Maybe your trusty old keyboard has typed its last letter or trapped its last bagel crumb. Perhaps your gaming ambitions have outstripped the mushy, mediocre typer that came with your PC. Or maybe your hands are simply shouting: Hey, cut me some slack here! Whatever the reason, anyone can benefit from a better keyboard. After all, is any part of your computer more hands-on?
Before you go shopping, though, it pays to know what makes a keyboard a good fit. Modern models come in a bunch of subtypes, from boards optimized for typing efficiency to sculpted ergonomic designs that cradle your hands and relieve stress on the joints. Let’s dig into the features to look for.
Connectivity Options: Wired and Wireless
The simplest way to connect a wired keyboard to your PC is via a standard USB port. Non-gaming keyboards are usually plug-and-play devices, with no additional software to install, meaning that plugging in the keyboard cable is all the setup you’ll need. Gaming keyboards, the exception, will typically work as soon as you plug them in, but come with their own software that lets you adjust features such as onboard RGB lighting and the assignment of macro keys. (More on that in a bit.) Some cheaper gaming models, though, may lack their own software and operate key backlighting and macros/shortcuts wholly through hardware.
Besides transferring your keystrokes to the computer, a USB connection also powers the keyboard, so there are no batteries to worry about. Some premium gaming models with lots of customizable buttons and lights come with two USB cables, one for power delivery (and/or to feed an extra USB port or ports on the keyboard itself) and one for the data connection, which means it will occupy two available USB ports. This isn’t usually a problem, since you’ll likely be connecting one of these keyboards to a large gaming desktop with many available USB ports.
If you want more freedom and less cable clutter on your desk, however, it’s hard to beat a wireless keyboard. Wireless models transmit data to your PC through one of two primary means: an RF connection to a tiny USB dongle, or via a Bluetooth connection with no dongles required. Both have their pros and cons. But if you want to reduce the number of cables on your desk and gain the flexibility to use your keyboard at a distance—whether that be on your lap at your desk, or from across the room—wireless is the way to go.
Most wireless keyboards that use USB dongles transmit over the same 2.4GHz wireless frequency used for cordless phones and Wi-Fi routers. The dongle itself is usually a tiny rectangle—small enough to plug in and forget about. Not only is the dongle unobtrusive, but we find that the 2.4GHz signal tends to offer more stable connectivity than Bluetooth. Note that in some situations, these USB dongles can provide connectivity to more than one device, meaning you can use the single adapter for your wireless keyboard as well as a wireless mouse, assuming that both are the same brand and both support the same scheme. (Logitech, for example, refers to this single-dongle arrangement as “Logitech Unifying”; some, but not all, of its peripherals support it.)
Bluetooth options make sense in certain situations; they don’t monopolize a USB port, and newer versions of Bluetooth—the current one is 5.0—are stable, easy to manage, and offer compatibility with more mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. In regular use, a Bluetooth connection gives you roughly 30 feet of wireless range; we find, however, that Bluetooth keyboards tend to not match devices with a USB dongle on battery life. New innovations, including hand-proximity sensors, improve the battery life versus older Bluetooth devices, which maintained an always-on link, draining battery quickly.
Among the only major drawbacks of mainstream wireless keyboards is that few of them feature key backlighting, which hampers one of their most useful roles: controlling a home theater PC in a softly lit living room. If you do find a wireless model with backlighting, be prepared to change its batteries or recharge it frequently.
Layout and Ergonomics
Not all keyboards are created equal. In fact, not all keyboards are even laid out the same beyond the standard QWERTY letter keys.
Most mainstream and gaming models offer a 10-key numeric pad, which laptops frequently lack and is a necessity for anyone who needs to tally numbers or enter data into a spreadsheet. So-called “tenkeyless” models slice off the numeric pad in the interest of space savings and keeping your typing and mousing hands closer together. Bear that in mind if you’re looking at gaming keyboards, as tenkeyless models are a recent trend especially in that subclass. If you want to go even smaller, 60 percent keyboards eliminate even more keys. Check out our 60 percent keyboard guide for everything you need to know about the category.
Smaller distinctions include the placement of the directional-arrow, Page Up and Down, and Home and End keys. Additionally, most current keyboards have basic media-file-control features, usually volume, play, pause, and track-change controls. These are typically dedicated media buttons located above the numeric pad, or built into the top row of Function (Fn) keys as shared-key shortcuts.
Bonus points if the keyboard maker implements the volume control as a dial or roller, like on some high-end Corsair, Das Keyboard, and HyperX models.
To help users stave off carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive stress injury, many keyboards are available with designs that put your hands into a neutral position as you type. The result is not only greater comfort, but reduced stress to the joints and tendons, ultimately helping you to avoid painful inflammation and the potential for worse: expensive surgery. Ergonomic features can range from the simple (padded wrist rests) to the elaborate (a key layout that is sculpted to curve and slope, or a split design).
