How to Choose a Gaming Keyboard
The top performers in our review of gaming keyboards are the Corsair Vengeance K95, the Gold Award winner; the Logitech G910 Orion Spark, the Silver Award winner; and the Cooler Master Quick Fire XTi, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a gaming keyboard to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our ranking of the top 10 products.
Whether you're looking for a slight edge in your gaming or for a high-quality peripheral, gaming keyboards are excellent options. What, exactly, do you get with a gaming keyboard that a cheap stock keyboard won't have? Durability, aesthetics, typing feel and customizability are all features that are either lacking entirely or poorly implemented in stock keyboards. Customizability is, perhaps, the largest appeal of gaming keyboards.
Just like a good PC gaming headset, gaming keyboards not only affect your experience with your games, they also allow you to express yourself through aesthetics. Many gaming keyboards come with RGB backlighting, and the majority come with some sort of programmable backlighting. With RGB backlighting in particular, you have the ability to make your keyboard look exactly like you want it to – often with the help of software provided by the manufacturer.
Even if customizability doesn't get you very excited, a high-quality gaming keyboard can enhance your gameplay experience because it will be consistently more responsive that most stock keyboards. All of the gaming keyboards on our lineup use mechanical switches, which don't get stuck like the membrane switches in most stock keyboards. With mechanical switches, you'll know when a key press has registered, and it will be very consistent. Your keyboard is a primary method of communicating with your computer – and your games. A good gaming keyboard makes that communication feel smoother and more efficient.
If you don't like the idea of being wired in, take a look at our wireless keyboard comparisons. It is possible to find wireless keyboards meant for gaming, but they aren't common yet. One major advantage of a wireless keyboard is the ability to play games on your TV while sitting on the couch.
Of course, in order to get the most out of your experience, you need a rig that can handle your favorite games. You can pick up a new gaming PC, or even spec out a custom gaming PC and have it built for you. Either way, you should also consider getting a gaming mouse. The advantage here over regular mice is, as with gaming keyboards, customizability and high-quality parts.
The Most Important Features
All of the gaming keyboards on our lineup use mechanical switches. We'll go into more detail about those later, but one of the main advantages of mechanical switches is their durability. In that light, it makes sense to look at the build quality of the rest of the keyboard. The highest-quality keyboards don't flex very much. They're solid pieces of plastic or metal. This helps prevent bowing while you type, which can be annoying. The housing material itself makes a large difference in the keyboard's overall quality. Most keyboards are made of some sort of plastic – some of which are sturdier than others. A few have metal back plates to provide support.
The best keyboards offer you a variety of switches to choose from when you buy. For example, the Roccat Ryos MK Pro can come equipped with Cherry MX Blue, Brown, Black or Red switches. Each has different physical characteristics that provide you with a different typing experience. There are many other kinds of switches. In case you're unsure about what the differences are or even what mechanical switches are, we'll talk about that in detail further down.
Once you've decided what switches you want, you should look at every keyboard's key rollover (KRO). This number indicates how many key presses the keyboard can register simultaneously. Most gaming keyboard manufacturers are happy to tout their keyboards' KRO values, but those values don't tell the whole story. A good example is the Razer BlackWidow Chroma. It's advertised to have 10 KRO – and it does in the right situations. Because of how the keyboard is built, it can only register 10 keys at once in certain clusters of keys, not across the entire keyboard. We'll point out oddities like this in each keyboard's review.
Another feature to look for is customizable backlighting. Most of the keyboards on our lineup allow you to control the backlighting for each key. Sometimes this is done with software, and sometimes it's done just using functionality built into the keyboard. Both approaches have their merits. However, using software is easier than just using the keyboard itself when you're dealing with RGB backlighting. Assigning each key a specific color is both useful and aesthetically pleasing. Keyboards with RGB backlighting are generally more expensive than keyboards with regular backlighting, but the overall effect is often worth it.
You can often use the same software that helps you set up and manage color profiles for your keyboard to program keys. Some keyboards allow you to reprogram any key to do whatever you want. You can map the F1 key to launch iTunes, or designate a macro key to open your web browser. The extent to which you can reprogram the keys really depends on the software that comes with your keyboard and what the keyboard's firmware can handle. Some software, like the Corsair Utility Engine (CUE), is very capable and gives you unparalleled control over your keyboard.
