Choosing the best gaming keyboard is really all about those switches and just how clicky and clackety you might want your keys to sound. Until analogue boards come along, that is. Then it's just a case of figuring out your budget and how many millions of colours you desperately need your board to be able to display. It can be a tough life being a PC gamer.
The humble keyboard is intrinsic to the PC gaming experience. Together with a top gaming mouse it forms the peripheral partnership which offers us PC peops the most accurate and most immediate control system of any gaming machine out there. No matter how good your PC controller, anyone playing FPS games on their machine is going to want the level of control you can get with the classic ol’ WSAD/mouse combo.
But what makes the ultimate in gaming keyboard supremacy? There are essentially two schools of thought on that front: mechanical switch or non-mechanical switch keyboards. The first school of thought is obviously correct and the second woefully misinformed. From there it's just a straight up fight over which different mech-switch type you prefer. We've listed all the main switches below in the 'How to buy' section for easy reference. There are actually quite a few these days...
Hit the quick links below for some general buying advice on what to look for when picking the ultimate gaming keyboard, as well as our pick of the top compact boards.
Type - Mechanical | Switch - Cherry MX Speed RGB | Anti-ghosting - N-key
Corsair’s K70 boards are the absolute best gaming keyboards I’ve ever used. Since they first launched back in 2013 I’ve been a massive fan, and haven't seen anything since which has changed my mind. Not even Corsair’s later boards, like the Strafe, or the overly-bling K95 Platinum, have been able to replicate the same mix of simple industrial design and sheer pleasure to use.
They have evolved over the years, now fully mech-switched (the original used non-mechanical switches for some of the keys) and offering multiple Cherry MX options and RGB LED backlighting, but the classic design has remained more or less the same since their inception. The simple brushed aluminium base gives the board a robust feel and with the keys floating above it the light bleed from the per-key illumination gives a pleasing under-lit glow.
I’m also a big fan of the discrete media controls too. Too many boards hide their controls behind the F keys, requiring some digital gymnastics to press two far away keys at the same time. In the middle of a game that’s almost impossible to do quickly and/or easily. The large, scrolling volume wheel is the best part about that, and has been copied by many other boards, though never bettered.
I’ve picked the Rapidfire edition of the Corsair K70 as the top board because the light touch Cherry MX Speed keys mean seriously hardcore gamers might get slight boost in actuation speed from their button clicks, and the rest of us don’t have to be so heavy-handed (and loud) when we’re gaming or typing. The Speed switches are almost the same as standard Red switches, just with a shallower actuation point.
I also prefer this non-RGB version for the aesthetic alone. The RGB switches have a clear plastic base which stands out under the keycaps and frankly detracts from the K70’s otherwise clean design. You still get LED backlighting, but it’s red only...though it is also often cheaper than the RGB version.
Type - Mechanical | Switch - Logitech Romer G | Anti-ghosting - 26-key
If you’re not a fan of the various shades of Cherry MX switch Logitech offer their own Romer G option. The Romer G switches are a little shallower than the standard Cherry MX switches, though not quite as much as the slightly speedier Speed switches of the Rapidfire. Their action feels a little deadened compared with the Cherry alternative, but that does make them a quieter option. The G810 Orion Spectrum has a simple, elegant design which makes it my favourite of their mech switch options; the G910 just feels a little showy for my taste. The G810 also has similar discrete media controls to the K70 which is always a big plus for me.
Type - Mechanical | Switch - Razer Green/Orange | Anti-ghosting - 10-key
Also creating their own switches are Razer. They’ve designed their bespoke Green and Orange switches, which are more or less analogous to the clicky Cherry MX Blue switches and the quiet Silent switches respectively. They're manufactured by Chinese switch brand Kaihura, but to Razer's own design. The Blackwidow Chroma comes with either switch, which is good because I personally can’t stand the unnecessarilly loud clicking of Razer Greens and Cherry MX Blues.
That’s one of the reasons I prefer the older, wider, macro-keyed style of this board over the recent, more compact Blackwidow X Chroma. The X denotes a slighter build where the missing surround leaves the keys floating above the metal base (a la Corsair) but it only comes with Green switches. Unfortunately neither Blackwidow has discrete media controls, instead hiding them behind the function keys across the top, but despite its integrated controls the Blackwidow is still a damn fine gaming keyboard.
Type - Mechanical | Switch - Cherry MX Red/Blue/Brown | Anti-ghosting - N-key
Slowly does it. That’s the HyperX way. They take their time over things, which is why there’s been a good few years in between their launching of the best gaming headset around and adding another string to their peripheral bow. The HyperX Alloy FPS is their first stab at a gaming keyboard and is the most compact fully-specced mech-switch board around.
There are smaller boards, which miss out the the numpad on the right, but thanks to the way the HyperX team have designed the Alloy FPS its desktop footprint isn’t that much greater than those cut-down boards. And for a good many gamers missing the numpad can be a real deal-breaker. That makes it a great option for those craving a more compact design but don't necessarily want to sacrifice keys.
