Over the last couple of years, gaming keyboards have undergone a retro revolution quite unlike anything we’ve seen in PC land before. They’ve driven a DeLorean back three decades, ditching modern technology for a type of key that first debuted in the early 80s. Mechanical keyboards are back, ready to drive your friends and family insane with their loud clickety clack keys.
Until recently, the most common gaming keyboards were what’s known as ‘full-travel membrane’ keyboards, which are still popular outside of gaming. Underneath each key is a rubber dome, with a capacitive core at its centre. When the user pushes the key, the dome flexes downwards, pressing down on a membrane which registers the contact as a keystroke. These keyboards are very cheap to make, as there are few moving parts, and it’s also resistant to spills, as the electronic circuitry is partially protected by the rubber membrane that each dome forms a part of. Their silent keystrokes are also a godsend in today’s open-plan offices.
Before the invention of these quiet keyboards, most PCs used keyboards with buckling spring switches, which all-but died off after the cheaper membrane tech took over. Yet a small niche of hardcore gamers and typists still used buckling based keyboards, and IBM’s Model M keyboard was seen as the Stradivarius of keyboards in those small circles. First released in 1985, these exquisitely engineered mechanical products were still working 20 years later. The lucky few who owned one preferred the mechanical keys within.
Not your Dad’s mechanical keyboard
Today’s mechanical keys, however, are built quite differently to the Model M and its buckling switches, though they do share many of the same benefits. In a mechanical keyboard, a self-contained switch is behind every key, containing a base, spring and a stem. Many gamers love them, for several key reasons.
Most mechanical switches register the keystroke when the key is only half-depressed, shaving precious milliseconds off the time needed to register each keystroke. Secondly, the loud click emitted by each keystroke makes it easy for the gamer to confirm that the keystroke has been registered. These keys also require a little more force to activate, making it hard to accidentally activate the wrong key. Finally, hard-plastic and spring set up used in mechanical keyboards should essentially last forever – the rubber in a membrane keyboard deteriorates over time.
There are dozens of types of mechanical switches on the market, but by far the most popular are those made by a company called Cherry. The company makes several types of switch, using different designs to deliver different physical feedback when a key is pressed. Each design is known by a colour designation – such as blue, brown, red or black – which is derived from the colour of plastic used by Cherry when manufacturing the keys.
Blue switches are generally the most-favoured among pro gamers – when pressed, they provide strong feedback both acoustically (generating a very loud click) and physically (with a noticeable ‘hump’ that requires a little more finger force to overcome) at the point of actuation. Brown switches have a similar ‘hump’ as their blue siblings, so you can tell physically when the key has been pressed, but are much quieter.
Red and black switches lack the hump, travelling straight up and down, but using different springs – red switch springs are fairly soft and loose and can often be pressed just by resting your fingers against the keys, while black switch springs are tighter and more resistive, so require a little more force to be activated.
To help you through the minefield of mechanical keyboard hell, here are eight of the best models reviewed for you’re purchasing pleasure.
1. Cooler Master CM Storm Mech
It wasn’t long ago that $200 for a mechanical keyboard was considered a bargain, but times have changed. At this price, the Mech is one of the most expensive keyboards in our roundup, but Cooler Master has given buyers plenty of reasons to foot the bill.
This thing is built to last – the silver part you can see in the photos is all aluminium, meaning that it’s one of the most solid and stable typing platforms around. The black palm wrist is plastic though, and to be frank it’s not the most comfortable wrist-rest we’ve seen. There’s a wide gap between it and the aluminium keyboard, designed to show off a ridge of LED lighting but which presses into the palm of the user.
It’s also very angular, forgoing the flowing, organic lines found in ergonomically designed products. Finally, it’s lacking the smooth rubberised coating found on most other wrist-rests; we wish it was detachable, so it could be replaced with something more comfortable. Strangely the aluminium cover is detachable, apparently designed to make cleaning easier.
Each key is backed by a back-lit Cherry MX Blue switch, which is described as having a relatively light touch, with a tactile bump as each key registers. These are also rather loud switches, so your roommates probably won’t appreciate it during your 3am raids. Twin USB 3.0 ports adorn the rear of the keyboard, alongside the mic in/headphone out ports. Five dedicated macro keys sit on the left hand side of the keyboard, which can be configured using Cooler Master’s simple software.
The Mech ticks all the necessary boxes, apart from comfort, which is a biggie. It’s also rather pricey thanks to it being built like a brick outhouse.
Verdict: Solid and stable, but it’s expensive and not particularly comfortable.
