Continuing our run of holiday buyers' guides, this afternoon we're taking a look at peripherals. Considering that a PC’s peripherals can easily outlive the main system’s components and usually stay the same even after several main system upgrades, they are often not given the attention they deserve. Keyboards are just such a component; it is the main interface with the PC, yet most casual users hardly stop to consider what would be the most practical/comfortable choice for them.

Mechanical keyboards in particular became popular during the past few years. Mechanical keyboards are not a new invention – on the contrary, the first mechanical keyboards were produced back in the 1970’s – but slowly gave away their market share to membrane and other electronic keyboards due to their much lower cost. However with the production cost of mechanical keyboards dropping to reasonable levels about a decade ago, they have slowly but surely resurfaced and, despite their higher pricing, managed to grab a significant portion of the market away from electronic keyboards.

In this holiday buyer’s guide we are having a look at mechanical keyboards, aiming to offer suggestions to their two main consumer groups – gamers and professionals. We present this guide from an objective point of view, meaning that we weight the overall features and quality of a device against its current market value. Still, keep in mind that the selection of a keyboard can be highly subjective and prone to individual wants and needs. 

AnandTech Mechanical Keyboard Recommendations: 2017
(Prices are Nov-17 or MSRP)
Category Gaming Option Professional Option
Low-Cost Cougar Attack X3 $60 Nixeus Moda Pro $50
MainStream Cougar 700K $100 Azio MK Retro $90
G.Skill RipJaws KM780R $120
Top-tier Corsair K95 Platinum RGB $200 Das Keyboard 4 Professional $150

Why Do I Want a Mechanical Keyboard?

There are many arguments regarding the advantages and disadvantages of mechanical keyboards: they are far more durable than membrane keyboards and easier to maintain, yet noisier and significantly more expensive. However, what makes mechanical keyboards so popular is, as vague as this sounds, their feeling. It is very difficult to put it into words but if someone uses a mechanical keyboard for a few days, all membrane keyboards will be feeling like a toy afterward.

Membrane-based keyboards have their actuation point at the bottom of the key travel and require maximum pressure force at the beginning of their travel, requiring a relatively large amount of strength to be pressed that will inevitably force the key to bottom down. Mechanical keyboards are very different, with both the actuation point and the pressure point somewhere along the travel distance of the key, with several different switch variations offering better flexibility for the consumers. There are tactile and linear switches, audible and quiet, with various key travel lengths for consumers to choose from.

There are many arguments about how mechanical switches can make you type or react faster because they are easier to actuate and/or because the key does not have to bottom down. In terms of speed, the truth is that the difference usually is marginal at best. Mechanical switches are however much more comfortable (and arguably healthy) for long-term use, making mechanical keyboards a nearly necessary tool for professionals and hardcore gamers who value their tendons. Similarly, many argue about which mechanical switch is the "best". Simply put, there is no "best" switch. Whether you prefer strong linear switches because soft linear switches are too easy to bottom down or audible instead of quiet switches, it virtually always is a matter of individual personal preference.

Low-Cost Mechanical Keyboards
Cougar Attack X3 ($60)
Nixeus Moda Pro ($50)

Before we begin this section, we should point out that we are aware of the many Asian manufacturers that flooded the market with $35-60 mechanical keyboards. However, we prefer not to have an opinion on their products before they are actually tested in our labs.

The mechanical keyboard that possibly offers the best bang for your buck is the Cougar Attack X3. With its retail price currently just below $60, there are just no other options that offer this combination of quality and features anywhere near this price range. The Cougar Attack X3 is using original backlit Cherry MX switches and, on top of that, features full per-key programmability. Cougar’s software is not the best in the market but is actually quite good and adequate for professional use and gaming. Only very advanced/professional gamers will seek an aftermarket macro recording software solution. Having a fully programmable keyboard is not something to pass lightly; even if the programmability does not sound like a useful feature to you at this point of time, it can easily become useful in a future game or application.

If you want an elegant, no-frills mechanical keyboard, the tested and proven Nixeus Moda Pro would be our recommendation. It is aesthetically simple but very reliable and the price dropped a bit since our review, with the retail price tag of $49 making it a relatively attractive deal. However, once you consider that $10 more will get you original Cherry MX switches, backlighting and a fully programmable keyboard, it is clear that the Cougar X3 holds much better value.

Mainsteam Mechanical Keyboards
Cougar 700K ($100)
G.Skill Ripjaws KM780R ($120)
Azio Mk Retro ($90)

Selecting a “mainstream” mechanical keyboard for gaming is a tricky endeavor, especially after the great value that the Cougar Attack X3 holds. It is difficult to find mechanical keyboards even around the $100 mark that offer a better overall feature set. Therefore, assuming that the Cougar Attack X3 does not fill your needs, we are going to make two suggestions here - one of a keyboard with extra macro keys and extended profile support and one of an RGB keyboard.

Our recommendation to those that want a fully-featured mechanical keyboard with extra macro keys and extended profiling support without spending too much is the Cougar 700K, which essentially is the big brother of the Cougar Attack X3. It features original Cherry MX switches and per-key programmability with a fairly good stock software. The added features of the 700K are five extra macro keys, a split spacebar button, additional multimedia functions, per-key backlighting programmability and extended profiling support. Its elegant appearance and reasonable price tag of $100 make it an ideal choice for the advanced gamer or professional.

