The ultimate guide to gaming keyboards: what makes a keyboard great?
Gaming keyboards are highly popular and for good reason. We use them at Digital Citizen both for work and play because they bundle everything that makes a keyboard great. However, gaming keyboards vary in terms of price and quality, and some of them are inferior products that everyone should avoid. To make things even more confusing, manufacturers brag about highly technical features that people do not understand, or about features that have no meaningful impact in improving the user experience. If you want to understand gaming keyboards, and what matters when you want to buy a good keyboard, read this guide:
1. The switches used on the keyboard: mechanical vs. membrane vs. rubber domes
Gaming keyboards can use membrane keys, rubber domes, or mechanical switches. One problem is that manufacturers are not always honest about the type of keys that they offer, especially on budget keyboards, and use confusing terms in their marketing. For example, Roccat calls some of their keys as being membranical, while other manufacturers use the term "semi-mechanical."
A keyboard is either mechanical, or it is not. There is no real "semi-mechanical" keyboard. When you come across such terms, manufacturers tell you that they sell a rubber dome or membrane keyboard that copies a few of the characteristics of mechanical keyboards. Often, they copy the keycaps used by mechanical keyboards, so that you can change them with ease, and they have a similar feel when pressing them.
Such keyboards usually have a rubbery layer placed atop a circuit board. Pressing a key depresses the membrane, which closes the underlying circuit and transmits the keystroke. When typing on a membrane or rubber dome keyboard, you can recognize it by how "squishy" the keys feel, or how hard you have to press the keys compared to mechanical switches.
Membrane and rubber dome keyboards are cheaper than their mechanical counterparts, and it is easier to provide spill resistance for the whole keyboard because they use lots of rubber and plastic, unlike mechanical keyboards which tend to use metal plates. This type of keyboards cannot provide a fast response time as mechanical keyboards do. Also, you need to press their keys harder to register them, and they are less durable.
Mechanical keyboards can use different types of switches: linear with constant resistance (e.g. Cherry MX Red), tactile with a non-audible bump (e.g. Cherry MX Brown) and clicky (e.g. Cherry MX Blue), with an audible click.
Clicky mechanical switches (Cherry MX Blue) are perfect for people who play games, and also type a lot on their computers, and do not mind the louder noise of the keys. Linear mechanical switches (Cherry MX Red) do not provide tactile feedback and are perfect for intense, fast-paced gaming, but less ideal for typing and productive work. The tactile mechanical switches (Cherry MX Brown) are a balance between linear and clicky switches in terms of the audio feedback they provide, and the force needed to register key presses. Therefore, when you want a mechanical keyboard that is good in both worlds (gaming and productivity), as well as a bit more silent than other mechanical keyboards, you should choose tactile mechanical switches, Cherry MX Brown or similar alternatives.
If you want an introduction to the world of mechanical switches, we highly recommend The Comparative Guide to Mechanical Switches.
2. The materials used for the keyboard and the mounting of the keys: plastic, metal, or PCB
While the type of keys used in a keyboard affects the user experience, and sometimes its endurance, the durability of the keyboard varies based on the materials used to make it. Take a look at the picture below, where you see a do-it-yourself kit for creating a mechanical keyboard. You have a back frame (usually made of plastic) that acts like a back cover, the printed circuit board (PCB) that communicates with the keys and sends your keypresses to the computer, a backplate on which the actual switches/keys are mounted, and a top cover. Sometimes, the backplate is the same as the top cover, or it does not exist, and the switches are mounted directly to the PCB.
When you buy a budget keyboard that costs less than 50 USD, it is likely that the keys or switches are mounted directly on the printed circuit board (PCB) that contains all the electronics of the keyboard. This is the cheapest option for keyboard manufacturers, and also the least durable. Such keyboards are vulnerable to hits and shocks. Imagine a frustrated gamer repeatedly hitting his (or her) keyboard. It does not matter if the keyboard has durable mechanical switches that last 50 million keypresses. If the switches are mounted directly on the printed circuit board (PCB), the circuit board's lifetime is going to decrease when it is hit, and the keyboard is not going to last long. When companies manufacture cheap keyboards, they do not tell users when they mount the switches directly on the PCB. You can tell if this is the case by trying to bend the keyboard. If the keyboard bends easily, and it is not spill-proof, then it is likely that the keyboard doesn't have a backplate, and the keys are mounted directly on the PCB.
Membrane and rubber dome keyboards are often spill-proof because the keys are mounted on a plastic plate. Plastic backplate mounting is used on different gaming keyboards. The main downside is that it is slightly less robust than metal. However, it is a lot cheaper than metal and more durable than direct PCB mounting. Also, for RGB-lit keyboards, plastic has the advantage of helping disperse backlighting more evenly than metal and PCB.
