The Best Gaming Keyboard for Wannabe Esports Athletes

The Best Gaming Keyboard for Wannabe Esports Athletes
Photo: Florence Ion/Gizmodo
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There are plenty of (very justifiable) tropes when discussing video games, but the one that I can’t let go of when I’m thinking of PC gaming is the keyboard being mightier than the sword. It can make or break your gaming experience. And there are so many mechanical gaming keyboards available that choosing the right one can feel like attempting to unearth a diamond in the rough.

That’s why I’m here to tell you about the best mechanical gaming keyboard — one that’s fit for most gamers, despite your skill level and planned intensity. I am not the esports type, and I do not have the patience for your run-of-the-mill RTS game (Starcraft). But I am a freak for the Elder Scrolls franchise, and the nature of my profession is such that I am constantly typing.

Choosing a keyboard is mostly a subjective experience, but we can all agree that what makes a mechanical gaming keyboard worthy is if it can perform double-duty. In my case, a good mechanical keyboard can handle my typing lifestyle without breaking my wrists after filing thousands of words. It needs to be fast and responsive because those dragons are not going to slay themselves. Macros are nice, too, because you can program them for gaming and productivity. But if the keyboard’s software makes it hard to set it all up, that can mar the entire experience. Extra stuff like RGB lights and wrist rests aren’t prerequisites, though they’re sure nice to have.

I chose six full-size mechanical keyboards based on popularity and feature set. These aren’t fancy group buys that will take ages to show up on your doorstep. These are just good solid keyboards you can buy right now. They are as follows:

  • Logitech G413 Carbon (Logitech Romer-G)
  • HyperX Alloy Origins (HyperX Aqua)
  • Razer Huntsman Elite (Razer Purple)
  • Steelseries Apex Pro (Steelseries Omnipoint)
  • Corsair K95 Platinum XT (Cherry MX Speed)
  • Corsair K100 (Corsair OPX)

The mechanical keyboards featured here come with various switches, though I noted in parenthesis which ones I tested with each model. If you’re unsure what kind of switch is for you, then you’ll want to check out the keyboards at a store in person or pick up an inexpensive (like under $US30 ($39)) switch tester from Amazon or MechanicalKeyboards.com.

The Logitech G413 Carbon and HyperX Alloy Origins are both considered part of the economic set — they start at $US90 ($118), and they’re what you get when you’re on a budget. The Razer Huntsman Elite, Steelseries Apex Pro, and Corsair K95 Platinum XT all start at $US200 ($263), with the latter recently seeing price drops to make way for the Corsair K100. I tested that one, too, though it starts at $US230 ($302).

All models save for the Corsair K100 were already tested extensively for our mechanical keyboard buying guide, so I’ve had quite some time with each to play games and write stories. I conducted additional testing to level the playing field, however, including a one-minute typing test on “medium writing mode” with each mechanical keyboard, plus a keypress latency test to measure how quickly the lightest touch would register, calculated in milliseconds. I also pored through every manufacturer’s respective software, setting up macros and, except for the Logitech G413 Carbon, configuring an RGB light show featuring four of my favourite pastel hues. Let’s get started.

The Best Designed Mechanical Gaming Keyboard

Despite the attempts at differentiation, there is commonly a shared aesthetic among mechanical gaming keyboards. (This is why so many people have resorted to building their own!) The ones all featured here are black as night and bulky to boot. Brands like Corsair tend to lean in more to hard angles, reminding us that mechanical keyboards are hardcore computer components. Razer and Steelseries’ chassis designs are much softer around the edges. Affordable keyboards like the HyperX Alloy Origins and Logitech G413 look just as good, though they don’t include wrist rests in the base price.

Corsair’s two keyboards are the biggest of the bunch to accommodate for the extra row of macro keys on the left-hand side. But at nearly 19-inches across, the K95 Platinum XT and K100 take up quite a bit of desk space. At the very least, their cushy wrist rests help make up for how much real estate each keyboard needs. Both keyboards offer onboard media controls and a dedicated button for locking up the keyboard and switching profiles. The K100 improves upon its predecessor with a programmable dial on the keyboard’s upper left side and a reworked status indicator in the centre of the keyboard. There is also a USB passthrough for connecting a mouse or headset.

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

The Corsair K95 Platinum XT is as angled as your favourite PC case.

