What to look for in a gaming keyboard — does your “gaming keyboard” have all of these features?
A lot of gamers out there want to up their game with gaming keyboards. But what features should you look for when picking out a gaming keyboard? We will be looking at gaming keyboards in particular, rather than mechanical keyboards in general. Almost all the good gaming keyboards are mechanical keyboards, but not all mechanical keyboards are gaming keyboards. And there are just way too many factors when it comes to picking out a good mechanical keyboard. So let’s just focus on what makes for a good gaming keyboard. Here goes.
Let’s get the basics out of the way. These are the key essential features that define a gaming keyboard. NKRO stands for N-key rollover. You can hold down as many keys as you want at the same time, and they will all register correctly. If your gaming keyboard lacks NKRO or even 6KRO, it’s little more than a fancy office keyboard. And I believe some advanced typists might even complain at that point.
Ghosting is when you hold down a number of different keys together, a different key, which is not even touched, will get triggered. That’s where the ghost thing happens. Most modern keyboards will not have this issue, with them just blocking out the keys which the keyboard knows it can’t detect properly if a combination of keys are pressed. That’s anti ghosting. A quick and easy test would be to type “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” while holding down both Shift keys. If you see any missing letters, that means that you have anti-ghosting working, but you don’t have sufficient key rollover. If you see any extra letters, you have a spooky keyboard.
THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG
The earlier line is what happened when I typed it on the ASUS VivoBook Ultra A512, with the complete line being the result of me typing it on the MasterKeys Pro S. So you can obviously see that there was no ghosting, but a number of keys including the Space key was blocked when I held down both Shift keys on the laptop. While some keyboard makers mix the two terms up and use them interchangeably, they are quite different things altogether.
Most mechanical keyboards are at least true 6KRO, while membrane/memchanical keyboards often use the term anti-ghosting wrongly to refer to an optimized layout which offers some semblance of a proper key rollover configuration. Gaming membrane keyboards are often optimized so that the key clusters that are commonly used in gaming will all work even when pressed together. This is quite an important feature to check for, especially if you are considering getting the more affordable membrane gaming keyboards.
Pick the right switch
There’s no best keyboard switch for gaming. It’s a personal preference and I respect that. Most keyboards slap Cherry MX switches on their gaming mechanical keyboards, while some use the analogues from Gateron and Oetemu. There are plenty of switches to choose from when picking out a gaming keyboard for yourself.
The key things to note when picking your keyboard switch for gaming are actuation force, actuation point and travel distance. Now this is just on paper. The specifications do not tell you anything about the smoothness of the switch or the noise when pressing the keys. So lets get into them one by one.
Actuation force is the force you need to apply before the key will actuate. Most regular keyboard switches have an actuation force of around 45 cN, which means you will need to apply about 45 grams of force onto the switch for it to trigger. That’s pretty “soft”. Now you get can “stiffer” switches like the Cherry MX Black, which require 60 cN of force.
Actuation point is how far you have to press the key down before the keyboard considers it pressed. Cherry MX’s regular switches actuate at 2mm, which is half the total travel distance. “Gaming” switches like the Cherry MX Speed and Razer’s Opto-Mechanical Switch actuate at 1.2mm and 1.5mm, respectively. A shorter travel distance means that you will be able to trigger a key faster, and that might give you an advantage in games like Osu!Mania. A membrane keyboard’s actuation point will be at the end of the travel distance, so you won’t see any membrane keyboard spec sheet mentioning this metric.
Travel distance is the length of the key travel before bottoming out. A lot of us will often bottom out our keyboards, which is why a shorter travel distance will often be quite helpful when you need to trigger keys rapidly. We don’t have to press the keys on mechanical keyboards all the way, as the actuation point isn’t at the bottom, but it is a habit most of us developed when we were using membrane keyboards. Cherry MX Speed has a total travel distance of just 3.4mm, while regular Cherry MX switches bottom out at 4mm.
You can modify your regular mechanical keyboard to have a shorter travel distance by adding a lot of O-rings, which is what I did to my own keyboard. Another way to get really short travel distance and an early actuation point is to get low-profile switches. Travel distance also influences the comfort of typing on the keyboard, so you might need to experiment a bit with this.
The last consideration is the feel of the switch. Linear? Tactile? Clicky? Linear keyboards are smooth throughout the travel, while tactile keyboards will have a slight bump at the actuation point. Clicky keyboards are obnoxiously loud with a loud “click” when you hit the actuation point. Different (key)strokes for different folks, and while I love tactile keyboards, some do enjoy annoying others with clicky keyboards. To each their own.
Extra keys? Yes, please.
Macro keys on the left of the keyboard are usually reserved for really high-end gaming keyboards. Some keyboards like the Corsair Gaming K95 RGB has an additional 18 keys on the left of the keyboard, while less excessive designs like the Cooler Master MK850 come with just 5. Regardless of your needs, having extra programmable macro keys near the WASD cluster will always prove handy when you need to be able to trigger additional keys combos.
It might not be nearly as important if you are primarily a FPS gamer, but if you are playing MMOs, those keys will make it much easier to fire up quick combos without having to perform any finger acrobatics. Of course, all of that is not permitted in tournaments, but you probably would have found the right keyboard for yourself if you have reached that level.
An extension to macro keys are media controls. Whether it’s a dial like on the Razer Huntsman Elite, or two like in the Cooler Master MK850, quick volume control does help when it comes to actually gaming. Imagine if you are the last man standing in Rainbow 6 Siege. You are the last bastion of hope for your teammates. You would want to dial up the volume a notch to make it easier for you to hear footsteps. And maybe pause whatever music you have in the backgrounds. Most self-respecting keyboards nowadays have some form of media controls baked in, but having dedicated media keys does give you some additional convenience.
Good software support
Now I am not even going to talk about RGB software control. If a gaming keyboard does not have RGB, it would be quite out of place in 2019. But I digress. What I mean here is customizability.
Some keyboard software allow you to reassign every key in the keyboard, depending on the software you are running. This feature is quite useful, especially when your keyboard doesn’t have dedicated macro keys. Some even allow you to program the pauses between the keys, just so that all the key presses will trigger properly in the game.
Personally, my favorite keyboard software is by Razer. Razer Synapse 3 is by far the most advanced software I have seen, and that’s before we even dive into Razer Chroma.
If you are a gamer, you would probably want a keyboard with detachable cables. While LAN parties (or WiFi parties) are a dying breed, having a detachable cable helps when you need to transport your keyboard around. It not only makes it much easier to carry around, but if you have a need to clean out your keyboard, and you will eventually, carrying it outside to dust it will be much less of a hassle without a cable tailing you.
In addition to extra convenience, a detachable cable might just extend the longevity of your keyboard. This is quite a premium feature, with more affordable boards like the Tecware Phantom RGB and Cooler Master CK550 not featuring it. You will probably have to look at keyboards in excess of RM300 or so before you get this feature.
This is another premium feature that isn’t a must, but is nice to have. The function of the onboard memory is to store your keyboard profiles. Your key assignments, macros and RGB settings should be saved on the onboard memory, so you can use your keyboard with all your preferred key assignments and lighting modes without installing the pre-requisite software.
One of the best in this is probably Ducky, simply because they don’t have any software in the first place. All the programming is done on the keyboard. But of course, there are keyboards that offer a software with onboard memory to improve the experience, and they don’t even have to be expensive. Take for example the Cooler Master CK550.
I hope these tips helped you when picking out your next gaming keyboard. Do drop us any comments you have to help us improve, or if you want to share with us your experience with your keyboards, feel free to use the comments section!