Mechanical keyboards are one thing for which some people fail to see the appeal. They can be expensive, excessively loud and some take up quite a bit of space on your desk. This judgement rarely persists past a few minutes of actually typing on one, however, and often this experience can turn even the harshest of sceptics into a loyal enthusiast. It can be absolute torture going back to a regular membrane keyboard after this.
Mechanical keyboards have experienced a resurgence in recent years and this trend has shown no sign of slowing down. While many people use mechanical keyboards for general productivity and working from home (they’re a bit noisy for a coworking or office space), arguably the largest and most devoted group of loyal patrons are gamers. For years, gamers have sworn by mechanical keyboards for many reasons besides fancy RGB backlighting effects.
Not only will they last through years or even decades of heavy and sustained use; they’re also faster, more precise, provide greater feedback and stay much more comfortable through prolonged use than virtually any membrane keyboard out there. If you’ve been gaming on a membrane keyboard for some time, one problem you may have come across is the inability for membrane keyboards to register multiple simultaneous keystrokes; while a regular keyboard will let you press 6 keys simultaneously, some only allow for as little as 3. This is where mechanical keyboards come into their own, with almost all offering an n-key rollover, allowing you to use 10 keys or more simultaneously. The only real limit is your number of fingers.
In this post, we’ll introduce every part and feature of a mechanical keyboard that must be considered when taking the plunge and investing in one. After all, it’s not always the cheapest of investments, but read on and you’ll know all you need to know to make sure that investment is a good one. We’ll then move on to the different types of mechanical keyboard out there, where I will recommend what I believe to be the best options for each out there.
If you’ve already decided that mechanical keyboards are for you and you already have a rough idea of what you’re after, feel free to use the table of contents below to skip to the relevant section.
What to consider
In this section, we’ll cover everything that you need to consider when it comes to choosing the right mechanical keyboard for your gaming needs. This is an important choice not just because it can be a bit of an investment, but because of their longevity. Mechanical keyboards are usually rated to last for at least 50 – 70 million keystrokes per key, whereas membrane keyboards are usually only tested to around 5 million, so choosing wisely here can bag you a reliable piece of equipment for years or even decades to come.
One of the most important features of any mechanical keyboard, one that will dictate the experience of every single keystroke, is the switch type you are using. They are what makes a mechanical keyboard a mechanical keyboard.
Switches come in many different forms, each of which is certainly not equal for certain tasks and games. The type of switch that a keyboard uses determines the amount of force that is needed to reach the actuation point, that is, the point at which a keystroke is registered, as well as the amount of feedback and the type of sound this makes.
Generally, there are three types of mechanical switch: ‘Linear’ switches (e.g. Cherry MX Red), which are the quietest switches of the lot with no noticeable tactile feedback, allowing for very smooth and fast keystrokes. ‘Tactile’ switches (e.g. Cherry MX Brown) are slightly louder and provide a noticeable tactile bump in the middle of the keystroke to indicate that a keystroke has been registered. ‘Clicky’ switches (e.g. Cherry MX Blue), surprisingly enough, are the clickiest and loudest of the three, offering the same tactile bump as tactile switches, but with slightly higher operating force and a louder, almost typewriter-esque sound.
Most mechanical keyboards will come with Cherry MX or Cherry MX compatible switches. Cherry MX switches are easily the most well-known switches out there, which is an indication of their quality, and this also means that mechanical keyboards with these types of switches are highly customisable as a large proportion of the keycaps on the market are Cherry MX compatible.
Which keycaps you’d want for gaming largely comes down to personal preference and how much feedback you want from each of your keys. Some prefer linear switches for the quietest and fastest gaming experience, while some prefer tactile switches with a higher operating force and a noticeable tactile bump to minimise accidental key presses. Some gamers also use clicky switches, although these are definitely not the best choice for games that involve fast-loading weapons battles.
Keycaps are another important feature to consider with any mechanical keyboard, and not just in the purely aesthetic sense. While many people choose their keycaps based solely on how they look, the material they’re made of should also be considered.