2. Corsair Vengeance K70
Compared to some of the brutes in this round up, the K70 is a very trim keyboard indeed. The left and right sides extend about 2mm past the edge of keys, and the bottom and top don’t have much more than room than that either. It’ll fit a cluttered or smaller desk much more easily than bigger ‘boards, yet still houses a full-sized keyboard.
The chassis is built from sturdy aluminium, and the key layout couldn’t be any more ordinary, which is just fine by us. Having to re-learn a weird layout so you can frag in the dark isn’t much fun. The detachable wrist-rest has a nice soft rubber coating, although it’s a tiny bit low for our liking – a touch more height might have been even comfier.
While most keyboards allow the function keys to double as media keys via the use of a shift key, the K70’s dedicated media control keys are a pleasant addition. Found just above the numpad on the right side of the keyboard, there’s even a nice, solid volume wheel.
Cherry MX Brown switches powered our review K70’s keys, a switch that is described as requiring little force, registers a tactile bump when pressed, yet lacks the clicky sound of other Cherry keys. Compared to a membrane board, it’s still relatively loud. Corsair also offers the K70 with Cherry MX Red and Blue keys, depending on your preferred type. Each key is backlit, including brightness controls and the ability to only have certain keys lit.
The K70 is a well built, well rounded keyboard, and it just happens to have a rather appropriate price. Recommended for those looking for a slightly smaller keyboard.
Verdict: A pleasing combination that delivers all the essential features in a trim design at a nice price.
3. Gigabyte Aivia Osmium
With its wrist-rest attached, this behemoth of a keyboard will happily eat any spare desk space you might have. The all-plastic wrist-rest is almost as wide as the keyboard, which gives good support. Unfortunately the plastic finish means it’s not the comfiest resting spots around. It’s also got one of the steepest typing angles when the legs underneath are extended, which makes it easier to reach all of the keys.
Unlike the preceding two keyboards, the Osmium is built entirely from plastic, with no fancy aluminium faceplate. It still feels very solid and heavy though. An extra row of keys along the top of the keyboard includes five macro keys, as well as rotating wheels for system volume and backlight brightness.
Strangely we couldn’t get the volume knob to work, yet clicking on it muted the system, as it’s meant to do. Another large button on the top right of the keyboard changes the profile the keyboard is set to, and each profile can have different macros stored for the relevant keys.
Speaking of keys, the Osmium comes with Cherry Red MX switches, which require a relatively light touch to activate. They’re linear, which means there’s no tactile bump as the key is pressed; instead the pressure required increases the further the key is pressed. The Red switches are also one of the quieter switches around, but this author has been told off more than once for typing late at night on one.
Given the proximity in price to the K70, the Osmium ends up looking a little overpriced, as it lacks the metal finish and dedicated media keys of the K70. As a result, it’s only worthy of your attention if you can find one for a much cheaper price than the $140 it’s currently going for.
Verdict: A gargantuan board with macro capabilities, but the all-plastic design doesn’t quite match the asking price.
4. Logitech G710+
As one of the biggest brands in gaming peripherals, it took a surprisingly long while for Logitech to release a mechanical keyboard. The 710+ is one of the more affordable mechanical keyboards around – unless you buy it direct from Logitech’s online store, where you’ll pay almost $100 more than street pricing. Let’s see what this respected company has come up with for one of its first mechanical efforts.
The first thing we noticed was the feeling of each key – they felt softer than most mechanical keys, with a much quieter click. The spec sheet doesn’t mention them, so we assumed they were built in-house. However, it turns out they’re Cherry MX Browns, and each reportedly has a special O-ring added, which could be why this keyboard sounded much quieter than the Corsair K70.
Now, most mechanical keyboards are expensive thanks to the higher cost of each switch, so we assumed the 710+ would have a very high price given the large number of additional keys. Six macro keys line the left side of the keyboard, with another four at the top, which control the currently loaded profile. Then there are the custom media controls and lighting controls, along with a volume knob. Each key is backlit, with customisable brightness and on/off functionality.
How Logitech managed to deliver all of these extra keys for such a low street price is beyond us. It’s even very comfortable to use, despite the plastic wrist rest. It might be Logitech’s first mechanical keyboard, but they’ve absolutely nailed it. Highly recommended if you like the softer sensation of Cherry Brown switches, and even more so if you need a quiet mechanical board.
Verdict: Provides comfortable Cherry-brown switches are much quieter than most, plus a huge range of features at a keen price. Nuff said.
