Best Gaming Keyboards 2014
Best Gaming Keyboards 2014
Gaming keyboards offer a wealth of purpose-built features, and if you don’t mind wayward glances from non-gamer friends, you can even take them into the workplace to improve productivity. Below we break down the best gaming keyboards of 2014, including both mechanical and non-mechanical models. If you can afford it, we recommend buying a mechanical keyboard—they are more expensive than non-mechanical boards, especially if they include a lot of extra features, but we think it's worth it. You can expect to spend anywhere from $50 on the low end up to $200 or more or a high-end gaming keyboard, depending on the bells are whistles that are important to you. Among the features to consider are polling rates, LED backlighting, macros, and software (more on those below the picks).
Mechanical Gaming Keyboards
The G910 is a feature-rich mechanical gaming keyboard with whisper quiet, gaming-optimized 'Romer-G' mechanical switches (the switches are created specifically for Logitech, but they are roughly equivalent to Cherry MX Red or Brown switches in feel). Other key features are its illumination capabilities and ability to interface with your smartphone. Using Logitech's Arx Control application, you can connect your smartphone to the Logitech gaming software on your PC through your wireless network, basically turning your phone into an auxiliary display for gaming (it even has a cradle included). In addition, you can customize the G910 keys to any color you like on a key-by-key basis, including a range of special effects and variations. The key caps for the G910 feature a unique, angular, sculpted indentation that provides improved tactile feedback -- albeit at a slight cost to typists. The G910 still has some yet-to-be-determined potential with regard to smartphone interoperability and game support for that feature, and a few minor design caveats. But it offers many unique features and innovations not found in its competitors.
Many small gaming keyboards sacrifice extras (macro keys, driver software, etc.) in the pursuit of offering the essentials in a minimalist package. But the Roccat Ryos TKL (“TenKeyLess”) Pro only sacrifices the 10-key number pad while retaining a feature on par with many of its larger brethren. The TKL Pro is available in virtually every mechanical switch type (Cherry MX Brown, Blue, Black, or Red), and sports two built-in 32-bit ARM processors to eliminate even the slightest hint of latency that might otherwise be cause by software drivers. It’s also fully backlit (with per-key lighting) in blue with 5-levels of brightness control, and has 3 dedicated, programmable macro keys (just below the spacebar). The TKL Pro has 2MB of memory (for storing macros, profiles, etc.). Roccat’s software is among the best of the best in PC peripheral software, and adds a host of additional functions, such as per-key illumination and lighting effects, audio feedback, and Roccat’s ‘easy shift’ technology that enables you to customize virtually every key on the keyboard with a secondary function or macro. The TKL Pro also provides a host of functions through the use of the FN+Function keys (opening the Web browser, for example). The only slight compromise is that the Ryos TKL is a bit larger than other small form factor keyboards because of its non-detachable wrist rest.
Razer BlackWidow Ultimate ($99)
The Razer BlackWidow Ultimate has virtually everything you need in a gaming keyboard: LED backlighting, 5 macro keys, pass-through USB and audio connectors, and the satisfying symphony of mechanical Cherry MX Blue switches. In addition, the Razer Synapse software enables you to program macros and assign them to virtually any key on the keyboard, and it supports cloud-based profile storage. The Razer BlackWidow Ultimate is a long-time personal favorite, but one shortcoming is that Its glossy plastic construction can be prone to smudges. The older 2010 version has blue LED lighting, and if you can find one, you can save some off the price. The 2013 edition of this board comes in green LED lighting but is otherwise the same, and there also are Ultimate Battelfield and Tournament versions.
Logitech G710+ ($110)
The Logitech G710 has virtually everything Razer’s BlackWidow Ultimate has, and may even up the ante. It’s quieter with mechanical Cherry MX Brown switches, and although I prefer the noisy Cherry MX Blue switches on the BlackWidow Ultimate, the Logitech G710+ offers more extras including a large volume roller control, dedicated media keys, and 1 additional macro key. Logitech’s Gaming Software isn’t quite as good as Razer’s in some respects, but it’s still among the best peripheral software out there. I’m not a big fan of the white LED backlighting (I like a little color), but otherwise the G710+ is an excellent board and another personal favorite.
Coolermaster Quickfire TK ($100)
The Coolermaster Quickfire TK is a small form-factor mechanical switch keyboard with blue LED backlighting and few frills. It has extra media controls integrated into the function keys, but merges the arrow keys and number pad into a small footprint keyboard that still sings sweetly beneath the fingertips. It’s available in a variety of models, each based upon a different mechanical switch (blue, brown, etc.). The Coolermaster Quickfire TK doesn’t pack any extras beyond LED backlighting, adjustable brightness levels, and a Windows key lock (which virtually all gaming boards have). But it’s also driverless, it has a small form factor, and it has a detachable micro-USB cable, all of which make a very transportable if you’re the LAN-party type.
Non-Mechanical Gaming Keyboards
SteelSeries Apex ($89) and Apex Raw ($56)
The sleek, low-profile, non-mechanical SteelSeries Apex takes LED backlighting to new levels with five distinct and independently colored zones, each of which can have its own assigned color. The Apex also supports four layers (profiles), each of which can have its own color scheme. As if that’s not enough, the Apex has 22 macro keys, making it a good candidate for MMO gamers. For a non-mechanical board, the ultra low-profile Apex is still surprisingly satisfying to type on and game with—and it’s a veritable Ninja of keyboards (i.e. it’s very quiet). Despite my love of mechanical keyboards, I found myself gravitating to the Apex to the point where it almost dethroned the BlackWidow Ultimate and Logitech G710+ (maybe I just like the pretty colors, macro keys, and the quiet). The Apex includes 2 USB connectors, dedicated media controls, and delivers a very quiet, colorful typing experience. For a slimmed-down version of the Apex with fewer features and a rock bottom price, try the Apex RAW.
