If you spend most of your day typing, a mechanical keyboard can be a worthwhile upgrade over a cheaper, less comfortable keyboard. They are more durable, responsive, and customizable than other types of keyboards. The best for you depends a lot on personal preference and what you’re using it for, but after spending months testing 31 top-rated keyboards with a four-person panel, we unanimously agree that the WASD Code 87-Key is a great place to start because of its fantastic key feel, build quality, and elegant design.
The WASD Code 87-Key is available with all the most popular switch options for general use and typists—Cherry MX Brown, MX Clear, and MX Blue, plus MX Green—and every single one of our panel testers loved how it felt. Though many other mechanical keyboards have very aggressive styles, the Code’s tasteful modern aesthetic and even white backlighting fits with almost any desktop decor. Out of the box the Code works as a standard keyboard for any operating system, and you can also customize the layout to Mac and other modes using switches on the underside of the board. (Mac users can customize further with the Karabiner software; more on this below.)
We recommend the 87-key version for most people because compact keyboards are ergonomically superior. If you like the Code 87-key but need a full-size number pad, get the Code 104-Key instead. It’s exactly the same as the tenkeyless version, but it includes a number pad and is usually about $5 more expensive.
This is just the tip of the very deep, endlessly customizable iceberg of mechanical keyboards. We discuss boards with nonstandard layouts, kits that require a soldering gun and programming know-how, and other delightfully nerdy pursuits in the boutique keyboards section below.
I (Kimber Streams) have tested, lived with, and reviewed hundreds of computer accessories, and while working on this guide, I’ve spent way too much time and money on my own mechanical keyboard obsession. So far I’ve purchased two mechanical keyboards (one of which I’ll need to build, solder, and program when it arrives), four sets of custom keycaps, two sets of sound-dampening O-rings, and a hardwood wrist wrest. And I have my eye on a third keyboard. Most people should not do this.
Ryan Whitwam, who wrote the boutiques section, has used mechanical keyboards for nearly a decade, and in recent years has developed a full-blown obsession with them. He owns half a dozen different boards, several of which he built to meet his exacting (and some might say unreasonable) standards. He owns several custom keysets and artisan keycaps that are worth more than the keyboards they are installed on.
Nathan Edwards, the lead editor, has used mechanical keyboards for eight years, currently uses a Magicforce 68 with Gateron Brown switches, and owns more keycap sets than keyboards … for now.
First, what sets mechanical keyboards apart from the other two most common types, membrane and scissor switch? In membrane keyboards (most cheap keyboards) a plastic plunger beneath each key smushes a rubber dome beneath each key into a circuit board to register each keypress. These keyboards tend to feel mushy, and keys can wear out faster than mechanical ones. Scissor switch keyboards also use rubber domes atop electronic switches on a single circuit board, but beneath each key is a hinged scissor-like mechanism that allows for a lower-profile keyboard, which is why they are commonly used in laptops.
Mechanical keyboards, by contrast, use independent switches for each key. They’re more comfortable and durable than other switch types, but they tend to be more expensive. They’re best for people who spend most of the day with a keyboard, and want one that’s pleasant to use.
There are three main varieties of mechanical switch: linear, tactile, and clicky. Linear switches feel smooth when you press them down, from top to bottom. Tactile switches have a noticeable bump partway through the keypress, which lets you know that you’ve activated the key. Clicky switches feel similar to tactile ones, but have an added click sound to match the tactile bump. From these three main switch types come many variations, defined primarily by their actuation force (how much effort it takes to activate each key) and to a lesser extent by their actuation point (how far down you have to press to activate each key).
Several companies make mechanical switches, but the most common are Cherry MX switches. This is where things get complicated. Since Cherry’s switch patents expired in 2014, a number of clones (such as Gateron, Kailh, and Greetech) have become available. For the most part, these switches mimic Cherry MX switches in feeling and color-naming scheme, though quality can vary. (Cherry has also suffered shortages and quality-control issues in recent years due to high demand. As a result, some enthusiasts—including some of the authors of this guide—even prefer Gateron’s switches over Cherry’s.)
