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We tried all the best gaming keyboards, and one fragged the rest

Mechanical keyboards have become the only choice for hardcore PC gamers, and gaming peripheral manufacturers have responded with mechanical keyboards purpose built for gaming. Capable of professional gaming, but designed for everyone, these sprawling monuments to the gaming tower are fitted with complex key switches, advanced macro features, and bold aesthetic design.

With so many preferences and opinions about the best mechanical keyboard for gaming, we decided the best course of action was to bring some in and pit them against each other in keyboard battle royale. The competitors include the Logitech G910 Orion Spark, Razer BlackWidow Chroma, SteelSeries Apex M800, and Cooler Master Quick Fire XTi.

They’re all excellent keyboards, and crowd favorites, but only one can take home the title. Time for a keyboard cage match!

The gaming aesthetic

The current state of gaming peripherals is all about shades of black, hits of color, and exciting edges. To different degrees, the boards are in line with that look. While the Logitech has wild loops and angles, the Razer and SteelSeries are a bit more subdued, with smooth corners, matte and glossy black, and stylized print on the keycaps.

Cooler Master, on the other hand, has taken a classic approach with the Quick Fire XTi, opting for a heavy duty chassis with no logos or detailing. If not for LED backlighting, the Cooler Master could pass for an office keyboard.

Regardless of aesthetics, all of the keyboards in our review suite are built with great care. There are no panel gaps, weak corners, or flexible panels on any of the boards.

Flip the switch

While the industry standard is the Cherry MX switch, we’ve also chosen a selection of keyboards with in-house or commissioned keys. This has become a popular trend as of late, as each brand looks to distinguish its keyboards with a specific feel and sound.

The Cherry MX Blue switches found in the Cooler Master are something of a control for our experiment. The Blue switches are designed to have both a physical and audible response, with a light touch and quick activation point.

There’s a reason Cherry MX switches are still so popular, and it doesn’t take much time with the Cooler Master to feel it. The keys slide easily when touched, and click satisfyingly after hitting the actuation point. They quickly return to fully extended, so the loudest part of typing on the Blues is the cap smacking as it snaps back into position.

The most comparable keyboard to the Cooler Master is the Razer BlackWidow. Although the switches are branded Razer Green, they’re produced in partnership with Kaihua Electronics, which has been making switches for almost as long as Cherry has. The Green switch is the rough equivalent of the Cherry MX Blue, with a slightly higher actuation point, and a heavier touch.

The result is a switch that feels more defined than the Cooler Master. That’s not to say a quick strike won’t fire the key, but it’s easier to hold the key right above the activation point. The BlackWidow has a more distinct feel to activation than the Blue does.

There’s a reason Cherry MX switches are still so popular.

The Logitech’s Romer-G switches lack an intentional click mechanism in the switch, which makes them quieter. The activation point is very close to the surface, so a quick touch can fire a switch easily. It doesn’t take much force to do so, but just enough to keep the keys from firing accidentally. The high activation point means a slower spring rebound than the other keyboards, which means they take more time to bounce back, but they returned quickly enough to keep me satisfied.

SteelSeries’ Apex 800 is supported by its proprietary QS1 switches, the only truly linear switch in our roundup. They’re comparable to the Cherry MX Brown switch, a popular choice for fans of FPS games, for their fast rebound time and easy double-tapping. The lack of tactile response means a quicker reset before pressing again, and the lack of an audible click makes the keyboard whisper quiet.

Related: Why mechanical keyboards aren’t just for geeks anymore

The same qualities that make the board a great fit for an avid CS:GO player also render the keyboard difficult to type on or use casually. The unclear activation point and light touch mean lots of accidental key presses, which is annoying while typing, and detrimental to MMO and RTS play, where an extra tap can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Make some noise

Mechanical keyboards usually come in “clicky” or quiet variants.The noise caused by the keycap hitting the top or bottom can be mitigated with careful typing, but clicky switches, like those found in the Razer and Cooler Master, always make a noise when activated.

It would be easy enough to measure the key volume of a mechanical keyboard by how many coworkers it angers, but it’s more helpful to use real values. In order to find some noise levels, we took to Counter-Strike: Global Operations for some finger-snapping fun-er…work.

keyboard-vs-noise-graph

At the onset of the testing, the keyboards seemed similarly rowdy. Once I had a feel for the tactile feedback of the Logitech’s activation point, though, I could play silently. The SteelSeries took even less acclimation time, and was nearly silent within a couple matches of Arms Race.

No amount of careful typing can quiet the storm that brews under the keys on the Razer and Cooler Master. That isn’t a bad trait for a keyboard, assuming no one is nearby that needs complete silence. Noise is user preference, but I prefer switches without audible feedback, especially since I wear headphones while gaming, anyway.

Cap it off

All the keyboards in this shootout opt for custom printed keycaps. That allows for the use of symbols that coordinate with macro and mode keys, as well as finer tuning of the shape and curve to the keys.

Most modern mechanical keyboards have curved keys, with a scalloped left-to-right feel that keeps cradles the user’s fingers. That’s the case with the Cooler Master, Razer and Steelseries.

The Logitech’s keycaps are a different story. Rather than a curved shape, the keys have a flat panel in the middle, with distinct, sloped banks around the sides and far edge of each key. Logitech admits that some users don’t like it for typing. The payoff for that compromise is more comfortable gaming.