Roccat ISKU / FX (from $60)
The Roccat ISKU and ISKU F/X boards are feature-rich almost to the point of overkill—the Roccat driver software will even talk to you and award achievements. The Roccat ISKU provides 8 dedicated macro keys, which is effectively doubled thanks to the ‘easy shift’ technology that allows you to program multiple macros per key and store multiple profiles. The driver software and ‘easy-shift’ technology enable a ludicrous number of macros you can create and use with these boards. Dedicated media control keys and surprisingly satisfying keys for a non-mechanical round out the package. The biggest potential disadvantage to the ISKU is its large form factor because its wrist rest is non-detachable. The key difference between the ISKU and the ISKU F/X is that the LED color on the ISKU FX is customizable, whereas the ISKU is blue only.
Features on Gaming Keyboards
An important measure of responsiveness is Polling Rate. Typical consumer keyboards and mice operate at 125Hz, meaning they poll for information 125 times per second. Typical USB gaming keyboards have a 1000Hz polling rate. Recommendation: A 1000Hz polling rate is fairly standard for most gaming keyboards, even at the entry level. There’s no reason to settle for anything less, and it isn’t likely to have much of an affect on the overall price.
LED Backlighting and/or Colored Key Caps
PC gamers often play in the dark, so backlighting is as functional as it is pretty. Some keyboards provide colored keycaps for the gaming keys (for example, the W-A-S-D might be red instead of black). I’ve never found this terribly useful for myself, but it’s not a bad feature if you have young PC gamers in training in your household. Keyboards with backlighting don’t usually come with colored keycaps, although there are some boards that enable you to turn on the backlighting for only select sections of the keyboard. Most keyboards with back lighting also have multiple brightness levels. I consider backlighting a must-have feature, and generally prefer the ability to change the color or (at least) adjust the brightness. Color-changing boards cost a little more (naturally), and most keyboards with backlighting have brightness adjustment.
Ever since I first tested Razer’s BlackWidow Ultimate—still a personal favorite—I’ve been a mechanical keyboard snob. Mechanical boards just feel better and more responsive under the fingertips, and they actually seem to improve my typing accuracy and speed. There are four main types of mechanical switches used in gaming keyboards, each described by the color. Most gamers develop a preference for one or more of them (I prefer blue and brown, don’t mind black switches, and am not a fan of red ones).
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).
Macros (to Automate Ass-Kicking)
Many gaming keyboards include extra keys—anywhere from 5 to as many as 15 or more—for recording macros (i.e. a series of keystrokes you can run with the press of a single button). Some gaming keyboards enable you to program any and every key on the keyboard. I tend to use only a handful of macros, often for voice emotes in games like Tribes: Ascend or SMITE. Many RTS (Real Time Strategy) games can also be enhanced through macros. For example, in StarCraft II you can create macros to select a structure and automatically queue up a bunch of units to build, all with a single keystroke. Recommendation: Look for a keyboard with at least 5 programmable macro keys. If you’re an MMO gamer, you may want a keyboard with 10 or more macro keys. Macro keys near the W-A-S-D cluster and the thumb tend to be the most accessible, which is where most of the ‘action’ takes place on the keyboard. Macro keys that require you to take your hand off the mouse are far less useful than those within easy reach of the W-A-S-D cluster
Anti-Ghosting and/or N-key Rollover
“Ghosting” occurs when some keys don’t work when multiple keys are pressed at the same time. Anti-ghosting is intended to solve the problem through optimized circuitry—typically around the W-A-S-D cluster—to ensure the gaming cluster keys can’t drop key presses. Technically speaking, N-key rollover is superior to anti-ghosting, but true N-key rollover requires a PS/2 connector, a disappearing technology that also sacrifices many of the advantages USB offers. Recommendation: A gaming keyboard without anti-ghosting can scarcely call itself a gaming keyboard. Thankfully, most gaming keyboards have this feature and can handle a minimum of 5 (and often more) simultaneous keystrokes within the main gaming cluster (W-A-S-D and the surrounding keys) without dropping one.
Most gaming keyboards that have macro keys also have the ability to store multiple profiles, allowing you to save different preferences and macros for different profiles. Many support the ability to load a specific profile when a specific game is loaded. Most keyboards allow for 3-5 profiles. Recommendation: Although I don’t use them often, I prefer to have a keyboard that supports multiple profiles just in case. Generally, the only keyboards that don’t support multiple profiles are bare-bones versions without extra macro keys.
Extra places to stick thumb drives, gaming mice, and USB headsets are always welcome. Most mid to high-end gaming keyboards feature extra USB ports and/or audio-pass through connectors (1x stereo/ 1x microphone). Recommendation: I prefer keyboards with at least 1 USB port—2 if possible—simply for convenience. 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 5.1/7.1 (analog) headset because you’ll be giving up surround sound. In my experience most pass-through audio connectors tend to add hiss or a little static to the line.
Don’t Forget the Software
Many gaming keyboards require driver software for customizing the keyboard, programming macros, etc. In my experience, Razer, Roccat, SteelSeries, and Logitech generally make the most richly-featured and intuitive driver software. Mad Catz ranks next. 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 mixed bag with regards to features and usability. Recommendation: Stick with the heavyweight manufacturers if you want the best possible software and driver support, but don’t overlook the little guys. Their software usually will get the job done and their products cost a little less. In my experience, Corsair makes the worst driver software from a usability standpoint.