Keyboard companies like Logitech, Razer, and Steelseries, which used to use Cherry switches, have also begun making their own mechanical switches, either independently or in partnership with companies that clone Cherry switches. And there are still other, completely different types of mechanical switches, such as Topre and Alps clones (found in our Mac pick below). PCGamer has a fantastic explanation of most of these switches, and we recommend taking a look if you want to learn more about a specific type. For the most part, we’ll be focusing on Cherry switches for this guide, because they’re by far the most prevalent and have a decades-long reputation for reliability.
Because everyone has different preferences, we can’t recommend one particular switch that’s best for everyone. But according to GoMechanicalKeyboard’s survey of enthusiasts, the most popular switches for all-around use are Cherry MX Browns, followed by Blues and Clears. For typing, most enthusiasts like Blues best, followed by Browns, then Clears. For gaming, Browns, followed closely by Reds and Blues.
|Cherry MX Red||Linear||45g||light||low|
|Cherry MX Black||Linear||60g||hard||low|
|Cherry MX Brown||Tactile||45g||light||average|
|Cherry MX Clear||Tactile||65g||hard||average|
|Cherry MX Blue||Clicky||50g||medium||high|
|Cherry MX Green||Clicky||70g||hard||high|
If you still can’t decide, we recommend trying out Cherry MX Browns because of their popularity. (For this reason, and to make sure panel testers focused on differences between keyboards, rather than differences between switch types, we tested keyboards with Brown switches whenever possible.) We do not recommend clicky switches, like Blues, if you work or game in a shared space, because they’re very noisy and will likely annoy your office- or housemates.
Smaller keyboards have better ergonomics (to a point). Keyboards without a number pad allow you to place your mouse closer to your body, which reduces strain on your shoulders, neck, and back. If you need the number pad all the time, you should stick to full keyboards, but most people are best off with a tenkeyless board. (And stand-alone numpads are a great option if you only need one on occasion.) We only recommend a 60 percent keyboard if you’re very sure you don’t need the arrow or function keys, or are willing to rely on key combinations every time you do.
We didn’t consider keyboards that are difficult to find, come in kits, are mostly available via group buys, or have nonstandard layouts, but we do discuss those in the boutiques section.
N-key rollover (or NKRO) refers to how many inputs a keyboard can handle before it can no longer recognize additional keypresses. Ghosting is no longer a common issue, but on old keyboards, if you pressed three or more keys it could cause the board to register phantom keypresses. Almost all mechanical keyboards today—and all of our picks below—support at least six-key rollover and anti-ghosting, so these are no longer defining features.
Our panelists universally loved the Code because of its subtle, elegant design, great feel, and unmatched build quality. (If you want a number pad, skip ahead a little bit to the 104-key version of the Code keyboard.)
Panel testing can be a tricky business, because everyone has a different body, workflow, and their own personal preferences. But every single one of our panel testers loved the Code 87. One went from disliking all mechanical keyboards to asking “Why do I like this one so much?” and declaring that it “feels really nice.” Another (perhaps not-so-very) jokingly attempted to smuggle the Code 87 away under his shirt. And I didn’t want to stop using it long enough to test all the other keyboards for this guide. Every time I used a different board, I felt myself longing to switch back to the Code. In fact, as soon as I sent my review unit back, I bought one.
The Code feels so great to type on because of its superb build quality. The keycaps feel smooth but not slippery, and make a solid clacking noise when depressed into the steel backplate. Other keyboards we tested made a higher-pitched sound and the keys felt hollower, which gave our panel members the impression that they were cheaper. The trade-off for the Code’s superior build quality is that it weighs 2 pounds. Every tester commented on its weight, and at least two joked that it could be used as a weapon in a pinch. (Mechanical keyboards aren’t meant to be portable, so we don’t think this is a dealbreaker.)