The rigid metal base is very reminiscent of the brilliant K70, with the keys almost floating above the board and the red LED glow softly spreading out beneath them. But the base barely stretches beyond the limits of the keys themselves, keeping that footprint to a minimum. The rigid design also lends the Alloy FPS a tangible sense of solidity and robust quality.
The Alloy FPS is a board designed to be taken to tournaments and LAN events; from its hardy, compact design to the detachable cabling and software-free installation, it’s been created with the serious gamer in mind and with them as part of the design process. The gamer mode which nixxes the Windows key is vital as is the full N-key rollover and 1,000Hz polling rate. And obviously it’s got LEDs under all the keycaps too, though HyperX haven’t gone all out on the expensive RGB route this time around, though you can cycle through myriad lighting effects from the red-lit board. At this year's CES they have now launched an RGB version of the Alloy.
As a compact gaming keyboard it doesn’t have the discrete media controls I’d normally prefer, instead using modifiers on the function keys, and HyperX have made an odd choice in adding a charging port rather than a full pass-through data and power connection. They’re also only offering the Alloy FPS with clicky Cherry MX Blue switches right now, though will be offering a wider range soon, announced at CES alongside the RGB board.
As it is the Alloy FPS still makes for a great compact gaming keyboard, delivering all the mechanical switch control you’d want, with almost all the features of its broader competition. It’s a great first go at the board market and proves to have been well worth the wait.
Type - Mechanical | Switch - Cherry MX Red, Blue, Brown | Anti-ghosting - N-key
Them RGB LED switches are all well and good if you want to paint a rainbow across your board, but if you're after the cleanest, brightest, retina-searing white then Cooler Master's MasterKey Pro M has got you covered. This small scale version also nails the compact design while still retaining a full numpad.
That might seem like some sort of ergonomic voodoo, but Cooler Master have simply ditched the discrete navigation buttons and integrated them in their familiar configuration within the numpad. By virtue of its onboard ARM processor the Pro M can run sans drivers to give you the full complement of on-the-fly macros and lighting effects without having to wait for the OS to catch up.
The Cooler Master MasterKey Pro M comes with either Cherry MX Red, Blue or Brown keys - to get the low down on what that means check out the table below. In terms of actual design it's super-basic but that means it's also fuss-free, with a detachable USB cable, solid footing and no messing around.
Type - Mechanical | Switch - Cherry MX Red | Anti-ghosting - N-key
The Corsair K65 is effectively the same as the original K70 but with a hacksaw approach to separating it from its numpad. That means it’s still got the same tough metal base, with floaty keys, but lacks the K70’s rolling volume control. Though its volume buttons are still independent from the standard keys, which in itself is a plus. You can pick up the K65 in RGB and LUX trim, but they’re often more expensive than this standard Vengeance version with its plain Cherry MX Red switches, and they don’t really add anything more than aesthetics to the mix. There is also a Rapidfire version, with the speedy Cherry switches, but again they add a huge price premium.
Corsair have released a K63 using the same key layout, but without the brushed aluminium finish and with an $80 (£88) price tag. For me, the classic K65 has still got the edge.
Type - Mechanical | Switch - Razer Green/Orange | Anti-ghosting - 10-key
The Razer Blackwidow Tournament follows the same design notes as its bigger spidery sibling and goes down the same numpad-less route as the K65. The all-plastic build isn’t quite as pleasing as the HyperX or Corsair boards, but it does offer a choice of mechanical switches. The Blackwidow Tournament comes with either their own-brand Green (clicky) or Orange (quiet) switches, and they’ve proved as reliable and effective as the standard Cherry options pretty much everyone else uses.
Like the larger Blackwidow boards Razer have integrated the media controls into the function keys, but that’s more forgivable at this scale.
Type - Membrane | Switch - Logitech Mech-Dome | Anti-ghosting - 13-key
Buying a really cheap keyboard will leave you on a hiding to nothing. A $20 board is likely to very quickly start to lose functionality, whether that's a few sticky keys or a total meltdown. It's often a bit of a false economy. Maybe spending $60 on a gaming keyboard is still too much, but the Logitech G213 Prodigy is a great example of a more pared back design still offering a lot.
Because of the lower price you're not getting mechanical switches or a rigid metal frame. Instead you get Logitech's own Mech-Dome switches and a resolutely plastic feel. They may be membrane switches but they have the travel and almost the same speedy response of a mechanical switch, in fact they feel a lot like Logitech's Romer G switches. They are though more spongy and feel a little more dead in comparison.
Despite its all-plastic design the G213 is still pretty robust. There is a certain amount of flex if you press firmly in the middle of the line of function keys, but otherwise it feels rather sturdy on the desktop. It also comes with a built-in wrist rest and discrete media controls too. And for you RGB LED fans out there the G213 comes with five lighting zones you can colour to your heart's content.
The G213 Prodigy might be slightly above what you'd call a budget keyboard, but its still smart design and solid build makes it worth keeping an eye on in the sales especially.
