Lab-Tested: 8 Ambitious High-End Keyboards

Maximum PC Staff

Torture-tested: 8-high performance keyboards

What’s the most important part of your PC? Is it the processor? The videocard? The motherboard? How about the keyboard?

Don’t scoff—your keyboard is the part of your computer that you get up close and personal with. It’s the conduit between you and the PC, and having the right one can make you faster, more comfortable, and give you an edge in games.



Because of that, we want to help you pick the plank that’s just right for you. There are a lot of contenders out there, but we’ve narrowed the field to eight boards that we think offer a solid cross-section of the options available in high-end keyboards, whether they focus on gaming, comfort, or speed. There are some boards that we’ve reviewed before in this list (and they’ll keep their original verdict—it’s only fair) and some that are a year or two old, but that’s what it takes to give you a look at the best of what’s available to you today.

We know that everyone is looking for something different in their keyboard, so don’t think of this roundup as a winner-takes-all contest—we’re judging every keyboard on its individual merits, including comfort, build quality, and the unique features that it brings to the table, er, desktop. So keep reading—you owe it to your hands.

Razer BlackWidow Ultimate

Two great tastes in one

Gaming keyboards typically fall into one of two categories. You have those that cram in as many gaming-specific features as possible, including extra buttons, remappable keys, on-the-fly macro recording, and backlit keys. And then there are the mechanical keyboards that tout hyper-responsive key action above all else. These latter boards tend to feel great, but generally share a very similar, very austere design, with almost no features that you wouldn’t find on an IBM model M.

The BlackWidow is the first keyboard we’ve reviewed that gives you the best of both worlds—a whole bevy of gaming features coupled with a top-notch mechanical keyboard. It isn’t perfect (it’s made of fingerprint-exhibiting glossy-black plastic, and is very loud) but it’s definitely the best we’ve tested. We hope more companies will follow Razer’s lead and get more creative with their mechanical boards.

For the budget gamer, Razer offers a non-Ultimate version of the BlackWidow that’s $50 cheaper and only missing the USB pass-throughs and light-up keys.

Read the original review here.

Razer BlackWidow Ultimate
SPIDER-MAN

Great key mechanisms, strong build, just the right number of features.

MAN-SPIDER

Attracts fingerprints, noisy, doesn’t offer many more features than $50-cheaper basic model.

$130, www.razerzone.com

Razer Anansi

MMO misfire

The Anansi is Razer’s MMO keyboard, a companion to the company’s Naga MMO gaming mouse. Functionally, it’s very similar to the BlackWidow Ultimate—both have fully rebindable keys, with five additional macro keys along the left, backlighting, and on-the-fly macro recording. Unlike the BlackWidow, the Anansi does not have mechanical keys, instead opting for more traditional dome-style keys. They’re not as responsive as mechanical keys, but are definitely at the high end of the dome-spectrum, with a satisfying amount of resistance and travel.

The main selling point of the Anansi (and what makes it an MMO keyboard) is the broad panel of flat buttons right below the space bar. These seven keys act as modifiers, septupling your total number of available key combinations. Makes sense in theory, but hitting the top five (smaller) modifiers along with a number key, single-handedly, while playing a game is very challenging. Moreover, for an MMO, we really would have preferred a larger selection of dedicated macro keys, such as the 12 keys found on the Logitech G11 or G19. The Anansi has a thin profile but is long enough (including two seemingly unnecessary wings) that it could accommodate a few more keys.

Razer Anansi
John Wayne

Seven modifiers, backlighting, macro recording

John Wayne Gacy

Could have used additional macro keys. Would have preferred mechanical keys.

$100, www.razerzone.com

Thermaltake Challenger

Too gimmicky for its own good

The Challenger (ThermalTake’s entry into the gaming keyboard market) is the kind of keyboard that’s looking to set itself apart.  It does this most noticeably with a tiny fan that can be plugged in on either side of the keyboard to blow cool air across your hard-working hands and a set of custom, red keycaps that can be swapped in for the WASD and arrow keys. Do either of those features sound like something you can’t live without?

Gimmicks aside, the challenger has a decent-but-not-fabulous set of features, including custom profiles, macro keys (but no on-the-fly recording), and some pretty slick red backlighting. Unfortunately, the one place the Challenger really falls flat is in the quality of its keyboard. Low-profile keys make it feel like a laptop keyboard, and the dome switches provide very little travel. As the cheapest gaming keyboard in this roundup by far (it’s available online for $60), the Challenger is a good value proposition, but we wouldn’t recommend it for power gamers.

