IT & Systems Management

Klash of the keyboards: We mash down hard on six all-new mechanical models

A good keyboard is like a good bed--once you've lived with one, you'll never be satisfied with anything less. And if you're like me, you spend more time behind a keyboard than you do in a bed, so why are you hanging onto that crappy plank that came with your PC? There are oodles of great choices available today, and I've just laid hands on six of them.

Not sure you need to upgrade? Listen, the cheap membrane keyboards that mainstream PC manufacturers ship with their machines can wreak havoc on your fingers and wrists over time. The keys on these types of keyboards require your finger to push the key all the way down to the keyboard's hard plastic bed to establish the electrical contact that sends a signal to the computer.

First, the initial resistance these keys present makes your fingers work harder than necessary. Second, when the key bottoms out, it sends a shockwave up and into your fingers and wrists (and all the muscles, tendons, and bones they're made from). Finally, the membrane beneath the keys wears out over time, delivering mushy tactile feedback and eventually failing to register keystrokes consistently, causing typos and frustration.

The keys on mechanical keyboards don't require your fingers to push the key until it bottoms out, thus reducing the wear and tear on your fingers and wrists. If you use a keyboard strictly for productivity, using a fully mechanical keyboard will boost both your typing speed and accuracy. If you're a gamer, you'll also benefit from quicker response times.

Keyswitch choices

You'll hate using the fanciest, most elaborate keyboard if it has lousy switches under its keycaps. Five of the six keyboards reviewed here--the Feenix Autore, the Logitech G710+, the Ozone Strike Pro, the SteelSeries 6GV2, and the WASD V2--use ZF Electronics' very popular Cherry MX series keyswitches These come in Blue, Brown, Red, and Black varieties.

Cherry Blues produce the most audible feedback and are suitable mostly for typing, though they're not necessarily bad for games. They take a bit of force to press, but halfway down a prominent click lets you know it's been pressed. Cherry Browns are similar to the Blues, but they take less force to actuate and deliver a subtle bump of tactile feedback to let you know the key has actuated.

Cherry Reds and Blacks are more common in gaming keyboards. Instead of a bump or a click, Blacks and Reds press straight down linearly. The further you press the key, the more resistance the switch presents, helping you learn to avoid bottoming out. These switches don't deliver as much tactile feedback as the Blues and Browns, but they're quicker to push--hence their popularity among gamers.

Razer bucked the longstanding trend of using Cherry MX switches by designing its own Razer Green and Razer Orange mechanical keyswitches. The BlackWidow Ultimate, reviewed here, uses Razer Green switches. The BlackWidow Ultimate Stealth, which I haven't tested, uses the quieter Razer Orange switches.

Other features to look for

Audio hub Plugging your analog headset or analog headphones and mic into your keyboard gives you more play in your cable, increasing your freedom of movement.

Backlighting Many gamers enjoy playing in the dark. This becomes much easier if the key caps are backlit. 

Braided cables Cables with sheaths of braided fabric are more durable--and more attractive--than cables wrapped in cheap rubber or vinyl. 

Game mode key Accidentally hitting the Windows key during the heat of battle can temporarily kick you out of a game. That won't happen if you can disable those keys with the press of a button.

Macro keys With this feature, you can record complex strings of keystrokes and execute them by holding down just one key.

Media-player controls When you're watching videos or listening to music, having play/pause and forward/reverse buttons on your keyboard are much more convenient than using the controls embedded in the app.

N-key rollover With some games, you can execute complex moves or perform a series of actions by holding down more than one key at a time. The N in N-key rollover indicates the number of individual keys the keyboard can distinctly recognize when they're pressed simultaneously. 

Onboard memory This enables macros to be stored on the keyboard, versus loading a driver or software program on the host PC and storing the macros there.

USB pass-through Having USB ports built into your keyboard is handy if you have a limited number of USB ports on your computer. A USB pass-through can also make it easier to connect a USB headset or a thumb drive to your PC.

Volume control/mute Like media-player controls, it's easier to adjust the volume from dedicated controls on the keyboard than it is from an app (although most headsets also have these controls these days).

The reviews

Just how obsessed am I with keyboards? I recently attended a press conference for the rollout of a new high-end gaming laptop. As soon as I got some hands-on time with the machine, I launched Notepad and started typing text strings. A PR rep looked over my shoulder and said "That's a $2,300 gaming laptop, and you have Notepad open?"

Of course I did. No matter how great the rest of the laptop is, I'll interact with its keyboard more than any other component.

For this roundup, I put each keyboard through its paces with everything from Titanfall to Microsoft Word and am here to tell you in excruciating detail everything you need to know. To read the individual reviews, click the Next Article button below this paragraph. The reviews are presented in order of score, from highest to lowest. 


« Toshiba Kirabook: Rich and thin, but still short of awesome


Feenix Autore: A pretty keyboard lacking in features »
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