Gaming Keyboard Buyer’s Guide 2016-2017

A good gaming keyboard puts a wealth of powerful features at your fingertips, in addition to superior accuracy, feel, and responsiveness.They can improve your game and your whole gaming experience. Getting a new gaming keyboard (or a new gaming mouse) for the first time is a bit like getting your first HD TV. Once you experience what it has to offer, you’ll never want to go back to what you had before.

So if you’re in the market for a good gaming keyboard, here’s a quick breakdown of common features as well as my own recommendations, based upon personal experience with the dozens of gaming keyboards I’ve reviewed.

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Razer Blackwidow X Chroma Edition

Gaming Keyboard feature breakdown & recommendations

Anti-Ghosting & Improved Polling Rates for better responsiveness

Typical keyboards can’t handle more than three keystrokes at a time. Rapid, simultaneous keystrokes can result in a ‘missed’ key presses causing your untimely demise because you zigged instead of zagged — but only because your zag didn’t register.

Virtually all gaming keyboards can handle a minimum of 5 or more simultaneous keystrokes without ‘dropping’ or losing one. This is typically called Anti-Ghosting. Some bullet point lists loudly trumpet a keyboard’s ability to handle up to 14 simultaneous key presses without dropping a single one, which is great if you have 14 fingers.

Another measurement of responsiveness is Polling Rate. Standard keyboards operate at 125Hz, which means they report input to your computer 125 times per second, which is good enough for typing but not as good for gaming. Most gaming keyboards offer 500Hz or 1000Hz polling rates.

Recommendation: Anti-Ghosting and a 1000Hz polling rate are pretty standard on most gaming keyboards. There’s no reason to settle for anything less.

Programmable gaming keys to automate beatdowns

A gaming keyboard that can’t record macros can scarcely call itself a gaming keyboard. And most gaming keyboards usually offer anywhere from 5-15 extra keys dedicated to storing macros or any other function you’d care to configure them for. Some gaming keyboards also allow you to program any and every key on the keyboard.

Personally, I rarely use more than a handful of short macros—usually for voice emotes/commands in games like Tribes: Ascend. But they can also be useful for circumventing button-mashing quick time events, loading up build-queues in your favorite RTS game, or create highly optimized strings of keystrokes with perfectly timed delays (to account for ability cooldowns) to deliver a rude combo in an MMO—all with a single key.

Be sure to save a key bind or two for a victory dance and string of obnoxious taunts.

Also consider the placement of the macro keys. They should be located on the on the left side of the keyboard near the W-A-S-D keys (the primary gaming cluster) or below the spacebar for the best accessibility. Above the left-hand function keys is also ok. Any keys that require you to take your hand off the mouse probably won’t be used much (if at all).

Recommendation: Assuming you want or need dedicated macro keys, consider 5 a minimum. 10 or more should be enough for almost any game.

Profiles to store more macros and settings

Similar to gaming mice, most gaming keyboards allow you to store multiple profiles so you can store sets of macros for your favorite games. Even if you don’t need profiles, they are very handy for storing sets of gaming macros and frequently used application macros (for all you Photoshop abusers). Many gaming keyboards can be set to load a specific profile when you run a specific game or application.

Most gaming keyboards support profile storage for 3-5 profiles. Some allow as many as 10 different profiles, or even unlimited.

Recommendation: 3 profiles is probably enough for most gamers, assuming you need them at all. The ability to load specific settings when you start specific games can be particularly handy when you switch gears between very different games (FPS to RTS for example).

Mechanical switches for better responsiveness & durability

Mechanical keyboards provide a superior feel and tactile response to non-mechanical keyboards, and the market for them has exploded since 2010.

Ever since I reviewed Razer’s Blackwidow mechanical keyboard (in 2010), I became a mechanical keyboard snob. I use the Razer Blackwidow Chroma at home and the Blackwidow 2016 at work virtually every day. And it isn’t just about the gaming, it’s about the typing (which I do a lot of). I also use the Logitech Orion G910 on my main gaming PC, when I’m not testing/reviewing other keyboards.

