If you’re a gamer, you can probably identify a few points in time when you realized something important about your control setup that made you better at the game. When you discovered that putting your left hand on WASD gives you more options than putting it on the arrow keys, for instance, or when you realized that your crappy optical mouse was actually holding you back in shooters. These kinds of peripheral epiphanies don’t happen every day, but it might be just about time for you to have a new one. It might be time for you to realize that your keyboard is holding you back.
We’re giving you some credit here—we’re not talking about making the upgrade from a $6 keyboard you got at the grocery store. No, we’re talking about making the upgrade from a gaming keyboard to an amazing gaming keyboard. Going from entry level or midrange to top-of-the-line.
We looked around and picked out some of the best keyboards we could find. To compare them, we put them through our usual battery of real-world testing, including gaming and typing, and compared their features and overall feel. Because these keyboards come attached to some pretty heavy price tags, we made sure to give them extra scrutiny. We know that minor inconveniences that might fly on a cheap keyboard become a lot more galling when you’ve paid $150 for the privilege of suffering them, and our verdicts reflect this.
Ready to make the upgrade to serious typing hardware? Then let’s go!
CMStorm looks to get a handle on the high-end mechanical keyboard market
The CMStorm Mech is, first of all, a great-looking keyboard. Most of the top of the keyboard is wrapped in a subtly etched aluminum plate, and the board’s geometric, asymmetrical silhouette is more imaginative than most. The aluminum plate can be removed for easy cleaning, which is a nice feature, but the seven hex screws that make removal possible mar the Mech’s otherwise-excellent aesthetics.
Despite the Mech’s metal-clad looks, it’s not the sturdiest keyboard in this roundup. The back side of the board, and particularly the wrist rest, are made of hollow plastic that sometimes flexes and creaks under pressure. It also features a large handle on one side, and a detachable USB cable. These would be handy features for someone who takes their keyboard on the road frequently, but it’s not otherwise an especially portable keyboard. It would be nice if the handle were removable or retractable, because it adds an extra two or three inches to the Mech’s already substantial width.
The software support is simple and easy to use. It allows you to customize the five dedicated macro keys, or to rebind any other key on the board, and includes a flexible macro editor.
Actual typing and gaming performance is top-notch and virtually identical to the other mechanical gaming keyboards on the market. Fans of any variety of Cherry MX switch will be able to find a Mech that’s right for them—CMStorm offers the keyboard with Red, Blue, or Brown switches.
The Mech is a big mechanical keyboard, but isn't quite as sturdy as it looks.
In all, the Mech is a solid gaming keyboard, but doesn’t quite live up to its top-of-the-line $160 price tag.
Is a less-extravagant Strike a better deal?
The Strike 3 is the least expensive in Mad Catz’s line of high-end gaming keyboards, but it’s by no means a piece of budget hardware. If the $100 price tag doesn’t convince you of that, seeing the Strike 3 in person will.
It’s designed to look like the higher-end Strike boards, which can be split into two parts and rearranged, but this one doesn’t actually come apart. Build quality is good overall, with a removable wrist-rest and a pair of USB passthroughs. The board comes in glossy black, red, and white, and features customizable backlighting.
The Strike 3 isn’t mechanical, which weakens the credibility of this $100 keyboard, but Mad Catz hasn’t ignored key quality altogether. The dome switches on the Strike 3 are some of the best we’ve felt, with a crisp actuation that feels almost, but not quite, as good as a mechanical model. They definitely feel better than any of the other non-mechanical boards we tested for this roundup.
The Strike 3 features five dedicated macro keys on the right side of the board, and seven macro buttons at the top-left. The left-side buttons, unfortunately, are pretty abysmal. They’re tiny, far away from the home row, and strangely wiggly in their sockets—we found it virtually impossible to hit a particular one without looking.
The seam down the middle of the Strike 3 is just for show—this keyboard's only one piece.
The Strike 3 is a good keyboard, but we would generally recommend a mechanical board if you’re looking to spend this much. If you personally prefer non-mechanical switches, however, this would be an excellent choice.
Mad Catz Strike 3
All the keys you could want, and then some
Sometimes, more is more. That seems to be the guiding principle behind the SteelSeries Apex keyboard, which comes with about as many keys as we’ve ever seen on a gaming keyboard. In addition to the standard full QWERTY layout with number pad, the Apex includes 10 macro keys and four layer keys down the left side, 12 more macro keys above the function row, and six dedicated media buttons along the right side. Even the arrow pad gets two extra diagonal keys. SteelSeries doesn’t advertise the Apex as an MMO keyboard specifically, but it’s hard to imagine what other application could make use of this abundance.
