If you are a gamer, you probably take your choice of gaming keyboard very seriously. And you should.
When your keyboard doubles as a game controller, it’s more than just a typing tool. To you what a katana means to a samurai (or to a cyborg ninja): an extension of yourself, your interface with the digital world. If you care about PC gaming, it’s worth knowing what makes a great keyboard, what sets them apart, and what’s on the market today. We’ve rounded up the best keyboards you can buy, along with a quick guide to help you find the right one for you.
Turn on! Understanding Mechanical Switches, Domes and Scissors
Most high-end gaming keyboards today use mechanical switches, which attach each key to its own spring switch. They are designed to provide superior audio and tactile feedback. Many of these switches use the so-called “MX” mechanism from a company called Cherry, and are identified by color (MX Black, MX Brown, MX Blue, MX Red, and so on), each with a slightly different design, tailored to provide certain nuances and sounds while typing.
Which switch you want depends on the type of game you’re playing, and what else you’re doing with your computer. Cherry MX Black switches have the highest activation power, which makes them ideal for games where you don’t have to worry about accidentally pressing a button twice. However, this can give them a stiff feel unsuitable for games that require a more agile response, so for those types of titles you might prefer the hair-triggering Cherry MX Red switches. If either one is too extreme for you, there’s a compromise candidate in the Cherry MX Brown switches: They have the same actuation power as the Red variety, but add tactile bumps to aid typing. If you need a keyboard that can switch between hard-core gaming and traditional work tasks, this is the kind to look for.
Cherry isn’t the only switch maker in town. Decent Cherry MX imitations from makers like Kaihua fill some budget mechanical keyboards. Also, several mass market keyboard manufacturers have developed their own mechanical switches as an alternative to Cherry. Logitech’s Romer-G switches are available on many of its gaming keyboards, and the company claims they have a longer life (up to 70 million keystrokes) and shorter range than Cherry switches. Razer, too, has made a name for itself with its Green (tactile and click), Orange (tactile and silent), and Yellow (linear and silent) button switches. What’s more, the company’s green tri-snake now has an optical (“Opto-Mechanical”) lock switch that uses a beam of light to detect keystrokes rather than standard metal contact points. (For more on mechanics, check out our picks for our favorite mechanical keyboards.)
At the lower end of the gaming keyboard market, you’ll still find boards that use “rubber dome” switches, which use tiny bubbles in a silicone membrane, the material being the spring behind the switch. The result is mushy and requires full presses with each keypress, slowing down the speed at which commands can be entered. A slight variation on this is the scissor switch, which also uses a silicone membrane for the springs but has a slimmer profile and adds a stabilizing “X”-shaped mechanism under each button. Scissor switches are most commonly found on laptops, but some low-profile gaming keyboards use them.
Trick It Out: Keyboard Backlight and Customization
Features that are not essential on a regular keyboard become more important when it is adapted to the game. Backlighting, for example, isn’t just a way to light up buttons in a dark room. For gamers, new changes to the old backlight include customizable colors, and multiple lighting zones with separate backlight areas for arrow keys and WASD, highlighting the control keys used most often. Some gaming keyboards even have individual key backlights, allowing you to personalize the color of each key, individually, to your liking. (This is often referred to as “RGB per key”, as opposed to zone-based RGB, where you can assign colors to clusters or key areas.)
Another customizable feature is the swappable keycap. Since the mechanical switch is physically separate from the button cap itself, with some designs you can remove and swap the top of the button for another featuring a sculptural print, a texture for better tactile control, or a different colored plastic. Some keyboards only offer swappable WASD keys, while others may include arrow or number keys that you can change.
Gaming keyboards may offer more than just very well-crafted keys, adding features such as macro command customization and custom shortcut keys. Some go a step further by incorporating entirely new features, such as tracking in-game statistics, text-to-keyboard communication, or a built-in touchscreen display. Other possible upgrades include a dedicated array of media keys (to adjust volume, play and skip music, and the like) and profile keys (to activate a game-specific set of keyboard functions). Some gaming keyboards also have USB pass-through, allowing you to connect other USB peripherals to the keyboard itself, freeing up an extra port or two on your PC.
