Das Keyboard 4 Ultimate Review

Das Keyboard is an American company headquartered in Austin, Texas. Started in 2005 by Daniel Guermeur, the first line of Das keyboards was the Ultimate, a mechanical keyboard that donned blank key caps. Guermeur created it to aid in writing software for various apps he was involved with. According to the Das website, Guermeur’s “typing speed doubled after just a few weeks of use.” Since then, Das has released several versions of the Ultimate, as well as different lines of keyboards for a broader consumer base.

Note: All images from http://www.daskeyboard.com.

Overview

Debuted in March 2014, the Das Keyboard 4 Ultimate is the fourth iteration of the Ultimate line. It’s Windows-, Mac-, Linux- and ChromeBook-compatible and connects via USB 1.1, 2.0 or 3.0. As with previous versions, the 4 Ultimate has no visible letters or numbers imprinted on any of its keys. The entire keyboard is black but for a red anodized lip on its volume control knob and three blue LED indicator lights (for number pad, caps and scroll lock) located at the top right.

(Das makes the 4 Professional, which is identical to the 4 Ultimate except that it has laser-etched key inscriptions, and frankly, isn’t as cool.)

Beside the row of indicator lights are a sleep button (that put your computer into sleep mode instantly) and a volume mute button. Below that are your standard media player controls.

daskeyboard-4-footbar-2

 

The 4 Ultimate includes a magnetically attached red footbar that angles the rear of keyboard a four degrees up, and for some reason, the footbar also doubles as a ruler. Das says “you’ll thank us later” for the ruler, but I’ve yet to thank them for this particular addition. However, the two features the 4 Ultimate provides are ones I never thought I’d need but now I can’t think of living without: the volume knob and USB 3.0 ports.

Aesthetics

The Ultimate is donned with a satin finished aluminum top panel, and overall, is solidly constructed; holding it, you immediately feel the quality and weight (2.9 pounds). Its dimensions are rather slim at 18 x 6.8 x .80 inches resulting in a look that is devoid of empty space around the perimeter. This is accentuated by the angled top right of the keyboard that makes room for the Das logo and row of indicator lights and sleep and mute buttons. This subtle design element gives the 4 Ultimate a timeless look that’s mature and a far cry from current-day gaming keyboards that scream “LOOK AT ME!”

daskeyboard-4-ultimate-front-view-carousel

Due to its low-key, “invisible” aesthetic, the 4 Ultimate complements any computer desktop setup, from the garish to the modern-minimalist. Though not a gaming-specific keyboard, the 4 Ultimate is certainly capable for hardcore gaming thanks to its incredible build quality featuring n-key rollover and Cherry MX switches (Brown or Blue).

What seems to be the prerequisite for gaming keyboards, the lack of custom RGB lighting and a line of programmable macro keys don’t allow it to be labeled as such. But, unless you prefer all the bells and whistles that companies like Logitech and Corsair tout, or you need imprinted key caps, the 4 Ultimate provides enthusiasts a much more unique and raw user experience.

USB 3.0 and Volume Knob

As mentioned above, the two best features the 4 Ultimate has are the volume knob and USB 3.0 ports, both located at the top right of the keyboard (the USB 3.0 ports on the rear). While the latter may be a no-brainer for any new high-end keyboard these days, for anyone who hasn’t had a keyboard with a USB passthrough or ones with only USB 2.0, then they’ll find USB 3.0 ports transferring data up to five gigabits per second a godsend (it must be plugged into your computer’s USB 3.0 input for true USB 3.0 speeds).

usb3-hub

Compared to USB ports on your computer or monitor, the close proximity of your keyboard allows you to easily connect / disconnect and access USB peripherals. I have my Kingston USB 3.0 card reader (with its cable coiled up) plugged into my 4 Ultimate, which is super useful when I’m swapping memory cards from my camera and keeps one less cable running across my desk.

daskeyboard-4-ultimate-media

Although the addition of the volume knob is obvious, its implementation is subtle and thoughtful. It controls your master volume, and as you do, a small volume level overlay shows up on your monitor regardless of what application you’re working in; I found this useful and unobtrusive. Das notched out a small area in the top panel to expose the knob on the right for quick and natural adjustments (albeit only for right-handed users). Turning the knob, tactile, but inaudible clicks allow for minute or large volume changes. Overall, because of how well it’s implemented, the volume knob is the feature I use the most.