Thermaltake Challenger
Road Runner

Decent set of features, neat red backlighting

Wiley E. Coyote

Quality isn't quite up to snuff, some features (hand cooling fan) are more gimmicky than useful

$80, www.ttesports.com

SteelSeries 7G

Light on features, but heavy-duty

The 7G was the first of the current crop of heavy-duty, mechanical keyboards to hit the market, and in our opinion is still one of the best. With clickless Cherry MX Black switches that combine responsiveness and a long, satisfying travel and construction quality that’s absolutely second to none, the 7G is still very easy to recommend more than two and a half years after its release.

Our only problem with the 7G has always been that it has very few gaming-specific features (especially for a keyboard that can run $150, if you’re able to find one). There’s no customizable keys, no profiles, no nothin'. It does have two USB pass-throughs, and a headphone and microphone jack. The keyboard uses a PS/2 connector, though it does come with a USB adaptor. The ancient connector is quaint, but it does allow for N-key rollover, making the 7G one of two keyboards in this roundup with no limit to the number of keys that can be pressed at once.

Read the original review here .

SteelSeries 7G Keyboard
STEEL

We couldn’t lock this keyboard up. Great action on a classic keyboard layout.

STEAL

Barebones. Very loud. Extremely expensive. USB ports only support 1.1 speeds.

$150, www.steelseries.com

Logitech G19

Retains the feature crown

The G19 is the oldest keyboard in this roundup, but it didn’t seem right to leave Logitech’s ludicrously feature-packed board out of contention. And it's still available. In brief, here’s what makes the G19 awesome: 12 macro keys, on-the-fly programmability, custom backlighting, USB pass-throughs, media controls, and—of course—a built-in 320x240 color display.

Suffice to say, it’s an amazing feature set, and one we especially like for MMOs (those 12 extra keys are a godsend!), but the keyboard’s keys feel decidedly mushy compared to some of the more recent models.

It's worth considering that since the original release the selection of games with support for the G19’s auxiliary screen has increased dramatically, and you can now find this luxury board for closer to $150 (though the MSRP is still $200), making it a tempting buy.

Read the original review here .

Logitech G19
IMAX

Tough, comfy keyboard with a fine aux display.

LIE-MAX

No headphone/mic jacks; costs crazy bucks.

$200, www.logitech.com

Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Desktop 7000

The king of ergo keyboards

The Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Desktop 7000 is like a Cadillac—huge, bulky, and unhip, but it’s the smoothest ride around.

Ergonomic keyboards aren’t as popular as they once were, and Microsoft is the only company still making a real play for the market. As a result, there hasn’t been much in the way of innovation lately—the keyboard in the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Desktop 7000 is essentially the same as that in the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, which was released in 2005.

Still, if you type a lot and you’re looking for something comfortable to rest your hands on, you’re not going to do any better than the Ergonomic Desktop 7000. It’s got a great ergo split-keyboard shape, big, cushioned wrist-rests, and a stand that lets you adjust the keyboard’s angle forward or backward to your liking. It’s wireless, and it comes with a wireless, ergonomic laser mouse that is, unfortunately, no good for gaming.

The crappy tie-in mouse dragged our original verdict down to a 7 , but the keyboard itself is as comfortable as they come.

Ergonomic Desktop 7000
KEYBOARD

The keyboard: ergonomic, long battery life, hella comfy.

MOUSE

The mouse: not precise enough to use for gaming; no rechargeable batteries.

$120, www.microsoft.com

Das Keyboard Ultimate S

Puts your touch-typing to the test

The Das Keyboard has two things going for it. One, it’s awesome. It has no labels on the keys. When you type on it, you look like a ninja. That’s awesome.

The other thing is that it feels great to use. It’s a mechanical keyboard, and even though it uses the same switches as the SteelSeries 7G, we prefer the feel of the Das Keyboard. If you want the smooth typing experience without the no-label keys, there’s a model called the Das Keyboard Professional, which is just that.

For people just looking for an awesome typing experience, the Das Keyboard Ultimate S (or Professional) is an excellent choice, provided you don’t mind spending $130. For gamers, this one’s a toss-up—it’s essentially identical to the SteelSeries 7G, but a little better-looking, and without the headphone jacks and insanely heavy-duty construction. If you like the Das Keyboard’s aesthetics, buy with confidence—you won’t be disappointed by the way this one performs.