Most gamers develop a preference for one or more switches. (Personally, I prefer blue or brown. I don’t mind black switches, and I am not a fan of red ones).

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Photo credit: SteelSeries
  • Red: Lowest actuation force (i.e. easiest to press) and the quietest.
  • Brown: Slightly higher actuation force and a little nosier than red switches. Popular with gamers.
  • Blue: Slightly higher actuation force than brown switches, and the noisiest switch type. Has a distinct mechanical ‘clack’ when pressed. Favored among typists.
  • Black: roughly the same or slightly higher actuation force as the blue switches. A little quieter than blue switches, but a little nosier than brown switches (at least in part due to hammering on the keys harder).

If you’d really like a wealth of information on mechanical key switches and other keyboard “under the hood” technology, check out Overclock.net’s Mechanical Keyboard Guide, which has tons of great information about mechanical keyboards and switches.

In addition to the popular Cherry MX switches, new ‘gaming optimized’ variants of the popular Cherry MX switches have been created by Razer, Logitech, SteelSeries, and others. These optimized switches basically reduce the travel distance to trigger the switch, resulting in even better responsiveness.

  • Razer has introduced Razer Green and Razer Orange, which are similar to Cherry MX Blue and Brown, respectively.You’ll find these in the Razer Blackwidow keyboards.
  • Logitech has introduced Romer-G switches (with the Logitech G910 keyboard) that roughly correspond to Cherry MX Brown switches.
  • SteelSeries has introduced the QS1 keys, similar to Cherry MX Red keys, which are in its Apex M800 mechanical keyboard.

Recommendation: If you can afford it, I absolutely, definitely recommend going with a mechanical keyboard. They are expensive (typically upwards of $100) but you won’t regret it—especially if you also happen to type a lot.

Backlighting to light your way

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Tesoro mechanical keyboard @ E3 or PAX (I forget which I took the pic at)

Gamers play in the dark a lot, so backlighting can be as functional as it is pretty. I prefer keyboards with backlighting, ideally with multiple brightness levels so I can adjust it. It can also be nice to have the ability to change the color of the backlight.

Newer mechanical keyboards like the Razer Blackwidow Chroma, Logitech G910, and various Corsair K-model keyboards give you the ability to make any key, any color, any time.

Recommendation: LED Backlighting is a functional and an essential feature in my book.

Pass-through connectors—places to stick stuff
Extra places to stick stuff such as thumb drives, gaming mice, USB headsets, etc. are always nice to have. Most gaming keyboards feature extra USB ports and/or audio-pass through connectors (1x stereo/1x microphone).

Recommendation: I recommend and prefer keyboards that provide at least 1 USB port—2 if possible. If you use a standard stereo headset, you may want the Stereo/Mic pass-through connections as well, but they aren’t as useful if you use a USB headset or a 5.1/7.1 (analog) headset. In addition, I’ve found some headsets pick up additional line noise when they are connected to pass-through analog connectors on keyboards.

Detachable wrist rests to stick in a box

Most gaming keyboards (and many non-gaming ones) come with plastic wrist rests.

Recommendation: Does anyone actually use these? I’ve yet to find one I ever liked enough to use. I have a box dedicated to them. If you want a wrist rest, get a nice gel one.

Don’t forget the soft stuff

Virtually all gaming mice and keyboards come with software for programming, customizing, and configuring the device. In my experience, Razer, Roccat, SteelSeries, and Logitech generally make the most richly featured and intuitive driver software.

Mad Catz probably ranks next. In addition to better software, you’ll generally get the best technical support from these companies as well.

Trailing the ‘heavyweights’ are brands like Perixx, Corsair, Tt eSports (Thermaltake), Coolermaster, and Raptor-Gaming (now owned by Corsair)—smaller gaming divisions of much larger companies that don’t focus as much on PC accessories and peripherals. I’ve found their driver software to be a bit of a mixed bag with regards to features and usability.

Recommendation: If intuitive driver software, driver updates, and technical support are extremely important to you, you might want to stick with the heavweights (Razer, Roccat, SteelSeries, Logitech, and Mad Catz). That isn’t to say the others aren’t good, but you’ll need to weigh their feature sets and price with the package.

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