Gaming Keyboard Buyers Guide
The Best Gaming Keyboards
The humble keyboard is much more important than a tool for typing emails and amusing comments on your favourite social media platform, picking the right keyboard can make you a better gamer. As there are hundreds of gaming keyboards to choose from, this guide will give you all you need to know to pick the perfect gaming keyboard.
Rubber Dome vs Mechanical Keyboards
There are two main types of gaming keyboard to choose between, keyboards with rubber dome switches or keyboards with mechanical switches. This terminology refers to the technology used to detect when you press down on a key. Both types of switch are available because there’s a considerable cost difference between the two, with mechanical keyboards being a lot more expensive to produce.
How Rubber Dome Keyboards Work
These keyboards feature a membrane layer which is covered by rubber domes under each key. As a key is depressed the dome flexes downwards, causing the inner surface, which is coated with graphite to close a circuit, which sends an electrical signal to your PC. When you release the key it is pushed back into its normal resting position by tension in the rubber dome. Due to their lost cost rubber dome keyboards this is the most common type of keyboard available with a huge variety to choose from.
How Mechanical Keyboards Work
These keyboards feature spring-loaded mechanical switches under each key. As a key is depressed the switch closes and sends an electrical signal to your PC. When you release the key it is pushed back into its normal resting position by the tension in the spring.
Now you know the differences between how rubber dome and mechanical keyboards work here’s what these differences actually translate to when gaming.
The biggest difference between rubber dome keyboards and mechanical keyboards is how much tactile feedback they provide on your keystrokes. Mechanical keyboards win hands down here as they provide smooth movement before activating while rubber dome keyboards can feel a bit mushy as the dome compresses.
With no mechanical moving parts rubber dome keyboards are much quieter than most mechanical keyboards. While touch typists will probably appreciate the noise of a mechanical keyboard, you can buy mechanical keyboards with special low noise switches if the clacking really bothers you.
The keycaps on most mechanical keyboards can be removed so you can clean the whole keyboard, including the all-important tray under the keys where dirt and germs builds up. In contrast, the keycaps on membrane keyboards are normally not removable so you can only really clean the tops of the keys, not underneath.
Each time a rubber dome is compressed it loses some of its flexibility, so over time commonly used keys such as WSAD become less responsive and will eventually stop responding to your keystrokes. This is far less of a problem with mechanical keyboards which wear out more evenly and as a result typically have a much longer usable life than a rubber dome keyboard.
Mechanical Switches Explained
If you like the sound of a mechanical keyboard it’s worth pointing out that there are various types of switches available, each with their own set of characteristics. The most popular brand of mechanical switches is Cherry and you can find its switches in many brands of keyboard. Cherry uses colours rather than model numbers to differentiate its various models of switch, and you can normally find this clearly listed in the description of the keyboard. Here’s a list of the most popular Cherry switches and our guide to why you would pick one over another.
Linear vs Tactile Switches
Cherry mechanical switches can be divided up into two groups, those with linear switching characteristics and those with tactile switching characteristics.
Linear switches, as illustrated by this Cherry MX Red, glide straight down as you press down on the key cap.
In contrast, tactile switches, as illustrated by this Cherry MX Brown, require a little extra force to activate approximately midway down the travel, providing you with physical feedback that the key has been activated. For this reason many typists value keyboards with tactile switches.
Cherry MX Red and Silent Red
Cherry MX Red is one of the most popular linear switch types with gamers due to its low actuation force of 45cN. This makes them ideal for fast paced games such as FPS and MMOs and great for typing too. The standard Red switches are just as noisy as Black switches, but there’s also a Silent Red switch too which is much quieter and have a slightly shorter travel distance.
Cherry MX Speed Silver
Cherry MX Speed Silver linear switches have the same light 45cN actuation force and clicking sound of Red switches but cut the pre-travel down from 2 to 1.2mm and the total travel from 4 to 3.4mm. This means they actuate far quicker than Reds or other switches for that matter, so they could give you an edge in fast paced games. The downside to Speed Silver switches is that because the keys are so sensitive it’s quite easy to double type or even accidently press keys when your hand is resting on the keyboard.
Cherry MX Black and Silent Black
One of the oldest models of mechanical switches, Cherry MX Black linear switches are notable for their high actuation force of 60cN. This makes them one of the stiffest switches available, which can be a rude shock if you’re used to the more gentle feel of a rubber dome keyboard. Black switches are also very noisy, although there are now Silent Black versions which are much quieter and have a slightly shorter travel distance. Even so, unless you really like noisy and heavy keys we wouldn’t recommend a Black or Silent Black keyboard for gaming.
Cherry MX Brown
Cherry MX Browns are tactile switches with a 55cN operating force part-way between the linear Red and Black switches. This makes them a popular choice with typists and a good choice for playing all types of games thanks to their good balance between force, travel and noise.
Cherry MX Black and Silent Black
Cherry MX Blues are another type of tactile switch, but require a high operating force of 60cN to activate compared to the lighter Brown tactile switches. Blues also have a longer pre-travel distance than Browns and can sound pretty clicky. Most people found Blues too noisy for gaming, although they are good for typists, just don’t sit too close to somebody with a keyboard with Blue switches.
This table highlights the main characteristics of the Cherry MX range of mechanical switches.
|Red||Silent Red||Speed Silver||Black||Silent Black||Brown||Blue|
|Operating Force (cN)||45||45||45||60||60||55||60|
|Total Travel (mm)||4||3.7||3.4||4||3.7||4||4|
|Comparative Noise (0 silent, 10 noisy)||8||5||8||8||5||9||10|
If you’re still unsure use this decision tree to help steer you in the right direction. (click below)
Gaming Keyboards vs Office Keyboards
Whether you choose a rubber dome or a mechanical gaming keyboard, many models offer much more than basic typing. These are some of the other features more advanced gaming keyboards have to offer.
Ghosting happens when you press too many keys in a short period of time for the keyboard controller to handle and it ends up losing keystrokes. For most office keyboards the limit is normally just two to three keys. However, a well-designed gaming keyboard will have a much higher limit, often as many as 10 keys, enabling you to type in a complex series of commands without losing keystrokes. This is sometimes also referred to as the number of rollovers the keyboard can cue in sequence.
Give yourself an edge by choosing a gaming keyboard with dedicated function keys and Windows software that enable you to create custom macros that playback a sequence of complex keystrokes and mouse clicks with just a single keystroke. Streamers can also take advantage of this functionality by using the special keys on some Corsair keyboard to map commands such as starting, pausing and stopping recording when integrated with the company’s Elgato Stream Deck Software.
Backlighting and RGB
Many gaming keyboards have a simple backlight under the keys, but more advanced models use RGB lighting in each individual key. The best gaming keyboards include Windows software that enables you to create your own lighting patterns.
Corsair iCUE is worth a special mention as it connects all your compatible products together in a single Windows application, giving you complete control of everything from RGB lighting and effects to fan speeds and temperature monitoring.
Not every keyboard is created equal, and some have extra buttons and dials that allow you control your favourite media players and adjust audio volume on the fly.
Wired vs Wireless Keyboards
Wireless keyboards help you to reduce the cable clutter around your PC and while a perfectly good option for general home or office use have too much latency for gaming. As such we’d strongly recommend opting for a wired gaming keyboard.
The Best Gaming Keyboards
There you have it, everything you need to know about choosing a new gaming keyboard. We hope you've found this buyer’s guide helpful. Don't hesitate to contact one of our friendly advisors if you still have questions on how to select the perfect gaming keyboard. If you’re all set to go we recommend checking out these top gaming keyboards.