Most keycaps are made of one of three materials. ABS, the cheapest and most common keycap material that many keyboards’ stock keys are made of. Uncoated ABS keycaps can, however, become worn and shiny over prolonged and extensive use. PBS keycaps are thicker and tend to be more expensive, and they usually have a rougher, chalky feel to them when compared to their smoother and less durable ABS counterparts. Finally, POM keycaps, which are even less common than PBT, share their strength and rigidity. They also, unfortunately, tend to be even more expensive.
In short, any keycap material will suit the average gamer, so if you buy a prebuilt mechanical gaming keyboard, you should be fine with the keycaps it comes with. If you’re looking to customise your keyboard and are looking for keycaps that will last as long as your keyboard will, I’d strongly suggest going for PBT or POM keycaps.
Features: Programmability and RGB
Whether a gaming keyboard has programmable keys or not, and how many it has, is another key factor to take into account when choosing a mechanical keyboard for gaming. Most mechanical gaming keyboards offer around 10 to 20 keys that the user can program to carry out any custom action they want, adding another layer of customizability to the keyboard. Some keyboards, however, are fully customisable. Whether programmable keys are something that you will need in a gaming keyboard is, again, a matter of personal preference, but then, having the option available to you can never hurt.
One instantly recognisable feature, and one of the first that most people undoubtedly think of when they think of gaming keyboards, is RGB lighting. This allows a gamer to highlight certain keys so they stand out and require a shorter glance to find; they can also be set to give cooldown notifications, enemy alerts or whatever else you’d like to use your RGB functionality for.
A very obvious way to tell mechanical keyboards, or any keyboard for that matter apart, is their size and the number of available keys. Of course, the keyboard size that you choose will depend on the needs of the games you’re playing, as well as how much spare space you have on your desk.
The most common keyboard sizes available are:
- Full-size: the size everyone is likely to be familiar with, is the largest type of keyboard that has all function keys, as well as a number pad on the right.
- Tenkeyless (TKL): Tenkeyless keyboards usually have 87 keys, with all the keys included on a full-size keyboard, minus the number pad.
- 75%: this is essentially a tenkeyless keyboard, with the only difference being that the keys are closer together. The arrow keys and the keys above them are moved so that they join with the rest of the keyboard with no space in between any of the keys.
- 65%: This is a very compact type of keyboard which shares a layout with tenkeyless keyboards, with the only difference being the absence of the row of function keys above the number keys.
- 60%: The 60% is, in our opinion, as small as you can go without it getting in the way of the keyboards general usability when gaming. We wouldn’t recommend this keyboard for some types of gamers though as having a keyboard this small means losing the arrow keys as well.
Traditional vs ergonomic keyboards
This is a topic that’s likely to divide opinions. Some swear by ergonomic keyboards for gaming and general productivity, while others would take an offer to use one as an insult to them and their family.
Ergonomic keyboards differ from traditional keyboards in the positioning of their keys to improve productivity and to reduce postural stress and muscle strain by keeping their user in a more comfortable and natural position.
Ergonomic keyboards come in two types: Unibody keyboards and split-chassis keyboards. The former offers ergonomic key placement on a single-piece unit, with keys split up and angled specifically to suit the hand that operates them, while the latter is a keyboard split up into two halves, one for each hand. This allows the user to fully customise their typing experience by distancing and angling each side of the keyboard to suit their own preference.
While they can be worth it in the long run (after you’ve gotten used to them), it really is up to personal preference. Another thing to note is that if you will also use this keyboard to type day-to-day, for work or school for example, and you have an atypical typing technique (i.e. if you use some of the right-hand keys with your left hand or vice versa), your learning curve in using an ergonomic keyboard is likely to be much longer.
Best keyboards by type
Ok, now we’ve covered the ways in which mechanical gaming keyboards differ and exactly what to look out for when choosing one, let’s move on to the part you’re likely here for. Here, we’ll introduce some of our favourite keyboards for each of the categories we’ve covered so far and, where we honestly couldn’t decide due to the wealth of options available, we have included two or three.
