Tesoro Excalibur SE Spectrum review
Excalibur SE Spectrum
Tesoro Infra-red, 65g measured peak weight
Thin ABS doubleshot
2 lb. 12 oz. | 17.5 x 6 x 1.5 in.
Backlit logo, hot swap switches, water resistance
The Excalibur SE Spectrum touts innovative new switches that are smooth and bind resistant. It also sports serious water resistance, good backlighting, and a cool backlit logo.
Below average build quality keeps the Excalibur SE Spectrum's switches from reaching their potential. It's also hurt by switch rattle, creakiness, and firmware hiccups that affect the LED configuration process.
Optical mechanical keyboard switches are essentially new to the North American market. Wooting’s optical switches were delayed due to quality control issues and A4Tech’s “Bloody” brand hasn’t gained traction in the United States, leaving the optical switch market open for competitors. Tesoro, a company best known in Europe, chose to step in with their brand-new optical switch technology in a bid to capture American buyers.
Unboxing the Excalibur SE Spectrum
The Excalibur SE Spectrum arrived in a box with one remarkable feature: its printing. The glossy graphics on its front and back give an impression of quality. In addition, rich shades of pastel purple pull your eyes to various features.
The box’s contents, however, are sparse. The SE Spectrum is adequately protected for shipment in a plastic sleeve, but it comes with zero accessories. The absence of a keycap puller is somewhat disappointing, as every first time mechanical keyboard owner wants to pull a keycap. They’ll be stuck doing so with a butter knife unless they own another mechanical keyboard. With that out of the way, let’s discuss the keyboard itself.
The outer case is composed of nicely textured ABS plastic, though there are mild variations in texture between the lower and upper case halves. A small gap around the edge of the translucent logo/lock light plate allows a bit of light to escape. On the rear of the upper case, raised plastic ridges outline what appear to be audio and USB ports that were removed from the mold. It’s curious that they’re still present; I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone try to recycle an injection mold before. A few marks are also present around the bottom case’s lip.
The keyboard feels reasonably solid on flat surfaces, but it suffers if you pick it up or use it on your lap. Uneven pressure causes loud creaking noises. Pressing down on the center of the bezel results in significant flex and mild creaking. None of those noises present themselves during regular use, but you can bet that the keyboard would be creaking away if stuffed haphazardly into a backpack full of gaming gear. When I disassembled the keyboard, I snapped a tab on the rear of the case. That actually reduced the creakiness of the keyboard after reassembly.
Things are quite different inside the case. Popping the keyboard open reveals a weak design. Note the piece of factory applied electrical tape in the top-center, which may be for creak reduction. The Spectrum SE’s case halves have no support latticework inside, resulting in flexibility. Hollow cylindrical pegs support the PCB and plate, but no screws attach the PCB to the lower or upper case. Plastic screws with thin threads hold the case edges in place. I’m not convinced that they’ll stay secure over time, but the use of 7 screws might keep things tight.
The PCB and plate, which are the only real source of structure in the keyboard, are held in place by pressure and a single loose through-PCB support. Other pressure fit implementations have multiple holes for tight through-PCB supports, mating the case and PCB/plate for flex reduction. Even that technique might not help with Tesoro’s design, though. Individually, the plate and PCB are very nice. The plate is thick, utilizing 90 degree folds near its edge for additional stiffness. The SE’s PCB is beefy, nicely soldered, and covered with a conformal coating.
Yet, in a fascinating move, the two components are held together by plastic pegs. Most keyboards rely on soldered switch legs to hold the plate in place. Hot swappable optical switches make that impossible. In my opinion, the plastic pegs are inadequate. Standoffs and screws would have been a better choice for overall quality and stiffness. They’re also much more expensive, which was almost certainly a consideration in the design process.
The poor mating of parts and variations in conformal coating thickness may alter the activation point of certain switches. If the PCB flexes, warps, or gets displaced for any reason the optical sensors move relative to the switch stems. You can see mild sagging near the left of the PCB in the photo above. In theory, that will change the activation point of all switches in the upper left hand corner of the keyboard by a small amount, the worst case being the Esc key. It may not be noticeable in practice, but it’s an oversight nonetheless.
The SE’s cable isn’t removable or braided, but it is well made. Its thickness, beefy strain relief, glued internal connector, and reasonably sized USB plug should last for quite some time.
The Spectrum’s tiny flip out feet are great for stationary use, as a rubber coating makes them extra grippy. Things might not look so good if you’re a traveling gamer. After putting some pressure on the feet, I’m fairly sure that they would shear off or pop out under heavy loads. If you shoved the Spectrum into a tightly packed bag with its feet out, for example, I’m not sure that they would survive. The same goes for dropping or leaning on it.
The case’s rubber pads are thick, textured, and quite pleasant. They stick out a long ways, which means that sliding the keyboard into a bag carelessly isn’t a good idea. The pads might peel away on the edges of books or laptop cooling stands.
Switches & stabilizers
Tesoro markets their optical switch’s reduced response time as game changing. In reality, an extra millisecond probably won’t help your K:D ratio. The best gamers in the world might benefit from the extra time, but those of us who live near the center of the bell curve won’t be able to perceive a difference. That said, the clicky blue optical switches are smooth, responsive, and innovative. They don’t seem to suffer from binding or scratchiness, even when subjected to unrealistic sideways pressure. Their amazing bind resistance is probably due to their IR beam stem, which extends far into the lower switch mechanism. The optical components are rated for 10 million hours, so SE keyboards should last for ages.
The blue optical switches aren’t perfect, though. Tesoro blues make moderately loud rattling noises. They also have fairly loose stems, which I’ll touch on later. The rattle presents itself after the downstroke click and during the upstroke. Faster key presses reduce the rattling slightly, but it’s still audible.
