WHAT TO CONSIDER
Pardon me for being obvious, but wireless keyboard shoppers should care about the same things they would for a regular keyboard…only it’s wireless. Expect to pay a significant premium over wired designs, at least when looking at multiple models from the same category or brand. More personal and subjective features, like the feel of mechanical switches, might necessitate a trip to your local electronics store (or tracking down a handy key switch tester for trying dozens at once).
Gaming keyboards tend to use RF wireless with a USB dongle, instead of a Bluetooth connection, which is more popular with modern “standard” wireless keyboards. That’s because it allows manufacturers to use a more reliable, direct connection with a higher polling rate—that means the connection between the board and your computer refreshes much more often, minimizing input lag.
Some advanced models still include Bluetooth, along with fancier options like pairing multiple devices to the same USB dongle. Range typically isn’t a concern if you’re using a keyboard with a gaming desktop, but you might want to think about it if you have a gaming PC hooked up to your TV. Most high-end wireless gaming keyboards can also use a direct wired USB connection, if you’re worried about wireless interference in a crowded environment.
Modern mechanical keyboards come in a staggering array of switch varieties, from smooth and linear to loud and clicky, with tons of options for mechanisms and spring strength. The only real way to know which one you prefer is to try ’em out (retail store displays are great for this). That said, more expensive keyboards tend to come with nicer, high-quality switches from name brands like Cherry and Gateron. For the ultimate in customization, track down a keyboard with hotswap switches, which let you swap out the switches for new and different ones whenever you want.
Recently more-advanced types of switches have emerged, like optical and “laser” switches tripped by interrupting a beam of light, or “mag lev” switches that allow you to adjust the force it takes to activate the key. These are interesting, but tend to lack actual utility (unless you have truly superhuman perception) and increase the price of the keyboards phenomenally.
Keycaps are the little pieces of plastic that sit on top of the switches—what your fingers press down on. Switching out the keycaps for a set of nicer ones, maybe made of better PBT plastic or themed after your favorite TV show, is a popular and easy keyboard mod. Some keyboard makers even sell their own upgrade sets. Keycaps with a Cherry MX– compatible stem will work with almost all modern mechanical switches; just make sure you find a set that matches the layout of your particular keyboard.
Unlike with gaming mice, battery life generally isn’t a big concern with gaming keyboards. They’re big enough that there’s plenty of space for internal batteries that last for weeks, or even months, between charges. That is, unless you overuse that fancy RGB lighting with dazzling animation…in which case, it might last just a few days or hours. If it’s available, check the milliamp-hour (mah) rating for the battery.
The layout of the keys on your keyboard varies more than you might think. Full-size keyboards include a 10-key area to the right of the arrow cluster, but gaming models often omit this to make more room for mouse movements, calling this the “10-key-less” layout. Some keyboards go even smaller, with 60% the smallest that mainstream brands use, chopping off the Function row, 10-key area, and even the arrow keys (which have to be
accessed via a Fn button). A few designs go even larger than the full layout, with an extra column or two of programmable keys for custom bindings or macros. Which one you want comes down to a matter of available space and, perhaps more pertinently, taste.
These general layouts shouldn’t be confused with country- and region-specific key layouts, like ANSI and ISO. Most popular designs are available in at least those two variants.
Even budget gaming keyboards come with LED backlights these days, though they might not offer the fully programmable, device-synced light show companies like Razer and Corsair delight in. Unless you’re constantly playing in the dark and you can’t touch-type, that show is entirely cosmetic. It’s fun; that’s about it.
Keyboard makers are forever trying to one-up each other with extra features. For a mechanical board you can generally expect a removable USB cable (maybe a braided one for nicer boards), and possibly an included keycap puller and wrist rest. Larger boards usually include dedicated media controls, and the nicer ones get a fully programmable wheel or knob. An especially nice option is on-device memory, allowing you to keep key layout programs without running a driver program on each new computer.