Buying a Gaming Keyboard? Read This First.
Computer gaming is here to stay, and the technology you use to play those games can make or break your fun. Gaming keyboards are an essential part of the computer gaming experience. You don’t need to be a hardcore gamer to make the most of a good keyboard – and if you know what’s important to how you play, you can focus on the key features that will optimize your experience and victory success rate. Don’t be intimidated by flashy colors, massive button collections, and extra bells and whistles. I’ve partnered with Dylan Hall, a lifelong computer gaming nerd studying the industry (and yes, he’s my brother), to learn what’s important when you’re selecting the perfect keyboard peripheral. Keep calm and type on.
Wired or wireless?
Wired keyboards are commonly plugged into the USB port of a computer, don’t require any special software (with the exception of some gaming keyboards), and are the most common keyboards on the market. Pros: Typically cheaper than wireless models, no batteries required, easy plug and play, no lag. Cons: Occupies a USB port, additional cable may add to desk clutter, bound to a limited range of use (cable doesn’t extend forever). Recommended for: Gaming, general desktop setups
Wireless keyboards commonly come in two forms, RF connection or Bluetooth. RF (radio frequency) connectors are the most common and operate by placing a small USB receiver into the port of the computer. They operate on 2.4 GHz frequencies, the same frequency used for cordless phones and Wi-Fi internet.This connection is chosen for optimal battery life. Bluetooth keyboards transmit data to the computer through short-wavelength radio waves. It doesn’t require a USB port, making it ideal for PC tablets, and typically sports a thirty-foot range. Pros: Bluetooth frees a USB port, no cord adding clutter, range from connector is about thirty feet. Cons: Batteries, Bluetooth has a fairly short battery life (10 hours seems to be on the higher end, either rechargeable ion cell or two AAA batteries), RF connectors are reported to have issues when around other wireless devices like routers and cordless phones, wireless keyboards of all types can produce lag for user inputs. Recommended for: Media centers, tablets
Key switches are the technology used under each key of the keyboard. They can determine how easy or difficult it is to repair, feedback (physical and audible), and durability. There are three major types of key switches used in computer keyboards.
Silicone dome switches are the most common and can traditionally be found in keyboards that accompany the purchase of a new computer (i.e. “budget keyboards”). The soft rubber of the domes makes for a squishy, silent feedback. The downfall of these keyboards are that they require the user to push the key all the way down. Touch typists will find this frustrating since it will slow down typing speed. Games that can suffer from slower typing speeds are MMORPGS (massive multiplayer online role-playing games), dungeon crawlers, and reaction-based games. Scissor switches are keys typically found on laptop and ultrabook keyboards (although some laptops and ultrabooks use silicone dome switches). These keys are faster since they have a reduced travel distance – a plunger under each keycap as well as a mechanical stabilizer on each key give a uniform typing experience. They are low-profile producing a shallow typing feel and make a soft clicking noise. These keys offer a good experience overall and last longer than silicone domes. The primary drawback of scissor switches are they can be difficult to repair and aren’t as sensitive to the touch. Most games should operate well using the scissor switch keys, but you may find that the key heads easily hit other keys on accident. Mechanical switches are the most recommended key switches and are found on any gaming keyboard. Keyposts are spring-loaded and offer a much stronger feedback with more push and a loud clacking noise (gamers using headsets with open microphones: beware).
Mechanical switches offer the longest life, are easy to repair, and customizability due to the ease of replacing keys. These are also the most sensitive to the touch, allowing typists and gamers to maintain fast action. Mechanical switches are great for any genre, but users will notice a significant improvement when playing MMORPGs, dungeon crawlers, real-time strategy games, and other games reliant on lots of keyboard action in a small amount of time. Types can overlap, for example there could be a gaming keyboard that’s also ergonomically designed making it an ergonomic, gaming keyboard.
