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Kinesis Gaming TKO Tournament Keyboard Review

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Kinesis Gaming may not be a name you’re familiar with, but the company is no newcomer to the world of mechanical gaming keyboards. Kinesis Corporation, its parent brand, has been a leader in ergonomic keyboards for years. The company released its first gaming keyboard, the Freestyle Edge RGB, in 2019 to wide acclaim. Today, we’re looking at its first follow-up, the TKO Tournament Keyboard. It features a compact 60% layout and split spacebar designed for quick access to all of your keymaps and macros to push you to the top of the leaderboards. At $175, it’s on the pricey end of gaming keyboards, but does it TKO the competition?

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Kinesis Gaming TKO Tournament Keyboard – Design and Features

The Kinesis Gaming TKO Tournament Keyboard, which I’ll just call the TKO, is a compact keyboard aimed at empowering the gamer. Thanks to the likes of the Ducky One 2 Mini, compact gaming keyboards aren’t new. At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking the TKO is “just another 60%.” It features the same overall design as other 60% keyboards, removing everything but the core typing space: no arrows, function row, nav cluster, or numpad.

What sets it apart, however, is its unique split “Hyperspace” spacebar and dual function keys. These two qualities and its powerful programming software set this keyboard apart from the majority of gaming keyboards today, and once it’s customized for you, it’s hard to go back to a normal gaming keyboard.

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The TKO is a step out for Kinesis. You can see its ergonomic roots through qualities like its front and rear tilt feet for negative tilting and some of its default keymaps, but it’s the company’s only keyboard currently for sale that isn’t split in some way. It’s clear Kinesis had its ear to the ground with what gamers are looking for in high-end keyboards today. It features full RGB backlighting, as well as edge lighting to stand out on your desk.

It’s completely programmable, in some ways more so than top-tier offerings from the likes of Razer or Corsair. It features thick doubleshot PBT keycaps that will never shine or fade, lightly lubed stabilizers (I added a touch more), and a metal top plate for typing that feels solid and satisfying. Kinesis even includes a nice zippered travel case and a detachable cable to easily transport the keyboard safely from LAN to LAN. Kinesis really nailed the premium feel of the TKO and checks nearly every box I could ask for.

Kinesis Gaming TKO Review

Another neat feature it supports is hot swappable switches. Out of the box, the TKO comes with one of your choice of clicky Blue, tactile Brown, or linear Red Kailh BOX switches. Rather than be soldered in place like most keyboards, these switches can simply be unplugged using an included switch puller. If you ever spill a drink on your keyboard, or have a switch die, this allows you to simply pull the dead switch and replace it at a fraction of the cost of buying a new keyboard. Or, if you’re the adventurous type, you could completely change the feel of your keyboard simply by picking up a new set of switches.

The trick to any compact keyboard is keeping the size small without removing functions the user might need. The TKO accomplishes this through plentiful secondary functions accessed by holding or toggling the Fn button. On their own, the number keys will send numbers but with the Fn modifier, they’ll morph into function keys. Likewise, IJKL can transform into arrow keys, Backspace into Delete, P into Page Up, and so on, each entirely customizable for what feels most natural to you. This is all fairly standard fare for compact keyboards but the split spacebar is where the TKO really comes into its own.

Kinesis Gaming TKO Review

If you’re like most typists, you probably hit your spacebar with one hand in just about the same place every time. Knowing this, it doesn’t make much sense for the spacebar to take up as much space as it does. With the TKO, the spacebar is split into three sections Kinesis calls hyperspace keys, allowing you to choose the position for space that matches your typing style and program the other two for whatever you would like. For gaming, that puts modifier keys or access to all of your secondary commands and macros right under your thumb.

That may not sound like much, but trust me, it is. Most 60% keyboards force users to cramp their hands into unnatural positions to access all of their keys. It’s bad ergonomics and uncomfortable for gaming. The TKO solves that entirely and makes the 60% form factor significantly more functional. On my Ducky One 2 Mini, I would get hand cramps holding Fn with my pinky anytime I had to access keys on that side of the keyboard – which was often. With the TKO, I haven’t had to move my hands into an unnatural position once, which is especially important over long gaming sessions or tournaments where stamina counts most.

Kinesis Gaming TKO Review

The other neat bit of functionality is its dual function keys. Fn accesses secondary commands, but the keyboard also has a SmartSet key that looks like a little gear. Using this key, you can access functions like onboard macro programming, key remapping, NKRO mode, Game Mode, and Tourney Mode, which disables macros and other functions that would fall afoul of common tournament rules. SmartSet also allows you to select from up to nine onboard profiles, complete with their own macros, key maps, and lighting profiles. This level of onboard programming and memory means you can tailor multiple profiles for specific games and change things on the fly in situations where you can’t use Kinesis’ software suite.

Kinesis Gaming TKO Review

Kinesis Gaming TKO Tournament Keyboard – Software

To make the most out of the TKO, you’ll want to pick up the Kinesis SmartSet App. Even though onboard programming is fairly easy, nothing beats a well-done graphical interface. Using the SmartSet App, you can remap keys, record macros, and control your lighting. There’s more here than meets the eye, but it’s not without its challenges.