Software Ease of Use
It can definitely take a while to get used to CUE. It is very powerful, but it can get quite confusing. There is a fine balance between overwhelming users with functionality and presenting that functionality in an easy-to-use format. CUE does a good job of finding that middle ground, but only the most advanced users will get the most out of the software. When you consider which is the best gaming keyboard for you, it's important to take the software's ease of use into consideration. Lots of functionality is great, but not when it's confusing and difficult to use.
Not all keyboards come with a standard key layout or standard key sizes. This can be somewhat disconcerting at first as you try to learn where the keys are on your new keyboard. This is purely a subjective preference, and a week's worth of use is usually enough to get used to layout changes. Still, a nonstandard layout will definitely affect your typing ability until you get used to it.
To learn even more, please check out our in-depth articles on gaming keyboards.
Gaming Keyboards: What We Tested, What We Found
It can be difficult to compare one gaming keyboard to another, because there are many different factors to account for, not the least of which is the fact that everyone has different preferences. For example, some people demand multimedia keys, while others greatly dislike dedicated media keys. We set up several tests to gather objective data about each keyboard. This data influenced overall ranking on our lineup and helped us make informed decisions about each keyboard.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
We tested each of the keyboards on our lineup while playing games like Star Wars: The Old Republic (SW:TOR), StarCraft II, XCOM: Enemy Within, League of Legends and Borderlands 2. Every keyboard worked well for the different game genres. Keyboards with dedicated macro keys definitely had a leg up on the others for SW:TOR and would are preferable for any massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. Your gaming experience can vary a somewhat from keyboard to keyboard, but the change is largely subjective.
Some mechanical switches lend themselves more to gaming than others. Cherry MX switches are reliable and consistent, but some people prefer switches with a higher actuation point. Cherry MX switches register a key press at 2mm into a stroke. Some new switches, like Logitech's Romer-G and SteelSeries' QS1, have a 1.5mm actuation point. This means that key strokes will register more quickly than Cherry MX switches, because the key doesn't have to travel as far.
Of course, there are trade-offs for everything. A higher actuation point will enable you to react more quickly while playing. However, the reduced travel also means that it's easier to make mistakes. In short, higher actuation points make the keys more sensitive, which can be a good thing. Just be aware that it can take some getting used to, and you'll probably see yourself make more mistakes when using switches with a higher actuation point.
We subjected each keyboard to a series of typing tests in order to see if and how the keyboards affected typing ability. These tests involved typing full sentences, with proper punctuation. While these are indeed gaming keyboards, most people will use them for everyday typing as well. Many games also require quick, concise text communication, as well as keyboard controls. The typing tests determine how well the keyboards facilitate that communication.
There are several factors to consider when comparing one keyboard to another in typing ability. In the typing tests, we looked at information regarding overall speed (words per minute) and accuracy. In order to understand the data we collected, we also subjected each tester's regular keyboard to the series of tests. This gives a control to compare the data with. Naturally, testers are more familiar with their regular keyboards, so we looked at the data with that in mind.
Most of the keyboards on our lineup only affected typing speed slightly. On average, the testers only typed a little slower than they would on their regular keyboards – a few percentage points slower. However, a few keyboards seemed to handicap typing speed more significantly, dropping speeds by up to 20 percent. These speed drops were consistent across testers for the same keyboards. This tells us that not all keyboards are ideal for typing. Of course, over time, the testers would likely become more comfortable with the keyboards and be able to type faster.
In addition to typing speed, we looked at typing accuracy. Again, these numbers were consistent across testers for each of the keyboards. A couple of keyboards reduced the number of incorrect entries by as much as 20 percent, while other keyboards introduced more incorrect entries by as much as 50 percent, compared to the testers' regular keyboards. This correlates with each keyboard's consistency with standard key layouts and key sizes. Deviations from the standard introduced more errors.
Because all of the keyboards on our lineup use mechanical switches, it's worthwhile to consider how loud those switches are. Many keyboards allow you to choose from different switch types when you buy, so it's important to note that this test isn't necessarily tied to individual keyboards, but to switch types and even individual typists. Some people like to hammer at the keyboard, while others merely peck. Still, the construction of the keyboard, like the keycaps used, can have an effect on how loud the keyboard is. The data we collected for this test is mostly informational.