You can prop the Apex up in the back by replacing two of it's rubber feet.
Despite its absurd inventory of keys, the Apex doesn’t feel cluttered at all, and in fact looks quite nice. With its built-in wrist rest the board is pretty enormous, but the low-profile keys and customizable sectioned backlighting keep it looking sleek. The build quality is good, though not quite as hardy as SteelSeries’s mechanical keyboards. The Apex includes a pair of USB passthroughs, and allows for some angle customization with a pair of swappable rear feet.
Our only real issue with the Apex is that it doesn’t use mechanical keys, and even compared to other dome-switch keyboards in this roundup, like the Strike 3, the Apex’s keys feel distinctly mushy. If it had better key performance, it would be a strong contender for best keyboard in this price range. As it is, we’d recommend it highly to those who prioritize lots of macro keys and great design over maximum key responsiveness.
When we review a keyboard, we look at it on three levels. The first and most important level is basic user experience—how the board feels when you use it. This includes factors like key quality and responsiveness, layout, and build quality. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the way you use your keyboard comes down to those standard QWERTY keys, so we’ll take a great-feeling keyboard over a flimsy one with a zillion features any day. We would also consider a keyboard without enough anti-ghosting/rollover for gaming usage to have failed on this basic level.
Second, we examine the board on the level of practical, value-adding features. These are what make a gaming keyboard different from a more standard keyboard, and include things like macro keys, profiles, USB/audio passthroughs, the ability to rebind any key, and media controls. Of course, there’s no standard rule for what’s “practical” and what’s not, and we take into consideration that, for instance, the first five macro keys add a lot more value to the keyboard than macro keys number 15-20. This is also the level where we consider the keyboard’s software support.
Finally, we look at the keyboard’s less-essential features, and what they bring to the table. Here you’ll see us talk about things like backlighting, interchangeable keycaps, and paint jobs. These are frequently surface features, designed more for showing off to other gamers than for your own use.
All of this isn’t to say that we think keyboards should be boring, just that it’s important they have their priorities straight. Awesome backlighting can be a great addition to a gaming keyboard, but boards with tons of bells and whistles built into a crappy or just mediocre foundation are distressingly common.
This flashy keyboard is more than just looks
Build quality on the Ryos MK Pro is outstanding. It’s all plastic, as far as we can see, but is incredibly weighty and rugged-feeling. The surface is treated with a glossy dot-matrix pattern that gives the Ryos a high-class look without leaving it as vulnerable to fingerprints as a pure-gloss keyboard. Like the last Roccat keyboard we tested, the Ryos has a non-removable integrated wrist rest. It’s comfortable (particularly with the back of the board elevated on sturdy-feeling supports), but makes the keyboard take up an absolutely massive amount of desk space.
LEDs in each key in the Roccat MK Pro can light up and blink independently.
The software support for the Ryos is fine, though not outstanding. The interface is a little cluttered and at times unresponsive, but it gets the job done, allowing you to customize lighting, macros, and key binding for each profile.
A lot of keyboards have backlighting these days, but this is the first one we’ve tested that has completely independent lights behind every key. The color can’t be changed, but you can choose which keys should light up and which shouldn’t for each profile. Better still, the Ryos MK Pro comes with a few special lighting effects, which can cause pressed keys to briefly light up, or even to send out a ripple of light across the whole keyboard. It’s simultaneously the most superfluous and most fun new feature we’ve seen in a keyboard in years.
It’s hard to say that the Ryos Mk Pro completely justifies the $170 asking price—that’s quite a bit more money than other very good mechanical keyboards—but it at least comes close.
Roccat Ryos MK Pro
A budget-friendly board that’s light on features
With a $50 MSRP, the Force K7 targets the budget-minded consumer, but still hovers comfortably above the bottom of the barrel. Any keyboard involves compromises, but with the K7, there just might be too many.
The K7 advertises “extreme short actuation distance” for its keys, which are built on laptop-style scissor switches. Keyboard feel is a matter of personal preference, of course, but for gaming we’ve never been very fond of scissor switches, which offer almost no tactile feedback. The key layout on the K7 is standard, though it uses the half-width backspace key and double-decker enter key configuration that’s less commonly seen in gaming keyboards and makes touch typing a bit more difficult.
The Force K7 has a low profile, with laptop-style scissor-switch keys.