One very important ergonomic feature to look for is the ability to perform angle adjustment. This is usually accomplished by flipping out two plastic feet on the back of the keyboard to alter its angle relative to your wrists and forearms. Many keyboards—not only models designed specifically to be ergonomic—have these feet, and research has shown that it’s important to experiment with them until your keyboard is flat or, ideally, angled slightly away from your wrists. (See our guide to ergonomic keyboards.)
Keys and Switches: The Basics
One aspect of keyboard design that you’ll see mentioned in reviews—but about which most people don’t give a second thought—is the type of switches used for individual keys. You may not care about the specific mechanisms that reside beneath the keys, but you will feel the difference. The three primary types of switches are silicone dome switches, scissor switches, and mechanical switches.
Most budget keyboards, such as those that come bundled with new desktop PCs, use silicone-dome switches, which use two dimpled layers of silicone membrane that form a grid of rubber bubbles or domes as the springback in the switch for each key. The springiness of the silicone rubber makes for a soft, mushy feel as you press each key. The switch type also requires you to “bottom out” with each keystroke, pressing the key to the bottom of the key well to type a letter. Because repeated flexing of the rubber membrane causes it to break down, silicone dome switches lose their springiness and responsiveness over time.
Some newer keyboards mimic the low-profile, chiclet-style keyboards found on full-size laptops and ultraportables. While a few of these use plain silicone-dome switches, many use scissor switches, which add a mechanical stabilizer to each key for a uniform feel, and an attached plunger under each keycap allows for shorter key travel. As a result, scissor-switch keyboards have a shallow typing feel, but they are generally more durable than rubber-dome switches alone.
Models That Just Click: Mechanical Keyboards
Most keyboard enthusiasts, however, won’t have much to say for either of the two above styles—instead, they’ll be singing the praises of mechanical keyboards.
The switches used in these are a bit more intricate, with a spring-loaded sliding keypost under every key. Lots of variations are available, each tweaked to provide a slightly different feel or sound, but generally, mechanical switches provide better tactile feedback and many emit the “clickety-clack” sound associated with typing. The sturdy switch mechanisms and springs are significantly longer-lasting, too. These switches can also register each keystroke with a much shorter amount of travel, making them ideal for touch typists.
The downside to mechanical switches? They usually require a lot more vertical space than silicone dome switches, which means the keyboards tend to be thicker. You won’t often find them on shallower, low-profile keyboards. That could change now that venerable switch maker Cherry has introduced low-profile mechanical switches, but the vast majority of mechanicals are chunky.
In the past, most mainstream mechanical keyboards made use of switches from Cherry Industrial, with the switches coming in various-feel MX Blue, Red, Black, and Brown varieties. (Each “color” has a slightly different click feel, acoustic aspect, and pressure characteristic; see our roundup of the best mechanical keyboards for a lot more detail on that.) Cherry switches are still popular, but nowadays you’ll also see homebrew mechanical switches from leading keyboard makers such as Logitech and Razer, as well as “imitation Cherry” switches, using the same color nomenclature, from makers such as Kaihua.
Deep Customization: Gaming Keyboards
While all keyboards offer the necessary QWERTY layout of keys for everyday typing, sometimes typing isn’t your main concern. Gaming keyboards are designed for competitive use, and they emphasize different things.
Gaming boards are equipped for maximum specialization and control, optimized for specific styles of gameplay, and built to exacting standards of responsiveness and durability. They also appeal to the gamer aesthetic, with designs that impress and intimidate with pulsing backlighting and dramatic color schemes.
Premium gaming models almost exclusively use high-grade mechanical key switches and sculpted keycaps, and offer lots of customizable features, such as programmable macro keys, textured WASD keys, and swappable keycaps. Others let you tweak the color and intensity of the backlighting to make finding certain keys faster and to personalize the look of your keyboard. On cheaper boards, the backlight coloration tends to be just one hue, but as you go up the market, you get programmable RGB lighting, sometimes customizable by zone, and at the very top end, assignable by each individual key (so-called “per-key RGB”).
Anti-ghosting is an essential feature, allowing multiple keystrokes hit at the same time to be registered simultaneously—something not all standard keyboards can do. Other extras include pass-through USB ports or audio connections on the keyboard, which simplify the process of connecting peripherals to a desktop PC whose ports may be inconvenient to reach under a desk.
Finally, any gaming keyboard worthy of its name comes outfitted with dedicated software and discrete keys for triggering macro commands, letting you pre-arrange complex strings of commands and activate them with a single press of a button. The number of macro commands that you can save, and the ease with which you can create them, vary from one model to the next; our reviews are handy for summaries of this kind of software. These aren’t the sorts of customization features that everyone will use from day to day, but for players who invest time and money into gaming, these keyboards offer a competitive edge. Again, check out our guide to the best gaming keyboards for more on the gaming-software aspect.
So, Which Keyboard Should I Buy?
The keyboard market is vast, so start your search with our roundup below of the best keyboards available. In the market for a mouse, too? Check out our top mouse picks, as well as our favorite mice for gaming and top wireless mouse picks.