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Mechanical Keyboards: Which One is Right for You?

Looking to swap out your boring membrane keyboard for a mechanical-switch model?

If you're like us, you won't think twice about spending a few extra bucks on a speedy CPU or a flashy new graphics card. But you'll notice those components only when you're really pushing your PC or playing the latest game. For an upgrade you'll notice every time you use your system, consider getting a good mechanical keyboard (as opposed to the membrane keyboard you probably have now).

We've already covered the advantages of switching over to such a unit in "Mechanical Keyboards: Should You Switch?" They're more durable, feel more satisfying to type with, and can offer you different kinds of feedback that can help you type faster and more accurately. We recently reviewed ten different mechanical keyboards from several major manufacturers to help you find the one that will suit your needs perfectly. Also, don't forget to read our Mechanical Keyboard FAQ for more information on how these boards work and how to figure out which switch type you prefer.

Switch Types and Features

The first thing that differentiates one kind of mechanical keyboard from another is the type of switch each one uses. Some switches require more force to press down than others. Some switches give you a little "bump" feeling when you push down the keys, while others don't. Some switches make an audible "click" the moment you've pressed the key deep enough to send a letter to your PC. These different switches (referred to by different colors) can lead to different typing habits: Blue switches make it really easy to not waste effort pushing a key down further than is necessary, Black switches encourage you to push the key all the way down (which can reduce mistakes), and Browns are in between those two.

For this review roundup, we've stuck to the three most common kinds of switches: Cherry MX Blue switches, which make a noticeable "click" and have a tactile bump; Cherry MX Brown switches, which have a tactile bump but no click; and Cherry MX Black switches; which have neither form of feedback. For an in-depth explanation on the different switch types, read our Mechanical Keyboard FAQ.

Also, some mechanical keyboards have audio passthrough jacks or USB ports that allow you to more easily connect headphones or USB devices to your PC--just like many membrane keyboards. In the following reviews, we've noted which keyboards include those features. We also note whether you can connect the keyboards through USB, PS/2, or both, and what the limitations are on those connections.

Note: Click on each keyboard's image to enlarge it.

Adesso MKB-135B Pro

$75Switches: Cherry MX BlueAudio jack: Yes USB hub? Two ports USB: Yes, 6-key rollover PS/2: Yes, 6-key rollover

The Adesso MKB-135B (more info) is a no-nonsense mechanical keyboard that doesn't have quite the same polish or feature selection as the high-end offerings we looked at--but at $75, it's a relatively inexpensive upgrade. This keyboard uses Cherry MX Blue switches, which feel wonderfully clicky and responsive. Typing on the MKB-135B feels very similar to typing on the Das Keyboard Model S Professional, which costs twice as much.

A few design decisions separate the MKB-135B from its more expensive brethren, however. The entire keyboard feels as if it's angled slightly differently from a standard keyboard, so more often than not I found myself typing on the edge of a key rather than on its face. This is particularly noticeable with the spacebar, where my thumb was practically resting on the edge rather than the face. Also, the letters printed on the keys don't look particularly attractive (and some of them don't seem to be centered on the key itself). The glossy black design is apparently trying for a carved-out-of-obsidian look, but it appears a bit cheap.

Overall, the MKB-135B is a no-frills mechanical keyboard good for budget-minded folks who like Cherry MX Blue switches. The USB and audio pass-through ports are also a nice plus considering that several of the pricier models don't have them. But if you have a little extra cash, it's worth your while to check out some of the pricier competing models, which you might find more comfortable. --Patrick Miller

Diatec Filco Majestouch Ninja

$160Switches: Cherry MX BlackAudio jack: No USB hub? No USB: Yes, 6-key rollover PS/2: Yes (via included adapter), N-key rollover

I was excited to try out the Diatec Filco Majestouch Ninja (more info) when we got it in. For a while, Diatec keyboards weren't particularly easy to find (some are now sold via Amazon.com, thankfully), and at $160, I was curious to see what set the Ninja apart from the rest of the pack. The verdict: It's a very good keyboard with a few unique features, but it might not be worth the extra cash to most PC users.

Typing on the Ninja feels similar to other mechanical keyboards with Cherry MX Black switches: Its keys have no feedback at the actuation point, so I was more likely to bottom out each keypress. Normally, I'm not a huge fan of black-switch boards, but typing on the Ninja felt slightly crisper than it did on the other keyboards we tried with black switches. It uses the standard key layout and orientation, so I immediately felt comfortable typing on it. (The Ninja also comes with Cherry MX Brown and Blue switches, if you prefer, and you can buy a version without the ten-key number pad for $10 less.)