Type - Membrane | Switch - Mem-Chanical | Anti-ghosting - 24-keys
There's a tremendous sense of value to this Cooler Master bundle even if the ambidextrous mouse feels a little lightweight. The keyboard itself comes with a suprisingly effective pseudo mechanical switch design. Okay, even writing down Mem-Chanical makes me want to vomit all over this simple, elegant keyboard, but they genuinely feel more robust and comfortable to use than a standard membrane switch. They're actually very similar to Logitech's Mech-Dome keys and come with twice the life cycle of traditional membrane switches and a higher click force to hit the actuation point.
The mouse is a little bit of an afterthought, with an Avago optical sensor and a maximum DPI of 3,500. But if you're looking for a decent package that won't break the bank Cooler Master's li'l bundle is well worth a look.
Type - Membrane | Switch - Rubber dome | Anti-ghosting - N-key
The budget end of the Corsair keyboard range still manages to pack a punch in gaming terms. Gone are the various shades of Cherry MX mechanical switch - a consequence of the lower price - and gone is the rigid brushed aluminium frame, but the Raptor K30 has still been produced with the same design notes as the excellent K70. The floating keys give it a similar aesthetic and the discrete media controls mean you don't have to contort your hands over your board to pause a tune.
As ever in the ol’ PC peripheral world the best gaming keyboard has to take into account personal preference. What makes something aesthetically pleasing for me may not be for you, and the same goes for the sort of switches you want to have sitting under the keycaps of your new gaming board.
You might also absolutely have to have 16.8 million different colours available to the lights blazing away on your desktop. But remember, there’s no such thing as a free LED. The RGB LED switches add an often massive price premium to the cost of a particular board. With the Corsair K65, for example, that difference can be as much as $80 (£70) just for some extra pretty lights. If you’re looking to save a bit of cash then there will often be single LED colour versions of your favourite gaming keyboard, which will otherwise be technically identical.
While your choice of LED has probably the least effect on the performance of your keyboard; the choice of which switches are used create a meaningful interaction with your PC is massive. There are two main options: mechanical switches and membrane, dome or scissor switches (which are kind of all the same).
Mechanical switches are the ones which make your keyboard loud and sound like you’re working in some 1940’s newsroom. Membrane, dome or scissor switches are far quieter, have shorter keys and are likely the ones used in your laptop, the ones in the keyboards at school and those in any cheapo board you might have gotten free with your computer.
The advantages of the mechanical switch are great: they’re more robust, will last far longer, can be more accurate and are able to send every single keypress from board to PC no matter how much you bury your face in the keys. You also don’t have to press a mechanical switch all the way down to register an input, which makes them less fatiguing than non-mechanical switches where you do.
Non-mechanical switches are liable to fail a lot sooner than solid mech switches too, leading to a bit of a false economy when it comes to making that initial keyboard purchase. They’re also limited on the number of keypresses they can reliably send to the PC when many buttons are pressed at the same time, which arguably makes them less suitable for gaming.
But there are some who simply don’t get on with the feel of mechanical switches, often because the travel is too long and the keys too high. Or because they’re simply too loud. We’ve recently had the office filled with mechanical keyboards and Phil has started working from home a lot more.
There are also many, many different types of mechanical switch to choose from…
The biggest difference between them is whether they have a linear travel, a tactile click or a tactile bump. If they're linear then the key has a smooth travel all the way down to the bottom of the switch, if they have a tactile click you'll feel as we as hear the actuation point of the switch and with a tactile bump you'll just feel that actuation point.
Personally I prefer a linear switch. I find the sound of the other types uncomfortable, like the chitinous clicking of an arachnid from Starship Troopers, and the tactile bump just makes your keyboard feel gritty, like the sandwiches you take to the beach and no matter what hermetically-sealed container you've kept them in still contain sand for you to grate your teeth on.
We are starting to see more hybrid switches which combine the cost-effective nature of membrane switches with some of the mechanics of the costlier Cherry MX-type switches. Both Logitech and Cooler Master have released impressive budget keyboards with horribly named new membrane-ish switches.
You keyboard is the most direct input device for your PC so it makes sense for it to have easily accessible controls for other parts of your system. You'll find most gaming keyboards come with volume and media controls (play/pause, forward, back) as well as other more gamer-centric offerings, like the ability to shut off the Windows key to stop you being dragged back to the desktop by an accidental mis-strike.
These controls come in two forms: discrete and integrated. To save space, cash and design efforts a lot of manufacturers drop a function modifier into the layout, like you’ll find on most laptops, which gives you access to the controls on the F keys by holding down one key and stretching your hand to hit another at the top of your board. This is the least intuitive method and often means you’ll have to peer down at your keyboard trying to work out which button is the one to hit before double-dipping the keys.
Having discrete controls is by far the most preferable method because they need just a single press and are also easier to locate without having to waste time searching for it. The scrolling volume wheels of the Corsair K70 and latest Logitech boards also give you more fine grain control over the sound levels of your machine.
This is one of those terms that might not make sense to everybody out there. We sometimes talk about N-key rollover when discussing the features of mechanical keyboards, and it means the keyboard is able to capture every single keypress, in the order they were hit, no matter how many keys are depressed at the same time. Some mechanical and non-mechanical keyboards have a limited version of this and multi-key rollover can be anything from three to 26 simultaneous presses.