Switches and Typing

I opted to get the 4 Ultimate with the Cherry MX Blue switches, an unabashed loud key switch (only second to the rare Cherry MX Green switch) that provides tactile and audible feedback confirming key registration. Some say it’s easier to type on Blues because of the feedback. However, every user’s experience / preference may vary. And actually, I find typing on Browns more effortless, but for personal, in-home use, I really enjoy the Blue switches, as it provides a very satisfying typing experience with negligible-to-me typing speed reduction.

cherry_mx_blue_switches

Typing on the Blues can be fatiguing at first, especially if you’re used to soft switches and you do a lot of long, uninterrupted typing (in which case the Browns might be the way to go). But if you’re a competent typist, you should be able to adapt pretty seamlessly.

On that note, if this wasn’t obvious enough, because the key caps are blank, anyone buying this should be able to type without looking down at the keyboard. Although I can type up to 90 to 100 words per minute, it doesn’t mean I know where every key is located. That said, for a good typist, this shouldn’t be a problem. For example, I’m not very accurate with the number keys on the top row, but I usually can hit the right one most of the time or can easily correct myself (besides, I’m more of a 10-key pad guy myself). If you know your way around roughly 90 percent of a keyboard’s layout, you should have no problem figuring out the remaining 10 percent through trial-and-error and memory.

For gaming, I never felt disadvantaged because I couldn’t find the right key. There are times where I do look down to make sure I press certain, seldom used buttons correctly, but this is something I do with any keyboard. Again, because I’m familiar with a keyboard’s layout, I’m able to identify what’s what even by looking at blank key caps and even in low light situations. Using the 4 Ultimate definitely forces you to use more than just your visual senses; your memory reminds what and where certain keys are and to me, this didn’t seem to hamper my speed.

For those that wish to buy this keyboard to improve typing, I would pursue other methods, such as using training software. That doesn’t mean the 4 Ultimate can’t be used to improve typing, but I can imagine it to be a little frustrating for those that are at a remedial level. Personally, I bought the 4 Ultimate because it looks bad ass and I already know my way around a keyboard.

Conclusion

At $169, the 4 Ultimate is on the expensive end of keyboards. However, compared to the deluge of high-end keyboards consumers have to choose from, it stands alone aesthetically and functionally. For anyone looking for a mature, uniquely stylish and well-built keyboard that tickles the fancy of any enthusiast, the 4 Ultimate makes for a classy addition to any computer setup. It gets a Consumer Fanatics rating of 10/10.

Razer Naga Epic Wireless (2010) Review: A top gaming mouse to this day

Razer came out with the Naga Epic Wireless in late 2010 and to this day, even after several iterations of it since then and compared to current-day others, it’s the best gaming mouse I’ve ever used.

Rating 9/10
Pros
  • Modular side panels
  • 12 side buttons, perfect for massively multiplayer online (MMO) and first-person shooter (FPS) games
  • Premium build quality
  • “Modular” weight
Cons
  • Wireless doesn’t work
  • Buttons may fail over time
  • Gloss finish tends to collect grime

With its 17 buttons, the Razer Naga Epic debuted as an MMO-specific mouse, but I consider it perfect for FPS games and that’s how I primarily use it. Yes, I originally bought it to play it with Star Wars: The Old Republic, but I’ve never been an MMO player and surprisingly, it transitioned into a killer FPS mouse that I’ve yet to find a better alternative, even with today’s mice packing a crazy amount of technology.

naga-00043-x3

The only caveat is that the wireless function doesn’t work; this has always been a wired mouse for me, which is still the preferred way to play FPS games because it eliminates the possibility of wireless lag (i.e., the time it takes the mouse cursor to register your hand movement). Even at a measly 5,600 dots per inch (DPI) laser sensor, essentially an ancient relic now, the Naga Epic Wireless has never failed to provide pin-pin accuracy and response time.

