Best Gaming Keyboards 2014
Best Gaming Keyboards 2014
Gaming keyboards offer a wealth of features purpose-built to improve your gaming, and if you don’t mind wayward glances from non-gamer friends, you can even take them into the workplace to improve productivity. You can expect to spend from from around $50 on the low end up to $150 for a quality gaming keyboard, although ultra-high end set-ups can cost $250 or more. Below we break down common features and our picks for the best gaming keyboards for 2014.
Common 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. Recommendation: 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.
Since I reviewed 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).
Recommendation: If you can afford it, buy a mechanical keyboard. They are more expensive than non-mechanical boards, especially if they include a lot of extra features (USB ports, macro keys, back lighting, etc.). A fully featured mechanical keyboard such as Razer’s BlackWidow Ultimate costs around $140.
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.
Best Mechanical Gaming Keyboards
Razer BlackWidow Ultimate ($159)
The Razer BlackWidow Ultimate has virtually everything you need: LED backlighting, 5 macro keys, pass through USB and audio connectors, and the satisfying symphony of mechanical Cherry MX Blue switches. In addition to its 5-macro keys, 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 you can save about $20 or off the price. The 2013 edition of this board comes in green LED lighting but is otherwise the same.
Logitech G710+ ($109)
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 ($91)
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.
Best Non-Mechanical Gaming Keyboards
Roccat ISKU / ISKU F/X ($79-$120)
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.
SteelSeries Apex ($89)
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.