Best Mechanical Keyboards: Holiday 2018by E. Fylladitakis on November 16, 2018 1:00 PM EST
In our series of PC peripheral buyers guides, here’s the latest update to our list of recommended mechanical keyboards. All numbers in the text are updated to reflect pricing at the time of writing.
Best Mechanical Keyboards: Holiday 2018
Once you have picked your main system components, such as the CPU, the PSU and the GPU, it is also time to have a look at the 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 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 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 electronic keyboards due to their much lower cost. It was not until a decade ago that mechanical keyboards started reappearing in the market but claimed only a very small share of the market due to their high retail prices. As the manufacturing technologies matured and competition kicked in, mechanical keyboards became more affordable and alluring to advanced users.
Nowadays mechanical keyboards cover a significant share of the market and the sheer number of available products is astonishing. Almost every company in the PC peripherals business is releasing one mechanical keyboard after the other; even Creative Labs, the known audio specialist company, released a mechanical keyboard this year. Each generation brings lower prices, new switches, and (sometimes) unique features. The product design concepts began getting saturated over the last couple of years and most of the released products could hardly differentiate from the competition, yet we did witness some unique features (such as cloud-connected keyboards). We also saw capacitive switch keyboards shyly coming into the scene.
In this holiday buyer’s guide we are taking 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: 2018
(Prices are Nov-18 or MSRP)
|Category||Gaming Option||Professional Option|
|Low-Cost||Cougar Attack X3||$50||-||-|
|MainStream||Razer BlackWidow Ultimate Stealth 2014 Edition||$80||HAVIT KB395L RGB||$80|
|SteelSeries Apex M750 Mechanical Gaming Keyboard||$100|
|Top-tier||Corsair K95 Platinum RGB||$200||Cherry MX 6.0||$135|
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 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)
Before we begin this section, we should point out that we are aware of the many Asian manufacturers that have flooded the market with $35-60 mechanical keyboards. The vast majority of these keyboards are using switches that are not just clones of Cherry's original switches, but clones of their clones. We prefer not to have an opinion on such products before they are actually tested in our labs. In most cases, "cloned-clone" switches show great force disparity and other quality control issues, resulting in behavior and performance that does not justify the upgrade from a typical keyboard to a mechanical one.
For the third year in the row, the best keyboard in this category is the Cougar Attack X3. It is not just the only backlit mechanical keyboard with genuine Cherry MX switches under $60 but, on top of everything else, it also features per-key programmability. Cougar's software is not the best there is but it definitely is a mature, stable package that is adequate for both professional use and for advanced gaming. Only the most advanced MMO gamers may 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.
We usually recommend two keyboards in each category but it honestly is very difficult for us to find a better deal than the Cougar Attack X3 at this point in time. Even keyboards that are using switches coming from Chinese manufacturers and/or with an inferior set of features tend to retail for higher prices. The only true competitor of the Cougar X3 are the mass-produced, cheap Asian clone keyboards, and even then the small difference in price hardly justifies skipping a solid first class product just to save a few bucks.
Mainstream Mechanical Keyboards
Razer BlackWidow Ultimate Stealth 2014 Edition ($80)
SteelSeries Apex M750 Mechanical Gaming Keyboard ($100)
HAVIT KB395L RGB ($80)
Selecting a “mainstream” mechanical keyboard for gaming is a tricky endeavor, especially after the great value that the Cougar Attack X3 holds. It actually 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 Razer BlackWidow Ultimate Stealth 2014 Edition. Despite the five-year old design, the BlackWidow Chroma is a solid mechanical keyboard with very good software support and five extra macro keys. Its current retail price of around $80 is alluring and, as long as the green backlighting is not a deal breaker, it is a keyboard that a passionate gamer will love.
If RGB lighting is what drives you, the SteelSeries Apex M750 Mechanical Gaming Keyboard is a great gaming keyboard that features per-key programmable backlighting. The Apex M750 is very well made and its software is very versatile. Its Achille's heel is the missing extra buttons and support features. The RIOTORO Ghostwriter Prism adds stand-alone volume controls, a USB hub, and genuine Cherry MX switches, yet also brings the retail price up by about $30.
For professional use, our keyboard of choice would be the HAVIT KB395L RGB. HAVIT'S new mechanical keyboard combines a very comfortable low-profile design with per-key programmability. While it does not have any extra keys to act as macros, professionals will certainly enjoy tailoring the standard layout to their specific application(s). The programmability includes subtle, well-applied RGB lighting. With its minimalistic designs and reasonable retail price, the HAVIT KB395L RGB is one of the better choices for the unruly professional.
Top-Tier Mechanical Keyboards
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 for this year remains the Corsair K95 RGB Platinum. Even though we have tested several products around its price range, we feel that the K95 RGB Platinum is the most balanced product of them all. It is a fully featured keyboard with extra macro keys, RGB lighting, per-key programmability, and extended profiling support. True enough, it does not sound much unlike several other keyboards around its price range so far. However, Corsair's Utility Engine (CUE) is by far the best software 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. The only downside of this keyboard is the hefty $200 price tag.
For professionals seeking a top-tier mechanical keyboard, one of the best choices comes directly from Cherry, the most reputable manufacturer of mechanical switches. The Cherry MX 6.0 may seem expensive for a keyboard with such a limited set of features, yet it definitely is one of the highest quality keyboards currently in the market. It is designed to be both comfortable for and to endure long-term professional use, lasting for years in environments where typical office keyboards cannot endure two seasons.