The Code keyboard feels rock-solid when typing, unlike the Ducky Shine 5, which flexed in the middle during ordinary typing. All of the Code’s keys feel consistent—even the larger modifier keys—and none rattle around when jiggled. This might seem like the bare minimum to expect from a $150 keyboard, but uneven modifier keys and rattly space bars were common across many of the keyboards we tested—the Das Keyboard 4 Pro’s shift and enter keys felt inconsistent depending on where they were pressed, and most keyboards we tested had wiggly, noisy space bars.
Though design preferences are entirely personal, I love the Code’s subtle looks, and several panel members mentioned that they liked the understated black slab. The Code has blank keycaps in place of operating system keys, where other manufacturers slap their ugly logos. The Code has no visible branding on top, no edgy fonts, no strange keycaps, and no extra buttons or knobs. It’s just a plain black board, and I think it’s beautiful. The WASD V2, from the same company, is very similar and allows for even more customization—you can choose keycap color, legends, and printing style—but it lacks backlighting.
The white backlighting reflects off the white-painted steel backplate, giving the whole keyboard a pleasant glow that shines through each keycap to evenly illuminate every letter. The Code has seven levels of illumination (plus off) that you can toggle one-handed with Fn + F11, and you can disable the backlight entirely with Fn + F12. The Code lacks multicolor backlighting and per-key backlight customization, but if that’s your jam, check out our gaming picks below.
The Code works as a standard QWERTY keyboard for any operating system, and you can plug it in and use it without messing with any software or programming. But it also has six DIP switches on the underside of the board that you can use to change to Mac mode (which swaps the Command and Option keys) or Dvorak or Colemak mode (different key layouts preferred by some typists). Other switches allow you to change Caps Lock to a Control key, disable the operating system keys, and more. The Code comes with a handy guide to these switches, and if you don’t need them, you can simply ignore them.
We also liked the Code’s conveniently placed media controls, located on the nav cluster and marked with side-lit legends. Even someone with small hands can reach the Fn key and the volume and mute keys with a single hand. Other keyboards we tested require two hands to press the Fn key and access the media keys.
The Code also has six rubber pads on its underside that keep the board from sliding around, and two rubber-coated feet if you like to prop up your keyboard (ergonomic experts say that’s bad for your wrists, so we don’t advise it). It comes with a detachable, 70-inch Micro-USB to USB cable with a velcro tie. The box also includes a couple other thoughtful touches, like a keycap puller so you can clean your keyboard, swap out keycaps, or add O-rings, and a PS/2 adapter if you need more than the six-key rollover supported by the USB interface (but you probably don’t, since most people don’t need to press more than six keys at once).
Flaws but not dealbreakers
As mentioned above, the Code lacks RGB (multicolor) backlighting and a full-size number pad. If you need one (or both) of those things, read on. The Code also can’t record or store macros. This isn’t necessary for most typists, but if you need that, our gaming picks are your best bet. And the Code is available with only Cherry MX Brown, MX Clear, MX Blue, and MX Green switches. If you prefer linear switches like the MX Red or MX Black, keep reading.
If you want to use macOS shortcuts on the Code, you’ll need to download the Karabiner software. (If you’re on Sierra, follow these directions instead. As soon as you launch the software, your function keys will automatically be remapped to media keys, then you can activate the Fn key in the Simple Modifications tab by adding an item to remap “application” to “fn.”) WASD also sells a set of Mac Function-key shortcut keycaps and sets of modifier key keycaps for various operating systems (including Mac, Windows, Linux, and even Amiga), but these don’t allow the backlight to shine through like the WASD’s included keycaps, and they don’t include a function key in place of the Code’s Menu key. (One staffer ordered one of these custom backlight-compatible keycaps to replace his Code’s Command key.)