Ergonomic keyboards are specifically designed to promote comfort by placing hands into a neutral position. This is to relieve stress from shoulder joints while keeping wrists straight. Variations of ergonomic design can come as wrist pads, split keyboards, and curved/sloped keyboards. Controversy surrounds this type of keyboard as there isn’t any medical science backing any particular ergonomic keyboard. The best ergonomic keyboards are speculated by physicians to only be “adequate”. The solution to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, and other onset syndromes caused by typing, is to use correct posture and organize the work space to support healthy typing. (For more information on healthy typing, check SeniorNet or Microsoftguides.)
Gaming keyboards are engineered to provide gamers with higher-end performance and a great gaming experience. Almost every gaming keyboard comes with mechanical switches for optimal performance. Usability can range from the simple to complex with some requiring additional software to be installed for extra features. Here are a number of features that may be found on gaming keyboards:
- Macro functions: Allows you to program customizable keys to perform a series of actions with one click. For example, pressing “Custom 1” triggers the program to use the player’s combination abilities. These macros can also be used outside of games for additional shortcuts but often require software that comes with the keyboard.
- Extra keys: Some keyboards come with additional keys that can be programmed. These are useful for MMORPGS or dungeon crawlers as it allows the user to devote that cluster of extra keys to abilities in-game.
- Digital Displays: High-end keyboards, like the Razer DeathStalker Ultimate, come with LCD trackpads or touchscreens that allow keys to be customized in function and appearance.
- Gaming Mode: A toggle key that locks the Windows key from triggering the start menu, preventing the game from being pushed to the background of computer activity.
- Multimedia functions: Many gaming keyboards come with advanced multimedia functions from simple volume control, to shortcuts to Facebook and Twitter.
- Backlight: This is a common feature on gaming keyboards. Some keyboards allow the user to customize the backlight, like the SteelSeries Apex.
Multimediakeyboards are created with media options on them, like volume control. They are designed for convenience, ease, and simplicity. Most laptops and ultrabooks come with multimedia functions built in like brightness control, video controls, and a wi-fi switch.
Virtual keyboards (a.k.a laser keyboards)
Virtual keyboards or Laser keyboards are projection based keyboards that use wireless projectors to emit a keyboard on a flat surface. Using optics, they track the user’s fingers and relay it as an input. “Futuristic” and “frustrating” are two words to describe this keyboard that looks like it stepped out of Blade Runner. Laser keyboards have a simple layout but are not so simple to use. They take a long time to get comfortable with; companies producing these keyboards recommended starting slow using “pickle finger” or the “hunt-and-peck method” to work up to the standard typing method. This is to compensate for the lack of tactile feedback and inaccuracy in the optic sensors. Users recommend sticking it out with touchscreen keyboards unless you’re prepared to train on laser keyboards and willing to spend at least $100 dollars for the technology.
Mini keyboards are designed to require as little space as possible in order to be packed into briefcases or other luggage for traveling. They can generalized into three main categories:
Minimal: These keyboards are “apple-style” in design. They sacrifice all unnecessary keys in order be as small as possible. Slim: Additional keys, like the number pad and multimedia keys, are kept for an increase in length.
Silicone:These keyboards are crafted using silicone and offer the greatest space-saving quality due to their flexibility. However, they’re quite different in feel to traditional keyboards and may take time getting used to.
What’s the best type of keyboard for gaming?
Dylan and I have sifted through a variety of keyboards with a number of features: wired versus wireless, different kinds of key switches, and keyboards for different functions. If you’re looking for a good, reliable keyboard for a variety of games, we recommend you hunt down a keyboard with wired connection and mechanical switches. There are a number of other features that will affect your purchase decision, such as price and portability. But stay tuned, as we’ll dive into specific gaming keyboards you should check out along with their specs in a future post.
Oh, and by the way…
About Dylan Hall, guest contributor
Dylan Hall is a undergraduate student at the University of Washington Bothell, studying in the Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences program for a major in Media and Communication Studies. He is a video game enthusiast having been introduced to them by his older sister and brother at a young age, and has avidly played them his whole life. Dylan aspires to one day obtain a career related to or directly involved with video or tabletop gaming.