Build quality on the K7 is generally good—it’s sturdy and feels heavy on the desk. Our review unit did, however, come with an extra 0 key instead of the hyphen key, which raises some questions about quality assurance.
If anything, the K7 is notable for its lack of gaming-specific features. It has no macro keys, no profiles, no ability to rebind keys, no USB passthroughs—none of the things that identify a keyboard as made especially for gaming. The only extra features the board does include are underwhelming three-color backlighting and a pair of thumbwheels, which can only be used to control volume and backlight intensity.
There are no glaring problems with the K7, but without a clear performance advantage, there’s nothing to recommend this board over one of the low-end Logitech or Microsoft keyboards, which are similarly priced and offer a better set of features.
Gigabyte Force K7
The Cadillac of non-mechanical keyboards
The Corsair Raptor K50 is a beautifully designed board, borrowing the floating-keys design of the more expensive Vengeance boards, with just a hint of brushed aluminum along the top edge. The look is rounded out with high-quality customizable key lighting that shines through the keycaps, without leaking out around the edges of the keys. Build quality is second-to-none, and as usual, the raised-key design makes it easy to keep crumbs from accumulating under the keycaps.
The K50 is nicely feature-packed, with a USB passthrough, media keys, a large metal volume wheel, and, oh yeah, like a million macro keys. Well, 18, anyway, all in one huge bank at the left, along with dedicated buttons for switching between three macro layers and recording them on the fly. That number might be bordering on the too-many-to-actually-use zone, but some gamers might find a use for them all, and on-the-fly recording is a feature we wish more boards had. The software for the K50 works well, and onboard storage allows you to use your profiles on any computer.
If you're the kind of gamer who needs an unhealthy number of macro keys, the Raptor K50 is for you.
We like the K50 a lot, but—at the risk of sounding like a broken record—for most users we wouldn’t recommend a non-mechanical $100 board. Our recommendation at this price range would be to get a mechanical board with slightly fewer features, or to jump up an extra $30 and get a similarly feature-packed mechanical board, such as Corsair’s own Vengeance K70 or K90.
Corsair Raptor K50
Click the next page to read about some of the older mechanical keyboards we've reviewed such as the Razer Deathstalker Ultimate and more.
Fun to look at, less fun to use
The Razer Deathstalker is really a thing to behold. The gaming keyboard is thin, sleek, and nicely designed with tri-color glowing keys, but nothing draws your attention like the “Switchblade” user interface, borrowed from the Razer Blade gaming laptop.
Instead of a number pad, the Deathstalker Ultimate features a touchscreen, along with 10 contextual keys.
The Switchblade UI consists of a responsive multitouch 4.3-inch LCD touchscreen and 10 context-sensitive dynamic keys. The screen can act as a trackpad, or can play host to a number of applications including a web browser, Twitter client, YouTube viewer, and plenty of others, such as game-specific apps for a handful of popular titles. Additionally, the keyboard has plenty of on-the-fly macro keys, and the software suite that manages it is polished and very powerful. In other words, the Razer Deathstalker is clearly the most sophisticated gaming keyboard around. The question is, do the Deathstalker’s technical flourishes justify its massive $250 price tag.
At that kind of price, we expect every element of a keyboard to be top-notch; unfortunately, that’s not the case with the Razer Deathstalker. The problem is the keyboard itself, which uses widely spaced chiclet-style keys, familiar to anyone who’s used a MacBook or most Ultrabooks. They look nice, but it’s not clear why a large, high-end gaming keyboard would opt to use them over mechanical switches or even rubber-dome membrane keys. The chiclet keys simply don’t feel very good to use—they float around inside their tracks and have miniscule travel when pressed. They’re not awful, but we’d expect a lot better from a $250 keyboard.
Super-cool Switchblade UI; good software support.
Key quality is subpar for typing and game play; very expensive.
Plenty of novel features, but look at that price
Probably the most interesting thing about the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 is that it’s modular and customizable. When you first take it out of the box, the keyboard is in seven pieces, which can be screwed together in a number of different configurations. One of the pieces is a large touchscreen, which can be affixed to either the left or right side of the keyboard, as can an extra bank of macro keys and the adjustable “active palm rest,” which features a thumb wheel and button. The two halves of the keyboard can be used separately, though both must be connected to the touchscreen, and the kit comes with a set of 16 replacement key caps, so you can make sure your S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 doesn’t look like anyone else’s.
The S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 is modular, and can be assembled in several different configurations.