One tester mentioned that the Code’s keys feel tall, making it a bit difficult to reach up to the keys. Almost all mechanical keyboards have this problem due to the depth of the switch mechanism, so the best solution is a palm rest. Some gaming keyboards we tested include built-in or detachable palm rests, but none of our typing contenders did.
Currently at around $150, the Code 87 is expensive compared with nonmechanical keyboards, but it costs about the same as the other mechanical keyboards we considered for this category. And if you spend all day with a keyboard, it’s totally worth it.
One Wirecutter employee purchased the Code 104-Key before this guide was published, and when it arrived he found that the left bracket key didn’t work and the keyboard had one dead LED. He contacted WASD Keyboards support about the LED, and they immediately offered to send him a replacement part or repair the keyboard. After he discovered the dead bracket key, however, he chose to exchange the board through Amazon (where he purchased) and his replacement worked perfectly.
As someone who spends most of his working hours typing and editing on Apple computers, I (Dan) love Matias’s Tactile Pro. This full-size keyboard offers an unmatched combination of a Mac-standard layout, great custom switches, a good number of Mac-specific keys, solid construction, and exceptionally useful key labels.
(Though we generally recommend models without a numeric keypad for ergonomic reasons, the layout of the full-size version of the Tactile Pro feels truer to traditional Mac keyboards. In my experience, numpads also seem to be popular on the Mac side, and Matias told us that roughly 65 percent of Tactile Pro Mac models it sells are full-size; only 35 percent of Mac users buy the Mini Tactile Pro—a similar keyboard without the numeric keypad.)
The Tactile Pro offers the feel of a great mechanical keyboard in a great Mac keyboard. It starts with unique switches: Rather than using the popular Cherry-class key switches, the Tactile Pro incorporates the same Alps switch mechanism used in the original Apple Extended Keyboard. The switches aren’t a perfect match for those on the Extended Keyboard, but they’re very similar—if you liked that keyboard, this is the closest you’ll get to it in 2016.
The keys themselves provide great tactile feedback, have nicely sculpted tops that feel great to type on and make it easy to center a finger on each key, and have laser-etched characters that won’t fade over years of use. One of my favorite features is that every keycap is labeled with both the primary character and any alternate characters—for example, ¶, Á, ®, °, and ™—that you can access using the Option key and Shift+Option, making it easy to type those characters when you need them. After using several Matias keyboards over the years, I really miss this feature when using other keyboards.
The Tactile Pro has a Mac-standard key layout that replicates that of Apple’s best keyboards, down to the numeric keypad layout, space between pods of F-keys, and a full complement of modifier keys. (I especially like the location of the Fn key next to the Home key, which makes it easy to use many Fn/F-key combinations with one hand.) F-key overlays include controls for screen brightness, Mission Control (two modes of your choice), media-playback control, volume, mute, and eject. You also get 18 F-keys rather than 12, so if you use a macro program such as Keyboard Maestro, you have more keys to work with than on most keyboards. Matias also says that the Tactile Pro is the only non-Apple-branded keyboard that properly supports all startup keyboard shortcuts (such as T for target disk mode); we haven’t tested every keyboard, but we can confirm that every shortcut we tried worked with the Tactile Pro; that hasn’t been true on some other keyboards we’ve used.
Though its white body looks a little plasticky, the Tactile Pro is solid, thanks in part to a metal backplate that makes the keyboard rigid and helps give the keys a firm “bottom” when typing. The keyboard also has a three-port USB 2.0 hub, with ports on each end and one in the back.