Best entry-level keyboard
This offering from Redragon is a great entry-level option for anyone looking to get their first mechanical keyboard for gaming without breaking the bank. This keyboard comes with switches that are equivalent to Cherry’s linear MX Red switches, which offer relatively quiet, fast action with very little resistance and no tactile bump, and this version of this keyboard also comes with that all-important RGB backlighting.
If you’re looking for a cheap introduction to the world of mechanical keyboards, just to test the waters before splashing out for some of the models listed later in this post, look no further.
Best mid-level keyboard
HyperX Alloy FPS Pro
If you’re sure that you love gaming using a mechanical keyboard and are happy to part with a little bit more money, the tenkeyless little brother to the ever-popular HyperX Alloy FPS may be the exact keyboard you’re looking for. The build quality of this keyboard is evident as soon as you feel the weight of its solid-steel frame, which provides a very sturdy base for this keyboard.
This keyboard comes with 100% anti-ghosting and n-key rollover to ensure that all keystrokes are registered and accurate. This keyboard comes with the option to choose either HyperX red or RGB backlighting, both of which come with a variety of dynamic effects. You can also choose between Cherry HyperX Blue or HyperX Red switches, depending on your own needs and preferences.
Both switch options are tested to withstand 80 million keystrokes per key, so the HyperX Alloy FPS Pro is definitely a long-term investment and, while there are a lot of more feature-heavy keyboards out there (as you’ll see below), this is a great keyboard for any gamer that wants a reliable and high-quality mechanical keyboard and doesn’t mind doing without a number pad.
High-end, full-size keyboards
Corsair K95 RGB Platinum XT
To seasoned and even most new gamers, Corsair is one brand that needs no introduction. Corsair has spent years building a reputation for itself by building reliable and high-quality hardware, and the K95 Platinum XT is by no means an exception.
This model is an extended version of a full-size keyboard, offering six additional, fully programmable macro keys on the left-hand side, as well as dedicated media controls and a volume roller. It also comes with a 19-zone light edge and fully customisable RGB backlighting functionality, along with a cushioned, detachable wrist rest.
The build quality of this board is impressive and immediately evident as well, with authentic Cherry MX RGB Blue switches and thick PBT keycaps as standard. An additional feature that should be noted is that it also comes with Elgato Stream Deck software integration, which means that keys can be remapped and programmed to carry out special streaming commands or virtually anything else you’d want them to. For anyone happy to part with this amount of money, and particularly streamers and content creators, will find that money well spent on this board.
Razer Huntsman Elite
For serious gamers that aren’t too bothered about the extra macro keys and Elgato Stream Deck software integration, Razer’s Huntsman Elite is another fantastic option. If you’ve been looking for a mechanical gaming keyboard for any time at all, you’re likely to have already come across this model; it’s the best-selling gaming keyboard in the US.
The fact that it lacks the additional programmable macro keys found on the Corsair K95 Platinum XT does not, however, mean that this keyboard is one that is in any way light on features. This full-size keyboard comes with Razer’s own, high quality red (linear) or purple (clicky) optomechanical switches, three tactile media keys, as well as a multi-function digital dial that can control brightness, volume and more. These can be programmed and customised using Synapse 3 to allow you to truly personalise your experience with this gaming keyboard.
Along with features such as a detachable wrist rest, 10-key rollover with anti-ghosting, specialised gaming modes and on-the-fly macro customisation, a particularly useful feature included in this board is Razer Hypershift which, with a press of a single button, allows you to activate another set of functions in addition to the existing button control.
Arguably the greatest selling point for this board, something that seriously sets it apart from even its high-end competitors, is its optomechanical switches. While traditional mechanical keyboards register a keystroke when the switch bottoms out against a metallic contact point, completing the circuit and registering a keystroke, Razer’s optomechanical switches use light beams to do this. Now, as you may or may not know, the speed of light isn’t exactly sluggish which makes these, by far, the fastest keyboard switches on the market today.
