Creative Sound BlasterX Vanguard K08 gaming keyboard review

A keyboard packed with great features, stymied by a few less wonderful ones

TODO alt text

Our Verdict

As first attempts go, the Creative Sound BlasterX Vanguard K08 gaming keyboard has some high and low points. While the Vanguard has excellent lighting and an alternative key action, are these differences enough to carve out a slice of what is a very competitive sector?

For

  • Not just another Cherry MX vehicle
  • Exotic lighting scheme
  • USB pass-through

Against

  • Dubious wrist rest
  • Tight spacing between keys
  • Inflexible cable

There was a time, long ago, when Creative exclusively made sound cards and other audio related tech. Being quite so niche these days isn’t realistic, and they now offer a selection of PC peripherals under their Sound BlasterX branding umbrella.

The new Vanguard K08 gaming keyboard is a classic example of Creative’s mission creep, as it impinges on the well-occupied territory of SteelSeries, Razer, Cougar and Corsair, among others.

These companies are mostly rehashing the Cherry MX range of mechanical switches, a very popular choice for serious gamers.

With the Vanguard K08, Creative has chosen to go down an alternate path and deliver something noticeably different to the discerning gamer.

US pricing for the Vanguard K08 is $139.99 (£159.99, AU$219).

Design

It isn’t clear when this became a prerequisite, but all modern gaming keyboards look like they are evolving into fairground attractions.

This is despite the indisputable fact that while gamers are playing they won’t be looking at the keyboard while playing - unless they're new to computers.

The Vanguard K08 embraces this aesthetic, with an ‘Aurora Reactive’ lighting scheme that allows the user to define all manner of funky lighting effects.

For peripheral lighting, the K08 has one of the slickest implementations so far. Offering a vast selection of presets and customisations available through the Sound Blaster Connect app.

The software isn’t provided out of the box, so those wanting to alter the default rainbow light show or define keyboard macros will need to download it from Creative first.

All alterations are stored onto the keyboard's own internal memory, allowing them to travel without the app to other computers.

As for the layout, there’s nothing especially radical to see here. The review model had a standard US layout, with five user-definable function keys down the left, and six media controls arranged on the top right.

Above the numeric pad are a mute key and a roller to control audio volume. 

The excessively thick braided cable exits the keyboard case at the top right, then splits into two Type A USB connectors at the end of a 2m run. One of these drives the keyboard and lights, and the other delivers a USB 2.0 pass-through providing a single port, intended mostly for mouse use.

Overall, the keyboard is well constructed, with a significant amount of force needed to generate any flexing.  The two retractable feet positioned at the rear can increase the shallow rake when deployed.

The only other notable hardware feature is the wrist rest, which is made almost entirely from plastic. 

It doesn’t permanently attach to the K08, and is only held in place by thin plastic prongs trapped under the front edge of the keyboard. Therefore, if you pick up the keyboard, the wrist rest won’t be coming along with it.

Performance

The lighting is fun, but what will make a significantly greater impact are the switches on the K08, as those are revolutionary.

Omron are better known for their mouse button switches, but they also designed the special PRES. (Perceive-React-Execute Switch) used in the K08.

The selling points of PRES switches are that although the switch has a good travel distance (3.5mm), reducing finger joint impacts, they activate after just 1.5mm of movement.

That’s not so early that lightly brushing keys generate an unintentional press, but enough that it doesn’t take the full travel of the switch to fire.

The logic here is that should you start pressing at the same exact moment as your Cherry MX opposition, then your key will register first, assuming you experience the same level of lag.

The actuation force is 45g, and the PRES switch is rated for a 70 million actions, should your fingers not fall off long before hitting that number.

Part of PRES switch proposition is the ability to use the same keyboard for both typing at speed and gaming without compromising either is highly desirable to many users.

Another positive aspect of the switches is that they’re relatively quiet, unlike the popular SteelSeries 6Gv2, with that keyboard being reminiscent of a veritable tea trolley on cobbles.

For late night gamers, that aspect could be a deal-maker, even if the K08 isn’t close to being silent.

One issue we ran into was that the five custom side keys are very close to the main keyboard, and are so close that our hands kept registering them as a left edge boundary. This unconscious reference caused the M4 key to be repeatedly struck instead of the intended left shift.

While most users will eventually adapt, that transition isn’t likely to be overnight.

We liked

Rapid key action, 26 key roll-over and the minimalist styling are all positives. Keyboards that dominate the desk space aren’t useful, and the Vanguard K08 offers a compact and practical form factor. 

Combined with the immediacy of the Omron PRES switches, this design will undoubtedly find supporters.

We disliked

There are three obvious weaknesses to this design, none of which are entirely damning.

The first of these is the wrist rest, which is connected by easily breakable plastic projections that don’t properly secure it to the keyboard. Given how robustly the K08 is built in other respects, this fragility is incongruous.

Another bugbear is the overly thick and stiff USB cable. While having pass-through USB does simplify connecting a mouse, it’s resulted in a cable that won’t naturally lay flat on a desk. It might relax over time, but not out of the box.

And the final issue is the high price, as £159.99 ( $139.99, AU$219 )this is hardly a bargain.

Final verdict

If this weren't the first gaming keyboard to carry the Sound BlasterX branding, we’d be more critical. But, as a first attempts go, the Vanguard K08 is an impressive if slightly flawed one.

The PRES switch is different from an MX, but not so much that it will put gamers off.

Equally, the Aurora lighting technology has an immediate impact, through how many buyers will turn it off as a distraction over time is debatable.

The biggest issue is pricing, as it is on the high side to our sensibilities. A Corsair K70 RBG and the SteelSeries Apex M800 both cost less, and they’re made to an equivalent or better specification than the Vanguard M08.

We hope that Creative aren’t discouraged if this product doesn’t sell well. Because it strongly hints that the team behind it could make a truly excellent gaming keyboard, should they get subsequent designs greenlit.