This keyboard is undoubtedly called the "Ninja" because of its matte-black aesthetic. As you can tell from the other reviews in this article, matte black is not a new look for mechanical keyboards. What the Ninja does differently, however, is that it has "side-printed keys." Diatec opted to print the keys on the side facing the typist, rather than the top of the key--meaning you can still see which key you're typing, but you don't have to worry about the print wearing off after too much use. It's a small, but very thoughtful design element meant for true workhorse typists. However, there aren't any other bells and whistles to speak of--and that's probably because it's meant for people looking for a keyboard designed to take a pounding, not people looking for fancy media keys and macro-scripting software. --Patrick Miller

Das Keyboard Model S Professional

$129

Switches: Cherry MX BlueAudio jack: No USB hub? 2 ports USB: Yes, 6-key rollover PS/2: Yes (via included adapter), N-key rollover

The Das Keyboard Model S Professional (more info) already holds a special place in the hearts of many gamers and typists, and for good reason: It's a good, solid keyboard.

I prefer the light, clicky feeling of the Cherry MX Blue switches, and they feel very good in the Model S Professional. The layout feels comfortably familiar, the keys are plenty responsive, the angle is just right, and at just under $130, it falls in the middle of the price range for mechanical keyboards. It also has a few minor features worth mentioning, including two USB ports, a two-meter-long USB cable, and "laser-etched" keys. They are supposed to prevent fading, though we weren't able to test this.

I found the Model S Professional to be the most attractive to my eye of the keyboards we tested. The glossy black surface makes it stand out from the matte black crowd, but not garish like the Adesso MKB-135B, which is also glossy black. Plus, the red and white logo and blue LEDs add a few splashes of color to complete the package. In short: This keyboard looks good, feels good, has a neat feature or two, and doesn't cost too much. --Patrick Miller

SteelSeries 6Gv2

$100Switches: Cherry MX Black Audio jack: No USB Hub? No USB: Yes, 6-key rollover PS/2: Yes (with included adapter), N-key rollover

The SteelSeries 6Gv2 (more info) is billed as a gaming keyboard from a gaming accessories company, and that origin shows through in a few design decisions that, depending on what I was doing, I found either useful or really annoying.

As far as the keyboard's feel goes, no complaints here--this is a standard Cherry MX Black keyboard. I did notice that I would occasionally type with the edges of the keys rather than the face, but not quite to the same extent as on the Adesso MKB-135B. The main difference from the other keyboards was in the layout--specifically, the lack of a left-side Windows key. That's to prevent you from accidentally hitting that key while you're playing a game in which you can't disable it. The feature certainly comes in handy while I'm playing games, but I'm one of the rare folks that actually uses the left-hand Windows key for its associated keyboard shortcuts, and after using this keyboard for the better part of a week, I still hadn't gotten used to pressing the Windows key with my right hand.

Instead of a left-hand Windows key, the 6Gv2 has a SteelSeries-logo key that acts as a modifier for the left-hand function keys. Those keys double as basic media controls (Volume Up/Down/Mute, Pause/Play, and Skip Forward/Back), and can come in handy if you're managing your playlist midgame.

Unfortunately, the 6Gv2 doesn't have most of the extras found in the other mechanical keyboards we reviewed. It doesn't have extra USB ports or an audio passthrough jack. In fact, it doesn't even have feet that prop up the back of the keyboard, though when it's lying flat on your desktop, it does sit at a little bit of an angle compared with the other keyboards. All in all, it's a decent model at a decent price, but unless you hate your Windows key with a passion you might want to look elsewhere. --Patrick Miller

SteelSeries 7G

$150Switches: Cherry MX Black Audio? Yes USB Hub? 2 ports USB, 6-key rollover PS/2 (with included adapter), N-key rollover

The SteelSeries 7G (more info) is practically the same keyboard as the 6Gv2. The additional $50 you pay for the 7G gets you extra features (two USB ports and an audio passthrough jack), and a detachable hard plastic wrist-rest. Other than those additions, the keyboard feels roughly identical to the 6Gv2, with one significant difference--the Backspace key is the same size as the letter keys, not twice as wide as it is in a standard layout. Frankly, I'm not sure why they did this, since I don't hear many complaints from gamers about the Backspace key getting in the way. I found the smaller key annoying when I used this keyboard for typing (as opposed to gaming). --Patrick Miller

Razer BlackWidow Ultimate Stealth Edition

$140Switches: Cherry MX Brown Audio jack: Yes USB hub: One passthrough USB: Yes, 6-key rolloverPS/2: No

Despite being a keyboard with the word “stealth” in the name and an emphasis on reduced noise, the Razer Blackwidow Ultimate Stealth (more info) was actually a bit louder than most of the other mechanical keyboards we tested. The keys don’t make loud clicking sounds as keyboards with Cherry MX Blue switches do, but the sound the keys make as you hit the bottom of the keyboard seems to be louder than most. Typing feel is excellent, with a firm and direct actuation for each key.