Mechanical keyboards tend to be significantly louder than regular membrane keyboards. Depending on switch type and the construction of the keyboard, you can expect an increase of up to 25 percent in decibels from a stock membrane keyboard. This is a significant increase in noise, going from about 56 dB up to 68 dB. It's important to note that we measured the noise levels in a typical office room, not a secluded soundproof room. This means that the noise levels aren't isolated to the keyboard, but few people will use these keyboards in secluded rooms – and it's rarely the person using the keyboard who will complain about noise levels. We repeated the tests numerous times to eliminate any unusually loud noises.
Key Actuation Force
Like noise level, key actuation depends more on the switch type than the keyboard itself. Each switch type has a different level of force for key activation. Instead of focusing on the force required for actuation, we looked at consistency. Mechanical switches are manufactured with a specific margin of error for actuation, so there's bound to be some variability on any given keyboard, but you don't want a large percent of force variation across keys, because this feels odd and inhibits typing ability.
Most of the keys on most keyboards are well within manufacturer specifications. However, it's important to note that those specifications can be fairly generous. The actuation force can be considered within specifications even if it's off by up to 40 percent for some switches. That's definitely enough to notice a difference. An example would be a switch that's rated for 45 grams to actuate but has a margin of error of plus or minus 20 grams. That means the switch could activate at 25 grams or 65 grams in worst-case scenarios.
In our testing, the best keyboards had very consistent actuation forces across the entire keyboard. On average, actuation forces varied from switch specifications by about 10 percent. A few keyboards weren't particularly consistent, and a few had remarkably consistent actuation forces. Part of this has to do with the fact that keyboard manufacturers have their own QA departments to ensure that the keyboards meet quality standards.
Not all keyboards are built to the same quality standards. We looked at a number of aspects to determine each keyboard's build quality, such as the type of plastic used to make the keycaps and the overall weight of the keyboard. We also subjected each keyboard to a flex test to see how much give there is in its construction. You don't want a flimsy keyboard. We also took switch type into consideration.
Software Ease of Use
While customization options are great, they're not of much help if you can't figure out how to use them. For the keyboards that come with customization software, we looked at how easy it is to set everything up and then configure the keyboard to various states. Powerful software and customization is great, but making that software accessible is also important. Customization software that is needlessly complex will only hinder your enjoyment of the keyboard's features.
What Games Benefit From a Gaming Keyboard?
Sometimes, manufacturers target specific game genres for their keyboards. Of course, all gaming keyboards work well for most games. However, some keyboards do lend themselves toward specific genres thanks to their physical designs.
While a keyboard geared toward MMOs will work just fine for strategy games, it will have additional keys dedicated to macros and other features that you simply won't need for other genres. For example, the Corsair Vengeance K95 has a section of 18 dedicated macro keys. This is a keyboard that is particularly well suited to MMOs. The CUE software makes setting up those macros fairly easy. With the extra section of macro keys, this is a rather large keyboard, as are most keyboards aimed at MMO players.
Many first-person shooter (FPS) players prefer small keyboards that lack the number pad section of the keyboard. These are often referred to as tenkeyless (TKL) keyboards. The small size gives you more room for your mouse hand to maneuver. You don't need the number pad for most FPS games, and you usually don't need any macro keys.
Keyboard Switch Types
There are primarily three different kinds of switches underneath each key on your keyboard: mechanical, scissor and membrane (or rubber dome). When you press down a key, the switch is what completes the circuit, ultimately sending a signal to your computer that that particular key was pressed. Each switch type has a distinct feel, and there are pros and cons for them all. Let's explore those pros and cons.
Membrane, or rubber dome, switches are by far the most common. This is largely because they're very cheap to make. Think of any cheap, stock Dell or Logitech keyboard – it most likely uses rubber dome switches. In order to complete the circuit, these keyboards have a rubber bubble under each key. When you press down, that bubble collapses and causes the current to jump, sending the signal that you pressed a key. The rubber dome gives each key a slightly mushy feeling, and the level of force required for actuation can vary greatly from key to key. This results in an uneven typing experience that can feel somewhat odd compared to other keyboards. In short, membrane keyboards can be unpredictable.
