Whether you’re building a computer from scratch or looking to replace what you got in the box, picking a gaming keyboard that fits your needs and budget can be a bit of a slog. The gaming peripherals market is flooded with glowing, angular input devices that all promise to make your next 400 million keystrokes faster, more accurate, more satisfying and more brightly illuminated. Prices range up to well over $200/£200, and, aside from what colour the LED effects are, many keyboards appear functionally identical at first glance.
So what’s the difference and why should you care?
A keyboard is a keyboard, right? Well, it all depends on what kind of typing sensation you’re after, what functionality you need and how much money you’ve got to spend. Sussing out what you want a keyboard to do and how much you can spend to do it is pretty straightforward. Finding the keyboard that feels right to use might be a bit tougher, which is why we’re here to give you the best gaming keyboards available on the market right now.
If you picked up DOTA 2 on your MacBook and want a similar sensation for desktop sessions, you probably want a “chiclet” keyboard, which is characterized by membrane switches and low-profile keys. A good chiclet keyboard is quiet and responsive, though perhaps not quite as precise or durable as its big brother, the “mechanical” keyboard.
Rather than one keyboard-wide membrane, mechanical keyboards use per-key mechanical switches, which consist of a plunger, spring and electrical contacts. Mechanical keyboards above a certain price point typically use “Cherry MX” switches, which are manufactured by the eponymous Cherry corporation. Razer, Logitech and others also make their own proprietary mechanical switches, but Cherry MX switches are considered the gold standard. If you want full-height keys, are a stickler for consistency and/or want typing to be an engaging physical sensation, you probably want a mechanical keyboard.
Either way, a new gaming keyboard will be a welcome upgrade from the stock device you’re used to – provided, of course, that it’s one of the excellent options we’ve selected below as the best gaming keyboards available today.
1. Corsair K70 RGB Rapidfire
Great at everything, except being cheap
Interface: Wired USB | Keyboard backlighting: Customizable RGB | Programmable keys: All | Features: Cherry MX Speed (Silver) mechanical switches, supports Windows 7+
Corsair’s K70 RGB Rapidfire mechanical keyboard is our top pick for an all-purpose gaming keyboard, provided you’ve got a PC and the funds. The RGB Rapidfire features a full keyboard layout mounted on top of Cherry MX Speed switches, which are linear, non-clicky switches that require less force to actuate (and travel a shorter distance) than other Cherry MX switches, hence the “Rapidfire” designation.
Every key is assignable via the Corsair Utility Engine suite, as are the individual RGB LEDs that back each key, making for a keyboard that is definitively your own in both form and function. There are also dedicated media controls and an onboard USB passthrough port, which effectively moves an existing USB port from your PC to your keyboard, rather than providing an additional port.
From where we sit, the only major downsides are the price, and the fact that there’s no OSX version of Corsair Utility Engine. The keyboard also requires two separate USB connections if you’re hooking it up through USB 2.0 ports, which is a little weird and inconvenient but not a deal breaker by any stretch. If your taste in games is as varied as the colors you’d like your keyboard to be capable of making, the K70 RGB Rapidfire is the best around.
As an aside, here’s a little tip from our pocketbook to yours: the non-RGB version of this keyboard, called the Corsair K70 Rapidfire (note the missing “RGB” qualifier), is exactly the same keyboard in all respects, save that it only glows red, rather than any color you can think of. For that one trade off, it can be yours for a lot less.
2. Razer BlackWidow Chroma
The high watermark for Mac gaming keyboards
Interface: Wired USB | Keyboard backlighting: Customizable RGB | Programmable keys: All | Features: 5 dedicated macro keys, Razer Mechanical Green switches, supports Windows 7+ and OSX 10.8 – 10.11
For the OSX diehard that also takes pride in their Steam collection, Razer’s BlackWidow Chroma is the best on the block. In addition to a full keyboard layout, the BlackWidow Chroma also features five dedicated macro buttons within WASD distance, which adds a layer of utility not found in the Corsair K70 family.
As one would expect from a keyboard this expensive, every key (and its corresponding RGB LED) is user assignable to an impressive degree, thanks to Razer’s Synapse customization software. If you’ve got other compatible Chroma peripherals, Synapse will also coordinate color patterns across all attached products, turning your battlestation into your own little slice of Tron.
