Finding the Right Fit
Maybe your old keyboard has typed its last letter. Perhaps your gaming ambitions have left you dissatisfied with the mediocre model that came with your desktop PC. Or maybe the one you have still works fine for what it is, but isn’t as comfortable and sturdy as you’d prefer. Whatever the reason, anyone can benefit from a better keyboard. After all, is there any part of your computer more hands-on than your keyboard? For these reasons, and more, it pays to know what makes a one a good fit.
Keyboards come in a variety of types, from those optimized for efficiency to sculpted ergonomic designs that cradle your hands and relieve stress on the joints. When shopping for a keyboard, here are a few specific features to look for.
The simplest way to connect a keyboard to your PC is via a standard USB port. Keyboards are usually plug-and-play devices, with no additional software to install (with the exception of driver packages for some gaming models), meaning that plugging in the keyboard is all the setup you’ll need. Unlike wireless keyboards, a wired model will draw its power over USB, so there are no batteries to worry about. Wired connections are also preferred for gaming use, as they are free from the lag and interference issues that wireless alternatives are prone to. Some motherboards still come with an older-style PS/2 port for plugging in a keyboard without needing USB; if you go this route, which many gamers prefer for performance reasons, you’ll probably need a USB-to-PS/2 adapter. (Some gaming keyboards come with these.)
If you want more freedom and less cable clutter on your desk, however, it’s hard to beat a wireless keyboard. Instead of a wired connection, wireless keyboards transmit data to your PC through one of two primary means: an RF connection to a USB receiver, or Bluetooth. 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 it on your lap at your desk, or from across the room—wireless is the way to go.
Most wireless keyboards connect to a PC via the same 2.4GHz wireless frequencies used for cordless phones and Wi-Fi Internet. A dime-size USB dongle—small enough to plug in and forget about—provides the link to your PC. Companies use proprietary connections like these because they allow for optimal battery life. These USB dongles also provide connectivity to more than one device, meaning you can use the single adapter for your wireless keyboard—or keyboards, if you have one at work and one at home—as well as one or more computer mice, assuming that all are the same brand.
Bluetooth options are regaining popularity of late, largely because they don’t monopolize a USB port and because Bluetooth connections are stable, easy to manage, and offer compatibility with more mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets. In regular use, a Bluetooth connection gives you roughly 30 feet of wireless range, but may not match the battery life offered by devices with a USB dongle. New innovations, including hand-proximity sensors tied to power and connection management, improve the battery life over older Bluetooth devices, which maintained an always-on link, draining battery quickly.
Layout and Ergonomics
Not all keyboards are created equal. In fact, not all keyboards are even laid out the same beyond the standard QWERTY keys. Roughly half of the keyboards available offer a 10-key numeric pad, even though it’s an ideal tool for anyone who frequently needs to tally numbers or enter data into a spreadsheet. Smaller distinctions include placement of the arrow, Page Up and Down, and Home and End keys. Additionally, most current keyboards have basic media features such as playback controls and volume up and down.
In order 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 expensive surgery. Ergonomic features can range from the simple—like padded wrist rests—to the elaborate, with keyboards that curve and slope.
Keys and Switches
One aspect of keyboard design that you’ll see mentioned in reviews—but that 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 certainly feel the difference. The three primary types of switches are silicone dome switches, scissor switches, and mechanical switches.
Budget keyboards, such as those that come bundled with new desktop PCs, generally use silicone-dome switches, which use two dimpled layers of silicone membrane that form a grid of rubber bubbles or domes as 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. And 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 a scissor switch, which adds 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 are generally more durable than rubber dome switches alone.
Most keyboard enthusiasts, however, won’t have much to say for either style—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. There are several variations available, each tweaked to provide a slightly different feel or sound, but generally, mechanical switches provide better tactile feedback and have more of the “clickety-clack” sound that many associate with typing. The sturdy switch mechanisms and springs are significantly longer lasting, and can be more easily repaired. These switches also register each keystroke with a much shorter amount of travel, making them ideal for touch typists.
The downside to mechanical switches is that they usually require a lot more space than silicone dome switches, which means that you won’t often find them on shallower keyboards. That could change now that venerable switch maker Cherry has introduced a new low-profile mechanical switch.
While all keyboards offer the necessary keys for typing, sometimes typing isn’t your main concern. Gaming keyboards are designed for competitive use, 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 numerous customizable features, like programmable macro keys, textured WASD keys, and swappable keycaps. There are others that let you tweak the color and intensity of the backlighting to make finding certain keys faster and to personalize the look of your keyboard. Anti-ghosting is an essential feature, allowing multiple keystrokes to be registered simultaneously—something standard keyboards can’t do. Other extras include pass-through USB ports or audio connections on the keyboard, which simplifies the process of connecting peripherals to a desktop PC that may not be easily accessed.
Finally, gaming keyboards are often outfitted with software and extra keys for macro commands, letting you prearrange 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 they can be created, vary from one model to the next, but it’s a valuable tool. These aren’t the sorts of bells and whistles everyone will use from day to day, but for players that invest time and money into gaming, these keyboards offer a competitive edge.
There are certainly a lot of choices out there, so start your search with our roundup below of the best keyboards available. In the market for a mouse as well? Then check out our top picks, as well as our favorites for gaming.