If you enjoy gaming with tactile clicky switches, Tesoro’s IR blues would be a solid choice. In my opinion, the tactile point and click are troublesome. Tesoro blues activate below their click/tactile point. While that’s useful for typists, it’s not ideal for most gamers. Pressing keys rapidly can be tiring due to the switches’ relatively heavy weight and tactile point. If you hold the keys below their tactile point and above their actuation point it makes rapid presses faster, but more fatiguing and difficult. It also puts the switches in their worst sounding spot.
Tesoro’s red IR switches are still in development. Leading with blue switches seems like a strange move, but the Tesoro rep explained that proprietary market research indicated an upward trend in blue switch use. Kudos to them for capitalizing on an opportunity.
Ultimately, I think that typists who game will enjoy Tesoro blues more than gamers who type.
The Excalibur SE Spectrum uses Costar stabilizers. They make swapping keycaps more difficult while preserving the natural feel and sound of stabilized keys. Cherry stabilizers have plastic tabs that reduce bottom out noise and add cushion. When I removed a key to view the stabilizers, I found well applied lube. That’s great!
Lube, however, doesn’t solve scratchiness that I experienced when pressing several stabilized keys. I think it’s due to loose switch stems. Pressing a stabilized key results in rotation, which in turn causes the stabilizer wire to track improperly. The result is mild to moderate binding and grinding. Still usable, but not pleasant. Cherry stabilizers might mitigate the problem. The space bar doesn’t suffer from binding problems, though. In fact, it’s probably my favorite key to press on the whole keyboard!
The SE Spectrum showcases standard gamer-font thin doubleshot ABS keycaps. They’ll get quite shiny as your fingers wear away the plastic, but the main legends won’t wear off. A few of the sublegends are pad printed. They’re not on heavily used keys, so they should last for a while.
The SE Spectrum’s controller returns to a default backlight setting when its power is cycled. Resetting the backlight mode after PC reboots is bothersome. I know that flash memory is present, as user profiles persist after power loss. Why not use that memory for storing backlight states?
That said, the RGB LEDs in the SE Spectrum are good. They’re reasonably bright and exceptionally even. The switches have neat lenses that spread light across the bottom of the keycap, which accounts for the solid coverage. A bunch of modes, 7 color options, and two user configurable backlighting profiles are available. The Tesoro logo is backlit and configurable, but it can’t be shut off in user profiles. Only the lock LEDs are non-RGB. That isn’t a big deal, but it is a minor eyesore if blue clashes with your color preferences.
Configuration can be tedious. An individual key must be pressed multiple times to select a desired color. Small firmware oversights make things even more of a hassle. Fn + PgUp puts the keyboard into LED programming mode. The same keys are used to save and exit. The combo saves and exits while advancing the PgUp backlight by one color. If you have the PgUp key set to red, for example, exiting programming mode will switch it to green. To land on the right color you must memorize the color sequence or spam the Fn + PgUp key 14+ times. The Fn key backlight is completely disabled in user modes, leaving the keyboard one key short of its advertised capabilities.
“Every one of the keys has its own backlighting and can be assigned as pleased.” — Tesoro Product Page
My contact at Tesoro is working to document those behaviors, which is great. I hope to see a firmware fix too.
Certain backlighting choices turn the SE Spectrum into a power hog. It draws 65 mA at idle, which isn’t a huge deal. If you turn its LEDs on and set them to purplish-white, the keyboard pulls 500 mA from my laptop’s USB 3 port. That’s the flat out maximum current allowed for one device on a USB 2 port, which is what most keyboards are designed around. I would prefer to see 450 mA current draw. That would leave a margin of error for poor USB 2 implementations. Even if they’re heading the way of the dinosaur, most gamers have a couple of them on their motherboard back panel.
Tesoro put a lot of effort into making the SE Spectrum water resistant. The PCB sports a conformal coating (which contains some factory dust), the switches use stainless steel springs, drains funnel water away from vital components, and the optical mechanisms are unlikely to short. While I wouldn’t advise dunking your keyboard, you don’t need to be paranoid about water spills. Sticky stuff is another story.
Macros & Fn keys
The rest of the Spectrum’s features are generic. Macro keys, which share space with F1-F4, are configurable through another in-keyboard process. A minimal function layer provides volume controls, Win and Fn locks, and a few bits.
Labels & branding
The backlit Tesoro logo is stenciled on a sheet of translucent plastic. Its coating is fairly durable. Be careful to avoid scratches anyways, as light will shine through them.
“Break the Rules” is pad printed above the arrow cluster in a durable glossy substance. My representative at Tesoro clarified what the slogan means. It isn’t encouraging gamers to break the rules. Instead, it represents Tesoro’s brand. They defy the norm to bring customers innovative products. Even so, their advertising doesn’t link that catch phrase to their product in a significant way. I would recommend something like… “The Excalibur SE Spectrum breaks the rules, offering innovative optical switches in a package that won’t break your budget.”
The bottom label is plasticized and utilizes high contrast printing. Good stuff.
I thought I would dislike the backlit Tesoro logo. In a shocking twist, I think it’s pretty cool. The gamer-font keycaps still seem unappealing, though.
The Excalibur SE Spectrum is a good looking keyboard that suffers from numerous flaws. They should have been dealt with in research and development. Nonetheless, it is a usable product. If you’re a typist first and a gamer second, this keyboard could do the job for you. If you’re a gamer first and a typist second, I advise holding out for Tesoro red optical switches. I’m amazed by how well Tesoro’s blue optical switches perform in terms of smoothness and off center presses, so I have high hopes for future releases.