If you like the Tactile Pro’s keys and features but prefer a compact keyboard, Matias’s Mini Tactile Pro is a very similar keyboard without a numeric keypad or most of the navigation cluster—it’s basically a laptop-keyboard layout with dedicated Page Up and Page Down keys. (It’s smaller than the standard tenkeyless layout, closer in size to 65 percent boards.) Though it’s just as Mac-focused as the standard Tactile Pro, with the same great keys, the Shift, Control, arrow, and fn keys are bunched together on the right, making it more difficult to use these keys by feel. The Mini has a detachable USB cable, rather than the permanent cable of the full-size Pro.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Like our top pick, the Tactile Pro currently costs around $130 to $150, which is a lot for a keyboard. But that’s a fairly standard price for a good mechanical keyboard.
Matias’s tactile switches are very good, but they have a very different feel and sound from many other switches. Like Cherry MX Blues, they’re quite loud, so they might annoy your officemates, and they require a bit more force to activate than, say, a Cherry Brown—though you also get more tactile activation feedback. If you prefer Blue or Brown switches, take a look at the Das Keyboard 4 Pro for Mac, in the competition section.
The Tactile Pro’s Caps Lock indicator light is difficult to see in bright light, and we wish the Tactile Pro had USB 3.0 ports, like the Das Keyboard 4 Pro, instead of USB 2.0. We’d also like to see a black version, instead of just white—white keys show dirt over time, and a white design feels a bit dated.
It’s also worth noting that there’s no backlighting, but none of the Mac-specific models we tested had this feature.
Of the budget boards we tested, our panel testers liked the Quick Fire Rapid-i’s keys and typing feel the best. None of the budget keyboards could match the excellent build quality of the Code, but at least the Quick Fire’s keys didn’t feel cheap, slippery, or hollow, like the ThermalTake’s. However, the Quick Fire’s modifier keys do feel looser than the Code’s, and the space bar wiggles and makes a rattly, clanging noise when pressed.
Though its keycap font is edgy and futuristic—certainly not as professional and clean-looking as the Code’s—the Quick Fire’s design is subtle compared with that of the other budget boards. The ThermalTake has a glowing logo on the space bar and SteelSeries replaces the operating system keys with its logo on the Apex M500; both keyboards have their brand name stamped in the upper right corner. Even our full-size budget pick, the Logitech G610 Orion, has a big glowing G in the upper left corner. This is entirely a matter of preference, but I don’t appreciate gaudy branding—I already bought your product, stop advertising at me.
Our panelists liked the Quick Fire Rapid-i’s white backlight more than the blue or red options of its competitors (we didn’t find any inexpensive mechanical keyboards with customizable multicolor backlighting). The Rapid-i has five levels of backlighting (plus off) and five different effects: solid, breathing, WASD keys only for gaming, and two responsive modes that illuminate individual keys as they’re pressed.
Like the Code, the Cooler Master Quick Fire Rapid-i has four rubber pads that keep the keyboard firmly planted, and it also has two rubber-coated flip-down feet. (Again, you shouldn’t use these to prop up your keyboard because it’s bad for your wrists.) The Quick Fire Rapid-i is the only budget board we tested with a braided, detachable USB cable.
The Quick Fire Rapid-i has the same conveniently located media keys as the Code, though the backlighting options are on the left side of the board, requiring two hands to activate. It also has a shortcut to disable the Windows key, in case you plan to use this board for gaming.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The Quick Fire Rapid-i’s backlighting is uneven on keys that display multiple functions like the arrow, number, punctuation, and media keys.2 Cherry switches place the LED at the very top of the key, so the light isn’t evenly dispersed, barely bleeding into the legends at the bottom of these keycaps. Other keyboards avoid this cheap look with brighter LEDs or keycaps that place the legends side by side instead of stacked.
The Quick Fire Rapid-i is designed for Windows computers, and doesn’t have a quick and easy way to swap to Mac mode like the Code does. If you need a Mac keyboard, check out the Matias Tactile Pro. The Rapid-i also lacks macro recording. The Logitech G610 below can record macros to the function keys only, but if you need macro recording for any key, take a look at our gaming picks.
Like the Code, the Cooler Master Quick Fire Rapid-i comes with a keycap puller, but it’s a plastic, ring-style puller rather than the Code’s wire puller. Exercise caution with the ring, because it can scratch your keycaps.
