Gamers swear by their mechanical keyboards, as they give gamers the tactile feedback that is needed for quick firing in games. Each gamer has his/her own preferred switch depending on the type of the games, and it is hard to say that one switch that works for one gamer would be perfect for another. While mechanical keyboards offer great tactile feedback and low actuation force for quick rapid firing, they can be rather noisy and distracting for non-gaming use. Additionally, most, if not all, mechanical keyboards are just too bulky, as the key caps are taller than your typical keyboard. So if you have a small desk, it can be rather cumbersome to hide such a big keyboard. Not to mention that it is a rather large chunk of a peripheral to bring with you if you are frequent visitor to LAN parties. Tesoro has recently launched the Gram Spectrum RBG gaming keyboard with mechanical switches, but in an ultra low-profile design that the company hopes will revolutionize the gaming keyboard. The question is, does the Tesoro Gram Spectrum deliver? Let’s find out.
Tesoro Gram Spectrum with Red Agile Switches
The Gram Spectrum seems to be the perfect keyboard for those who are planning to use the keyboard for both gaming and working. Minimalism seems to be the theme for the Gram Spectrum, as the keyboard comes with no other accessories. What we are provided with is just the keyboard and the USB cable for connecting to your PC.
Upon first glance, we immediately notice that the keyboard appears to be pretty standard looking without tons of extra keys or flashy colors that we often seen with a gaming keyboard. Continuing on with its minimalistic look, the design of the Gram Spectrum appears to be a bit bland at first. However, do not be fooled as the keyboard is still designed for gamers, so it does pack all of the features that gamers are looking for. The Gram Spectrum’s layout is a standard 104-key keyboard that is powered by a 32-bit ARM Cortex processor with 512KB of on-board memory for the saved profiles. The keyboard has a dimension of 444 (L) x 136 (W) x 24.5 (H) mm. The key number to pay attention here is the 24.5 mm height, as most mechanical keyboards are 10 mm taller than the Gram Spectrum, so the keyboard is rather compact. Despite the compactness, the Gram Spectrum is extremely well built, with an iron surface and plastic bottom. It feels rather high quality and study and not like cheap plastic that we often find on many keyboards on the market. The keyboard weighs 1.05 kg, which makes it lightweight, yet sturdy enough so it won’t slide around on your table.
To make the keyboard compact, the functional keys (F1 to F10) serve double duty for saved profiles and multimedia controls. Additionally, the arrow keys also double as a backlit profile switch and light intensity adjustment. To utilize these keys, you would have press the Fn key located on the right side of the space bar and one of these multi-functional keys. This means that in order to switch profiles, you would need both hands, which some gamers may not like and prefer a single key-press switch for that instant mode change within the games. We can save up to four gaming profiles in addition to the standard PC mode, and a dedicated key is provided to quickly switch between PC Mode and one of the gaming profiles. Whenever one of the gaming profiles is enabled, the keyboard automatically disables the Windows key so we won’t accidentally switch screens in the middle of the game. Sadly though, there is no way to re-enable the Windows key, even with the software, if you plan to create multiple PC profiles for multiple users or different tasks. Additionally, the keyboard lacks a clear indicator to when the keyboard is under gaming mode or which one of the four profiles is currently active.
The right side of the keyboard is where we can find a few more additional keys such as the dedicated keyboard lock, reset hotkey, and instant macro recording. Recording macros is quite easy since the Gram Spectrum features a dedicated key for that task. Again, this action is a two handed task that does require pressing the FN key. You could always opt for the software to customize the key combination. To record a macro, you would press the Fn+R (the key doubles as Home). After pressing Fn+R once, you would enter the key you want to assign the macro to. Then press Fn+R again to start record the keystrokes. Finally, press Fn+R again to save the profile. Of course, you could always just use to the software for such task as well. One thing we do wish that Tesoro would support is the ability to sync the on-the-fly recorded macro to the software so that gamers can further fine-tune the setting easily.
No keyboard can be called a gaming keyboard without support for n-key rollover, and the Gram Spectrum is no exception, as it comes with not just one but two modes of function: a six-key or n-key. There is even a dedicated key assigned on the keyboard for quick switching between the two modes.
