Despite all keyboards sharing nearly identical functionality, knowing which brand and form factor to choose for gaming isn’t as simple as going for pleasing aesthetics. In fact, getting the right kind of keyboard for the type of gaming you prefer can be the difference between an enjoyable experience and a miserable one.
When looking at purchasing a new keyboard, there are many variables to consider that have far more depth than meets the eye. Form factor, switch type, membrane vs. mechanical, and even the materials of the keyboard itself are often overlooked in favor of trusting in a popular brand’s word despite these variables making all the difference. Here is a look at what each of these key features is and how they can affect your gaming performance and comfortability.
The easiest decision to make when purchasing a new keyboard is deciding its form factor. A form factor can be thought of as a keyboard’s size. The sizes are categorized most commonly in percentages and represent smaller to larger keyboards as 40 percent, 60 percent, 65 percent, 70 percent, 75 percent, tenkeyless (TKL), and full-size.
Remembering the layout of each percentage isn’t a requirement for purchasing a new keyboard, but understanding how to research the differences between them can help you avoid unwanted surprises with your product.
Realistically, the only two form factors worth keeping in mind for most gamers are TKL and full-size. These two form factors make up the vast majority of gaming keyboards used today, but the 15 percent difference between a full-size keyboard and a TKL keyboard isn’t as tiny as it seems.
The full-size keyboard is a standard form factor with all of the keys present, including the number pad on the right-hand side. For MMO players, vehicle simulation players, or gamers who want to use their new keyboard for work as well as play, full-size keyboards are the safest option to go with since the number pad on the right offers a large amount of utility when extra keys are needed.
The TKL form factor, as its name suggests, has the 10-key number pad removed from the keyboard entirely. This saves on space and gives the keyboard a much more compact look and design, which is ideal for first-person shooter players and casual players who make use of fewer keys than the MMO and simulation players.
As you get to smaller form factors, the differences between them become increasingly nuanced and serve to satisfy those with limited desk space and keyboard enthusiasts. For gaming, anything less than a 60 percent form factor is often seen as ill-equipped.
The average Twitch streamer can be heard typing away with satisfying clicks and clacks coming from their keyboards. This quality is due to most streamers, and gamers in general, using mechanical keyboards. But whether or not a keyboard is mechanical isn’t the only factor that determines the noise and feel it produces. That quality is dictated by the type of switch in a keyboard.
There are several types of switches: mechanical, membrane, and optical. Each of these switches provides different typing and gaming experiences. For a mechanical keyboard, each switch is an individual key that uses mechanical actuation to interact with the PCB to register inputs.
If the keyboard uses rubber domes that, when pressed, register inputs by making contact with a membrane sheet, the switch is membrane. Membrane keyboards are generally not a competitive option and wear out fast.
Finally, if the switch registers its inputs via light with no contact between the switch components required, then the keyboard is optical. Optical switches are known for having a longer lifespan, thanks to never making a physical connection to register inputs.
While you’ll only be able to get those clicks and clacks with an optical or mechanical keyboard, focusing on switch types is the real secret to achieving an ideal gaming experience.
Different switch types offer variance in sound, resistance, tactile feedback, and aesthetics. It may seem like too much to research for something so simple, so consider three commonly used switches to keep things simple and branch out from there.
Cherry’s MX Red switch is a linear type of switch that functions as its name suggests. Upon being pressed with the required actuation force, which is the total amount of force required to press the switch stem down, the stem falls in a straight line. The stem first passes through its actuation point and continues until it bottoms out, which is represented by its total travel distance. An actuation point is the point at which a keystroke is registered by the computer.
Cherry MX Reds offer a quieter operating noise that has become synonymous with roommate-conscious gaming. Their two-millimeter actuation points work in tandem with their light 45-gram actuation force to ensure inputs are made with minimal effort and noise. Two downsides of the Cherry MX Reds are their lack of audible feedback many gamers search for and their fairly light actuation force that makes accidental keystrokes harder to avoid.
Cherry MX Browns are the slightly noisier, more versatile siblings of the Reds. Cherry MX Browns, in contrast to Cherry MX Reds, are a tactile switch. Tactile switches feature a bump that’s felt upon passing through the actuation point of the switch. In the case of Cherry MX Browns, that actuation point is two millimeters.
The characteristics of Cherry MX Browns provide a satisfyingly soft sound and light tactile feedback to mark an input. Its moderate actuation force of 55 grams also makes accidental keystrokes less common in comparison to the Cherry MX Reds.
Cherry MX Blue switches are another common style of switch that features clicky characteristics. MX Blues differ greatly from MX Reds, thanks to their more resistant actuation force of 60 grams, 2.2-millimeter actuation point, and their clicky feedback. If finding a switch type with characteristics suited for typists is the goal, Cherry MX Blues, or switches that share similar qualities, are the best way to go.
Materials and build
Finally, a keyboard’s build represents whether or not a user will feel comfortable using it at all. The keycap profile, colorway, and materials a keyboard features can make a huge difference in whether using it is satisfying or comfortable.
Colorways are self-explanatory, but the profile and materials a keyboard may feature require a second thought. Keycap profiles can determine a keyboard’s size and ergonomics, while the materials often have a huge role in pricing and aesthetics. However, the profile also has a hand in determining these factors as well.
A keycap profile is simply the height at which the keycaps rest. Low-profile keycaps sit lower but tend to be more ergonomically friendly on the wrists with the typing angle of the keys being less pronounced. This comes at the cost of a steeper price due to their lower market demand and increased production complexity. Even though low-profile keyboards can be costly, it may be worth trying one out to ease your wrists over long gaming sessions or workdays.
Medium keycap profiles, such as Cherry or OEMs, are the most familiar to gamers. A large number of mechanical keyboards that are mass-produced have Cherry or OEM keycaps, which means most people have some experience typing or gaming with them. For the vast majority of gamers, grabbing a keyboard with Cherry profile keycaps or something similar is a safe way to go.
High-profile keycaps stand taller, and depending on the final sculpting shape, can be fairly awkward for most users to acclimate to unless they have larger hands. High-profile keycaps such as SA keycaps also incur the complexity tax in their final price, making them less desirable for those seeking the average typing experience. That said, high-profile keyboards can offer very pronounced aesthetics and can tie a gaming setup together in subtle ways that make the cost and potential awkwardness worth the squeeze for the style-conscious gamer.
The last thing to consider is the materials of a keyboard. Plastic might be cheap enough, but some people prefer the look and feel of a wooden or aluminum case, which can cost a fair bit more. Almost all of the dependability in a keyboard lies with the production quality of the switches and how well its user treats the keyboard itself. There’s no competitive advantage gained from choosing different kinds of case materials, so it pays to keep it simple. Cost-effectiveness is to plastic as clean aesthetics is to aluminum. It’s just a matter of personal taste and budget.
What kind of keyboard is best for your gaming needs?
Gaming keyboards, regardless of how they are marketed, have their quality ultimately decided by what the user wants from a gaming experience. What one pays for in a gaming keyboard is broader access to various switch types, materials, and game-friendly features.
What really matters when it comes down to making a decision is a contest of comfortability and function. Keeping the profile, size, aesthetic, switch type, and case material in mind is key to finding the best gaming keyboard that will last you for years to come.
If you’re unsure of where to start, try out a keyboard that features a TKL or full-size form with linear switches and an actuation force of 45 grams or more. To dial in the type of switch further, figure out what kind of audible feedback you want to during your gaming experience. Taking these characteristics into consideration will leave you at a great starting place for purchasing a gaming keyboard.