Keyboards are one of those products where the buying decision heavily relies on personal preferences. No matter how premium the features are, you will settle for something you’re most comfortable. The list of these personal preferences can be massive, especially if you’re a keyboard enthusiast. You’d assume that the choices are usually made when you’re clear whether you want to buy a mechanical or membrane keyboard. However, there are endless nuances in mechanical keyboards themselves that make buying one a time-consuming exercise. And now, considering the boom in the variety of mechanical switch alternatives available in the market, things have become more complicated. In this guide, we’ll be covering all types of currently available keyboards to make your buying decision easier. We will tell you the little details that you need to keep in mind before picking a type of keyboard. Then we’ll bring some clarity on what you’ll be getting from those particular keyboards.
The first step is to decide what type of keyboard you want to buy. Whether you fancy the good old membrane keyboard or want to go for a more durable mechanical one or something in between. Also called Rubber Dome keyboards, they have an advantage of being incredibly cheap while getting the job done. They are still affordable but if you spend a bit more, then you can buy a mechanical keyboard on the lower segment. Coming to personal preference, the only way you can be sure about which one feels better is by hands-on experience. Reading about how a keyboard feels can be a reference point but unless you’ve actually tried it yourself, you shouldn’t make a final decision. When it comes to membrane keyboards, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. They have a lower durability compared to mechanical and hybrid keyboards but they should last you for five years depending on how much you type on it. The keyboard won’t stop functioning but there will be wear and tear all over while the membrane flattens to a degree to a point where it’s unusable. Membrane keyboards are also extremely silent because you’re literally pushing down the keys over a dampening material.
Several manufacturers have tried to push hybrid keyboards into the market to give the mechanical “feel” in membrane keyboards. They do have the tactile feeling but now that the prices of mechanical keyboards have dropped drastically, their existence is in question. Hybrid keyboards or mem-chanical as some call it, sell almost at the same price as budget mechanical keyboards. They do offer higher durability than membrane keyboards and they tend to be slightly louder. Typing on them gives you the mechanical feel but since there’s still a membrane underneath, it feels mushy. The only justification for buying these keyboards is personal preference and cost saving since most of them are bundled in keyboard-mouse combos.
When it comes to mechanical keyboards, there are numerous factors you should consider before buying. The switch type should be your priority and there are many options to pick. You have linear, tactile and clicky switches, all of them with a different feel, but broadly switches can be classified into these three variants. And they are accordingly colour coded by most of the switch manufacturers. However, there are exceptions, so you should look for the specifications of the specific switch. As we mentioned earlier, the best way to determine how they feel is to physically use them yourself. You’ll find many switch variants from companies such as Cherry, Razer, Romer-G, Kailh, Outemu, SteelSeries, etc. Most of them have switch options for linear and clicky variants. Even though most of the switch design is based on the Cherry design, except Romer-G and SteelSeries, they still have nuances. This can only be determined if you’ve used all of them for an incredible amount of time to notice the differences. Switch durability is almost similar on all them but the knock-off variants are now claiming to have achieved a higher lifespan. Cherry switches (50 million keystrokes) have been around for a really long time and they have passed the test of time. Since these new switches are relatively new, the jury is still out on whether they will be able to reflect the same or better durability than the original creators. These switches have a mechanical part making contact and it’s bound to wear off over time. Optical switches have recently entered the market, claiming twice the durability of Cherry switches. However, they are expensive for now. Keycaps play an important role in the typing experience and durability. Usually, keyboard manufacturers ship normal ABS keycaps with the legends laser-printed. They aren’t bad but they won’t really last as long as the switches would. For higher longevity, you could consider keyboards shipping PBT keycaps or even ABS keycaps with double-shot moulding for the legends. These keycaps can be separately bought later as well.
Once you’ve decided on what type of keyboard you want, here are a few more things you need to keep in mind before making a final decision. Depending on your use case, you should decide what kind of layout do you want. Keyboards are available in various sizes such as Standard, Tenkeyless (TKL) and Compact. The difference is usually based on the presence of the numpad. Compact keyboards get rid of the arrow keys and the keys above it as well. If you fancy a small form-factor keyboards and don’t mind the absence of the keys on the right of the backspace, this could be the best for you.
N-key rollover is one of the most important features since you will be pressing multiple keys while gaming. The number denoted instead of “N” denotes the maximum number of keys that the keyboard can register simultaneously. Anything up to 6-key rollover should be enough for gaming. Certain key combinations fail to register or input an additional key press out of nowhere. This is called “ghosting”. You will find keyboards labelled to include “anti-ghosting technology” which means that they have implemented countermeasures to avoid ghosting. Not all manufacturers specify the key combinations to which anti-ghosting has been implemented. But you can expect the regular WASD keys along with the modifiers to be included in it.
Backlighting is a feature directed towards users who are going to use the keyboard in dark environments. That can include office spaces or even gamers playing in their rooms at night. Even monochrome illumination is enough since the only purpose is to spot the keys in the dark. However, if you hardly look at your keyboard while typing, you wouldn’t bother with backlighting.
Macro functionality isn’t a necessary feature but it’s good to have if you’re a gamer. It’s also possible that you won’t use macros in any game at all. Support for macro can be found with or without software support. On-the-fly macro recording can be done on keyboards that have memory chips embedded. With software support, macro recording can be extended way further than simple keystrokes to mouse clicks as well. Speaking of software support, it’s a luxury and you don’t really need it unless you want control over backlighting and macros.
A few more features you could look for include wireless connectivity, spill-proof design, USB and audio pass-through ports, and dedicated keys for multimedia control and Windows keys locking functionality.
Just like other product category, keyboards are overloaded with marketing jargon. The most common is keyboards being labelled as “gaming” keyboards. Of course, there are certain features that will give you an advantage while playing games, but fundamentally it doesn’t mean that normal keyboards can’t be used for gaming. No matter what type of keyboard you buy, if you’re planning on using it for competitive gaming, you can refer to the features mentioned in the previous section.
Full N-key rollover wasn’t possible earlier through a USB connection but that has changed now. We already told you that you’d be fine with 6-key rollover but do you really need full N-key rollover? No, you don’t. In most of the games, you won’t be pressing more than five to six keys all at once. Unless you’re using musical instrument emulators on your system, it makes sense to go for a keyboard with 10-key rollover. Anything more than the number of fingers on your hands automatically becomes unnecessary.
As a geek, would you really bother about the number of colours the keyboard can light up? RGB lighting looks great along with the lighting effects. However, they don’t serve any purpose in improving the performance of the keyboard. All they do is make your keyboard look good and maybe sync with the colour scheme of your entire build. So, don’t bother about the millions of colours that the keyboard can reproduce.