So if all-out speed and accuracy is your primary concern, the Razer Huntsman Elite really is as good as it gets.
Alienware Pro AW768
Dell’s Alienware range is very well-known in the gaming community, and with good reason. If you’re someone that’s unfamiliar with their items, the Alienware Pro AW768 is a great way to find out why so many are so fond of Alienware products.
One thing that stands out as soon as you set eyes on this keyboard, is what it offers aesthetically. It comes with a premium, matte-silver finish, a uniquely shaped, angular footprint and an under light that stretches across the user-facing edge, mirroring the backlights of the keycaps above it. On the top right of the board, you’ll find a textured volume roller with mute button and to its right, there is an additional Alienware logo button that activates and deactivates the RGB backlights.
The AW768 comes with Cherry’s tactile MX Brown switches for those seeking the middle ground between linear and clicky switches. It also provides additional and fully programmable macro-keys on the left-hand side, as well as the n-key rollover with 100% anti-ghosting, though these are standard for pretty much any keyboard at this price point. It also comes with AlienFX, which allows you to program and modify your backlighting to suit whatever game you’re playing.
This, along with the fact that this keyboard comes in at a lower price point relative to other keyboards in this section, makes this an excellent choice for anyone looking for one of the best gaming keyboards out there without the need for the ridiculous speed of the Razer Huntsman Elite. If this sounds like you, and particularly if you have other Alienware products to allow you to make full use of this keyboard’s AlienFX functionality, this really is a no brainer.
SteelSeries Apex Pro
Our final keyboard in this section, the SteelSeries Apex Pro, is easily one of the best gaming keyboards with mechanical switches on the market as we enter 2021 and, while it’s not the cheapest, every last dime of its price is justified in sheer build quality, performance and longevity.
Like other keyboards in this section, the Apex Pro comes in a full-size layout complete with number pad, dedicated multimedia controls and volume roller, programmable macro keys and dynamic, per-key RGB illumination.
There are, however, some ways in which the Apex Pro has an edge over its competitors. For example, this keyboard features an OLED smart display near the volume roller near the top right of the keyboard, which can be used to display your settings, profiles and various pieces of in-game information. For CS: GO players, for example, this screen can display current KDA, money and more.
Another interesting feature is in its switches, which are tested to last over 100 million keypresses, though that isn’t even their most impressive feature. The Apex Pro’s magnetic key switches can be fully customised to whatever actuation point you prefer, so whether you want a keystroke to be registered at the slightest tap or only once the key has bottomed out, this keyboard will provide the perfect balance for you.
This is one of the fastest and most durable keyboards on the market which, along with its additional features such as the OLED screen and programmable actuation points, make this a definite contender for one of the all-round best gaming keyboards available for purchase today.
Best ten-key-less (TKL) keyboards
Razer Huntsman Tournament Edition
The second Razer Huntsman device on this list, the Tournament Edition is easily one of the best options out there for any gamer after a high-end, TKL mechanical keyboard. And don’t only take it from us, the Huntsman Tournament Edition is a common choice of primary keyboard for many esports professionals.
The Huntsman Tournament Edition also comes with Razer’s superfast optical switches, each of which will last you at least 100 million keystrokes, as well as double shot PBT keycaps and some onboard memory which allows you to store up to 5 different profile configurations with custom settings and layouts. This keyboard does, of course, come with RGB backlighting, which enables the user to choose from 16.8 million colour options so even the pickiest will be more than satisfied by the RGB functionality offered by this keyboard.
If you’re after an incredibly fast, high-end keyboard and you’re not too fussed about having a number pad, this might just be the perfect keyboard for you. The omission of the number pad doesn’t only provide a smaller physical footprint either; this keyboard comes in significantly cheaper than the Razer Huntsman Elite. With its speedy and highly durable switches, this keyboard really is future proof, making it a no brainer of an investment for anyone looking to enhance their gaming experience for years to come.