Most gaming models offer a 10-key numeric pad, which laptops often don’t have and is a necessity for anyone who needs to calculate numbers or enter data into spreadsheets. The so-called “tenkeyless” model cuts across the number pad to save space and keep your typing hand and mouse closer to each other. Keep that in mind if you’re looking at gaming keyboards, as tenkeyless models are a recent trend especially in that subclass. If you want it even smaller, the 60 percent keyboard eliminates even again key. Check out our 60 percent keyboard guide for everything you need to know about the category.
Interface: USB Cable, or Wireless?
Talking about USB: While you might prefer your keyboard wireless, most gaming keyboards are wired for a reason. Wired keyboards are incredibly fast, because you don’t have to worry about the potential input latency involved in transmitting a wireless signal. With a sophisticated wireless keyboard, you might expect some delay between you pressing a key and your computer registering it as a keypress.
When you’re playing a game, especially in the case of competitive multiplayer titles, it’s very important to keep this lag to a minimum. That’s why many competitive gamers and esports hunters just go with the cable. That said, many of the big players in gaming keyboards offer some acclaimed low-latency wireless designs. But wireless gaming keyboards remain the exception rather than the norm. (Check out our picks for our favorite wireless keyboards.)
Evaluating Gaming Keyboard Software
Another area we consider when evaluating a gaming keyboard is the software. Today, nearly every gaming keyboard worth mentioning is tied to an app that lets you assign functions to hotkeys, create game-specific profiles, and adjust lighting on the keyboard.
For these tasks, and several others, the Corsair keyboard uses a utility called Corsair Utility Engine (iCUE, previously only CUE). One of the best examples of keyboard software, iCUE offers a simple interface with a wide range of options to personalize your board. You can, for example, record your own custom macro or assign a new function to an existing key. For Corsair keyboards that support RGB, you can even use the software to stack various effects, with the option to preview the combinations before applying them.
The latest Logitech keyboards, on the other hand, are compatible with two programs: G Hub and Logitech Gaming Software (LGS). G Hub is a newer interface for Logitech gear, and offers a more digestible interface for setting up game profiles, customizing and syncing lighting zones, and assigning a second layer of functionality to your buttons, activated by pressing the assignable G Shift commands.
Meanwhile, all Razer keyboards use an app called synapses for personalization. Until G Hub was released, Synapse had one of the cleanest interfaces of any keyboard utility we’ve tested. Easy to learn, Synapse uses a menu with options to modify exposure, create profiles, record and assign macro functions, and integrate your Razer hardware with Philips Hue lights for an RGB (or “Chroma,” as Razer calls it).
Other software for gaming keyboards exists, such as Roccat’s Swarm, SteelSeries’ Engine, and Cougar’s UIX. Despite their varied appearances, the purpose and functionality of these programs remain largely the same. Software goes hand in hand with gaming keyboards, and one of the main selling points for these peripherals is that you can tweak their appearance and performance to suit your preferred game, genre, and playing style. Competent software helps you make better use of your equipment; that’s why manufacturers of the best gaming keyboards devote so much resources to developing software and drivers that our analysts think are obsolete. Check out our review to learn more about the software.
Playing games on Mac? You are not alone, and you have more options than ever before. Many mouse and keyboard manufacturers are now producing Mac versions of their configuration applications so you can enjoy all the benefits of customizing your input. Our summary best keyboard for Mac and the best gaming mice for Mac will help you find the peripherals that help you improve your game.
So, Which Gaming Keyboard Should You Buy?
If you want to completely decorate your gaming system, you’ll also want to take a look at our top-rated gaming mice, monitors and headsets. Some of these models can work in sync with the keyboard, in terms of lighting and commands, so it’s worth reading reviews on these as well. Sometimes, the same software can control RGB or macro effects on a keyboard and mouse from the same manufacturer, so you don’t have to maintain and understand two or more utilities.
Check below for the best board games we’ve been testing lately. Most are classic mechanical switch models, but some use alternative lock types, so check reviews for details. And if you’re in the market for a brand new gaming rig, don’t miss out on the best gaming desktops and gaming laptops we’ve tested.