In the picture above, you can see the default keymapping which also matches the side legends on the keycaps. Along the left side is everything you can map, including a selection of preset keymaps for the spacebar. Kinesis calls these “Hyperspace Configs” and includes a few big games like Apex Legends and Fortnite, as well as options for typing or coding. These make for a great starting point to come to grips with how to use these new keys.

Kinesis Gaming TKO Review

What’s really neat about the SmartSet App is that it allows you to create dual function keys with Tap and Hold Actions. In Apex, you might set tapping R to reload and holding it to swap weapons, for example. Ironically, because of the split spacebar, I don’t find myself using this very often but for a keyboard targeted at esports competitors, it’s nice to see small time-saving functions like that included.

With just a little bit of time, however, you can come up with some very personalized layouts. I found the configuration above to be about perfect for day to day use, putting the capabilities of a tenkeyless keyboard at my fingertips without ever leaving home row. Each profile can support a “top” layer and a “Fn” layer, essentially providing 18 sets of keymaps, macros, and shortcuts all in an ultra-compact form factor. I wish I was able to combine profiles and have additional layers in one, but breaking it into profiles allowed me to keep my layouts organized between my different games and applications.

Kinesis Gaming TKO Review

When it comes to lighting, you can choose from an array of preset effects or select your own static layout. You can also apply these effects to the edge lighting. Customization here is pretty basic: color, speed, and direction. It’s enough to get the keyboard looking good but isn’t going to compete with the advanced software suites of Razer or Corsair.

The software isn’t without its quirks. For one, to get the software to even recognize the keyboard, you need to “mount” it to your PC with a special key combination, after which point your computer will recognize it like a flash drive. When you’re in, your changes don’t apply in real time so you need to save them, but be sure to “eject” the keyboard from the software or other bugs can arise. In writing this review, one of my function shifts became a toggle and locked me in the function layer. Updating firmware also required me to jump through some hoops most other gaming keyboard software handles for you.

You can do a lot with it, but the SmartSet App still has a ways to go to catch up to the competition in user-friendliness.

Kinesis Gaming TKO Review

Kinesis Gaming TKO Tournament Keyboard – Gaming Performance

During my two weeks with the TKO, I used it as my daily driver for my gaming and writing work and it performed admirably in each. For day to day use, it was the most functional 60% keyboard I’ve ever used that wasn’t a custom build. The hyperspace cluster really is a game changer for being able to access navigation and editing keys.

There was a bit of a learning curve getting started with it. Where I naturally rest my thumb was right in between two of the hyperspace keys, so I had to consciously reposition my hand until it became second nature. Once it did, everything felt a lot more natural. I set the other two keys to Fn Shift (secondary functions only when held) and backspace, which made fixing typos faster and sped up my writing slightly – though, again, after a bit of a learning curve.

Since the keyboard has tilt feet in both the front and back, I also gave negative tilting a try, which is where you tilt the keyboard down instead of up. I had heard that a mild negative tilt could relieve wrist stress but the TKO was the first keyboard that ever allowed me to try to for myself. Surprisingly, I found it more comfortable than typing normally! It looks a little weird but I could immediately feel less wrist strain while gaming.

Kinesis Gaming TKO Review

When it comes to actual gaming performance, the TKO is one of the best compact gaming keyboards I’ve used. The keyboard being so compact allowed me to have my arms closer together while gaming, which is better for ergonomics and long-term comfort. It’s also great for desk space, so if you’re a fan of big, low sensitivity sweeps in CS:GO, this is the board for you. The additional thumb buttons really are game changers. In the heat of the moment, even needing to angle your hand to press a function button can throw you off your game. Here, all of your commands are accessible without ever needing to move your hands off of your most important keys.

How that looks will vary depending on the game and your unique playstyle. In World of Warcraft, for example, I mapped the left and right hyperspace keys to Ctrl and Alt for easy access to my second and third action bars. In Battlefield V, I mapped them to Crouch and Prone, which made me feel more mobile and quicker to react. In Doom Eternal, mapping one to Dash and another to pull off Glory Kills was the same.

Kinesis Gaming TKO Review

That said, how you use the keys could be completely different from how I do. If you’re big into macros, you could turn an entire side of the board into a macro pad, only activating when you needed it to be. The big benefit here is that it allows you to craft a keyboard setup that feels much more uniquely your own than most other boards of its size.

Pulling back a little bit, Kinesis Gaming has also done a good job with dialing in the feel of the keyboard. The BOX Brown switches I tested felt more tactile than Cherry MX Browns while still feeling lightweight and smooth. I also really liked the feel of Kinesis’s doubleshot keycaps. They offered a solid feeling under my fingers and sounded nice when bottoming out.

All in all, the TKO is a real winner, if you’re willing to take the time to customize it and put up with a few quirks in the software. At its current price, however, it does feel too expensive. At $175, it’s competing against high-end keyboards from major brands with more polished software. Logitech’s hot swappable G Pro X keyboard, for example, is only $149 (but lacks the split spacebar). Epomaker’s GK68XS, however, does offer the split spacebar and hot-swap, as well as a heavy duty aluminum body for only $179.

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This article was originally published by IGN.COM

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