The market has been bombarded by a veritable Spanish armada of the best mechanical keyboards in recent years, with no signs of stopping. So what is all the fuss about? Not to dunk too hard on membrane keyboards, but typing on them is a somewhat bland and dead experience. Mechanical key switches add a level of diversity to your typing or gaming experience, lending your keyboard a real sense of personality. Going mechanical gives you a level of customization that can't be matched by most membrane keyboards. Everything from RGB lighting to custom keycaps, using a mechanical keyboard really gives you the opportunity to make your keyboard YOUR keyboard.
With so many options, it can be difficult to know where to begin but this also gives you ample opportunity to find something just for you. While the choices you have for switches are expanding by the day, there are three major houses to choose from (cue the sorting hat): The pure and uncomplicated linear switch will give you a smooth action for gaming, the audible clicky switch typically preferred by gamers, and the haptic tactile switch that bridges the gap between the two. These may go by different names depending on which manufacturer your keyboard comes from, but the actions will still be relatively similar.
Once you've pledged your allegiance to a particular switch, you'll want to consider how big you'd like your keyboard to be. There are standard 104-key layouts with their attached number pads, tenkeyless, which ditches the numpad, or even ultra-compact 60 percent models that get rid of all but the bare essentials. The best gaming keyboards can even feature options like dedicated macro keys or media controls. While these are deep waters we're wading into, our handy guide will fill you in on our top picks and help you make the jump to mechanical today.
Best Mechnical Keyboards
The best mechanical keyboard comes with Razer's excellent opto-mechanical switches
Switch: Razer Opto-mechanical | Size: Full size | Backlights: 16.8 million color RGB | Passthroughs: No | Media Controls: Dedicated | Wristrest: Detachable magnetic
Razer's proprietary opto-mechanical switches, which are currently only available on their Huntsman and Huntsman Elite boards, are an interesting and well executed blend of technologies, an artful mix of traditional mechanical switch design and the optical sensor not unlike the one probably lurking inside your mouse.
Instead of using the contact of metal leaves inside the switch to register a keypress, the opto-mechanical switch actuates when a beam of light passes through the stem as it descends. This means there's virtually no actuation delay whatsoever, making the opto-mechanical one of the most responsive switches on the market.
The rest of the board shares the thoughtful design of its switches, allowing users to change the backlighting under each key individually and sporting dedicated media keys and onboard storage, all in an attractive aluminum plate design. Other than its lack of an option for USB passthrough, an unfortunate oversight, it has all the features you want out of a mechanical keyboard while taking full advantage of one of the best switches ever developed.
2. HyperX Alloy Elite
One of the most feature-packed keyboards available
Switch: Cherry MX Red, Brown, or Blue | Size: Full size | Backlights: Full RGB | Passthroughs: Yes | Media Controls: Dedicated | Wristrest: Detachable
Another board that's packed with features and aesthetically delightful, HyperX's Alloy Elite RGB is a premium option for less thank you'd expect. It's got a full suite of dedicated media keys including a large scrolling volume wheel, a detachable wrist rest, and a unique set of additional quick access keys that allow you set things like brightness or toggle on Game Mode with a single key press.
Available in a range of the top Cherry switches, from loud, clicky Blues to whisper quiet Reds, the HyperX can be configured to suit almost anyone's typing/gaming style. It's loaded with the seemingly requisite full RGB package, but still possesses a certain elegance that I find appealing with its matte black design and the option to replace the WASD and first four number keys with silvery keycaps.
The Alloy Elite RGB is also a rugged, durable board, with a solid steel frame built to withstand your worst mid-match tantrums or mischievous pet's antics. It's a comfortable full-sized board that's designed for convenience and to meet all your needs without packing in unnecessary extras that would artificially inflate its price.
3. Razer Huntsman Tournament Edition
A great tenkeyless option for typists and gamers
Switch: Razer Opto-linear | Size: Tenkeyless | Backlights: 16.8 million color RGB | Passthroughs: No | Media Controls: Function key integrated | Wristrest: None
Adding to the growing litany of available keyswitches out there, Razer has introduced it's new red linear optical switches with the debut of the Razer Huntsman Tournament edition. These new switches represent Razer's fastest switch to date, with a 1mm actuation point and optical sensor to register each keystroke. Making them even faster than Cherry's MX Speed switches.
The Huntsman Tournament Edition also features a standardized set of double shot PBT keycaps, giving them extra resistance against wear, and feature a bolder, easier to read font than previous versions of the Huntsman.
A handful of drawbacks hold this keyboard back from greatness. The lack of dedicated media controls, and a number pad do give the Huntsman TE its compact form factor, but prevent it from being a as feature complete as I would like. Also while the linear switches do make typing a much quieter affair than with the ultra-clicky, opto-mechnaical switches, the optical-linear switches are still far louder than most other linear options out there. At the price it is currently being offered, the lack of even a simple wrist rest costs the Razer Huntsman Tournament Edition some serious points in my book.
