16 top office, gaming and portable keyboards on test
HERE AT SHOPPER we spend a lot of time and words on finding the most powerful PCs, the fastest smartphones and tablets, the most efficient processors, and so on. And while it is important to make sure that you buy the best tech hardware you can, it would all be for little if your tools for using them were rubbish.
Yet many people are willing to put up with a mediocre keyboard. It is, along with the mouse, your physical interface, your way of deriving utility and entertainment from the PC, handheld device or even smart TV that you have spent so much on.
Don’t, then, settle for small, spongy keys or dodgy build quality; look for something that’s genuinely worthy of all the time you will – quite literally – have your hands on it. To help out, we’ve tested and rated 16 keyboards, from sub-£10 Bluetooth models to premium gaming gear, and here’s our buyer’s guide to choosing the right board.
FITTING THE OCCASION
It goes without saying that there will be different keyboards for different uses, so be clear about how and where you intend to use
yours. General office keyboards are perhaps the most common, but that doesn’t mean that standards for them are any lower. They need to be fast and responsive enough to keep up with skilled touch-typists, and since they’re likely to be used for long typing sessions, they should be comfortable to use even if they’re not specialised ergonomic aids.
Portable keyboards can have a tougher time, since they must balance the need to be thin and light with the requirement to provide a sufficiently practical typing experience; some simply settle for having tiny keys, which can be disastrous for speed and accuracy. In our experience, anything much smaller than a laptop keyboard is likely to be more trouble than it’s worth. Many portable keyboards save space by dropping the number pad – this is known as a tenkeyless design.
Gaming keyboards couldn’t be more different; they’re designed to pair up with powerful desktops, and thus value strong builds, extra keys and high-end mechanisms far more than they aim for minimised form factors. Like their favoured PCs, they’re also keen on flashy features such as customisable backlighting and programmable keys.
MERCHANTS OF DOME
The second most important thing to consider is the type of keyswitch technology used by each keyboard; in other words, the mechanism each key uses to register an input.
The cheapest style includes a thin plastic sheet covered in circuitry, typically referred to as the membrane. Pressing a key forces down an internal plunger, which makes contact with the membrane, completing an electrical circuit and sending the appropriate input to the connected computer. To add resistance (and make sure the key pops back up after being pressed), each key has a small rubber dome underneath, which collapses when depressed.
There are numerous variations on the membrane/rubber dome switch combo, such as Topre switches, which use spring-loaded keys and capacitive sensors instead of completing a circuit through physical contact. There are also scissor-switches, which mount the keycap on an interlocking scissor mechanism that allows for a much shallower travel distance in order to depress the dome.
The main membrane alternative are fully mechanical switches. These incorporate a full switch in each key (so each input comes from the individual mechanism, not from a shared membrane) and can be configured to offer various degrees of tactile or auditory feedback, which we’ll discuss shortly. ‘Linear’ mechanical switches, such as Cherry MX Reds or SteelSeries QX2s, simply move up and down with little noise, but other designs can add a little bump sensation (so you can clearly tell when a key has fully depressed, or ‘bottomed out’), or an added, audible click sound.
To some, this might beg the question of why you’d want a keyboard to be louder, and potentially distracting, than it needs to be. Ultimately, it all comes down to feedback: how tangibly you can sense that a key has fully depressed, thus ensuring a successful input. Auditory feedback can thus be quite useful for speedy touch-typists, as an unexpectedly absent click or clack can signal that keystrokes have been accidentally missed.
On the tactile side, a bump (or any kind of resistance) can serve a similar purpose: if you don’t feel the bump, you’ve probably missed a key. Feedback can also train you to be a better typist, as you’ll actively attempt to produce the click sound or bump feeling with more accurate, decisive strokes.
This is why, despite mechanical switch keyboards typically costing more, we’ll usually recommend them more readily than rubber dome keyboards, as mechanical switches tend to deliver clearer, cleaner feedback than dome switches. The latter, on the other hand, have a tendency to feel mushy and indistinct.
This might leave linear mechanical switches, which intentionally lack a tactile bump or added click noise, as a weak link, but that’s not the case: their smooth, fast and consistent depressing action makes them perfect for gaming. The lack of auditory feedback actually works well here, too – a game’s soundtrack or dialogue would otherwise be competing with constant real-life clicking, unless you were to wear noise-cancelling headphones.
While a quality core typing/gaming experience can outweigh a lack of extra features, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the latter. Things such as integrated USB ports can be useful for office workers and enthusiast gamers alike, while more specialised features can make a good keyboard great – such as the ability of Bluetooth keyboards to pair with several devices at once.
We’ve paid extra attention to side features on gaming keyboards, since these are usually the most awash with them. RGB lighting is a common party trick, and a very good one, combining user customisation with better readability in low light. Setting lighting colours and effects is mostly done via optional software, which can also be used to set custom key bindings; we’ll take a look at each manufacturer’s take on such software as well.