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“Optimus Maximus” fittingly sounds like a cross between a Transformer and an emotional plateau of Roman excess. Easily the most expensive keyboard we’ve ever reviewed—and one of the most interesting—each blank key houses a 48-by-48 pixel OLED display instead of permanent markings. Hit Shift, and lower-case letters stand tall, while the number row turns into simple punctuation.
But the chameleon keyboard can morph even more, displaying customizable languages and icons to match menu commands or macros. It can even present a range of live data, such as the time or CPU load. And while we wanted even more ways for the Mac to utilize the keys—iChat notifications, for example—we were most disappointed by the keyboard’s physical action. Each press requires significantly more force than our range of regular input devices, and a slightly larger key shape takes some getting used to.
With its slightly oversize keys and full extra columns on the left, we had to clear a lot of desk space for the keyboard. It connects via USB 2.0 and feeds two extra devices with a built-in hub. Additionally, it requires a provided power connection. We installed the basic software, which, oddly, runs as two applications instead of a tab within System Preferences. But other than cluttering up the Dock, configuration was straightforward.
Who are you calling a dingbat? In-key displays look great in any light.
The Optimus website offers several downloadable keyboard presets that we imported: Aperture, Finder, iCal, iTunes, Mail, and Safari—all of which worked well. In Mail, after holding Command, the numbers 1 through 8 changed into icons to move to the Inbox, Drafts, Trash, and other points of navigation. The apostrophe turned into an icon to increase the quote level, and when we held down Command-Option, it turned into a decrease icon. Icons were crisp and clearly showed what would happen. We enjoyed the direct feedback, learning these standard commands from the keyboard instead of having to memorize them from onscreen menus or a printed manual.
The configuration software also creates layouts for other applications. The process is intuitive, although could be improved with shorter menus; you click a key and then scroll through a few lists to set the image and function. And instead of just displaying your own icons or its 30 options, a key can show animation, a clock, or the current sound volume. We especially liked using the keys to read information from the Mac. We set one to display the processor temperature, another to show the length of time the Mac has been running, and a third to present network speed.
And while the best options display live data—the keyboard can pull information from Gmail or your Google Calendar—there are only a few. There’s no RSS, no way to display the new message count from Mail, and the keyboard can’t dynamically show icons of the running applications. With such an open, configurable design, we wanted more information literally at our fingertips.
But worst of all for heavy typists—versus graphic designers—the keyboard never felt comfortable. We’ve never experienced repetitive stress injury using standard keyboards, but testing the Optimus Maximus actually caused our hands to ache. It takes a lot of pressure to press keys, and we’d never consider it for a primary typing device. We eventually got used to the oversized keys, but the size difference caused quite a few missed keystrokes.The Optimus Maximus’s in-key displays offer an exciting, innovative interface. But too-heavy key action kills its futuristic versatility. It’s uncomfortable for plain-old typing.