for. Positioning your hands closer together when gaming is ergonomically and strategically a better bet, and the need to incorporate fewer pricey mechanical switches on a given keyboard means more of the cost can go toward adding innovative features or more creature comforts.
In that way, the Apex 7 TKL strikes a deft balance for its price. It’s an excellent and stylish solution for anyone who doesn’t need a number pad but does want maximal tweakability, durability, and value from a mechanical board.