The big selling point for the Gram Spectrum is Tesoro’s own AGILE mechanical switch. What is unique about the switch is the optimized low-profile design. While the key caps have been reduced to less than 50 mm, the travel distance has not been impacted, as the keyboard offers a total travel distance of 3.5mm and an actuation of 1.5mm with a tactile level of 3. The switch has a rated 60 million keystrokes and 1000 Hz ultra pooling rate. There are two types of switches available to choose from, the red and the blue, and our review sample is the red switch type. The red is an ideal switch for quiet operation due to the fact that it lacks the dedicated tactile bump that other switches offer.
Lifting the key caps we can easily see that the switch on the Gram Spectrum is just a rebranded Kailh Red switch, however we are not sure if there is any special design done by Tesoro or if it is just a simple co-branding.
There is one minor issue that bugs me quite a lot with the labels on the keyboard. As you can see, Tesoro choose a rather unusual font that is more square. Also, we are not sure if it is due to the printing quality or the font design, but there are parts of letters or characters that are not clearly shown. As a result, it made it a bit difficult to read certain keys such as D, B, Q, 8, and 9. Also, the letter S looks exactly like the number 5 and 0 and 8 also look rather similar. The lower case g and 9, as well as 6 and G also look rather similar as well. The percent symbol also looks like “/” instead of %. Of course, this does not affect the keyboard’s functionality but can be somewhat of an inconvenience for someone who needs to find a certain special character on the keyboard.
As you can see, the key cap for the Gram Spectrum is rather short and also thinner than your typical mechanical keyboard. Here you can see that it is about ½ of what we typically get when compared to a key from the Gigabyte Aivia Osmium keyboard. The small consequences with such short key cap is that it floats above the switch where light can leak out from the edge of the cap. Luckily, the backlighting on the keyboard is not overly strong and is more of a glow type, which helps to mask the light leakage so that it is not that noticeable. Of course, the keys can all be re-arranged, but Tesoro did not include a tool to help remove the key caps, nor any additional keys that we often get with a gaming keyboard.
Another way that Tesoro has made the Gram Spectrum portable is with the inclusion of a detachable mini USB cable. The cable is fairly long at 1.8 m and is braided. We are not too sure on this option here. While having a detachable cable means that it is much easier to store the keyboard, it also means that it is more likely to have the cable or the connector failing or come disconnected at some point. Also, we probably would prefer micro USB for the sake of one less cable to carry around since many smartphones use a micro USB cable.
Given the fact that the Gram Spectrum is designed with gamers in mind, it does miss a couple features that many gaming keyboards often include. For one, the keyboard lacks a palm rest, which we feel may be a slight oversight. Also, most gaming keyboards feature additional audio or USB bypass-through ports for hooking up a headset or mouse, which the Gram Spectrum lacks. For some gamers this could be a deal breaker, so it is definitely something you would have to consider when looking to buy the keyboard.
The underside of the keyboard is pretty standard, where we have two feet with rubber padding to increase friction so that the keyboard will not be sliding off the table easily. Not only that, but since the key caps on the Gram Spectrum are smaller, the whole keyboard is actually quite shallow where even with the feet, it only creates a very small angle of inclination. So the keyboard generally is quite flat on the table. Some people may find this too flat, though we had no trouble using the keyboard even without the palm rest. The flatness and the shallow design actually helped out quite a lot for our comfort when using the keyboard.
Of course, we all know that backlighting is the way to go for gamers, and the Gram Spectrum certainly is not disappointing here. Each individual key has its own backlighting with 16.8 million customizable color options available so you can do some crazy light shows with the keyboard. Not only that, the keyboard support some nice effects:
- Standard: simple backlit
- Trigger: key lights up when pressed
- Ripple: key lights up when pressed with ripple effect throught the whole keyboard
- Fireworks: key lights up when pressed with 9 keys surrounding it also lights up in different color.
- Radiation: lights up with wave like effect radiating away horizontally
- Wave: whole keyboard lights up with dimming effect
- Rainbow wave: whole keyboard lights up with spectrum of colors moving across the keys.
- Spectrum colors: this option lets us adjust each individual key color and its effect of shine, breathing, and trigger. The default setting has QWERASDFB123456 keys assigned as they are the common keys for games.
Users can quickly switch between these different modes without the need of the driver and also adjust the brightness of the backlight. However, if you would like to fully customize the keyboard with different effects and colors, you would want to install the driver off Tesoro’s website (which strangely is not included with the package). Luckily the driver (latest version 1.8) is fairly light-weight (about 15 MB) so it is a quick download. Tesoro has yet to offer a single driver package for their peripherals, so you have to make sure you are downloading the right one off their site.