At $140, the Razer is a good value. Many mechanical keyboards cost about the same, but don’t pack extra features such as this Razer's line of macro keys along the left, with drivers for on-the-fly macro recording and playback. A gaming mode key will disable the Windows and Menu keys so you don’t accidentally hit them and mess up your game. The keys are backlit with five settings: off, low, medium, high, and pulsing. Interestingly, the function keys are purposefully shifted about half a key to the right. In practice this didn’t really cause any problems, but it didn’t add a noticeable benefit, either. One minor gripe: The font used on the keys is meant to look futuristic and cool, but is actually a little hard to read at a glance. --Jason Cross

Rosewill Mechanical Keyboard RK-9000

$100Switches: Cherry MX Blue Audio jack: No USB hub: No USB: Yes, 6-key rolloverPS/2: Yes (with included mini-USB-to-PS/2 cables), N-key rollover

Rosewill’s RK-9000 (more info) is not a feature-filled keyboard. It’s a very basic model with nice and clicky Cherry MX Blue switches. But it has no USB pass-through, no audio jacks, and no macro recording.

Our first test keyboard had problems with the lower row of keys. Pressingtogether with another key would produce extra keystrokes.-M produced “MY,” and right--M would give me “MJ.” Pressingtogether with keys on the lower row produced similar results. This cross-talk made the keyboard pretty much unusable. The issue doesn't appear widespread, but I found a complaint on Rosewill’s forums from one other user having the exact same problem. Rosewill sent us a replacement with all keys working properly.

Even if I hadn't encountered this glitch, the Rosewill has nothing to recommend it over any other keyboard; it’s not especially inexpensive, well-made, or versatile. --Jason Cross

Filco Majestouch 2 Camouflage

$170Switches: Cherry MX Blue Audio jack: No USB hub? NoUSB: Yes, 6-key rolloverPS/2: Yes (via included USB to PS/2 adapter), N-key rollover

Diatec's Filco Majestouch 2 Camouflage keyboard (more info) is just what you’d want to be typing on when the zombie apocalypse breaks out. It’s heavy, solid, and dense. It feels like it could stop a bullet. It also has great typing feel and very satisfying, if somewhat noisy, clicky keys. I don't think Filco really thought through the camouflage coloring, though: I don't know of a computer that matches that aesthetic, and really, if you want your keyboard to be camouflaged, it should be desk-colored, right?

Fancy features are at a minimum here. Media controls are on some of the function keys, accessed by holding down the Fn key. You get an extra set of green W-A-S-D keys and a keypuller to replace them with, if you really want to show your first person shooter pride with keys that stand out from the rest of the black ones. So, Filco has produced a really solid, basic keyboard, but the price is a little hard to swallow. It’s one of the most expensive keyboards of the lot we tested, but doesn’t have the more advanced features that some of the others do. --Jason Cross

Thermaltake eSports Meka G1

$110Switches: Cherry MX BlackAudio jack: Yes USB hub: Two-port passthrough USB: Yes, 6-key rolloverPS/2: Needs separate adapter, N-key rollover

Thermaltake’s Meka G1 (more info), part of its Tt eSports line, is almost as fancy as the Razer Blackwidow Ultimate Stealth. It’s quieter, perhaps due in part to the use of Cherry Black switches, which are similar to the Brown switches in the Razer keyboard but without the tactile half-press resistance. The keys on the Meka G1 feel slightly mushy, with a resistance that is almost too smooth and constant to make for great touch-typing. The keyboard's construction feels slighter than many others. It seems sort of hollow and plasticky, rather than dense and solid.

The braided cord coming out of the back of the Meka G1 is huge--almost as big around as a dime. It carries cords for two USB plugs (one for the two-port USB pass-through to the back of the keyboard, one for the keyboard itself) and both headphone and microphone jacks. With the Fn key, you can use the F1-F7 keys for media control. Thermaltake has moved the Windows key to the right side of the spacebar, next to the right Alt key. If you’re a heavy user of Windows shortcuts, this might take some getting used to, but it at least keeps the key out of the way of your left hand during gaming sessions. You’ll also find a snap-on wrist rest in the box, which seems to be rare among mechanical keyboards. Overall, the Meka G1 is a pretty good deal and a fine keyboard if you prefer the nontactile feel of Cherry Black switches. But if you want to recreate the clicky, half-press resistance of the mechanical keys from 20 years ago, you’ll want to look elsewhere. --Jason Cross

Thermaltake eSports Meka

$82Switches: Cherry MX Black Audio jack: No USB hub: 2 ports USB: Yes, 6-key rolloverPS/2: Needs separate adapter, N-key rollover

Thermaltake’s Meka (more info) is the G1’s smaller, slightly cheaper sibling. It’s also equipped with Cherry Black switches, and shares the mushy feel and less-than-stellar construction of its pricier relative.

Typing is smooth, and the keys are sufficiently responsive. But because it uses Cherry Black switches, the Meka lacks the authoritative “clack” you get from some other mechanical keyboards.

The Meka is compact, and the layout suffers because of it. It has no Windows key, very little breathing room between the narrow keys, and some keys are in unusual places. Expect mistakes as you’re learning your way around the layout.

The Meka's features are sparse. It has a pair of USB ports at the top edge of the keyboard, pointed away from you. That's a convenient placement, since cables or memory keys plugged into them aren’t likely to snag on anything. There’s nothing wrong with the Meka. But in a crowded field, it fails to stand out. --Nate Ralph

Have your own mechanical keyboard recommendations or opinions? Post them in the comments!


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