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

The Steelseries Apex Pro is simplistic and compact.

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

The Logitech G413 Carbon is space age cool with red backlighting.

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

The Razer Huntsman Elite is bigger than it looks, but that's because it's comfy.

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

The Corsair K100 is the beefy successor to the K95 Platinum XT.

The Razer Huntsman Elite is nearly an inch shorter than the two Corsair keyboards. Though its wrist rest is equally as plushy and comfortable as the two Corsairs, the board itself is over 9-inches deep because of it. Folks with wrist problems might like that, however, as it adds to the ergonomics. Altogether, Razer does an excellent job of eschewing seriously cool gamer vibes, though there are design caveats to consider. There is no backlighting for the media controls, and though the keyboard requires two USB ports to power up, there’s no USB passthrough. There’s also no cord routing available underneath the keyboard for wired headphones or a mouse — a major bummer considering the keyboard’s cost.

The Steelseries Apex Pro is the smallest and most compact of the mechanical gaming keyboards. The soft matte wrist rest is super comfortable, though there’s no cushion. The OLED screen is programmable to display parts of a graphic or your online handle. The port for the USB passthrough lights up, so you can quickly locate it in dim light. There’s also ample cord routing available underneath the board. I wish the Apex Pro had more obvious track-skipping media controls, but you can program those into the scroll bar through the companion app.

The HyperX Alloy Origins is the second-place pick if you’re looking for something thin and compact — or something that costs $US100 ($131) less. It’s only centimetres longer than the Apex Pro, with three adjustable height modes. There is no wrist rest to make use of here, however, or USB passthrough. But in this case, the Alloy Origins only takes up one USB port, and there’s built-in cord routing available on the bottom.

The Logitech G413 Carbon is the industrial pick. Size-wise, it measures between the Alloy Origins and the Hunstman Elite. Though it’s the only mechanical gaming keyboard here that doesn’t display full-spectrum RGB, its red backlighting is bright and fierce, and there’s USB passthrough for that extra peripheral in your life.

Winner: Steelseries Apex Pro

The Mechanical Gaming Keyboard with the Best Features

Gaming keyboards don’t necessarily need to have every available feature to make them worthy of spending the money, but they should at least be able to perform where they’re putting the effort. Corsair, Razer, and Steelseries do their part to sweeten the deal with full-spectrum RGB lighting that can be applied per key using their apps. You can choose from various lighting effects or mix and match them with solid coloured keys as you see fit. The HyperX Alloy Origins keyboard has some of the brightest RGB lights, and if that’s all you’re after, it’s at a very economical price point. But nothing rivals the lit up Razer Huntsman Elite, which features backlighting as far down as the wrist rest. It looks excellent when working late at night, and you can even adjust the lighting between corners of the wrist rest.

Macros and button remapping are significant parts of mechanical gaming keyboards because they enable rapid-fire shortcuts for gaming and productivity. All six keyboard models featured here allow macro programming. Steelseries requires pressing a specific button before you can run one, though you can also program text snippets for replacing oft-typed phrases, sentences, or commands. Razer, HyperX, and Logitech let you map custom macros to specific keys. However, I prefer the Corsair way of doing it, a set of distinct, configurable keys. This kind of push-button macro activation is especially beneficial while gaming, when messing up a keypress could cost you a virtual life.

Just when you think they can’t cram apps into anything else, they pack them into mechanical keyboards. I appreciate that on the Corsair, Razer, and Steelseries boards, you can download different profiles for favourite games to enable existing macros and keyboard shortcuts that you might not have realised were available. At the same rate, I didn’t miss those extra abilities and plug-ins when reverting to the app-less Logitech and HyperX boards.

When it comes to a whole package full of tons of features Razer ultimately comes out on top. Besides mappable keys Razer tries the hardest with Alexa and Philips Hue integration, both as neat and as kitschy as it sounds. Plus the Huntsman Elite’s dynamic lighting takes the cake. Especially if you’re into being matchy-matchy with what’s happening on screen.

Winner: Razer Huntsman Elite

The Mechanical Gaming Keyboard with the Best Performance

When it comes to performance, what matters in a mechanical gaming keyboard is how quickly a keypress is registered and how comfortable the board is for long bouts of typing.