However, what makes the Naga Epic Wireless stand out over its predecessors is not its custom – albeit basic implementation of – RGB lighting , but its custom-fit side panel on the right side, opposite of its array of 12 side buttons. It comes packaged with three sizes to best fit your hand type and playing style (e.g., palm, claw or fingertip grip) and are held on by magnets; easy to remove and attach. I use fingertip grip and I have pretty small hands, so the smallest side panel is best for me.

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Modular side panel and battery compartment. I’ve lost the other two panels it came with, but I only have use for this one pictured.

Unfortunately, all the Naga mice that’s been released since 2010 are a “one-size-fits-all” style, which is equivalent to using the largest side panel on the Naga Epic Wireless. I’m not sure why Razer decided to go this route, perhaps to make cut down on manufacturing costs, but none of the current Naga mice are acceptable for me.

The most popular mouse on the market today is the Logitech G502 Proteus and its size and feel are pretty close to the Naga Epic Wireless with the smallest side panel. So I find it odd that Razer decided to make the new Nagas so damn fat, at least for me. Unfortunately, I’ve become so accustomed to the 12 side buttons for FPS games that it’s difficult for me to transition to newer mice. (However, the search continues, as I’m waiting for my Naga Epic Wireless to die any day now.)

Even with Razer implementing mechanical switches on the 12 side buttons on newer Nagas, the Naga Epic Wireless side buttons have a more premium feel, are slightly more indented (making more natural to feel which buttons are which) and are easier to depress. And overall, the build quality of the Naga Epic Wireless is still the best out of all the Nagas, even the top-of-the-line Naga Epic Chroma. All of the newer models sport a matte plastic finish, which does aid in better grip, but something about the piano black finish on both side panels of the Naga Epic Wireless make it stand out more. Though, the removable side panel does tend to accumulate grime rather quickly, it’s very easy to clean compared to matte finishes.

The RGB lighting, as mentioned above, is rather basic, but the Razer Synapse software does allow you to customize it a bit. More importantly, it does its job by illuminating the 12 side buttons, as well as the scroll wheel edging.

Using this for FPS games like any of the Battlefield series is superb. Battlefield requires frequent switching between weapons and gadgets, and having dedicated buttons for a specific item has given me split-second advantages in critical moments. Do I use all the side buttons? N0. But what’s great about having so many is that I can dedicate the ones easiest for me to feel and press without thinking twice; for example, I use the 7 and 8 buttons to toggle my map functions (zoom and overlay). In addition, similar to a keyboard’s F and J buttons, Razer has put small notches on the 5 and 11 buttons to allow the user to easily identify where his or her thumb is resting. It’s allowed me to
become one with this mouse more than any other mouse on the market over a seven-year span.

On the bottom of the mouse, there is a mechanical switch that allows you to choose “NUM” or “123” for determining the 12 side buttons to mimic your number pad or the top 1 – 0 buttons. In the latter mode, buttons 11 and 12 are specified as “Mouse 11” and “Mouse 12” when binding them in-game. Or, you can bind any of the mouse buttons to any keyboard button using the Razer Synapse software. For me, I’ve always used the “123” mode.

naga-00044

Two switches on the bottom: one for wired / wireless mode, and one for NUM or 123 mode.

Besides the left and right click buttons, which I’ve never had an issue with, additional buttons are two small buttons below the scroll wheel that is set to adjust DPI by default, but you can customize it to anything you want. For a long time, I had the top button set as my microphone enable when using communications apps like TeamSpeak, but it failed to register my actuations after a while. Razer hasn’t implemented mechanical switches into those buttons yet, so it’s possible the newer Nagas might also fail if used in similar fashion. In addition, what might be a deal breaker for some, the scroll wheel doesn’t actuate left or right. For me, I’ve used that function on mice that offer it.

