Once a burgeoning subcategory of gaming keyboards, gaming keypads like the Razer Tartarus Pro ($129.99) seem like extreme niche items in 2020. A one-handed PC gaming “controller” that lets you replicate the primary gaming keys from a keyboard, or create your own custom setup, seems less valuable in a world where you can pair a gamepad with Windows 10 in a snap, and in which most gaming keyboards let you make custom-mapped profiles. For players who have acquired a taste for custom keypads, though, the Tartarus Pro is worth getting excited about. Its physical design mirrors the 2017 Tartarus V2, but the Tartarus Pro brings a new version of Razer’s optical keys with adjustable actuation, allowing you to customize how easily the keys trigger. It isn’t likely to change the way you feel about keypads, one way or the other, but it’s a novel upgrade in a category where growth and change don’t come along every day, or even every year.
Going Pro (With Lasers)
The Tartarus Pro is compact but very feature-rich. The 2.7-by-5.8-by-8.4-inch keypad features a whopping 32 customizable inputs, including keys, a scroll wheel, and a D-pad. You’re technically getting just under a third of the functions of a full-size keyboard in a device that’s around one-fifth as wide. I was able to comfortably find a spot for it next to a full-size gaming keyboard on my messy, crowded desk.
The keypad is designed to emulate the left side of the keyboard, by default. There are 19 keys arranged in a nearly 5-by-4 box, corresponding to 1 through 5, Tab through R, Caps Lock through F, and Shift through C, with a 20th “space” key dangling off the lower right corner. Though the keys default to a familiar formation, they’re merely numbered 1 through 20, and you can program them to any of the functions you’d expect to find in keyboard config software, plus controller mapping for an Xbox-style gamepad. Unlike a keyboard, where keycaps and years of conditioning might keep you from experimenting too much with remapping keys, the keypad’s agnostic layout feels freeing.
Everything that’s new and “pro” about the Tartarus Pro revolves around the keys. In keeping with Razer’s recent decision to rally around optical and opto-mechanical key switches, it swaps out the hybrid mecha-membrane keys used in the Tartarus V2 for new “analog optical” switches, which give you increased control over their actuation. More specifically, it gives the keypad the ability to create multiple travel-based actuation points, giving the keys a pressure-sensitive feeling similar to the buttons and analog sticks of the DualShock 4 and Xbox One gamepads. Using a controller, many games will have a character walk when you tilt an analog stick lightly in one direction, then run when you push it as far as possible.
When used as intended, it works as promised. Using the “gamepad” profile, the keys mirror controller inputs, and the keys set to replicate the analog sticks and triggers mimic the half- and full-press functionality you’ll find on a gamepad. It’s neat to see a keyboard-like device bridge this gap, but its utility is pretty limited. Beyond users with grip issues who might have problems holding a controller, most people are still better off pairing a gamepad.
Meanwhile, as a wider customization feature, analog actuation gets very messy, and is only partially effective. The analog feature breaks down into two customization elements. First, you’re able to adjust the keys’ actuation point, allowing for a lighter or harder press. From there, you’re also able to set a second actuation point for any key, which can trigger a second function.
The first function is an unqualified success: Adjustable actuation is not unprecedented, but it is still a very rare feature and interesting to play with. The Tartarus Pro’s keys already have a light touch, but if you want a true hair trigger, you can make one.
The second function is where things fall apart. It turns out there’s more to making layered inputs work than simply setting one, then another. If the two inputs aren’t connected and complementary, like walking and running, something will go wrong.
For example, while playing Doom Eternal, I added a secondary function to my punch key (mapped as E), so it would switch to the ammo-replenishing chainsaw (mapped as C) when the key bottomed out. In theory, this would give me greater control, so long as I was careful about how hard I pressed. In practice, it didn’t matter how hard I pressed—the secondary function only went through once out of every three or four presses. Another, less carefully planned scenario: I mapped my forward key to jump (mapped as space) at a half-press and move forward (mapped as W) at a full press. It turns out that, no matter how quick I was, I always jumped first and only started walking forward once I landed.