When you buy an affordable gaming keyboard, make sure that it has a plastic backplate, and that the keys are not attached directly to the PCB. This choice alone is going to increase the durability of your keyboard.
Metal backplates provide high durability, rigidity, and a solid feel, but also make keyboards heavier, and not spill resistant. If you want the best possible durability from your keyboard, you should choose one that has durable mechanical switches, as well as a metal backplate.
You may assume that all expensive gaming keyboards use a metal backplate, but you would be wrong. For example, premium brands use plastic backplates even for keyboards that cost 70 USD or more. Pay attention to this detail and carefully read the specifications of the keyboard that you want to buy.
On some keyboards, the metal backplate is the same as the top frame. This is especially true for premium gaming keyboards. To increase the durability, as well as improve the look of the keyboard, manufacturers stick the mechanical switches directly on the top frame, which acts as a traditional backplate. The top frame can be made of aluminum, magnesium or steel, depending on the keyboard.
3. Backlighting: RGB vs. one-color backlight
Backlighting helps users type in the dark and in low-lit environments. It is useful to have it, so that you are always productive when you use your keyboard. Also, gamers and other users use backlighting as a form of visual expression, through personalization. When it comes to gaming keyboards, you have an important choice to make about backlighting: are you OK to use one evenly lit color for the keyboard, or do you want RGB lighting?
Unfortunately, RGB lighting increases the cost of the keyboard by a lot. Let's take a great keyboard as an example: CORSAIR K68. When you buy it with a simple red backlight, it costs about $74. If you buy the same keyboard with RGB lighting, it costs about $113. That's 52% more. Whether the price difference is worth the investment, that is up to each user, their needs, budget, and preferences.
No matter what type of backlight you choose for your keyboard, you should take into consideration the following:
- Cheaper keyboards tend to have uneven lighting, especially RGB keyboards. You notice that not all the keys are lit with the same intensity. If you want high-quality lighting, you may not find it on budget keyboards that cost less than 50 USD.
- RGB lighting is implemented in zones (three to six lighting zones, depending on the keyboard) or for each key. To better understand the concept of lighting zones, look at the keyboard below. You see that the keys are grouped by color. Each color represents a lighting zone. You can personalize such keyboards to use any color in the RGB spectrum, but you can't do that for each key, only for each zone. If you want the best and the most personalizable RGB lighting, you should pick keyboards where each key has independent lighting, and that is going to increase your cost.
4. Anti-ghosting and N-Key Rollover (NKRO)
N-key rollover and anti-ghosting are technical terms that are sometimes misused in the marketing of gaming keyboards and are also not understood by users. To fully understand them, and their importance for keyboards, read: What is the NKRO technology for keyboards?
To summarize: N-key rollover means how many simultaneous keypresses your keyboard correctly registers, and anti-ghosting means that your keyboard does not register keypresses that you do not make. You cannot have N-key rollover without anti-ghosting, because the keyboard would register fake keypresses, and it won't correctly register simultaneous key presses. ALL gaming keyboards have anti-ghosting, and when manufacturers brag about this feature, you should not be impressed, because it is a basic standard for modern keyboards. If you ever encounter a keyboard without anti-ghosting, you should not buy it.
It is essential to understand the N-key rollover: how many simultaneous keypresses does the keyboard register correctly? This number varies from keyboard to keyboard, and sometimes, it is surprisingly low even for some expensive keyboards. If you want to make sure that you have a great typing experience you must ask yourself how many fingers do you use for typing? If you are a fluent computer user, it is likely that you use somewhere between 6 and 10 fingers to type.
Therefore, you need a keyboard that has at least 6KRO or 6-key rollover. If you want to make sure that all your simultaneous keypresses are recorded, even when you use all ten fingers, you should buy a keyboard that offers 10KRO or 10-key rollover.
However, some mechanical keyboards offer NKRO or Full N-key rollover, meaning that, if you press all their keys at once, all keypresses are correctly recorded. This situation is impossible unless you build a robot for typing, like those from Ghost in the Shell.
Another aspect to keep in mind is that some keyboards like the HyperX Alloy FPS allow you to switch between NKRO and 6KRO because some old apps and BIOS firmware do not work well with keyboards that have NKRO. :)
5. The wrist rest makes life more comfortable. You should use one!
Using a wrist rest provides a more natural angle for your hands and wrists to sit on while using the keyboard. It reduces the strain on your wrists and makes the whole experience more comfortable. This is especially true when you need to type for long hours or when you play a lot on your computer. Not all keyboards come with a wrist rest, and such accessories can also be purchased separately.