Weighing in at 134 grams with the battery, the Naga Epic Wireless is considered to be on the heavy side for FPS games. However, I’ve always played with the battery inserted. But since mine is always wired (and the only way I recommend using this mouse), you have the option of removing the battery and save 28 grams, bringing the total weight to 106 grams, which is the sweet spot for FPS games.

Although in the first year of owning the mouse, I had to have it replaced through warranty because one of the side buttons stopped accuatating / registering,  all in all, the Naga Epic Wireless has stood the test of time. It’s unthinkable for any gaming peripheral, especially a mouse, to last nearly seven years, but this has. I’ve tried several alternatives, but this is the one that feels the most natural and gives me the best in-game performance. Even though it’s been discontinued by Razer, you can still find it sold online. A new-in-box version will run you about $110 – $120, which is a testament to how revered this mouse still is.

The Naga Epic Wireless gets a Consumer Fanatics rating of 9/10.

Razer, if you’re reading this, refresh this mouse and make sure you include those modular side panels!

AudioQuest DragonFly Red Review: Versatile hi-fi audio

The pursuit of high-fidelity audio nirvana often turns into a game of catch up, where one buys and experiments until ears are satisfied or available card credit is nil, or both. “End-game” is the subjective podium that audiophiles would like to reach when the gear they invested in can’t be topped.

Typically, a pair of headphones complete the end-game circle, but you also need the full gamut of supporting equipment, such as an amplifier, a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), interconnects (i.e., cables) and miscellaneous accessories that will reach the four- to five-digit dollar mark, to the extent budget or insanity allows. This is all in the name of reproducing music to levels of perceived perfection.

Rating 8/10
Product Highlights
  • Small form factor
  • Plays all music files
  • Compatible with Apple / Windows PC, Apple / Android devices
  • 2.1 volt output
  • 32-bit ESS 9016 DAC with minimum-phase filter
  • Bit-perfect digital volume control
Pros
  • Super portable and versatile
  • Sounds rivals more expensive DAC / amp combos
  • Can be used with any device
  • But for the power-hungry, will make a wide variety of headphones shine
Cons
  • Paint tends to chip / dull over time
  • Bass could hit harder
  • Double the price of its little brother, the Black

The problem with this pursuit is that, in my experience, analysis of audio is skewed through justifying how much you can spend. The world of high-end audio can be as expensive as your imagination’s limits, but most consumers can’t and won’t venture into it. Sometimes, plugging stock earphones directly into your phone is good enough, free and convenient. But, through a similar experience, I’ve found that there is a middle ground that straddles irrational spending and quality sound.

What anchors this audio real estate? The AudioQuest DragonFly Red.

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DragonFly Red connected to a computer via the iFi Audio iPower2 USB filter.

Overview

The DragonFly Red is the third iteration of the portable, USB DAC / amplifier and was debuted along with the DragonFly Black. The Red features a glossy candy red, car-like paint finish that I can attest to also chips and wears like a car! Both come with a faux leather protective sleeve for transportation, but after a while, the inner sleeve material does start to chafe and I believe has also contributed to part of the red paint to dull.

At $200, the Red is $100 more than the Black, but simply put, it’s worth it.

What makes both of these units so special is their portability and versatility. The DragonFlys can plug straight into your computer’s USB port or can be used with an Apple iPhone or Android device as long as the appropriate adapter cables are used (for iPhones, the Apple Camera Connection Kit; for Android devices, an OTG cable). Previous versions of the DragonFly drew too much power for it to work with mobile devices, but AudioQuest upgraded the microcontroller to a Microchip PIC32MX, allowing the Red and Black to be plug-and-play with virtually anything.

This means you don’t need to download drivers to your computer; DragonFly is immediately recognized, which for me is very useful because my company’s IT does not allow employees to download third-party or unapproved software. After I’m done with work, I connect it to my phone seamlessly.

