Azio Cascade review: A surprisingly solid wireless mechanical keyboard

Azio has never produced the most typical keyboards. Whether it’s their quirky typewriter-style Retro Classic devices or the shiny, but ultimately cheap-feeling Izo, the manufacturer has often favored form over function with its designs.

The Azio Cascade, the company’s newest keyboard, is different. It has a compact sensible layout, with regular shaped keys and Bluetooth connectivity. Unlike the $129.99 Izo, it benefits from being hot-swappable, meaning any keyboard hobbyist who wants to tinker with it can replace the switches without pulling out a soldering iron. Most importantly, it feels really nice to type on, which you would hope if the final price puts it in competition with, say, the $169 Keychron Q1.

Pre-orders for the Azio Cascade keyboard open today through a Kickstarter campaign, where you can order one for an early bird price of $89 or a regular Kickstarter price of $109. But after the campaign, which will run for 30 days Azio plans to sell the keyboard for $159. Azio expects the keyboard to ship to backers at the end of May.

The Azio Cascade is available in two styles. There’s the Cascade Slim, which comes with low profile keycaps and switches, and the regular Cascade, which comes with standard height switches and keycaps. Available keycap colors include Galaxy Dark and Galaxy Light, as well as Forest Dark and Forest Light. I reviewed a normal-height Cascade, with Galaxy Light ABS keyboards (although Azio tells me that the colors on this test sample may not match the final colors perfectly).

Regardless of which model you choose, you’ll get a 75 percent keyboard, which is comparable to the keyboards on most laptops. You get a cluster of arrow keys and a function row, but no numpad, and generally things are clustered close together. There’s no built-in ability to remap the keys on the Cascade, but I think the default layout is sensible enough that most people won’t need it. On the right side of the board is basically every key I use regularly, including a dedicated printscreen button, and there are media playback controls built into the F row. I wish there was a European ISO layout option at launch, but Azio says it has plans to produce a version with this layout at a later date.

Depending on whether you choose the Cascade or the Cascade Slim, you’ll get Gateron G Pro red, blue, brown, and yellow switches or Gateron G Pro red, blue, and brown low-profile switches. The Cascade is also hot-swappable, meaning you can use an included switch puller to remove the stock switches and easily replace them without desoldering anything. The Cascade’s circuit board supports 5-pin switches, meaning it should be compatible with any MX-style switches you throw at it, while Azio advertises that the Cascade Slim is compatible with all Gateron’s low-profile switches. Keep in mind that the switches face north, which can sometimes cause compatibility issues with certain aftermarket keycaps.

My review copy came with Gateron G Pro brown switches.

Some legends are of higher quality than others.

The keycaps that came on my review copy were good, but not great. Azio says the Cascade comes standard with ABS keycaps with laser-etched legends, but there’s also an upgraded keycap option that uses hard-wearing PBT plastic with heat transfer legends (a similar printing process to sublimated legends) for $30. My sample had the cheaper laser-etched ABS keys, and while the translucent legends were generally clear and bright, the extra opaque printed legends on certain keys were of lower quality. For example, the Bluetooth logo on the 1, 2 and 3 keys is really worthless.

At the top of the Cascade is a USB-C port that handles both charging and wired connectivity, as well as a three-way toggle switch to turn the keyboard on and off and to put it into USB and Bluetooth modes. A second switch swaps the layout between Mac and Windows, although unlike Keychron’s keyboards, you don’t get both Windows and Mac keycaps in the box. Instead, the Option and Command keys have both Windows and Mac symbols printed on them. It looks a bit messy.

Out of the box, the Cascade feels very nice to type on. Azio advertises built-in silicone and foam dampers to eliminate loud clicking or rattling noises while typing. The result is a keyboard that feels lovely and bright, and while the stabilizers rattle a bit, it’s not particularly blatant. I wouldn’t say it’s quite at the level of the Keychron Q2, but it’s on the same margin, ie I’d be very happy to continue typing on this keyboard on a daily basis.

A USB-C port and hardware switches for layouts and connectivity.

An included switch puller can easily swap out the keyboard’s switches.

Inside the box you’ll find a nice braided USB-C to USB-C cable, complete with a USB-C to USB-A adapter in case you want to connect the keyboard to a device with the older USB ports. If you use the keyboard wired, it functions as you would expect, while if you go wireless, the keyboard can remember up to three devices. I paired the Cascade with both my laptop and phone and was then able to use a hotkey to quickly switch between the two.

None of these are particularly unique features and were previously available on everything from the Logitech Pop Keys to the Epomaker AK84S. But the Azio Cascade feels infinitely nicer to type on compared to the Pop Keys’ weird typewriter-esque keys, and I like the layout a lot more than the AK84S. It’s a more cohesive package.

The biggest drawback of the Azio Cascade is the battery life when used wirelessly with backlight. After the keyboard was fully charged overnight between Thursday and Friday, the battery indicator started blinking in the middle of the day on Tuesday and the battery was completely drained by Wednesday morning after only three days of daily office use with the keyboard backlight on. That roughly corresponds to the 20 hours of illuminated use that Azio promises.

You generally get much better battery performance if you turn off the backlight, where Azio says you should expect 160 hours of use. I was unable to drain the keyboard during testing, but after four days of use without the backlight on, the keyboard reported that it was still 80 percent charged. Based on the battery life I’ve experienced with the backlight on, I’d expect the keyboard to last about 24 days with the backlight off, or about a month of work on weekdays. (The Cascade Slim, meanwhile, is rated for 10 hours of use with backlighting and 80 hours with backlighting off).

The adjustable legs are nice to have.

Be prepared to turn off the keyboard backlighting if you want a long battery life.

After my previous experience with the Azio Izo, I didn’t expect to like the Cascade as much as I do. But aside from reassignable keys, it has everything I want from a modern keyboard. It’s wireless, backlit, hot-swappable, and most importantly, feels great to type on. The keycaps have some rough edges and the battery life could be better, but depending on your preferences these are usually forgivable sins.

With its Kickstarter price of $89 or $109, depending on how early you order, the Azio Cascade feels like a steal. It’s affordable, feature-rich, and so customizable that you can make some upgrades over time to fix its non-battery-related shortcomings. At the final price of $160, I think it’s less of an obvious bargain. At that price, it rivals the wired Keychron Q1, which I’d personally choose for its slightly more enjoyable typing experience, even if you’re missing out on Bluetooth and backlighting.

If you like going to the Kickstarter, I can recommend the Azio Cascade. It’s feature-rich and great for typing, and has decent wireless battery life if you’re willing to forego backlighting. But if you’re not happy with Kickstarter, or if you’re reading this review more than 30 days after it was published, it’s a tougher decision to make.

Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge

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