Your keyboard is one of the most important parts of your entire PC, so to help you decide what your next one’s going to be, we’ve put together a list of all the best gaming keyboards we’ve tried and tested in the RPS treehouse. We’ve got everything here from top of the range mechanical keyboards right down to the very best that membrane keyboards have to offer as well, the latter of which are both a bit easier on your ears and, more importantly, your wallet.
If none of that makes even the slightest bit of sense, then fear not, as we’ll also take you through everything you need to know about all the different keyboard types on offer, as well as all the various kinds of switches that go with them. By the time you’re done, you’ll have everything you need to know about buying the best gaming keyboard for you and your budget. Naturally, this list will continue to evolve as and when we get new keyboards in for testing that we think deserve a place on this list (wireless keyboards are also forthcoming), but for now, let’s get to it.
Mechanical or membrane?
The first thing you need to know about buying a new gaming keyboard is whether you want a mechanical one or a membrane one. Generally, a lot of people who play PC games prefer mechanical keyboards due to their sharp, clean movements and short, fast actuation points (when the keyboard actually registers you’ve pressed down a key). Personally, I couldn’t give two hoots about whether I use a mechanical keyboard or a slightly spongier membrane one. I’ve liked and used both types of keyboard without much complaint, and as long as I can type well enough on it, that’s good enough for me.
Each type of keyboard has its own ups and downs. Membrane keyboards are usually a lot cheaper than their mechanical counterparts because they’re made from less expensive materials, but this in turn makes them more prone to breaking and are generally a bit of a pain to fix. Given their low price, the solution nine times out of ten is just to buy a new one.
Mechanical keyboards, on the other hand, are generally a lot more expensive – with most demanding at least £80/$100, if not significantly more – but they’re also more durable and easier to repair. They are, however, a heck of a lot noisier than membrane keyboards, and the loud CLACKEDY CLACK sound they make means they’re a bit anti-social for shared living spaces and are generally best suited to bedrooms and places where you’re the only person who’s got to put up with all the noise.
The reason for this is because each key on a mechanical keyboard has its own individual spring-loaded switch underneath it. Some are clackier than others depending on what type of switch you go for, but more on that in a minute. Membrane keys, meanwhile, are comprised of several small domes on a single layer of plastic – a bit like bubble wrap. This, naturally, deadens any excess sound they might make, and tend to be much easier on the ears.
Now I’ve used many a membrane keyboard over the years and found them perfectly suitable for games that don’t require mad esports reflexes in fast-paced FPSs. They can, however, feel a little unresponsive at times when you’re pressing lots of keys together, and often require you to press each key all the way down in order for it to register – which isn’t the case if you go mechanical. As such, most of the keyboards you’ll find on this list are, indeed, mechanical keyboards, but some you’ll also find some that offer the best of both worlds – so-called ‘membranical’ keyboards, the best of which I’ve also picked out below. Your ears will thank you later.
What’s the difference between red, blue and brown switches?
If you do opt for a mechanical keyboard, the next decision you’ll need to make is ‘What colour?’ For there isn’t just one type of mechanical keyboard, oh no. There are several, and each one comes with its own type of switch that makes them ever so slightly different to type on.
Most keyboards tend to use Cherry’s MX switches. Other manufacturers occasionally use their own switches or other types that come in different colours, but you’ll mostly find keyboards that broadly fall into the following three Cherry categories: red, blue, and brown. To see how they work in practice, HyperX have a handy primer with animated GIFs showing each one in action, but we’ll also tell you what keyboards come in what colours in our rankings below.
Red: Often considered the fastest type of mechanical switch, these have a linear action and go straight up and down when you press them. They don’t provide as much tactile feedback as other switches, but the wider hivemind will say these are usually the best type for playing games.