The Red employs an ESS Technology 9016 32-bit DAC, a well-regarded DAC chip in the audio industry, and an integrated amplifier that outputs 2.1 volts. In addition, the Red’s volume is digitally controlled in what AudioQuest specifies as “64-bit bit-perfect.” In other words, as you change your volume on your computer or mobile device, the Red maintains the music file’s integrity (i.e., sound). In contrast, the Black uses an ESS 9010 DAC chip, outputs 1.2 volts and its volume is analog-controlled. Basically, it’s technically much less impressive in the areas that matter the most.

Both devices can play back audio with a resolution of up to 24-bit / 96 kilohertz (kHz). For reference CD-quality resolution is 16-bit / 44 kHz. The dragonfly logo illuminates different colors depending on what audio resolution your device is playing back, which I find is an elegant yet practical touch.

With the Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) music, which is essentially a way of packing high-resolution music into a small file size (think Pied Piper in the sitcom Silicon Valley) picking up speed and AudioQuest revealing that the Red and Black will support MQA on its Instagram, this makes these devices even more versatile than I originally thought.

For more information on MQA, check out this article by John Darko.

Sound

If you own headphones that require power to reach acceptable listening volumes, then either the Black or Red (or any amplifier) will be better than using just an iPhone, for example. However, practical and real-world use of any portable headphone amplifier, such as the DragonFly, shouldn’t be with a power-hungry set of cans.

The Black is suited for headphones that are in the 32 to 60 Ohm impedance range, whereas the Red can drive headphones up to 100 Ohms. That said, you shouldn’t expect a $1,500 pair of MrSpeaker Ether headphones to reach its potential with the Red. It will drive them and they will sound much better than plugging it directly into your playback device.

However, in my experience, the DragonFlys are best for low- to medium-impedance headphones, such as many in-ear monitors (IEMs). It opens up those headphones’ sound stage, clarity and impact to levels beyond what any standard playback device can reach.

What I’ve found is that the Red just does this much better than the Black.

Compared to Red, Black sounds muddy and unrefined, to my ears. Though, I should note that some users found the Black’s sound to improve after “burn-in.” I can’t prove or disprove this, but out of the box, I simply found the Red’s sound to be far-and-away the clear winner. With the Red, trebles, especially guitars, sparkle and instruments are easily defined. Both female and male vocals are forward and smooth. Bass, although not as impactful as I personally like, is nicely extended and rolls off cleanly.

I tried the Red with a variety of headphones, including the Fostex TH-X00, Sony MDR-7550, MrSpeakers Ether C, MrSpeakers Alpha Prime, Audio-Technica ATH MSR7 and the Elecom HH1100. Reiterating what I mentioned earlier, the Red can drive all of these headphones, but only makes the ones that don’t require much power sound really good. In all of my testing, my preferred pairing is with the Elecom HH1100 IEMs. The Red really complements balanced sound signature of the HH1100 well and together make for a very portable, on-the-go listening experience.

What’s more, the Red is often paired with my car’s stereo system using my iPhone playing back TIDAL’s Hi-Fi streaming music. The sound is noticeably improved, albeit at the cost of awkwardly stuffing my car’s center console with cables.

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DragonFly Red connected to an iPhone and my car’s auxiliary input.

On my home PC, Red sounds better than my work laptop where I’m forced to use Google Chrome to listen to TIDAL Hi-Fi instead of being able to install its desktop app. My home PC is equipped with TIDAL’s desktop app and other audio-specific software, such as Fidelizer Pro, giving me more features to control how I want my music played back. In fact, my Apple devices sound better with the Red than my work laptop (probably because they use the TIDAL app), but I prefer the convenience of accessing my music in one place throughout the day.

Gaming with the Red is surprisingly very good. Although constrained to stereo processing, directional sound is accurately reproduced. It sounds a lot better than a lot of gaming-specific sound cards. The only downside, and it can be a deal breaker for most gamers, is that the DragonFly doesn’t have any mic input, so you’ll have to use a separate mic and input if you want to communicate for games that require it. But for single-player games, I highly recommend trying it out. You’ll be impressed.

