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What seems like aeons ago, news spread of a company called Art Lebedev intending to produce a keyboard where each and every key would have a full colour OLED display embedded in it, allowing it to display whatever you want. You could flip between different languages, show the shortcuts for your favourite games, or just display a picture of your own face on every key.
For what seemed like an eternity, Art Lebedev slowly developed the product giving us sneak peeks along the way until finally it put the product into production. Oh how we did rejoice until two things became clear:
1.They were going to be rarer and more difficult to get hold of in the UK than hen's teeth.
2. It was jaw droppingly expensive. £1,499 to be exact
So it is that it's taken us a somewhat embarrassingly long time to get hold of one to review. Finally, though, we can pass judgement on possibly the coolest, geekiest, most pointless yet desirable, and bizarre gadget of the last few years. Or maybe that crown goes to the original MacBook Air? But I digress.
Such anticipation was almost always going to lead to a certain level of disappointment but nonetheless we were particularly miffed to find the wonderfully named Optimus Maximus is rather drab in its appearance. The white plastic of the chassis just looks entirely bland when for this sort of money we'd expect styling and build quality to at least rival the likes of Apple's peripherals. We haven't seen the black version so can't vouch for whether it looks a bit better, but we suspect it might.
More pressing than the general sense of ambivalence we have towards the colour scheme and chassis construction material is our concern over how messy the keys look.
In order to see the screen embedded within each key Art Lebedev has had to of course make the keys themselves from clear plastic, meaning they catch the light. As the keys are by their very nature arranged in a non-uniform pattern the resultant reflected light just looks a mess. It's somewhat like our dislike of flexible plastic screens on phones – the wobbly nature of the surface looks uneven and poor quality compared to the pure flatness of most glass screens. Moreover, if you have overhead lights, you may find, as we did in our office, that the light reflects directly off the surface of the keys meaning you can't actually see what you're typing.
Exacerbating this is the need for all the displays to be the same size leaving the screens in the larger keys like Return, Backspace and most noticeably Space, looking rather lost.
There's one major caveat to all these complaints, though. While using the Optimus Maximus in a well lit office environment really highlights all the above problems, use it in a more dimly lit room – your typical gamers home office/gaming den – and the keyboard really comes to life.
The lack of strong light keeps reflections to a minimum while the rest of the chassis simply becomes a backdrop to allow the OLED displays to shine. We still think there's room for improvement but in this environment the Optimus Maximus really makes an impact.
To power that impact the Optimus Maximus requires an extra power supply over and above what it gets over USB. This is your typical laptop-style affair that plugs into a coaxial socket on the back of the keyboard, alongside the USB input, and an all important Kensington lock slot. The keyboard also incorporates a USB hub so there are two further USB ports on the back next to an SD card reader. This comes loaded with a card that stores the keyboard's key images so they can be quickly accessed for instant response. The reader doesn't allow you to access the card when plugged in, though.
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