Blue: The loudest of all mechanical switches, these ‘click-style’ switches are a bit slower than red ones due to their higher reset positions, and generally require a bit more force to press before they register (although in practice it’s basically tiny and doesn’t affect your typing style whatsoever). These are generally considered the best for typing because they provide a good sense of tactile feedback, but they’re pretty good for gaming as well.
Brown: For those after the ultimate in tactile feedback, brown switches are a sort of half-way house between linear and click switches. Press one of these down and you’ll feel a noticeable little ‘bump’ halfway through, giving you a bit more physical confirmation that, yes, you have indeed press it correctly. They’re still pretty noisy, but not quite as much as blue ones.
Best mechanical keyboard: Fnatic Streak / miniStreak
Key features: Mechanical (red, blue, brown Cherry MX switches), RGB, USB passthrough (Streak only), dedicated media keys
You’ll probably have heard of Fnatic from their esports endeavours rather than their hardware manufacturing chops, but the Streak (and by extension its accompanying compact cousin, the miniStreak) is easily one the best mechanical keyboards I’ve ever used. Fnatic will rave about it being the world’s thinnest mechanical board, but really, it’s just a pleasure to use and comes with the comfiest wrist rest on the planet.
Their respective designs are surprisingly tasteful for an esports company, too, featuring the bare minimum of logos and excess branding to keep everything nice and clean and not at all embarrassing to have on your desk. There are a few nods to the more esports-inclined among us, such as the removable magnetic RGB header plate on the very top of the keyboard you can see in the picture above (but not in everyday use because it’s facing away from you) that you can use to insert your own gamer tag platers and other such gubbins, but overall its smooth, rounded corners and plain, aluminium chassis are pretty inoffensive.
The detachable wrist rest, though, is the Streak’s main attraction. Soft, plush and very easy on my old, weary bones, it can be lifted up and re-positioned into one of three grooves on its accompanying base, allowing you to pitch it as near to the keyboard as you like while still giving you the flexibility to have it a bit further away depending on the size of your hands. It’s immensely practical and a lot comfier than the hard plastic rests you tend to see on other mechanical keyboards, and just makes using the Streak feel like an absolute dream.
Even better, it’s one of the cheapest RGB keyboards around, too.
Read more in our Fnatic Streak / miniStreak review.
Runner up: HyperX Alloy Elite
Key features: Mechanical (Red, blue, brown Cherry MX switches), LED (RGB model also available), USB passthrough, dedicated media keys
Until the Fnatic Streak rode into Castle Shotgun, the HyperX Alloy Elite would have been my top gaming keyboard pick. That’s not to say it’s no longer a good mechanical keyboard, of course. Aside from the large HyperX logo in the top right corner, this is still a very attractive keyboard that keeps things nice and understated in its overall design.
The sharp, angular corners may not be to everyone’s taste, but all of its keys are sensibly laid out, and its dedicated media keys and volume roller are actually more accessible and easier to use than those found on the Fnatic Streak. This particular model is the red LED version, but it’s also available in a more expensive RGB model with full rainbow attire if that sort of thing floats your boat. Still, for those after a more tasteful take on LED backlighting, the regular red model of the Alloy Elite certainly doesn’t disappoint.
The Alloy Elite only comes with a plastic detachable wrist rest, but its textured surface was still perfectly comfortable for everyday use and its pair of fold-out feet gave it just the right amount of elevation for quick and accurate typing. It also comes with eight replaceable textured key caps for the WASD and 1234 keys in the box if you prefer a different grip on your favourite gaming keys.
Read more in our HyperX Alloy Elite review.
£96 from Amazon UK
$110 from Amazon US
Best RGB keyboard: MSI Vigor GK80
Key features: Mechanical (red, silver Cherry MX switches), RGB, USB passthrough, dedicated media keys
The MSI Vigro GK80 is a great mechanical keyboard in its own right, but one of its stand-out features is its highly customisable RGB lighting. You’ll need to download MSI’s corresponding Mystic Light software to make the most of it (much like any keyboard with RGB lighting), but MSI go one step further than most RGB keyboards out there, as you not only get a multitude of extra buttons to help configure it to your liking, but you also get specific RGB game modes for Overwatch, League of Legends and CS:GO. That’s in addition to its 14 separate RGB profiles that you can sync across all your compatible MSI peripherals and components.