When buying a keyboard, we prefer choosing one that has a wrist rest. However, the materials used and their quality varies greatly, depending on the price of the keyboard that you buy, and its manufacturer. Most times, wrist rests are made of plastic, but also from rubber, and sometimes from artificial leather, which is soft and comfortable.
6. Multimedia keys, multimedia shortcuts, and macro keys
One useful feature of premium gaming keyboards is multimedia keys. Many high-end keyboards offer a wheel to control the sound volume, and dedicated buttons to control music play, to turn the lighting or the gaming mode on and off. After testing many keyboards, at different price-points, we love using multimedia keys, and we want them on our daily keyboard. You may want them too, as they make life easier and more productive.
At the very least, you should buy a keyboard with multimedia shortcuts, which involve pressing two keys instead of one (like Fn+F1) to perform the same actions.
Macro keys are no longer a popular trend in the world of gaming keyboards. That is because few people use them. However, they can be useful in some situations as you can set a macro key to perform several specific actions, with just one keypress. Both gamers and professional users can benefit from using macro keys.
7. The USB cable: braided or regular?
The USB cables that we use to connect gaming keyboards to our computers can be braided or non-braided (made of plastic). Cheaper keyboards rarely offer a braided cable, while expensive keyboards generally have one, though not always. The differences between braided and regular plastic USB cables are about looks and durability. Braided USB cables are generally less flexible, and less likely to tear or get damaged, because of the extra protection they have built in. USB cables can be braided using different materials, from cotton to nylon, with different durability, flexibility, and manufacturing costs.
There is no performance difference between the two types of cables, and any keyboard works just fine with both types of cables. If you do not have a pet (or a toddler) to chew on your cables, and you do not move your keyboard a lot, plastic cables are a good choice.
8. Personalization through software or keyboard shortcuts?
There are two types of users: people who want a plug-and-play keyboard that they can use straight away, and which they do not want to configure, and people who desire personalization, and advanced tweaking. When it comes to RGB gaming keyboards, things get complicated, because RGB lighting loses a lot of its appeal and usefulness without advanced software to control it and integrate it with all kinds of use cases. Manufacturers use three approaches:
- They offer affordable keyboards (usually under $50) with no software. Some of these keyboards are not personalizable at all, while others are, in a limited fashion, through keyboard shortcuts that you need to press. For such keyboards, you should read the user manual to know how to personalize them.
- Some manufacturers offer basic software for personalization that covers only basic features like the responsiveness of the keyboard, the recording of macro keys, or how the keys are lit.
- Some manufacturers, especially those that are heavily invested into RGB lighting, offer advanced software that their customers can use to personalize their keyboards and integrate them into RGB lighting ecosystems that include all kinds of accessories: keyboards, mice, headsets, mouse pads, cooling systems, motherboards, video cards, monitors, and so on. Some software ecosystems are impressive because they are also integrated with games, and offer an immersive gaming experience through RGB-lit accessories.
One downside of advanced software ecosystems for gaming accessories is the fact that they lock users into using accessories from only one company. For example, Corsair's iCUE software works beautifully, and it is useful, but only if you keep buying Corsair's gaming accessories: mice, keyboards, headsets, mouse pads, and so on. The same goes for other brands like ASUS, Logitech, Razer, Roccat, or Steelseries.
9. Accessories and other features
Accessories are neither critical to using a keyboard, nor do they tell you whether a keyboard is well constructed or not. However, they are often used to increase the value perception for users, and sometimes, they can be useful. When buying an affordable keyboard, you seldom get accessories with it. However, there are some exceptions like Trust GXT 865 Asta, which bundles a keycap puller on its back, as well as a system for improved cable management.
When you spend more than 50 USD on a gaming keyboard, accessories increase in frequency. For example, HyperX Alloy FPS offers one of the most generous bundles we've seen in its price range: a carry bag, one keycap puller, spare gaming keycaps, and USB passthrough for charging your smartphone using the keyboard. Getting so many accessories with your keyboard is rare.
Other keyboards, like the Razer Blackwidow Elite, may also offer audio passthrough, for connecting your headset straight to the keyboard.
Our advice to you is to avoid using the bundled accessories as a criterion for buying a gaming keyboard. The other aspects we discussed earlier are much more important. However, when you have to pick between two or three keyboards with similar build quality, features, and software, the surplus of accessories is worth taking into consideration.
What do you want from your keyboard?
Now you know our perspective about what makes a gaming keyboard great, and everything you should take into consideration when buying one. We hope that you enjoyed reading this article. We've put much work into it, based on many months of testing, and weeks of research and comparison. Before closing, tell us what you want from a gaming keyboard. What are your most important criteria when buying a keyboard? Comment below and let's discuss.