SteelSeries’ keyboard has the lightest curve to its keys, followed by the Razer. The deepest wells, apart from the aforementioned Logitech, belong to the Cooler Master. It’s worth noting that users tend to look for oily, shiny spots on keys to tell when they’re starting to wear down. In the case of the Razer, finger oils developed almost instantly on the keys, and even popping them off for cleaning didn’t help clear things up much.

Mostly braided

Two of the keyboards, the Logitech and the Cooler Master, use a single USB cable to connect to the PC. The Razer and SteelSeries have a second USB plug on the cable to power their built-in hubs, but can be left unplugged without that functionality. The Razer’s cable also has a mic and headphone jack, supporting corresponding jacks on the keyboard.

Related: Razer goes for longevity and sweet lighting with new BlackWidow mechanical keyboard

All of the cables except the Logitech’s are braided. Granted, that’s not as important for a keyboard as it is for a mouse, but it’s still a feature we like to see. Braided cables have quickly become the norm for their durability and shaping. The Razer’s thick cable is particularly hefty, and is malleable while still holding a shape.

All the colors of the rainbow

All but one of the keyboards sports full RGB lighting across individual keys. The exception is the Cooler Master, which offers red and blue lighting, plus every shade possible using those two colors. It also includes a clever gimmick that lets you play snake on the keyboard’s lights.

On the Logitech and SteelSeries boards, the LED is located in the center of the key, right in the middle of the switch mechanism. This requires a change in how the keycap is mounted, but also allows improves the backlight’s appearance. Characters can sit in the middle of the key cap, rather than to the side, and the light behind the characters, even on larger keys like caps lock, is still superb. There’s also no light leakage with centrally located LEDs. The backlighting is limited to the characters on the keys themselves, which makes the keys easier to read.

Lit-keyboards-group-3
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Both the Razer and Cooler Master have LEDs located on the far edge of the keycap. The result is light that bleeds out into the channels between each key. That reduces the contrast of the backlit characters, making them harder to read.

Lights and music

All four companies take different approaches to the software used to control each keyboard’s advanced features, but largely provide the same feature set and customization options. Apart from the standard macro recording and light settings, each keyboard’s software has a little trick that sets it apart.

Razer’s management suite is Synapse, a cloud-supported customization application that handles whatever Razer peripherals are plugged in. Notably, the Razer Chroma Workshop allows users to share not only lighting profiles, but integrated applications built using the SDK.

None of these keyboards are a bad choice for serious gamers or system builders

Logitech has a software suite specific to its gaming products, and the standout feature by far is the Arx control. It’s a smartphone app, with a dock in the keyboard, which seems a little gimmicky until it’s actually up and running. The app is essentially an extension of the management software, and includes media control, lighting and macro customization, and a diagnostic suite that displays quick info on various component temps and usage stats.

Steelseries makes a name for itself in the software by including more advanced game integration than the other keyboards. It can keep track of active keys in a specific game, as well as show cooldowns on the light behind each key to show exactly when it’s ready.

The Cooler Master is the only keyboard that lacks its own dedicated software suite. Its lighting modes are baked into the device right out of the box. Macros are recorded on the keyboard itself, using a series of commands. Thankfully, the individual key lighting assists greatly with this task, and with a little help from the video manual, the macro and lighting customization is quite robust.

The only feature the Cooler Master is noticeably lacking is game integration, which all of the other games support. It’s a fun feature, to be able to see health under your fingertips, or check cooldowns based on key color, but if the game is intense, your eyes are usually on the screen anyway.

Fat pockets

You’ll have to spend between $150 and $200 to snag one of these boards. To those un-initiated PC gamer, that might seem like a lot, but it’s well within budget for serious system builders.

Related: Logitech’s G410 mechanical keyboard dons Romer-G switches, RGB lighting, second screen controls

At the top of the charts is the SteelSeries, which retails for $200. That’s tough price to stomach considering the Apex M800’s limited feature set. The build quality isn’t as nice as the Cooler Master either, which is actually the least expensive keyboard in the roundup at just $150. The other two boards fall right in the middle price-wise, and offer a decent balance of price and feature set.

Conclusion

All of the keyboards in our roundup are at the top of mainstream gaming keyboards, and in reality, none of them are a bad choice for serious gamers or system builders with an eye on premium peripherals. But there has to be a winner, and in a number of important aspects, that winner is the Logitech G910 Orion Spark.

That’s not to say the other keyboards in the group don’t have their merits. When it comes to key feel, there’s no beating the Cooler Master’s Cherry MX switches – there’s a reason they’re so popular. The satisfying chunk, sturdy feel, and perfect balance lend a refined presence.

Subtle isn’t for everyone, and for those users, there’s the Razer BlackWidow. While it doesn’t stand out much from the Blue switches (not a bad thing) it does make up for it with gorgeous, splashy backlighting. The other boards offer it too, but Razer sets itself apart with clear, bright lighting and a deep customization community.

But the Logitech offers up intentional, important features in every aspect of the board. The switches feel and sound great, the lighting is subdued and classy, and it provides a set of gaming and media controls that would make any membrane keyboard blush. Logitech paid a great deal of attention to feedback from pro gamers when building the G910 Orion Spark, and it shows from the software to the switches.