A keyboard is a keyboard is a keyboard, right? Not so much. Yes, all keyboards track your keystrokes, but even for general users, not just gamers, there’s a whole range of types to choose from. There’s heaps of features, key types, connectivity types, layouts, shapes and more to consider, and the price range is as wide and varied as your options. So, we thought we’d help you pick your next gaming keyboard by drilling down into the details to make life a little easier.
Wired vs. Wireless Gaming Keyboard
Wired gaming keyboards generally connect to your PC via USB, so you’re obviously limited to how much you can move around and the distance you can sit from your machine by the length of the keyboard cable. Additionally, it occupies an extra USB port, so if you have lots of peripherals, you’ll likely need to purchase additional ports.
Lots of serious gamers always opt for wired gaming keyboards. Why? Because:
- There’s no need for batteries – better for your bank balance and the environment
- Less expensive than wireless models
- Very little setup required – quick and easy to plug-and-play
- No lag – way better for fast-paced games where speed, timing, and precision is key
- No interference – Wired keyboards don’t suffer from or cause signal interference with other wireless devices
Wireless gaming keyboards tend to cost more than wired models with Bluetooth or RF connectivity. Operating on 2.4 GHz frequencies, RF keyboards have a much longer battery life than Bluetooth models, but are more prone to interference from other RF devices. Both types of wireless keyboard can result in lag or missing keystrokes, which is problematic, particularly when playing games that require speed and precision. Bluetooth keyboards are a good choice if you don’t want to take up another USB port, but they do have a short battery life. RF keyboards require an RF connector to be plugged into a USB port and give longer battery life, but are more prone to cause and suffer from interference from routers, mobile phones, and other wireless devices in the vicinity.
Virtual keyboards look cool and they offer a “futuristic” feel, but they have serious limitations with the current technology available. They use wireless projectors to produce a virtual laser keyboard on a flat surface. To track your movements or keystrokes, these keyboards use optics, which sounds fabulous – and does have the potential to be. Unfortunately, they aren’t particularly easy to use and it takes time to get comfortable with them. There’s usually a fair amount of inaccuracy, too, which is incredibly frustrating. To improve your experience, you can purchase a high-end model which does damage to your bank balance, and you’ll find there’s still an annoying amount of inaccuracies and missed keystrokes, which definitely isn’t ideal for gaming.
Ergonomic keyboards come in all shapes and sizes and they’re designed to help you maintain a body-healthy position and posture as you work or play for short term comfort and long term health. The idea is that your hands remain in a neutral position with straight wrists and arms bent at 90 degrees, reducing the risk of musculo-skeletal strain and lowering the possibility of developing conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Some have split keyboards while others feature wrist rests and have a steep slope. However, many experts call into question the validity of ergonomic keyboards and state that, in actuality, the adoption of body-healthy posture and correct placement and organization of the desk and the right chair is far more useful to achieving a healthy gaming position than a so-called ergonomic keyboard.
Mini keyboards have their place – they can be handy when you need the convenience of a real keyboard – like when you’re trying to type something lengthy on a tablet and the virtual keyboard just isn’t cutting it. They’re easy to carry as they take up hardly any space and they’re light, too. While this is great for when you’re on the move, it’s not ideal for gaming. There just isn’t enough space – everything’s so small and compact – that you end up inadvertently hitting the wrong buttons, and the cramped proportions definitely don’t make for comfortable use for long gaming sessions.
So you’ve figured out the size, shape, and connectivity you want for your new gaming keyboard – but what about all those features and specs? Which ones really matter? Which ones are just pointless retailer hype? Let’s find out!
You know when you press multiple buttons simultaneously or in quick succession, but one or more buttons don’t register, your combo or your block fails and the enemy slaughters you before you get chance to recover? That’s ghosting – and it’s insanely annoying. While most bog-standard keyboards handle three simultaneous strokes, gamers shouldn’t go near a keyboard that doesn’t handle a bare minimum of five. Otherwise, it’s not really a gaming keyboard, and your gaming prowess is seriously hindered. So look for keyboards with anti-ghosting functionality. Now there’s no need to go crazy – some retailers proudly proclaim their keyboard can manage 14 simultaneous keystrokes flawlessly – which is awesome if you have a third hand or are planning to game with two hands and one of your feet. So be sensible – there’s no point paying a premium for a feature you aren’t going to utilize. Choose a model that can handle between 5 and 10 simultaneous keystrokes.