Should You Buy?

I often get mocked by my friends and colleagues about my obsession with audio, among other things. They say it’s a waste of money and hard to tell the difference from direct iPhone listening. This really depends on the person’s hearing ability (serious), what type of music they listen to and where their music is from.

To get the most out of an audiophile-acceptable setup, you really need to ensure the music you’re listening to was recorded well and is played back at CD-quality (16-bit / 44 kHz) level. If you’re into modern-day pop music, which is often compressed and recorded to make it seem loud, it simply isn’t worth it.

However, I highly recommend the DragonFly Red for anyone that:

  • Enjoys a wide variety of music
  • Has access to or doesn’t mind paying for high-fidelity streaming music
  • Has headphones that didn’t come with your Apple or Android device
  • Simply wants more out of their audio in a portable, convenient form factor

AudioQuest could improve the build quality of the Red, and the bass could use slight coloring, but besides those minor nits, the device gets a Consumer Fanatics rating of 8/10.

Additional Resources

DragonFly Comparison Spec Sheet

Mother and Baby Radiance

I shot this of my wife and son in June 2014. We were visiting Calistoga, California, for our four-year wedding anniversary. I especially like this shot because it wasn’t staged and the radiant halo around the two looks like heavy post-processing, but was actually just the sun behind them.

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CAMERA Sony ILCE-7
LENS FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS
ISO 100
FOCAL LENGTH 70.0 mm (70.0 mm in 35mm)
APERTURE f/4
EXPOSURE TIME 0.00625s (1/160)

Items Burnt by WWII B-29 Bombing

These items comes from my mother’s side who lived in Tokyo during WWII. They were buried underground, along with other valuables, to protect it from the B-29 fire bombings in 1945 while her family fled to safety.

Despite the effort to protect, the items were badly damaged. The temperature was so hot that it melted the wood stain (the black bubbling) on the drawer (left). It’s used today to hold miscellaneous household items.

On the right, a vase sits on top of the drawer. I often wonder what color and designs it originally  had, but its current condition holds incredible history.

Left Image:

CAMERA Sony ILCE-7RM2
LENS FE 35mm F1.4 ZA
ISO 320
FOCAL LENGTH 35.0 mm (52.0 mm in 35mm)
APERTURE f/1.4
EXPOSURE TIME 0.01667s (1/60)

 

Right Image:

CAMERA Sony ILCE-7RM2
LENS FE 35mm F1.4 ZA
ISO 400
FOCAL LENGTH 35.0 mm (52.0 mm in 35mm)
APERTURE f/1.6
EXPOSURE TIME 0.01667s (1/60)

Train Track Stroll

I took this photo of my son when we were visiting Oahu in January 2016. This was across the street from the Disney Aulani resort. My wife was paying our restaurant bill while I took him out to the lawn area to run around; the weather was perfect and it was a very candid and natural photo opportunity. Right before he reached the train tracks, he had done a number two, but he walked along without a care in the world. My son is my favorite subject to shoot, though, it’s much more challenging now that he’s a toddler.

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CAMERA Sony ILCE-7
LENS FE 55mm F1.8 ZA
ISO 100
FOCAL LENGTH 55.0 mm (55.0 mm in 35mm)
APERTURE f/1.8
EXPOSURE TIME 0.00063s (1/1600)

Ocean Beach at Dusk

I took this early-evening photo at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, in January 2015 just as the sun had set. I was trying out my newly-acquired TriggerTrap. I had meant to shoot this at 16mm focal length, but I was so anxious to get the long-exposure shot that I forgot. It turns out this was framed pretty good.

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CAMERA Sony ILCE-7
LENS FE 16-35mm F4 ZA OSS
ISO 100
FOCAL LENGTH 34.0 mm (34.0 mm in 35mm)
APERTURE f/16
EXPOSURE TIME 1.6s (1.6