Quick facts about gaming keyboards
- Gaming keyboards can improve in-game performance through increased response times and better comfort levels, but much of the appeal is aesthetic.
- There are numerous competitors in this space including Corsair, HyperX, Razer, Roccat, Logitech, Asus, Alienware and SteelSeries.
- Prices range from around $130 up to $350.
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Why buy a gaming keyboard?
If you're serious about PC gaming, you'll want to consider upgrading to a dedicated gaming keyboard. While it shouldn't be the first component that you level up (that honour goes to either your graphics card or your monitor), as your primary input device, you'll notice improvements to your performance with the right keyboard.
Gaming keyboards are designed to have faster response times and extra gaming-specific features like customisable hotkeys, and they nearly always come packed with enough pulsing colourful lights to deck out a nightclub.
Membrane vs mechanical
There are two main technologies in the gaming keyboard space, each with different tactile qualities.
Membrane keyboards tend to be found in cheaper standalone gaming keyboards or built into most laptops. Inputs are registered when an electrical current is passed between the rubber membrane attached to the underside of a key and the larger rubber membrane that sits beneath the entire keyboard. Keystrokes are logged ever-so-slightly slower than on mechanical keyboards. Keys also don't spring back up as quickly, meaning that at the elite level of play, your potential actions per minute (APM) is lower. The upside, though, is that membrane keyboards are far quieter.
Mechanical keyboards function essentially like typewriters of old, with springs and levers being depressed. They're faster and more responsive, but the loud, constant clicking sound they make is borderline inconsiderate for office environments. However, f you're at home and more concerned about in-game performance than office etiquette, mechanical keyboards are the only way to go.
How to compare gaming keyboards
If you're after a top-of-the-line gaming keyboard, you could spend up to $350 on one. Premium models typically include ultra-responsive mechanical switches, ergonomic features that help with long play sessions by minimising hand and finger cramps, and all the neon-drenched aesthetic bells and whistles you could ask for. Most premium keyboards also allow for a high degree of customisation, like optional textured keycaps for the all-important WASD keys, and even the ability to set different actuation points (the amount of pressure that registers a keystroke) for each individual key. At lower price points you lose many of these premium features, but you can still find a quality keyboard in the $180-$250 range.
Let's be honest: much of the appeal of a gaming keyboard is in the fancy backlighting that illuminates the keys (and the surrounding room). The cheapest keyboards won't have this feature, but as soon as you move away from the budget tier, you'll begin to get single-colour varieties (most often red), then RGB (red, green, blue), and then, at the top end, keyboards capable of displaying 16.8 billion colours. If this sounds ridiculously excessive, that's because it is. While it can look fantastic, make sure that you have the ability to control the strobe pattern and to turn lights off/down, because the glare can be distracting in dark rooms.
If you're mostly an MMO or MOBA player, consider a keyboard with easy-to-access programmable hotkeys, especially if you don't own a gaming mouse with this feature. To program the commands assigned to each key (called macros), you'll need to use the driver software that comes with your keyboard. It's worth researching which of these programs people find easiest to use.
Comfort is determined by the size of your hands compared to the size of the keyboard, your playstyle, any medical conditions you may have and ergonomic features like palm ramps and special key configurations. Although user and critic reviews are useful guides, to a large degree, what you find comfortable will come down to personal preference, so we'd simply recommend heading into a computer store and getting hands-on if you can.
Gaming keyboards generally have larger footprints than standard keyboards because they've crammed in up to 15 extra keys and have ergonomic features like palm ramps. As a result, your desk real estate will be at a premium. If you know you don't need those extra macro keys, or even the number pad that typically sits on the right side of a keyboard, leaner models are available. You'll always be able to find a keyboard's dimensions on the manufacturer's website, so measure your desk space and see what you can get away with.
Three things to consider
- Compatibility. If you already own a gaming mouse and/or headset, there's an advantage to sticking with the same brand for your keyboard. Doing so means you'll only need to run one configuration program for all your customised settings across your devices.
- Dedicated media keys. These are far from essential, but having the option to adjust the volume or skip to the next audio track without needing to exit your game or even remove your hands away from the keyboard is a nice touch. Particularly if you're playing online multiplayer a lot and can't pause the action.
- Switch types. Mechanical gaming keyboards utilise switches manufactured by third-parties. These all have different profiles that impact tactile sensation, response time and noise generated. For example, Cherry MX Black switches are considered to be "quiet", while Cherry MX Blue switches are classified as "loud". If you've opted for a mechanical keyboard, you will need to accept a certain amount of noise, but there is a spectrum, and slightly quieter switches might make all the difference to you.
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