Polling rate describes the responsiveness of a gaming keyboard. What is polling rate? It’s the frequency with which the keyboard reports in and delivers input to the PC. Standard keyboards and budget models that tend to come as part of a PC bundle generally feature a polling rate of 125Hz, so they check in 125 times per second. Sounds super-fast? Not really. It’s good enough for the majority of typing and general use tasks – but it’s not nearly good enough for serious gaming. For a decent gaming keyboard, you need a polling rate of at least 500Hz and preferably 1,000Hz, otherwise your performance is likely to suffer.
This is an important feature that’s often overlooked by newbies. After all, they aren’t used to having spare programmable keys, so it’s not something they look for. Having extra keys that so you can set macros or for beatdowns, mega combos, accessing menus, or pretty much any other function. If you haven’t got at least a handful of programmable keys, you haven’t really got a gaming keyboard. Some don’t just boast extra keys – some models let you program any key on the board.
The position of the programmable keys is another consideration. It’s no good having them far over on the right hand side – that configuration is a pain to use in conjunction with a mouse. Ideally you want them on the left, near the W-A-S-D keys – or your primary gaming cluster. A good alternative is down below the spacebar.
Now – programmable keys are awesome – as long as they’re in the right place – but do you really want to have to set up different macros each time you switch to a different game? That’s honestly a time-consuming nightmare. The solution? Get a gaming keyboard with the ability to record and save multiple profiles. Then, all you have to do is choose which profile you want to play with whenever you play a different game. Super simple.
You find key switches under every key on the keyboard. Most users think that there’s not much difference between the types of key switches – often because they’ve never used anything other than the bog standard budget keyboards and they don’t know what key switches are. In reality, the type of key switches you choose impact usability, sensitivity, feedback, lifespan, durability, and how easy a keyboard is to repair.
Silicone dome or soft switches are the type that most users are familiar with. You find them on almost all budget keyboards. Generally, there’s a fine layer of silicone right across the inside of the keyboard, with squishy domes protruding beneath that sit right under the keys. Silicone dome key switches provide little or no audible feedback – so you don’t get the audible “clack” sound. The biggest issue with keyboards of this type is that you have to depress the key all the way down to register a keystroke. This lack of sensitivity is frustrating for gamers and touch-typists alike as it slows down your task. While this doesn’t seem like a huge deal, it significantly slows typing speed and logging keystrokes – so if you need some serious button-mashing or fast, precise commands, soft switches put you at a distinct disadvantage.
Scissor switches are most commonly found on low profile keyboards, such as on compact devices like netbooks and laptops. More durable than silicone dome switches, scissor models are also more sensitive. Budget-wise, scissor switches are the middle ground. They provide a shallow but uniform typing experience and provide a soft “clack” as feedback. Each key has its own silicone plunger surrounded by a square plastic scissor switch. This makes them more sensitive, for faster keystrokes, as there’s no need to depress the key all the way. The biggest drawback is that they are difficult and more costly to repair.
Mechanical key switches are by far the best choice for a gaming keyboard. General users and gamers alike benefit from these models. Because the key posts are individually spring-loaded, they are far more sensitive than other switch types, providing faster typing and a more responsive experience. They have a significantly longer lifespan than scissor and silicone dome switches and keys are inexpensive and easy to replace.
Many of us game in low light or in the dark. Therefore, while not strictly necessary, a gaming keyboard with backlighting gives us a distinct advantage. Yes, backlit keyboards look pretty – but that’s not the real benefit. With a backlight, when you’re gaming in the dark, it’s easy to get your fingers back in the right position on the keyboard and you’re less likely to hit the wrong key. High end models often allow backlight customization, so you can alter the color and the brightness.
Pass-through connectors give you extra ports to place USB drives, memory cards, headsets, a gaming mouse, and more. Again, not strictly necessary, but having extra connectors is always useful.
– Katy Willis