In addition to the core keys, the Tartarus Pro looks and feels nearly identical to the Tartarus V2. The device sports a scroll wheel, just like you’d find on a mouse. That adds three more inputs. There’s also a thumb panel, which has an eight-way directional pad similar to one you’d find on a gamepad. On the D-pad, there’s a round detachable cover designed to make the pad feel more like a thumbstick, though it’s successful in only the most superficial way. The D-pad isn’t especially compelling for me—if I wanted to use it to move a character, I’d plug in a controller. I do like the idea of using it as an extra set of thumb inputs, though. The beauty of the keypad is that, unlike a controller or a keyboard, you can make that swap without feeling as if you’re trading away any functionality.
There’s also an interesting ergonomic case for using a keypad, though the Tartarus Pro has mixed success taking advantage of it. Thanks to an adjustable wrist and palm rest, it’s easier on your wrist than a plain gaming keyboard. The padding under your wrist and the hard-plastic palm rest keep your hand in a comfortable position. Like most keypads, it’s also potentially easier on the arm and back, as it’s much easier to position on your desk in a way that doesn’t twist or pinch any muscles that a full keyboard might.
It can be hard on the fingers, though. The keys are spaced out in such a way that reaching certain keys requires some long, uncomfortable stretches with your thumb and fingers. The biggest culprit is the 20 key, which is set off on the bottom right of the keypad near the D-pad. Putting your thumb in position on the key is a much farther stretch than the motion it’s meant to emulate (using the space bar on a standard keyboard). Over time, keeping your thumb in that position grows quite uncomfortable.
Likewise, the keys in the bottom/near row of the layout—marked 16 through 19—require you to curl your fingers back to reach them. The keys are tilted down, a smart design flourish that makes it easy to glide your fingers along the keys to reach them. But the motion still feels longer and more awkward than moving a finger from the middle row of a keyboard to the bottom.
Synapse for Pros
Like all of Razer’s products, the Tartarus Pro supports Synapse, the company’s configuration software. Even more than with a mouse or keyboard, Synapse is essential for customizing and controlling how the keypad works.
All of the customizations I’ve mentioned—creating profiles, remapping keys, adjusting the keys’ actuation point, creating secondary actuation functions—are adjusted using Synapse’s intuitive interface. You can also create macros and adjust the Tartarus Pro’s RGB lighting. (The device has 21 lighting elements: the 20 main keys, plus the scroll wheel.)
As with other Razer devices, you can create as many configuration profiles as you want through the software. Each profile can store up to eight key configurations, which you swap among using a button next to the D-pad. One thing about that, though: The Tartarus Pro does not have onboard profile storage, which is an odd omission for a device aimed at “pros.”
Are You a Keypad Pro?
The Tartarus Pro is ultimately a strong but highly incremental upgrade. Though the shape and primary functionality remain unchanged from the Tartarus V2, the Pro’s optical keys are a notable and noticeable improvement over the last model’s mecha-membrane switches. Likewise, adjustable actuation is a cool and potentially useful feature for particular power users, even if the reality of secondary actuation and having two inputs on a key doesn’t live up to its full potential.
Then again, the keypad’s not cheap—at $129.99, the Tartarus Pro costs $50 more than the V2. (Also, after three years, you can bet that the V2 will go on sale from time to time.)
In the end, the “pro” in Tartarus Pro may refer to your prowess with this kind of keypad, rather than your wider gaming expertise. If you don’t already use a keypad, you might be better off trying an older, cheaper model like the V2. But if you know, you know, right? With the dedicated-keypad form factor largely out of favor, even an incremental upgrade may be worth the price of admission for its devotees, and Razer definitely delivers something new here.
Razer Tartarus Pro Specs
|Number of Keys
|Key Switch Type
|Razer Analog Optical
|Dedicated Shortcut Keys
|Onboard Profile Storage
|N-Key Rollover Support