If you want a budget mechanical keyboard with a number pad, get the Logitech G610 Orion. It’s a full-size keyboard available with Cherry MX Brown or MX Red switches, and it has a fun volume control wheel in the upper right. The G610 costs about the same as the Quick Fire Rapid-i and most of our panel members liked it equally, but it’s available with fewer switch types, requires software to change backlight effects, and has a non-removable USB cable.
Our panel members liked the G610’s “percussive key feel,” but thought it felt a bit cheaper than the Cooler Master Quick Fire Rapid-i because of its higher-pitched typing sound. The G610’s space bar and modifier keys rattle more than the Code’s, and its space bar and shift keys in particular have a louder metallic twang than the Quick Fire Rapid-i’s.
Aside from the Quick Fire Rapid-i, the G610 Orion had one of the least gaudy designs of the budget keyboards we considered. It has a blocky futuristic font and a large illuminated “G” in the corner, but doesn’t have any other tacky, visible branding. The G610 Orion is one of Logitech’s only keyboards with Cherry MX switches, which means you can swap out the included keycaps for custom ones if you want.3
By default, the G610’s white backlight travels in waves across the keyboard. The effect can be distracting, and it can’t be changed—unless you want to turn the backlight off entirely—without Logitech’s Game Center software. Using this software, you can customize the backlight for individual keys or assign lighting effects to the whole keyboard. Your settings aren’t saved to the keyboard, though, so if you plug it into a new computer or even exit the software, the G610 will default back to the wave pattern. This is bad.
You can also assign and record Macros for the F1 through F12 keys using the Game Center software, and choose which keys to disable when Game Mode is toggled using the button above Print Screen. (The legend looks a bit like a joystick on top of a turntable. Perhaps a golf flag?) The G610 also has a set of media buttons in the upper right, but they’re loud, shallow, and snappy. Everyone loved the scroll wheel at the top to control volume—it might be a bit too fun, though, because I find myself playing with it constantly.
Given the popularity of tenkeyless boards among e-sports players and gaming enthusiasts, it’s surprising how few options exist. We found only two tenkeyless gaming keyboards available with the most popular gaming switches (or their equivalents). The BlackWidow TE Chroma was preferred by all our panel members, plus it has customizable RGB LEDs, allows macro recording for nearly every key, and has a gaming mode to disable keys and key combinations that can throw you out of the game.
Our panel testers universally preferred the BlackWidow TE Chroma over its closest competition, the Logitech G410 Atlas Spectrum, which makes a terrible metallic pinging noise when any keys are pressed, and the resulting vibration reverberates throughout the board. Polygon encountered the same issue with two different G410 boards, and ultimately liked the BlackWidow TE Chroma better.
Razer used to use Cherry switches in its keyboards, but has since transitioned to proprietary switches made by companies that clone Cherry’s switches. Razer’s tactile Orange switches feel like Cherry Browns, and the clicky Green switches feel mostly similar to Cherry Blues.4 But our panel testers agreed that Razer’s Orange switches feel “muddier” and “mushier” than their Cherry equivalents. Razer’s switches do use Cherry-style stems, which means they’re compatible with most keycaps, though the BlackWidow’s bottom row of keys doesn’t use the standard layout. That makes it trickier to find replacement keycaps. The Code and Quick Fire Rapid-i use standard key layouts.
Using Razer’s Synapse software, you can program macros and lighting effects. Razer’s keyboards support macro recording across nearly every key on the board, except for the Fn and OS keys. The BlackWidow TE Chroma also allows for hardware recording—using keys to record the actual combination of keypresses, and their durations, which you can later tweak in the Synapse software. Other gaming keyboards we tested, like the Cooler Master MasterKeys Pro line, support only hardware macro recording, which makes programming more confusing and frustrating than it needs to be.
