How Do You Game?
If you like to play games on your PC, you could just buy a $20 office keyboard and call it a day. Of course, you could also go to a fancy steakhouse and slather your meal in ketchup, or play the complete works of Beethoven through a smartphone speaker.
The fact is, if you want to get the most out of your gaming rig, you'll need some quality peripherals to go along with it. A keyboard is absolutely vital for work, play and everything in between. Still, there are dozens of keyboards on the market that claim to enhance your gaming experience. Which ones really will, and which ones are just overpriced digital typewriters?
Whether you're building your own machine or looking to upgrade over the peripherals that came with a pre-built computer, a good gaming keyboard can streamline your gameplay, increase your effectiveness and make something as routine as typing feel like a real accomplishment. Here's how to pick the best keyboard for your setup.
Keyboard variations tend to be a bit more restrained than their gaming mouse counterparts, but there are still a few important considerations before you start your search. The first thing you'll want to do is determine how you spend your PC gaming time. Are you hooked on the eSports scene, or do you prefer single-player adventures? Will a dozen extra buttons help your MMO raid party, or is the extra space required for a numpad cramping your style?
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The first thing you should determine is whether you need a gaming keyboard at all. If your PC gaming is restricted to the occasional round of League of Legends or following the episodic Telltale Games releases, a high-end peripheral with expensive switches and fancy lighting is probably not going to enhance your experience that much.
Likewise, if your PC is just a way to play the latest console port titles, you'd be much better off investing in a good controller than a top-of-the-line keyboard. Keyboards tend to work best with first-person shooters, strategy games and MMOs, so if these are your go-to genres, a better keyboard may be in your future.
Gaming keyboards don't generally fit into neat price categories. In my experience, every company has a different idea about how much a feature like full RGB lighting or mechanical switches is worth, and will charge accordingly. There are some very broad guidelines you can use when selecting a keyboard, but these will vary considerably depending on retailer, sales, and whether there is a newer model about to replace something.
Less Than $100
In this price range, you can expect to find mostly membrane keyboards, older mechanical models or tenkeyless models from second- or third-tier companies like Cooler Master or Poseidon. There are some outstanding selections in this price range, like the $60 Turtle Beach Impact 100 ($60, at Amazon), which tries to produce membrane keys with a mechanical feel. Otherwise, if $100 is as much as you can spend, try to hunt for mechanical models that have recently been replaced with newer versions.
Between $100 and $150
Between $100 and $150 is generally the sweet spot for gaming keyboards. This is where you'll find models like the Corsair Strafe ($110, at Amazon) or the Razer BlackWidow Ultimate 2016 ($110, at Amazon). These keyboards have mechanical switches, monocolored backlighting and a full range of keys, including a numpad. They may or may not have an extra row of macro keys, but if they do, one additional row is probably all you'll get. If you can find a keyboard you like in a color that matches your setup, this is probably the price range for you.
More Than $150
If you can spend more than $150, the sky's the limit. This is where you'll find keyboards with full RGB backlighting, like the Corsair Gaming K70 RGB($170, at Amazon) and the Logitech G910 Orion Spark ($180, at Amazon). Some of these keyboards have tons of macro keys, top-of-the-line mechanical switches or just very colorful backlighting. Whether they're worth the premium very much depends on whether you need something extra to enhance your gaming experience — or to match your décor.
Membrane vs. Mechanical
Something you'll learn from even cursory research on gaming keyboards is that some cheaper, lower-end models are "membrane," whereas the more expensive, ambitious models are "mechanical." For more on what this all means, you can check out our full breakdown.
Briefly, membrane keyboards work by running an electrical current through two mushy plastic membranes. Mechanical keyboards work, like typewriters of old, by placing a mechanical switch underneath each keycap. Naturally, the latter option feels better and works more reliably, but it's also considerably more expensive.
Nevertheless, unless price is a disproportionate consideration, there is no reason why a gamer should buy a membrane keyboard over a mechanical one. With few exceptions, membrane gaming keyboards tend to feel about as good as a $20 office model, and that won't do many favors for either your gaming habits or your everyday productivity.