Scissor switches are the second-most popular switch type. They're usually referred to as chiclet keyboards. You'll find them on virtually all laptops and on Apple keyboards. These switches are essentially a more stabilized form of rubber dome switches. Two cross-arms support the keycap. When you press down, the keycap pushes against a rubber dome that then completes the circuit and sends a signal indicating which key was pressed. The major advantages here are the slim profile and a more uniform typing experience than you get with membrane keyboards, thanks to the cross-arm supports.
Mechanical switches are where keyboards began. If you've ever typed on a keyboard from the 1980s or the early 1990s, then you've probably experienced mechanical switches. With these switches, a plastic stem fits into each keycap. At the bottom of each stem is a spring. When you press down, that stem moves out of the way of a metal contact, which then completes the circuit. Because of the construction of mechanical switches, you get a much more predictable typing experience in terms of actuation force. There are many different kinds of mechanical switches. Manufacturers often make several variants of mechanical switches that have different physical characteristics.
Cherry is the most popular mechanical switch manufacturer in the Western world. Its line of Cherry MX switches is composed of many variants, which you can identify by stem color. Cherry MX Red, Clear, Brown, White, Blue and Green are the most common. The Red and Clear switches are linear, which means that when you press the keys, they move directly down without any physical feedback until you bottom out. Brown and White switches have a tactile bump halfway down, which tells you when the circuit has been completed and the key press registered. Blues and Greens have the tactile bump and also a separate piece that gets snapped to the bottom. This results in the traditional clack sound most people associate with mechanical keyboards.
Kailh switches are mechanical switches from Kaihua Electronics that are essentially Cherry MX knockoffs. While they haven't been around for very long in the Western part of the world, these switches have a pretty good track record. The big draw is that they're cheaper than Cherry MX switches, which results in cheaper keyboards. The Kailh color schemes largely match up with Cherry's stem colors, but the switches do feel a little different.
Some large keyboard manufacturers have started making their own mechanical switches, working with switch manufacturers. Logitech partnered with Omron to produce Romer switches, which have large, square stems that are very stable. SteelSeries and Razer both worked with Kaihua to produce their own switches as well. These are all relatively new, and it will take some time to determine how they stack up against more traditional mechanical switches.
Gaming Keyboards: Verdict and Recommendations
The Corsair Vengeance K95 is the best gaming keyboard you can get. This keyboard is suitable for all types of gaming, and it comes with some of the best RGB backlighting we've seen. It some aesthetics that some people may not like, though. The keyboard is designed to let the LED light bleed out from underneath the keys, and not everyone likes that aesthetic. The K95 is also very large, which won't work for people who prefer tenkeyless keyboards. Still, the CUE software gives you impressive control over the K95's lighting and programmability, and the keyboard's build quality is unparalleled. This is a great keyboard, especially if you enjoy MMOs.
The G910 Orion Spark uses Logitech's new Romer-G mechanical switches. The switches actuate very quickly and are the quietest out of all of the keyboards we tested. The G910 also has the most even backlighting we've seen. This is thanks to the fact that the Romer-G switches allow the LED to shine through the center of the key instead of being placed at the top like most other mechanical switches. There are a couple of things to consider when looking at this keyboard, though. First, this is a large keyboard, which could be good or bad depending on your preferences. Second, the keycaps have an asymmetrical layout, with different facets on the left- and right-hand sides of the keyboard. This is great for gaming but definitely takes some getting used to for typing.
The Cooler Master Quick Fire XTi is a well-built mechanical keyboard that gives you a choice of Cherry MX Blue, Brown or Red switches. This keyboard doesn't have any software to help you customize the backlighting color or program each key. However, that function is built into the keyboard itself. Using function keys, you have access to a plethora of backlighting modes and other capabilities. The simplicity can be a good thing. But it can also be frustrating to not have a software interface. This keyboard uses blue and red LEDs to create color combinations, so it doesn't have RGB backlighting.
The favorite keyboard among our testers was the Mad Catz Strike TE. This keyboard uses Kailh switches and gives you macro capability. It also feels very sturdy. Despite being made out of plastic, the Strike TE feels like a high-end device. You can't change the backlighting color, but the white LEDs are well implemented.