If RGB lighting is what drives you, the G.Skill Ripjaws KM780R is excellent alternative for a fully programmable gaming keyboard with RGB lighting. It has about the same features as the Cougar 700K does, trades the volume control buttons for a wheel and adds RGB lighting. Its current price tag of $130 is reasonable considering its quality and features. However, G.Skill’s software is mediocre and most advanced gamers/professionals will have to seek a third-party macro recorder.

For strictly professional use, our keyboard of choice would be the Azio MK Retro. It is not a programmable keyboard and has no backlighting or any other advanced features. Its main selling points are the circular keycaps and its linearly adjustable tilt. Most people would just look at it and see a device trying to resemble an old typewriter. However, the truth is that it is exceptionally comfortable and satisfying for long-term typing sessions and professional use. It retail price tag of $90 is a little steep but not overly so for users who will appreciate its retro aesthetics and the level of comfort it offers.

Top-Tier Mechanical Keyboards
Corsair K95 RGB Platinum ($200)
Das Keyboard 4 Professional ($150)

For this category, we largely ignore the price tag of the products and recommend those that we found to be the best in their respective categories based on their overall quality and features.

For advanced gamers and enthusiasts, our recommendation is the Corsair K95 RGB Platinum. It is a fully featured keyboard with extra macro keys, RGB lighting, per-key programmability and extended profiling support. So far it does not sound much unlike the G.Skill Ripjaws KM780R and, excluding the very limited use of plastic, it is not much different on paper. Corsair’s software however, the Corsair Utility Engine (CUE), is by far the best in the market right now, allowing for very extended programmability options without the need for third-party software. The Corsair K95 RGB Platinum is also using the latest Cherry MX Speed RGB mechanical switches, which are slightly shorter and smoother for fast-paced gaming sessions. It only has one disadvantage – a $200 price tag.

Our recommendation to professionals seeking a top-tier mechanical keyboard is the Das Keyboard 4 Professional. It might seem a little odd that we recommend a $150 keyboard that does not even have backlighting, but its quality and feel are not easily comprehensible without a hands-on experience. It is the ultimate choice for the office user who wants a very elegant device that will last him/her for many years. If you are even considering of features such as programmable profiles and backlighting though, you need to look towards Cougar’s 700K and just do not look back.

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  • Lycronis - Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - link

    No mention of any Logitech keyboards? For any of the price points? Seems a bit odd considering Logitech offers at least 8 different mechanical keyboards, with most models using their Romer G keys but a few with CherryMX keys as well. Reply
  • madwolfa - Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - link

    Maybe they're just not the best? Reply
  • Lycronis - Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - link

    Or maybe they just didn't test them? Coming from someone that has used two Corsair keyboards (the K90 and then the K95) not to mention several other brands of mechanical keyboards, I would easily rate my current Logitech G910 Orion Spark in the top tier, if not the top overall. To not mention any Logitech keyboards is a disservice in my opinion. Also, I feel that Logitech's LGS software is MUCH more user friendly than Corsair's CUE, but provides 90% of what it provides. Reply
  • E.Fyll - Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - link

    We do have a review of the G910 Orion Spectrum that was published roughly a year ago.

    I just do not find the G910 Orion Spectrum competitive enough, even with its current price tag. It is not even a fully programmable keyboard, what you are getting is a standard keyboard with a programmable 9-key extension added to it. Versatility and quality considered, it stands no chance against the currently equally priced KM780R. With its hardware and capabilities, it needs to go well below $100 for me to consider recommending it against other products. Perhaps a future, improved revision will fare better.

    There is a reason why Logitech is moving towards Cherry-based products as well.
    Reply
  • Diji1 - Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - link

    Logitech Gaming Software has much better per game per key lighting profiles to download meaning you do not have to setup lighting profiles for most popular games. If you use CUE you will more likely have to setup your own lighting profiles than if you use LGS.

    But CUE is better than LGS for customisation and making keyboard lighting displays. I don't know if you have used CUE recently but it's a lot easier to use than previously.
    Reply
  • Death666Angel - Wednesday, November 22, 2017 - link

    I've had serious QC issues with Corsair mechanical backlight keyboards, so I stay away from them (several keys had no backlight or varying backlight intensity on multiple keyboards right from the get go). The Logitech G910 I ordered was cheap but had the weird keycaps that made it impossible for me to type comfortably even after a few days. I have a non backlight cheap Cherry MX based keyboard from a OEM relabler (I guess) called Qpad. No makros, no software, no multimedia controls. I like it. Reply
  • Diji1 - Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - link

    I've owned Logitech G410 Atlas Spectrum and G Pro keyboards and I found the Romer-G switches to be garbage compared to Cherry switches.

    Just my opinion but you could check Anandtech's writeups about them as well.
    Reply
  • Diji1 - Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - link

    I also think Corsair keyboard are much better made than most Logitech's.

    The "premium" Logitech G Pro was nice bit it was still all plastic with shiny plastic that scratched as soon as you touch it.

    Corsair uses a slab of aluminium and mounts the switches to it. Rock solid. There's nowhere for dirt and grime to go so if you want to clean it take the keys off and wipe the slab clean, no nooks and crannies for dust/food etc.
    Reply
  • Diji1 - Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - link

    One thing that LGS has over CUE: LGS allows any keys to be disabled in game mode whereas CUE just allows the usual suspects (Windows key etc). Reply
  • mjeffer - Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - link

    I use the K70 with blue switches (since I don't do tons of gaming and don't need the gaming keys) and I find it to be a fantastic keyboard. It's great to type on, easy to clean (though it could use a cleaning right now), super sturdy, and has a nice clean look unlike a lot of gaming products that try to be really flashy. They really do make great keyboards. Reply

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