Software and Customization
Upon the first look we can see that the software UI is fairly clean and easy to navigate. However, it does have a bit of an issue with scaling on a high-resolution display under Windows 7 as the text can be rather small to read even on our 2560×1440 display and we would not even imaging just how hard to read it on a 4K display. Immediately, we noticed that the driver lacks the ability to check and update the firmware of the keyboard. Instead we would have to download a separate file from Tesoro website to update our keyboard. Tesoro’s website also lacks any description on the firmware update or any instruction. We did download the version 3540 that we found on the site and update to our keyboard.
The process of updating the firmware on the keyboard scared us a little bit. When we launch the app to flash the firmware, we were prompted to restart the PC which we did. Then, upon restart, the keyboard failed to function anymore. Nothing works and there is no light on the keyboard except the little light on the upper corner under A. We unplug and re-plug the USB cable and still no go. So we thought we may have download the wrong firmware and somehow the flashing process has damaged the keyboard. Luckily for us that we decided to launch the updating program again and it is able to re-flash the firmware to bring the keyboard back to life. So, what happens here is that the first time we launch the app, it erases the firmware on the keyboard and upon reboot, it then flashes the latest version to the keyboard. Oddly enough, the flashing process is not automatic after system reboot. We feel that Tesoro should have done a job at explaining the process so that someone who is not familiar with updating the firmware will not get frustrated with the process that need a phone call to the tech support or fed-up thinking their new keyboard has died and requests a warranty replacement.
Despite its UI scaling, the Gram Spectrum software is fairly easy to use even for a novice that never has done any customization to their keyboard. The software is not overly extravagant like some others we have used over the years and just provides us with the essentials so it is not overwhelming. We can see that the list of profiles are located on the top of the software and underneath is where we have a diagram of the keyboard. The bottom left and bottom right is where the list of options are located.
We can adjust the Macro, assign keys, launch programs, sync programs, disable a key, revert to default, adjust lightning effect, and illumination effect. The settings are pretty self-explanatory except the Sync Program. The Sync Program gives us a list of 5 programs that we can assign to a key. Initially we thought it is meant to have these programs opened with a single key so that for example if you often use word, excel, chrome, skype, and iTune, you can just assign them to a single key to open them up simultaneously. As it turns out, we were wrong. It is meant to automatically switch to a specific profile when the assigned program is launched. The idea here is that if you have multiple profiles configured for different types of games, you no longer had to manually switch them as it will automatically set to the right profile for that game when it is launched. It’s quite handy feature.
The screenshots below shows us the UI for the customization.
Spectrum Color allows you to adjust color and effect for each individual key.
While it is easy to use the software and configure the Macro, we do think it can be improved. The software has an odd behavior that took us a few minutes to figure out. There are two modes of interactions with the software: pop up and small window on the lower right side. For example, if we click on Macro setting, we get a pop up screen but clicking on the key assignment, we are presented with a smaller window underneath the keyboard image. Sure, we can deal with the dual modes action. However, Tesoro’s software requires you to hit apply, okay, cancel or exit (depending on the setting and screen) every single time you made an adjustment. It is quite a chore and took us a few minutes messing with the software (even force close it and a couple of system restart) to finally realize that we had to hit apply first or else, we were not able to select any other key or options. We are not even able to drag the software and move it around on the desktop without first hit apply/exist. Rather inconvenient and means that there are quite of excessive applying needed if we are going to be adjusting tons of keys. We are much rather having the ability to adjust multiple keys and hit apply them all at once, or least have the software prompt us a pop up window or warning if we would like to apply the setting before moving to the next key.
Furthermore, we would appreciate software to reflect the color scheme of the keyboard. Currently if we assign a key to a specific color, the software only displays magenta color. This made it rather difficult keep track of the color scheme when we are trying to create a masterpiece on our keyboard with all of the fancy backlit for each keys.
We would also love Tesoro to offer a better indicator of an active profile. Currently unless you have different lightning effects going on for each profile, it is rather difficult to discern one from another as there is no clear indicator on the keyboard telling us which profile is active. So we had to look at the software for that. Even when we switch between gaming and PC mode, there is no clear indicator, which can make someone wonder how come their windows key is no longer functioning when they forgot to disable the gaming mode and switch to the PC mode.