Logitech G Pro X
Another keyboard that heaps of esports professionals swear by is the Logitech G Pro X, and while Logitech didn’t make their name with gaming hardware, they’ve certainly cemented their spot in this market.
The Logitech G Pro X comes with all the features you’d expect from a high-end mechanical keyboard designed specifically with gamers in mind: a solid, sturdy base, highly durable mechanical switches, 12 programmable function keys and Logitech’s Lightsync RGB, which allows you to program several different modes, settings and animations using Logitech’s G Hub software.
One thing that certainly sets this keyboard apart, however, is that its durability doesn’t just come only from the quality of its switches. It actually comes from the fact that it can survive well past the 100 million keystroke lifetime of its switches, as these are fully swappable. This means that you can easily swap out and replace switches with the included tools so that, if one key breaks, you don’t have to do away with the whole keyboard.
For these reasons, the Logitech G Pro X is one keyboard that we believe would suit pretty much everyone that doesn’t mind the lack of a number pad or parting with that amount of money. And if you’re happy to swap your switches yourself (it really isn’t difficult or time-consuming), this could well be the very last keyboard you ever need to buy.
Best ergonomic keyboard
Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB Split
If you’re a gamer that prefers an ergonomic mechanical keyboard, unfortunately, there isn’t all that much choice out there. The limited choice you do have, however, is all you’ll ever need thanks to the existence of the Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB Split.
This keyboard’s split-chassis design allows its user to separate the two sides of the keyboard, placing them up to 20 inches apart in a variety of positions to ensure long-lasting comfort and performance. This, along with the included, detachable wrist rests, fully-reprogrammable keys and per-key RGB backlighting with 16.8 million colour options and 11 customisable effects, means that this keyboard has features that are unmatched by any other ergonomic gaming keyboard.
This keyboard comes with authentic Cherry MX switches as standard, with a choice of linear, tactile and clicky switches on offer. Another great feature is that this keyboard is compatible with operating systems other than Windows, so it can also be used on Mac, Linux and Chrome devices.
If you’re a gamer looking for a high-quality, ergonomic mechanical keyboard, the Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB Split is truly the top of the line. If gaming on ergonomic keyboards is your thing, this is a real no-brainer.
Best for OS hybrids
If you’ve been interested in mechanical keyboards for any length of time, you’ll very likely have heard of the Keychron K2. The highest funded keyboard ever listed on Kickstarter, this keyboard is a great, relatively low-cost alternative to a lot of the keyboards on this list.
While it was not designed specifically for gaming, it is very capable at it, and its features and price point mean that we have to include it on this list. You can choose between Gateron MX Brown, Red or Blue switches, and you also have the option to go for the hot-swappable version of the board. Backlighting is available in either plain white or RGB, although it must be noted that this functionality is not programmable, so you’ll rely on the 18 preloaded RGB settings.
What sets this keyboard apart, however, is that it has a dedicated switch on the left-hand side that lets you move between Windows and Mac devices seamlessly. This keyboard can be used by either wirelessly connecting to up to 3 devices, or with the included USB-C cable. What’s more, is that this keyboard actually comes with spare keycaps so that you can swap certain keys out to suit whichever operating system you are primarily using.
Overall, while this isn’t a mechanical keyboard designed specifically for gaming, the Keychron K2 still deserves its place on this list for anyone looking for a great, mid-level mechanical keyboard that can be used equally well with both Mac and Windows devices.
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So there we are; the best mechanical keyboards to order in 2021.
If you’re a gamer of very particular tastes and none of the keyboards listed here appeal to you, there is always another option. If nothing on the market suits your specific needs and preferences, you can always build one yourself. This can be a fun and rewarding project that’ll end with a perfectly personalised, 100% unique build and gaming experience. If this is something you’re interested in, be sure to sign on to our newsletter as we’ll post a step by step guide on this soon.