5. Ducky DK9087 Shine 3
Ducky is a rather obscure maker of keyboards, only found in a limited number of stores in Australia. However, the brand has proven very popular with hardcore gamers due to their incredible build quality, and unique form factor.
The DK9087 is perfect for those who game from the couch using a lap board, as the lack of the numpad makes it one of the smallest gaming keyboards on the market.
This version of the DK90087 focuses on delivering an impressive light show when in use. There are around five different light modes, from spooky pulsing to a mode where only keys that you’ve touched light up.
Buyers needn’t settle on one specific type of Cherry MX switch, as every major colour is available. Our sample came with Cherry MX Red switches, the type favoured by first person shooter players.
Helping to make the board so reliable is the use of a dual layer PCB under the keys, even though it’s mainly built from plastic. There are no macro keys or other features, making this rather expensive compared to the competition.
Verdict: Strong yet simple, the lack of features makes this niche keyboard a hard sell compared to the feature-stacked competition.
Web: PC Case Gear
6. Roccat Ryos MK Pro
As one of the biggest keyboards in our roundup, the MK Pro needs plenty of desk space to call home. It’s also saddled with the highest price tag in the roundup, well in excess of other, similarly-specced keyboards. Why does Roccat think they can charge such a premium?
With five macro keys and three mode keys, there are plenty of extra keys for accessing your macros. The unique position of three of these just under the space bar makes them much easier to reach than other profile mode keys, a touch other keyboard makers would do well to replicate. A couple of USB 2.0 pass through ports are welcomed, though USB 3.0 should have been the norm at this price point.
Four different types of Cherry MX key are available, and they’re all backlit. Once again we see a board focusing on delivering more light modes than your local disco, but gamer will tend to stick with simply lighting the entire set. Despite the high price point, the entire board is built from plastic.
The Ryos MK Pro has many of the features found on premium boards, yet lacks many others. As a result we simply can’t justify the incredibly high price point, especially when boards like Logitech G710+ do everything so much better.
Verdict: It might look large and impressive, but that high price simply isn’t warranted.
7. SteelSeries 6G v2
Compared to most of the keyboards in the roundup, the 6G v2 looks strangely… normal. It’s not big nor small, there are no flashing LED lights or backlit keys, and there’s not a flaming dragon in sight. Nope, the 6G v2 has simple goals – to build a regular keyboard backed up by the power of mechanical keys.
Built using Cherry MX Black keys, they require medium force and provide a linear feedback. Unlike nearly every other keyboard in this roundup, SteelSeries has foregone backlighting entirely, a very strange omission considering how many gamers like to play in the dark. The plastic exterior would suggest a light build, but the use of steel backing inside makes this a seriously heavy keyboard.
There’s not a macro or multimedia key in sight, yet again more features that are par for the course that SteelSeries has decided to omit. About the only noteworthy feature is the lack of any Windows keys, as gamers hate the way these tab out of a running game when accidentally pressed.
Actually, we lie – there is one other thing of note. At $99 this is the cheapest mechanical keyboard no the market, and not much more expensive than inferior membrane boards. If $100 is your budget for a mechanical keyboard , the 6G v2 sneaks in just under that; but don’t expect any of the flashy features of more expensive boards
Verdict: This is as cheap as mechanical keyboards get, yet it’s extremely well built. However, at this price you lose out on features such as backlighting and macro keys.
8. Thermaltake Poseidon Z
Like the SteelSeries 6G v2 before it, the Poseidon Z is built with one thing in mind – cost. At just $105 it’s basically the same price as the 6G v2, and a big chunk of change cheaper than the rest. What corners has Thermaltake had to cut to reach such a low price?
For starters, it’s one of the few mechanical keyboards on the market that doesn’t use Cherry MX switches. Instead they use switches made by a company called Kaihl, which basically imitate Cherry’s range, available in both blue and brown types. We definitely found the quality to be not quite as good as Cherry switches, yet Thermaltake has blessed the keyboard with a 5 year warranty, so they must be quite confident in the reliability of these keys. Most other keyboards come with a 1 year warranty.
Like the 6G v2, the Poseidon Z is utterly devoid of added extras – there are no USB ports, or headphone jacks, or multimedia controls. It’s just a keyboard with mechanical keys, which aren’t actually Cherry MX keys.
If SteelSeries can do the same for $6 cheaper, with actual Cherry MX keys, then we’d have to recommend the SteelSeries board for those on a budget.
Verdict: The use of non-Cherry switches is hard to justify when the SteelSeries 6G v2 includes them, and is even cheaper.