Feel-wise, the BlackWidow Chroma uses Razer’s proprietary “Green” class of mechanical switches, which are roughly analogous to Cherry MX Blues. This means that Razer Green switches are both clicky and tactile, which translates to an audible clack and perceptible bump with every press of a key. There is also a Chroma “Stealth” version of the BlackWidow, which employs Razer’s quieter Orange switches, though it can be a bit tougher to find than its clicky sibling.
The BlackWidow Chroma one-ups the K70 again with its passthrough ports, which touts audio out and microphone in, in addition to USB. The only downside here is that these ports are placed on the right side of the keyboard, which, depending on the size of your desk and your handedness, may crowd your mouse zone with additional cabling.
Beyond that, there’s not much to dislike about the BlackWidow Chroma. Razer also produces some that sacrifice keys, colors or both to save cost, should everything here sound great except for the price.
3. Corsair Gaming K95 RGB
When you absolutely must have a button for everything
Interface: Wired USB | Keyboard backlighting: Customizable RGB | Programmable keys: All | Features: 18 dedicated macro keys, Cherry MX Red mechanical switches, supports Windows 7+
For the MMO maverick that wants it all and wants it right now, nothing provides faster access to abilities and macros than Corsair’s K95 RGB gaming keyboard. The K95 RGB takes almost everything great about the K70 RGB Rapidfire and slaps 18 dedicated macro keys on the left-hand side, which can be be used to trigger up to 108 macros.
Beyond that, the K95 features all the same bells and whistles as the K70 RGB Rapidfire, save for the passthrough USB port, which has gone missing. For a keyboard that costs this much though, we’d expect to not lose any features present on cheaper models in the same series.
There’s another slight difference, though whether it’s good or bad is a matter of personal preference. The K95 uses Cherry MX Red switches, rather than the Cherry MX Speed units found on the K70 RGB Rapidfire. Reds have a slightly taller actuation point than Speed switches, and have a slightly longer travel distance, though both require the same amount of force to actuate. Does this mean that MX Red switches are slower or more laborious to use than MX Speed switches? In practice, not really. Reds and Speeds are different, but that difference is measured in tenths of a millimeter. Both types are non-tactile, non-clicky switches and either makes for an excellent keyboard.
4. SteelSeries Apex M500
Mechanical minimalism for Macs and PC
Interface: Wired USB | Keyboard backlighting: Blue LED | Programmable keys: All | Features: Cherry MX Red mechanical switches, supports Windows 7+ and OSX 10.8+
The SteelSeries Apex M500 is a down-to-business, rough-and-tumble mechanical keyboard built for performance and simplicity. There are no dedicated macro keys (though all keys are assignable), no additional ports, no prismatic palm rest or NCIS font on the keys. It’s simple, elegant, and functional, and that’s what we love about it.
It’s also fully compatible with OSX, which is a feat few manufacturers (aside from Razer) take the time to accomplish. Cherry MX Red switches provide smooth, reliable keystrokes, and while the backlighting only comes in blue, you can at least adjust the brightness and toggle/tweak a “breathing” animation.
There are plenty of features this keyboard lacks when compared to its contemporaries, but that’s the point – this does exactly what you need and nothing more. Our only real complaint is that the USB cable is your run-of-the-mill plastic variety, rather than a more durable braided cable, as can be found on competing keyboards.
5. Razer DeathStalker Essential
Style and function for a great price
Interface: Wired USB | Keyboard backlighting: None | Programmable keys: All | Features: Chiclet keys and membrane switches
The DeathStalker Essential is, for its price, about as rad a gaming keyboard as you’re likely to find from a pedigree manufacturer. Its chiclet keys are responsive and light, and each one is fully programmable to the same degree of complexity as the mechanical switches found on Razer’s high-end keyboards.
Since we’re keen on chiclet keys around these parts, the DeathStalker Essential’s only downside is its lack of backlighting. That issue is solved by the and versions of the DeathStalker, which feature programmable green and RGB LEDs, respectively. They’re pricier than the DeathStalker Essential, which is why we’re not recommending them as the best budget options, but if chiclet keys are your main goal then go for those. Even if you’re the type that adamantly dislikes chiclet keyboards, the DeathStalker Essential is worth consideration due to its capabilities and low cost of entry.