I typed the fastest and most accurately with the HyperX Alloy Origin’s tactile Aqua switches. These are made specifically for typers who prefer to prioritise accuracy over keypress speed. I was the slowest and the messiest typing on the Logitech G413 Carbon’s proprietary Romer-G switches, which had a bit more to do with the spacing between keys than the switches themselves, which are akin to Cherry MX Browns.

The testing disparity of the two Corsair keyboards lends credence to the idea that the wrong mechanical switch can make or break you. I clocked 110 WPM with a 90 per cent accuracy rate on the Corsair K100 and even less with the K95 Platinum XT’s Cherry MX Speed switches. The K95 was seriously fast in the keypress latency test, however, measuring an eight millisecond response time, while the K100’s optomechanical OPX switches lagged behind all the rest with 28-millisecond latency.

The Steelseries Apex Pro’s Omnipoint switches feature adjustable actuation, effectively allowing you to set how quickly the keyboard registers a keypress. During testing, I put the actuation level to 3, though it ranges from 1 to 10, with one being the most sensitive and 10 requiring the hardest keypress. The Apex Pro measured the fastest latency with three milliseconds. However, I was not as accurate at typing on it, scoring an average of 103 WPM with 94 per cent accuracy.

Typing was a bit better with the optomechanical Purple switches on the Razer Huntsman Elite. The keyboard came in second on the accuracy and latency scale, scoring 102 WPM at 96 per cent accuracy and 13-milliseconds. It’s also one of the loudest, clickiest keyboards, the thought of which might excite you if you’re a button masher.

Winner: Steelseries Apex Pro

The Mechanical Gaming Keyboard with the Best Software

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Corsair iCue.

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

HyperX NGENUITY.

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Logitech G Hub.

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Razer Synapse.

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Photo: Florence Ion, Other

Steelseries Engine 3.

Corsair, Razer, and Steelseries all offer extremely robust software suites for Windows, with programmable macros, downloadable apps, and in some cases, direct app integrations. However, they’re all notorious for being sluggish and crowded by menu schematics, making it hard to navigate the apps. In all three cases, I had to extensively Google and go through a few YouTube videos before I understood how to assign a recorded macro to a specific key bind. Lighting was easy to set up in all three apps, though I had a particularly challenging time with the Corsair app’s layers schematic. The HyperX NGENUITY app is weirdly spelled and only available in beta, but I found its interface’s simplicity to be the most friendly for a first-time keyboard explorer.

The apps themselves are also very bloated. The Corsair iCue app, for example, takes up a whopping 1.12 GB on my PC and is extremely slow to boot on my five-year-old machine. The Razer Synapse app is a mere 26 MB download but took up over 300 MB when I started adding profiles and third-party integrations. Steelseries and HyperX’s software suites are both under 200 MB, which is more palatable.

The Logitech GHub software used by the G413 Carbon is the most to-the-point, though it still requires about 300 MB of hard disk space if you’re pairing other Logitech devices with it. The GHub interface is usable, however. I like the opening carousel where I can sift through devices and select the one I want to customise. I like that I can easily sync light effects across different Logitech-branded devices and peripherals. Though the G413 Carbon doesn’t offer RGB colour effects for its backlighting, what sold me on the software was how quickly I could program a macro or remap a key without venturing into online research mode.

Winner: Logitech G413 Carbon

Overall Pick

Photo: Florence Ion Photo: Florence Ion

The Steelseries Apex Pro is the best mechanical gaming keyboard, especially if you’re looking for adjustable actuation. When it comes to real-time gaming, speed is critical, and with the Apex Pro, it can be as fast or as slow as you want it. The Steelseries Engine software isn’t necessarily the most user-friendly when it comes to programming macros and apps. Still, the ability is there, and with a little patience, you can set up the Apex Pro to be the perfect dungeon-raiding companion.

The Apex Pro is also one of the most stylish and compact mechanical gaming keyboards. It doesn’t take up as much desk space as some of the other brands featured here, namely Corsair and Razer, though that comes at the expense of leather-bound wrist rests and media navigation buttons. But you are getting goodies like USB passthrough and a customisable OLED display.

If you want something that costs a little less than the Apex Pro’s $US200 ($263) price tag, you might consider looking for the Corsair K95 Platinum XT on sale. It scored particularly well on latency tests and has the bonus of looking like a beefy gaming keyboard, complete with a row of dedicated macro keys and media controls that’s fit for any multitasking content junkie.