Evil, I tells ya! My experience with Razer Synapse 2.0 and the BlackWidow 2013

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I recently bought a BlackWidow 2013 gaming keyboard from Razer. I wanted a gaming keyboard… Actually, scratch that. I wanted a decent keyboard for my primarily gaming-oriented desktop computer that would not suck as hard as the cheap piece of plastic that I bought along with the box. Did I somehow assume that the word Microsoft on it would make it everything alright?

Anyway, I’m not 12 and so there’s no excuse for the kind for design choices that are apparently de jour for these things. I wanted quality and something classy that didn’t scream adolescent rage-pwner. Maybe even something that would allow me to remain closeted on occasion. “Oh that? Yeah, I think, we spend so much of our lives typing and so I’ve invested a little extra for that special touch. Just try resting your hands on that. Nice, eh? Gaming? Don’t be silly, I use it for blogging.”

The BlackWidow seemed a perfect match. Mecahnical switches, matte black finish, no flashy colours, a general feel of quality to it (I know Razer build quality has its detractors but it seems genuine to me). I wasn’t too sure about how exactly macros would work but having recently played Skyrim with loads of More Hotkeys, Please I figured I could probably find a use for some dedicated keys as well. No, I don’t play MMOs, I don’t know what that’s got to do with it, please go away.

It was only when I was reading cursorily glancing through the user guide and seeing references to Synapse 2.0 and the need to download drivers from Razer’s web site that it struck me.

This was the thing that I had been warned about months ago and then neglected to take proper notice of. The name Razer should have made a siren go off in my head. But it hadn’t and now I hadn’t just invited evil in to my home, I had fed, washed and taken it to stroboscope-themed paparazzi parties long after midnight. It was bad.

Well, actually no. I still hadn’t installed Synapse — the driver plus software package Razer uses to configure the non-standard features of the keyboard, like macros and making game-specific profiles — and I had taken care to unpack it so that it could easily be repacked and returned to the web store. Where I come from all internet purchases come with a 14 day right of return, unlike most things truly evil, such as Hitler and getting up before 7.

For those not in the know, the recent version 2.0 of Synapse — the driver plus software package Razer uses to configure the non-standard features of the keyboard, like macros and making game-specific profiles — is ‘cloud-enabled’. This means that in order to configure anything with it you need to set up an account with Razer. The software will then constantly synchronize your settings with Razer’s cloud. This seems a bit overkill for what really amounts to a small ini file saying that pressing the X key while game Y is running should be treated as a scroll down. Especially given that the keyboard weighs some two kilograms and is unlikely to be moved about from PC to PC much.

After a failed attempt to use old versions of Synapse with the keyboard, I found a FAQ on Razer’s web site informing me that the new model 2013 would not work with old versions of Synapse (it doesn’t say so on the package but a tiny sticker says model ‘2013’) And so I left it there having made my mind up to return it to the store. But there was no rush. I had fourteen days, I could use the keyboard as a standard USB keyboard (no special drivers needed for that) and I wanted to find a proper replacement. To cut a long story short, in spite of my initial dislike for the mechanical keys I am slowly being won over and I don’t think I’ll be returning the keyboard. I still can and might but it’s unlikely and here’s why.

Let me make it absolutely clear: The idea of cloud storage for something like this is obnoxious, for the simple reasons that

  • I can see no benefit to me as a consumer. The keyboard is attached to one computer and it isn’t going anywhere else. I doubt most consumers’ keyboards will.
  • It’s mandatory. Making this an option is one thing, making it a condition for using the product another. Apart from the inconvenience it shows a company with a cavalier disregard for consumer choice. And unlike various web services forcing you into choices you do not want, I am a consumer here. I paid big bucks for this.
  • Always-online smells of spying and drm (whether that is the case or not, it still smells). It’s unclear what the benefit to Razer is but seeing as there is not benefit to the consumer, the reasoning goes that they must be profiting from it somehow. It’s flawed reasoning to be sure, but understandable and possibly correct as their Terms of Service claim ownership of any and all data that they collect.
  • Even worse is, that the company seems to be lying through it’s teeth about it and assuming its customers are stupid. Citing the cost of increasing storage on the device, Razer argues that cloud storage is needed to prevent price rises. Storage for what? The example given above is the sort of configuration you need. I could write it out in prose and still fit it in the memory of a Commodore 64. As for costs how about saving the cost of developing useless bloated software?

So what could mitigate all these things. Short answer: A combination of inertia, appreciation for the hardware, the lack of fitting alternatives and the “it’s not so bad”-factor. Yeah, not what you wanted to hear, I’ll wager.

Inertia simply signifies my lack of wanting the bother of returning it and arguing with the store. And as I’ve said, the mechanical keys have grown on me along with the general look and feel of the thing. I’ve generally avoided using the big, lumbering desktop computer in favour of the snappy, SSD-equipped laptop for anything but heavy duty-gaming (when light weight, linux-friendly obsessions like FTL come along it doesn’t get any love at all, the poor thing). The keyboard has shifted the balance to the point where I’m actually writing this on the desktop computer. Forget about ease of use, and let’s talk about joy of use. And while there are other quality gaming keyboards out there, none really combine the features that I want as well as the BlackWidow.

[pullquote] Basically it boils down to “It works and I don’t feel as violated as I thought I would”. Kind of like how Rick Santorum imagines it would be like having a rape baby.[/pullquote]

So how can pure evil be “not so bad”, I hear you ask. Good question.

  • The registration is easy and simple. No really, come back and let me explain. I can create a new account from within the software by clicking new account and then giving an email address (good, old garbage gmail from the early days when registering was easy) and entering a password twice. Then acknowledge receipt of activation email. How is this easy? I don’t need to navigate Razer’s website, I don’t have to figure out which fields are mandatory and which are optional, I don’t have to contend with captchas. Everything I hate about registering an account with any service simply isn’t here. I especially like that I don’t even have the option of providing additional information about myself (I probably do somewhere but I didn’t notice it and that’s what counts) and I’m not being prompted for it. Beat that, Google.
  • There’s an offline option. I think it was added as a 2.01 afterthought due to consumer complaints which slightly lowers Razer’s record ‘Cavalier Disregard for Consumer Choice’ rating but also indicates that the company is fairly unrepenetant. The fact remains that it’s there now. Yes, you still need to register and activate and log in. And yes, that’s still bad. And no, I don’t know what happens once Razer’s activation servers are shut off and I invariably have to reinstall Windows. For now what matters is that I have a configuration utility that sits quietly in a corner and keeps track of some very local configurations.
  • Even before the offline mode was introduced, always-online was not a requirement for the software to work locally. I tried pulling out my cable, rebooting and adding configurations and recording macros. They worked and still work. “But I don’t wanna be offline just to avoid snooping!” It’s called a firewall, people. Look it up. I actually want to thank Razer for pushing me towards investing a few hours in properly setting up my Windows firewall.
  • The software itself is…. well semi-decent. Compared to freeware configuration utilities like X-mouse, it’s a laughable proposition but it can do simple remapping. An example: My trackball doesn’t do scrolling (which means zooming in a lot of games) very well so I wanted to assign that to some keys.
    I am now able to use one key for zooming in and one key for zooming out. But I have to press those keys once for each zoom level. I can’t just hold the key down and have it interpreted as a repeated key press, something that could easily have been simulated in X-mouse.

So there you have it. Basically it boils down to “It works and I don’t feel as violated as I thought I would”. Kind of like how Rick Santorum imagines having a rape baby. Or something. Put that on your product recommendations page, Razer. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s a good enough excuse to embrace pure evil.

Photo by jurvetson

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