The dedicated soft-touch wrist rest is another highlight. Unlike other mechanical keyboards, this doesn’t attach to the main keyboard itself. Instead, you can place it wherever you like on your desk, its firm grippy underside keeping it in place at all times. This makes it much more flexible than most other keyboard wrist rests out there, but for me, the grooves on the Fnatic Streak still have the edge – if only because I don’t need to keep re-positioning it every time I need to move my keyboard.
The GK80 is certainly one of the more expensive keyboards out there at the moment, but at least it comes with several extras to help justify the price. These include four metal caps for the WASD keys (you also get regular textured rubber ones as well), plus an extra space bar, back space, a further eight regular-sized key caps and two Ctrl/Alt-sized caps in case you ever need a replacement. Even better, you can pop them all inside the wrist rest for easy transportation to make sure they don’t get lost.
Read more in our MSI Vigor GK80 review.
£160 from Scan
$149 from Amazon US
Runner up: Asus ROG Strix Flare
Key features: Mechanical (red, brown Cherry MX switches), RGB, USB passthrough, dedicated media keys
Another rather tasteful take on both mechanical keyboards in general and RGB variations, the Asus ROG Strix Flare is another fantastic mechanical keyboard that’s worthy of your consideration. Its plain chassis cuts a fine, sophisticated profile on your desk, and its elegent, dual matt and brushed finished design that sheers diagonally down the right side of the keyboard helps give it a bit of personality that’s both refined and understated.
It also doesn’t go overboard with its plentiful supply of RGB LEDs – of which there are plenty. Not only have you got them on the keys themselves, but there are also two strips underneath the keyboard as well as another couple shining out of the top, transparent cut-out that can be used for slotting in 3D-printed gamer tags or the bundled plastic ROG logo (as shown above).
Again, you’ll need to download Asus’ Armory software to start customising the ROG Strix Flare down to a per-key lighting level, but you get plenty of options once you do so. The underglow strips are also surprisingly subdued for those who prefer a more subtle approach to their rainbow-coloured light shows, and I didn’t find them particularly distracting when playing games either.
Read more in our Asus ROG Strix Flare review.
£140 from Amazon UK
$180 from Amazon US
Best membrane keyboard: Roccat Horde Aimo
Key features: ‘Membranical’, RGB, dedicated media keys
Okay, so this technically isn’t quite a proper honest-to-goodness membrane keyboard, but it’s arguably the best type of membrane keyboard you’re going to find for playing games. While the term ‘membranical’ is horrible and a crime against the English language, it does sort of capture what the Horde Aimo actually is – a halfway house between a full-blown CLACKY mechanical keyboard and a quieter, less ear-grating membrane keyboard.
It’s not entirely silent, but it’s certainly a lot less sociable than any of the other mechanical keyboards on this list – namely, you can use it within ear shot of another human being with functioning ear lobes and not run the risk of having something thrown in the general direction of your head. Each key still offers a pleasing degree of precision and tactile feedback as well, and the subtle RGB lighting doesn’t get up in your face, either.
What really separates the Horde Aimo from the rest, however, is that nice, chunky media bar along the top, complete with revolving volume knob. It’s a wonderfully tactile bit of design, and it can be used for all sorts of functions depending on which media key you press alongside it. It also has built-in support for Microsoft’s fancy Surface Dial peripheral. The only thing the Horde Aimo doesn’t have, unfortunately, is USB passthrough support. But hey, this is still a fine keyboard in its own right, and doesn’t demand too many of your hard-earned pounds/dollars, either.
Read more in our Roccat Horde Aimo review.
£80 from Overclockers
$90 from Amazon US