Gear Guide: Keyboards

Gear Guide: How to Pick up the Right Gaming Keyboard

Gear Guide: Keyboards fbKnowing your Cherry MX switches from your membrane buttons could give you the edge you need in competitive gaming. But what does it all mean?

Think of a typical competitive gaming set-up, and the chances are you aren't imagining a console linked wirelessly to a generic gamepad.

You're much more likely to be thinking of a muscular custom PC tower, an angular mouse dripping with extra buttons, and, of course, a highly specialized gaming keyboard, perhaps glowing with lighting and offering an array of customizable buttons.

In this Gear Guide, we're going to look at that all-important final element; the gaming keyboard. So, what should you consider when picking the ideal keyboard for your gaming style and tastes?

Do You Really Need a High-End Gaming Keyboard?

Before you dash off to spend €100 or more on a top end gaming keyboard, consider if you actually need more than a basic keyboard. Perhaps a less expensive model will give you all the performance you need? There are lots of great affordable gaming keyboards available today. Or perhaps the type of games you play competitively – even on PC – only require an arcade stick or gamepad? Owning a luxurious gaming keyboard might make you feel like an authentic competitive gamer, but if you aren't constantly hammering WASD, that money might be better spent on customizing your arcade stick, or switching out pad parts.

Green lit keyboard

Specialised or Generalist Gaming Keyboard?

If you're still convinced you really do need a gaming keyboard, then ask yourself if you are buying it for games, or for one specific game or genre. If you enjoy hopping between playing FPSs, MOBAs and MMOs, a generalist gaming keyboard will suit you best; look for one designed to cover all styles. If you take a particular game or genre very seriously, however, you may be better off opting for a highly specialized keyboard. There are a lot of MMO keyboards out there for massively multiplayer online gamers, for example, which typically offer the extra macro keys such players demand. Macro keys can be customized so a single press replaces a sequence of key presses, mouse clicks and other inputs. In other words, they can be set up to offer shortcuts to save repeated entry of long sequences of key presses. 

Orange lit keyboard 2

Mechanical or Membrane-based?

It's been hard to miss the hype around mechanical gaming keyboards in recent years. Such keyboards revisit older designs; think those noisy, 'clicky', beige keyboards from offices of the 1990s. Over time they were replaced by 'membrane keyboards', otherwise known as 'rubber-button' keyboards. These typically low-profile keys are commonly found on laptops – and were also used for mobile phone buttons before touch-screens took over.

Below the keys of a membrane gaming keyboard a small rubber pad presses together layers of membrane to register a key's use. This approach means quieter keys that respond more immediately as the key does not need to be depressed far to register. But now many companies are making mechanical keyboards again, and mechanical has almost become the default for gaming.

These models are more hardwearing and resilient to the kind of thrashing a tense gaming session can hand to a keyboard. Gamers also often prefer that mechanical gaming keyboards make a button press very definite; you can easily feel and hear the difference between a successful press and one that missed the mark. Others speak highly of mechanical keyboards' superior accuracy in terms of registering simultaneous presses of multiple keys; membrane keyboards are much more limited in this regard. 

But others prefer the response speed and delicate quiet a membrane keyboard delivers. Which will best suit you? The answer is a golden rule for choosing a membrane or mechanical gaming keyboard; get out there and try as many as you can. Borrow friends' keyboards, visit stores, and get your hands on one.

Orange lit keyboard

Which Switches for Gaming Keyboards?

If you have chosen to go with a mechanical keyboard, it's worth researching which switches suit your style best. The switches sit between the keyboard body and the keys, and make the connection that registers a key press. Most mechanical keyboards of any quality use Cherry MX switches; a stalwart of the mechanical gaming keyboard modding community. There are several different color-coded versions, each of which offers different combinations of resilience (or 'stiffness'), loudness, tactile 'clickiness' and so on. Cherry MX Reds are most commonly used for gaming, but do check a detailed guide to help you choose which switches you might want to install in your keyboard.

Comfort? Try Before You Buy

Our final note is a simple one, but something many forget to consider. You might have chosen the perfect keyboard in terms of quality, suitability to your gaming style and switch tastes. But if it is uncomfortable for you in long gaming sessions, it may as well be a generic gaming keyboard bundled with an entry-level home computing PC. And the only way to find out if your dream keyboard matches your own shape and form is to return to our golden rule; speak to your gaming friends – and especially those that play the same types of game as you – and see if they will let you spend a few hours with their keyboard. Hands-on time is always the best way to inform your gaming peripheral decisions.

That's it for our insights into choosing the right gaming keyboard to give you the edge in competitive gaming… but we'll be back with plenty more Gear Guides helping you establish a set-up that lets you play at your best when or where it really matters.

Try before you buy