Design and Features
The Apex 5 looks like I’d expect from a SteelSeries keyboard after having used the Apex M500 and Apex M750. It has a similar aluminum construction to its siblings, with a clean design and a simple drop at the front and back. The underside includes handy three-way cable routing, structural reinforcement that keeps the keyboard incredibly sturdy, and two small legs for adjusting its angle.
SteelSeries has included a wrist rest, which is a surprising extra at this price point. It feels decent, though not luxurious, thanks to a soft touch coating, and it uses magnets that make it easy to attach and remove. Rubber feet on both the keyboard and wrist rest keep the whole thing from sliding around.
The Apex 5 is a full-length keyboard with a numeric pad, but doesn’t stretch to take up an excess of space on my desk. It tacks on a few extras with a volume wheel, play/pause button, and a small OLED display. The wheel has a good feel to it, spinning smoothly and clicking to mute audio. The OLED display is a simple black and white affair, and has limited use in gaming, but that’s not to say it’s useless. It can display simple GIFs for some fun flair, or indicate which profile is selected. I set it up to display who was talking in Discord, which I felt was maybe the most handy thing it could do.
The keys on the Apex 5 are where things get interesting. For $99, it’s impressive that they come with per-key RGB lighting, especially since SteelSeries lighting effects are dazzling. The Audio Visualizer effect is particularly fun to watch. But, for all its impressive products, SteelSeries still doesn’t seem to know how to make key switches with LEDs that can light up the whole keycap. Secondary symbols are all dim, and taller characters fade near the bottom. It’s a small lack of polish, but also one I see frequently on mechanical keyboards.
Of course, this isn’t exactly a mechanical keyboard. The key switch is a hybrid mechanical switch. In look and feel, it’s mechanical, but the actual actuation happens through a membrane. It presses down with a tactile bump like a mechanical keyboard, it clicks as loud as ever, and it still has the wobbly keycaps I’ve come to expect from a mechanical keyboard. But, beneath the key, there’s still a soft membrane that gets pressed down to complete the electrical circuit rather than expensive, gold-plated contacts at the side of the switch which close when the key reaches a certain depth. The consistency and durability of a soft membrane is questionable, but we haven’t noticed any issues.
SteelSeries put a pleasant finishing touch on each keycap with a subtle soft touch coating that adds a hint of grip. That traction makes it easier to keep my finger at home on WASD, but it would have been even more useful to have a bump on the W key as some gaming keyboards like the Roccat Horde AIMO feature.
SteelSeries Engine 3 lets you customize the Apex 5 with up to five on-board profiles. It allows custom keybinds for all the keys, macro editing, and custom lighting. You can also draw or upload an image or animation for the OLED display. Some of the best features for the Apex 5 are available in the Apps section of the software, where you can enable integrations with select games and programs, enabling special lighting effects and letting the OLED panel show notifications or game data.
Gaming is where the Apex 5 gets interesting. Considering its features and solid design, it would be truly impressive at $99 if it were a true mechanical keyboard. Few mechanical gaming keyboards come below $100 without ditching fancy lighting or other extras – the IOGear HVER Pro RGB being a compelling exception. But, the Apex 5 isn’t a true mechanical keyboard because of its membrane switch. That said, in my testing it performs just as well as one.
The Apex 5 switch has a 4mm travel and 2mm actuation point, the same as many mechanical gaming keyboards. In practice, I found it to be every bit as dependable as other mechanical keyboards I’ve used.
In more than a dozen hours gaming and typing on the Apex 5, it didn’t let me down in any unique ways. I find mechanical switches can fall short when it comes to repeatedly pressing a key because of the long travel. The Apex 5 suffers from that same issue, but it does so in the same way as competing mechanical keyboards.
It performs stunningly for every other action, though. I could count on it well enough to pull off quick peeks around edges or popping up over shields in Rainbow Six Siege. In every match I played, I felt comfortable with the Apex 5. I never noticed inconsistencies some might expect from a membrane keyboard, nor did I notice any mushiness. It’s not clear if the membrane will continue to behave the same way over a long time (SteelSeries rates it for 20 million keypresses), but I can say the experience isn’t readily distinguishable from a pure mechanical switch.
Some of the extras can even be semi-handy while gaming. When I’m in a game wondering who popped onto Discord to silently breathe into their microphone, the OLED display can show me exactly who. The volume wheel is great for a quick adjustment as well, so I can crank the sound of enemy footsteps during tense moments in a game.
SteelSeries missed an opportunity to make the visual equalizer not just cool but also useful. If the equalizer could show stereo separation, thus indicating which direction louder noises were coming from, it could have been a handy extra indicator in games.