4. Corsair K95 RGB Platinum
A large, premium keyboard at a premium price
Switch: Cherry MX Speed, Brown | Size: Full size | Backlights: RGB | Passthroughs: USB | Media Controls: Dedicated | Wristrest: Detachable
At the higher end of the mechanical keyboard price pool sits the Corsair K95 RGB Platinum, an excellent durable keyboard that's loaded with features on both the design and functionality side of the equation.
The standouts are six dedicated macro keys on the left side of the rugged aluminum alloy frame, full individually programmable key backlighting as well as a 19 zone top edge lighting bar, and gold contact Cherry MX Red switches with a very high 1.2mm actuation point. These keys are ideal for spamming multiple times in fast paced, frenetic games and the entire board (which has a large, impressive footprint) is built to withstand the most furious play.
It's also loaded with a number of other features, like dedicated media keys and a very comfy reversible wrist rest, but perhaps my favorite is the smart cable management system built into the underside of the deck. A USB cable for passthrough can tuck smartly into a dedicated channel underneath the keyboard so it stays smartly tucked away and doesn't add to the cable nightmare that inevitably develops around all of my PC setups.
5. Razer BlackWidow Elite
Brilliant design with thoughtful extras uncommon among the competition
Switch: Razer Green, Orange, or Yellow | Size: Full size | Backlights: RGB | Passthroughs: Yes | Media Controls: Dedicated | Wristrest: Yes
Another excellent gaming keyboard offering from Razer, the BlackWidow Elite is a big, bold deck running Razer's clicky, tactile Green switches. It's one of my favorite boards for typing, but it's no slouch in gaming performance either. Naturally, being a Razer product, it comes with the requisite 16.8 million color RGB backlighting, for which each key is individually programmable, and Razer's distinctive three-headed snake logo is also brightly lit at the base of the deck. Even the media controls are lit, and include play/pause, fast forward, and rewind buttons as well as an excellent volume wheel that juts just slightly over the right edge of the keyboard, making it easy to adjust on the fly.
My favorite pieces of the BlackWidow's architecture, however, are the subtle additional touches Razer has packed into it, stuff like a 3.5mm passthrough alongside the more ubiquitous USB passthrough so you can plug headphones directly into the keyboard. There's also a channel underneath the board that the braided cable fits snugly into so it's guided off to the right and out of the way, which is convenient because it's a massive cord. Even the indicator lights are brightly lit in white and placed under the upper navigation keys, which is good because the raised keycaps would make them difficult to see otherwise.
6. Logitech K840
An excellent Romer-G powered keyboard at a budget price
Switch: Logitech Romer-G | Size: Full size | Backlights: No | Passthroughs: No | Media Controls: Function key integrated | Wristrest: No
Previously only available in high-end, much more expensive keyboards, Logitech's K840 delivers the company's excellent Romer-G switches for a significantly lower outlay. Designed in conjunction with Japanese electronics manufacturer Omron, the Romer-G is a lightly tactile switch with a short 1.5mm actuation point and a landing pad to soften each keypress. They're comfortable for typing and responsive for gaming, achieving a middle ground equivalent to something in the Cherry MX Brown range.
While this board isn't festooned with RGB lighting, the simple, sandblasted design is a refreshing change from the oscillating rainbow of colors that seems to come standard on most gaming decks these days. The K840 is a bit short on extras like passthroughs or dedicated macro keys, as you might expect at this price, but it's an excellent board that delivers a strong set of core features at a very appealing price, and with a fantastic switch.
Jargon buster - keyboard terminology
The height to which a key needs to be pressed before it actuates and sends an input signal to a device.
A switch that delivers an audible click everytime it's pressed, generally right around the point of actuation.
A technique to ensure that only one input registers every time a key is pressed.
The shell that surrounds the internal components of a switch.
The result of the actuation point and reset point in a switch being misaligned. This generally means a key needs to be lifted off of further than normal before it can be actuated again.
A switch that moves directly up and down, generally delivering smooth keystrokes without noise or tactile feedback.
A keyboard built around individual switches for each key, rather than a membrane sheath mounted on a PCB.
A keyboard on which all the keycaps are mounted on a membrane sheath; when a key is pressed, a rubber dome depresses and pushes against the sheath and PCB beneath, actuating the key.
The component of a switch on which the keycaps are mounted on a mechanical keyboard.
The physical component of a mechanical keyboard beneath the keycaps on a mechanical keyboard. The switch determines how a key is actuated, whether or not it provides audible or tactile feedback with each press, and more.
A switch that provides a 'bump' of feedback every time it's pushed.
A keyboard that lacks the right hand number pad.