On the other hand, you probably won’t meet anyone else with a S.T.R.I.K.E. 7, unless you regularly attend LAN parties down at the yacht club. At $300, this is the most expensive keyboard we can remember reviewing, and some of the features just don’t rise to the level of expectations set by the price. The touchscreen, for instance, is resistive and not nearly as responsive as the screen on the Razer Deathstalker Ultimate. And like the Deathstalker, the S.T.R.I.K.E. opts for non-mechanical keys. Though the dome-style membrane keys are better than the Deathstalker’s chiclet keys, we firmly believe that a keyboard that costs three times as much as most of its competition ought to have the best keys available.
The most customizable keyboard around; tons of room for macros on keyboard and touchscreen.
Super pricey; non-mechanical keyboard feels so-so; touchscreen responsiveness is lacking.
Logitech brings it back to basics
Logitech has finally decided that the recent trend toward mechanical gaming keyboards isn’t a passing fad, and has thrown its own hat into the ring with the G710+. At $150, the G710+ is one of the company’s most expensive boards, but it forgoes the LCD screens and raft of macro buttons usually found on Logitech’s highest-end products. Instead, the G710+ is a relatively straightforward keyboard built around a sturdy base of mechanical keys.
The backlight for the Logitech G710+’s arrow and WASD keys is separate from the rest of the board, so you can make them glow brighter than their surroundings.
The G710+ uses MX Cherry Brown switches, which are a sort of compromise between the hyper-sensitive Reds and the tactile (and loud) Blues. They’re a nice middle-ground switch, excellent for both gaming and typing, though not completely ideal for either. Logitech has augmented the Cherry Browns with noise-dampening rings inside each key, for a quieter gaming session. The keys are mounted into a heavy board, with a clean black-and-gray aesthetic with orange accents. When connected via USB, the G710+’s laser-etched keycaps glow white—you can’t change the color, but the brightness is adjustable. In a nice, novel feature, the brightness of the WASD and arrow keys can be adjusted independently, to make them stand out more.
Beyond the mechanical keys, the G710+ doesn’t have a lot of flashy features—just a set of macro keys (programmable on-the-fly), some media controls, and a standard-issue software suite with pre-made macro profiles for most modern games. It comes with a removable wrist rest, and includes a single USB pass-through. In all, it’s a nice, well-constructed keyboard, though its feature set is just a tiny bit smaller than some similarly priced mechanical boards from other brands.
Excellent typing and gaming feel; dual-zone lighting;noise-dampened keys.
On the pricier side; few pass-throughs.
If you’re the pattern-recognizing sort, you may notice that every mechanical keyboard in this roundup uses Cherry MX switches for their key mechanisms. That’s because virtually all mechanical gaming keyboards today use some variety of Cherry MX switch, such as Brown or Blue. The names indicate both the actual color of the switch (pry a keycap up and you’ll be able to tell by sight which switch is underneath), and the switch’s mechanical characteristics, in terms of tactility and resistance.
A switch that is highly tactile has a noticeable “bump” that you overcome as you press it down, and tends to make a click noise as it passes that bump. A switch with high resistance requires more force to depress. Here are the four most common varieties of Cherry MX switch:
Red: A non-tactile switch with low resistance. The pressing action is smooth, with no bump, and because of its low resistance it is very responsive. Good for action gamers.
Black: A non-tactile switch, like the Red, with higher resistance.
Blue: A highly tactile switch, with a dramatic (and loud) click. Considered the best switch for typing, but they can be slightly harder to double-tap quickly for gaming.
Brown: A middle-ground switch, with a light tactile click and medium resistance. Functions well for both typing and gaming.
Click here to read our in-depth mechanical keyboard guide.
All the macro keys money can buy
The Corsair Vengeance K90 launched early last year alongside the Vengeance K60. It is, at heart, an expanded version of that board, fitted with a vast bank of customizable macro keys at the far left, and a detachable rubberized wrist rest. The extra functionality is mostly aimed at MMO players, who may have need for the truly staggering number of macro keys—18 keys, arranged into three banks of six, with three profile buttons for a total of 54 programmable actions. We’re a bit skeptical about the utility of so many macro buttons, as it becomes difficult to remember which key does what, and to hit them without looking, as the button count increases. Still, you should be able to imagine whether you’d be able to put the buttons to good use or not.
With the K90, Corsair goes deep on macro keys. Unfortunately, only the main QWERTY keyboard and arrow keys are mechanical.