Das Keyboard Ultimate S
Rocky I

Great performance from the mechanical keys, solid construction

Rocky V

The $130 price tag, hot commands can get confusing

$130, www.daskeyboard.com

SteelSeries Shift

Takes customization to a new level

Lots of gaming keyboards have the ability to set up different profiles, which let you change what key does what, depending on what game you’re playing. The SteelSeries Shift is the only keyboard (not counting the original ZBoard, which the Shift is based on) that allows you to go one step further and not only swap your profile, but your entire keyset to match the game you’re playing.

In addition to custom faceplates, the Shift has a respectable lineup of gaming features, including on-the-fly macro recording, a headset pass-through, and a top-notch software suite with profile setup and statistics tracking.

In our experience, the swappable keyplates don’t offer a whole lot of individual value, and the key quality suffers to accommodate them, but if it’s something that appeals to you, the build quality and feature set of the Shift won’t leave you wanting.

Read the original review here .

SteelSeries Shift
NEED FOR SPEED

Amazing feature set, including huge customization and great software support.

CRAVING FOR METH

Switchable faceplates require more sacrifices than they’re worth.

$90, www.steelseries.com

Dare to Compare

Razer BlackWidow Ultimate
Razer Anansi
Thermaltake Challenger
SteelSeries 7G
Switch Type
Mechanical (Cherry MX Blue)
Dome
Dome Mechanical (Cherry MX Black)
Connection Type USB
USB
USB PS/2 with USB adaptor
Anti-Ghosting 6-key
6-key
6-key N-key rollover
Macro Keys 5 5 10 None
On-the-Fly Recording Yes
Yes No N/A
Pass-throughs 2 USB
None 2 USB
2 USB, mic, headphones
Comparison Continued

Logitech G19
Microsoft Ergonomic Desktop 7000
Das Keyboard SteelSeries Shift
Switch Type
Dome
Dome
Mechanical (Cherry MX Black)
Dome
Connection Type USB with power brick
Wireless USB
PS/2 with USB adapter
USB
Anti-Ghosting 6-key
6-key
N-key rollover
6-key
Macro Keys 12 None
None 8
On-the-Fly Recording Yes
N/A N/A Yes
Pass-throughs 2 USB
None 2 USB
2 USB, mic, headphones

The Difference Is in the Switch

There are three main varieties of key you’re likely to encounter in a keyboard. They are as follows:

Dome Switches
In a dome switch, the keytop presses down on a rubber (or sometimes metal) dome, which collapses under the pressure, allowing a graphite pad mounted inside the dome to complete a circuit. This is the technology most commonly used in desktop keyboards.

Scissor Switches
A variant on the dome switch, scissor switches use a small plastic mechanism to allow for shorter travel on the key. As a result, this style of keyswitch is good for low-profile boards, such as those found in laptops. And because less force is required to depress a key, these boards are usually more quiet.

Mechanical Switches
Mechanical keyboards use an actual physical switch beneath each key top to complete the circuit, resulting in greater responsiveness. Most high-end mechanical keyboards use the Cherry MX switch, which comes in three varieties (known as the Black, Blue, and Brown MX switch) with differing response profiles.

Ghosting and the N-key Rollover

A lot of keyboards advertise various “anti-ghosting” technologies—but what exactly does that mean? It has to do with how keyboards detect key-presses. Because it would be cumbersome to have each key on a keyboard connected to its own electric circuit, most keyboards rely on a wire matrix to more economically detect which key is pressed. Unfortunately, there’s a downside to this technique, which is that it’s not well-suited for detecting more than two key-presses at once, and additional presses can result in erroneous “ghost” key-presses being registered. When you’re in the middle of a fierce firefight trying to crouch, reload, strafe, and retreat at the same time, the last thing you want is bogus key-presses going off.

Certain key combos are more likely than others to cause ghosting—among the least likely are the modifier keys, such as Shift, Control, and Alt, which is why these keys are frequently used for important tasks in computer games. Quality gaming keyboards integrate anti-ghosting technology, which increases the number of keys that can be pressed at once by using a more advanced wire matrix.  An extreme version of this technology is N-key rollover, which allows any number of keys to be pressed at once. A downside to N-key rollover is that it (currently) is only implemented in keyboards using the PS/2 connector, such as the SteelSeries 7G and the Das Keyboard Ultimate S.

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