Assuming you're on the hunt for a mechanical model (and you should be), there are still a few more things you should know. There are dozens of mechanical switch types and manufacturers, and keeping them all straight can be difficult. To keep it brief, familiarize yourself with switch types from the German company Cherry.
Cherry MX keys are industry-standard; if a keyboard manufacturer can't get Cherry keys, you can be sure it will imitate them instead. They come in a variety of colors, the most common of which are Red, Brown, and Blue. Red keys are quiet and respond to a soft-touch; Brown keys are quiet but resistant; Blue keys are clackety and resistant. If a keyboard manufacturer advertises Red, Blue or Brown keys, even if they're not authentic Cherrys, it will still aim for that general style.
Other mechanical switch types include Blacks (shallow and stiff) and Greens (louder and more resistant than Blues). Topre switches, of Japanese origin, are relatively uncommon in the West, but provide a quieter, more rubbery feel with a full mechanical system underneath.
Types of Keyboards
As stated before, gaming keyboards don't really get as granular as their mouse counterparts. Since every keyboard has to be an all-purpose peripheral to some extent or another, the differences between various types are subtle. Still, there are at least three general types of keyboards worth exploring.
The vast majority of gaming keyboards are all-purpose models. This is where you'll find mechanical models that look more or less like a standard office keyboard, perhaps with a few extra keys or some fancy backlighting to set them apart. All-purpose keyboards usually look unassuming, but (hopefully) pack some gorgeous mechanical switches under the hood. They may or may not have an extra row of macro buttons. Either way, they're ideal for FPS, RTS, MOBA or any action/adventure holdouts who grew up during the '80s or '90s and simply refuse to sully their setups with a console-style controller.
For gamers who live and die by cooperative online games, an MMO keyboard may be the way to go. These keyboards have tons of extra macro keys, often in multiple rows. Conservative MMO keyboards start at six extra keys, but can go all the way up to 18 for those who want to truly micromanage every aspect of a character's skill rotation. These keyboards are often expensive and enormous, though, so make sure you have both the funds and the desk space.
On the other end of the spectrum are tenkeyless models, which eschew the numpad entirely. These devices are small, (relatively) inexpensive and usually light enough to transport. Some of them even allow you to disconnect the wire, or come with a carrying case. If desk space is at a premium in your home, or if you're constantly on the go for tournaments, a tenkeyless keyboard is well worth investigating — especially in conjunction with a many-buttoned gaming mouse.
When it comes to backlighting, gamers generally have three choices in keyboards: none, one color, or full RGB. Backlighting is, overall, not as useful as it may sound; even if you're not an excellent typist, you'll probably figure out where you need to put your fingers for game commands easily enough. On the other hand, if you have a blue computer case, a blue mouse and a blue power indicator on your monitor, a blazing red keyboard is going to look pretty silly.
RGB features can increase a keyboard's price by dozens of dollars, so consider carefully whether it's really something you need. My recommendation is to buy a monocolored keyboard if you can find one that matches your setup, and to spring for RGB lighting if you can't. If you're an all-star touch typist, you can simply eschew lighting entirely.
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If you already own other gaming peripherals, like gaming mice or headsets, backlighting can also be a point of synchronicity between them. Brands like Logitech, Razer and SteelSeries have unified gaming software that can link the backlighting across mice, headsets and keyboards. Furthermore, running only one program instead of three produces less of a drain on system resources. If you already have a headset or mouse from a certain brand, consider buying a keyboard from the same manufacturer.
Choosing a great gaming keyboard is probably easier than choosing a great gaming mouse, but there are still a few important things to keep in mind. Get a mechanical model, be sure it has the right number of extra keys (bearing in mind the right number might be "zero") and consider whether you really need to spend a lot of extra money for colorful illumination.
It's worth noting that a mechanical keyboard is not just a great gaming tool; it's a fantastic addition to any productivity setup as well. You may find a keyboard that costs more than $100 much easier to justify if you can state with confidence that it will come in handy every time you type something.
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For times when space is at a premium, either at a convention or in your home, the Logitech G Pro absolutely nails the small keyboard design.