Beyond those extra keys, the K90 features the strong points of the K60, including a rugged all-aluminum body and responsive Cherry MX Red switches. The fantastic-looking low-profile aluminum design is even snazzier in the K90, thanks to blue backlighting that shines through the laser-etched keycaps. One of the strangest and worst features of the K90 is that it uses membrane-style switches for a small subset of the keys on the board (the 18 macro keys, the function keys, as well as the block above the arrow keys), which feel noticeably worse than the mechanical keys that make up the rest of the board. Especially for keys that are meant to be used in the heat of the moment, the transition to non-mechanical keys is very jarring.
Tons of macro keys; nice build quality and design; mechanical.
Not all keys are mechanical; giant block of macro keys is difficult to use efficiently.
A solid board, low on features
Sometimes it’s nice when a company comes along and boils down a product category to just the features that are important. With the RK-9100, Rosewill does just that, offering a solid mechanical gaming keyboard with few flourishes.
The RK-9100 is a compact design with no wrist rest and a minimal lip around the outside of the board. It’s heavy, and feels quite sturdy. It uses mechanical keys—once again, Cherry MX switches, though with the RK-9100 you have a choice of the typing-friendly Blue switches, or the in-between Browns. We tend to prefer the Browns as a nice compromise between gaming and typing, which makes it a bit frustrating that the Brown-switch version of the RK-9100 retails for $130, $20 more than the Blue version.
The Rosewill RK-9100 isn’t the fanciest-looking keyboard, but it feels great to use.
The keyboard has a nice blue backlight, except for the scroll-, num-, and caps-lock keys, which glow green while active. It’s a good idea, but for some reason the green light is incredibly bright, and angled to shine right into your eyes while active. It’s distracting, and unfortunately can’t be turned off—we wouldn’t be surprised if most RK-9100 owners end up fixing the problem with electrical tape. That’s the only significant problem we noticed while using Rosewill’s keyboard, but we couldn’t shake the feeling that $130 is a bit too much to ask for this board. The Logitech G710+ features the same MX Brown switches, and with street a price that’s currently only about $10 more than RK-9100, includes significantly more features that set it apart as a gaming keyboard.
No-nonsense design; selection of different Cherry MX switches.
No macro keys; no software support.
Membrane plank makes strong impression
If you’re not ready to make the jump to a mechanical keyboard, and aren’t interested in touchscreens or scalp massagers or whatever other luxury features are going into the $200-plus planks, your money will go a lot farther. Specifically, it’ll go all the way to the Roccat Isku, a handsome and feature-rich keyboard from German newcomer Roccat.
The Isku is thin but takes up a lot of room, thanks to its broad wrist rest and bezel.
The Isku is wide and flat, with an oversized wrist rest and a wide bezel all around the board, taking up plenty of desk real estate. It’s got a grippy textured-plastic frame and recessed contoured keys that make the whole thing seem flatter and lower to the desk than normal. The dome keys are good (as far as they go) with a fairly crisp and responsive activation.
Where the Isku really shines is in its expansive set of features. It has eight macro buttons (including three “thumbster” keys under the spacebar), with on-the-fly recording, and profile switching. It gets further mileage out of the bindable keys and macros with an “EasyShift” button where the caps-lock key would normally be, which temporarily switches the functions of all right-hand-accessible keys while held down. There’s a lot to customize, and the included software suite is intuitive and up to the task.
Also, the Isku is part of the “Roccat Talk” ecosystem, which allows button presses on the keyboard to affect the behavior of a Roccat gaming mouse, and vice versa. At this price, we’d strongly recommend buying a mechanical board, but if you can’t or don’t want to, the Isku is an excellent choice.
No-nonsense design; selection of different Cherry MX switches.
No macro keys; no software support.
One of the keyboards we received while preparing this roundup was the Logitech Washable Keyboard K310. Somehow it didn’t seem quite fair to pit the $40 K310 against the likes of the Razer Deathstalker in a straight head-to-head, but we couldn’t resist the chance to see if this washable keyboard really works.
The K310 has a standard full-size layout with flat, thick plastic keys. Despite the very plastic-y construction and non-standard keys, the keyboard actually feels pretty decent to use.
We don’t actually have a standard testing procedure worked out for washable keyboards, so we improvised. We took a quick trip to the corner store for a bag of Cheetohs—bane of all keyboards. We then used a mortar and pestle to mash them into a fine, delicious powder, and applied it liberally to the keyboard (and surrounding table).
We were originally going to stick the K310 in the dishwasher, but a label on its back specifically warns against doing so. Instead, we gave it a thorough hand-washing in the sink.
What’s the verdict? The keyboard looks like new, and works just fine. Not bad!