The Chroma Configurator within the Synapse software lets you customize the board’s colorful LEDs, and provides six lighting effects—breathing, reactive, ripple, spectrum cycling, static, and wave—that can be combined. (My personal favorite is one static color with a layer on top that reacts as I type.) The software also includes presets for various popular games.
Gaming mode—activated by pressing Fn and F10—disables the Windows key by default. Within Synapse, gaming mode can also be configured to disable Alt + F4 and Alt + Tab as well, so you can’t get knocked out of a game in the heat of the moment.
The Razer BlackWidow TE Chroma has a compact and simple design, especially for a gaming keyboard. I don’t love the edgy sci-fi font or the small glowing Razer logo on the front, but I greatly prefer the Chroma’s design to the G410’s gaudy, asymmetrical palm rest and other bulky boards that manspread all over my desk.
Like many of our other picks, the BlackWidow TE Chroma has rubber pads to keep the board in place, and feet to prop it up. It has a removable, braided USB cord, though the connector is Mini- instead of the ubiquitous Micro-USB. The BlackWidow TE Chroma also comes with a carrying case, if you’re the type of person who needs to carry a mechanical keyboard around.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
None of the macro and lighting customization features work without the Synapse software, which requires a Razer account and an Internet connection for the first-time setup. (After that, Synapse has an optional offline mode.) And settings aren’t saved on the keyboard, they’re saved to the cloud, attached to your Synapse account. This means if you want to use your board with a different computer, you’ll have to install the Synapse software there too to access your macros and lighting configs.
We noticed a high-pitched ringing sound when the LEDs on the Razer BlackWidow Tournament Edition Chroma were at full brightness, but didn’t find an abundance of other users reporting the same problem. We suspect it’s a lemon, and if you experience this problem, we recommend swapping the board out under warranty. (And please let us know in the comments!)
If you want a full-size gaming keyboard with media keys and Cherry switches, the best option is the Corsair K70 LUX RGB Mechanical Gaming keyboard. (And it has a catchy name, too!) It’s available with Cherry MX Brown, MX Blue, MX Red, and MX Speed switches.5 Though the K70 LUX was one of the more expensive full-size gaming boards we tested, it was still the favorite of our panel testers because of its superior build quality and handy media keys. The K70 LUX RGB is even more customizable than the BlackWidow TE Chroma —you can assign macros to any key, and Corsair’s software has more lighting effects.
The Corsair K70 LUX is one of the few full-size gaming keyboards (others include the Strafe RGB, and the Razer BlackWidow Chroma) with macro recording, customizable RGB backlighting, and a variety of good switch options.
Our panel testers preferred the look and feel of the K70 LUX RGB over the Strafe RGB because of the K70’s metal backplate, which makes typing feel and sound better than the Strafe’s plastic body does. The Strafe RGB has dedicated buttons to control the backlight level and enable game mode; the K70 LUX RGB has these buttons, plus media buttons and a volume roller. All of our panel members felt these features were worth paying extra for. We also tested the Razer BlackWidow Chroma, but it isn’t available with linear switches and our panel members greatly preferred the K70 LUX’s media controls, volume wheel, and open design.
The Corsair Utility Engine (CUE) software does not require an account like Razer’s software, so you can customize macros and lighting effects without having to sign up. The K70 LUX lets you create macros for any key, including the Windows keys and even the extra multimedia keys. You can also customize the game mode toggle to disable the Windows keys as well as Alt + F4, Alt + Tab, and Shift + Tab.
By default, most of the K70 LUX RGB’s keys are backlit in red, with the WASD and arrow keys lit white. But the software allows you to assign any color to any key, and provides a whopping 13 lighting effects to play with, including music and microphone visualizer effects. The K70 LUX RGB has only three levels of backlighting (plus off)—that’s more limited than the other keyboards we tested, but not a dealbreaker. None of the macro or lighting customizations are stored on the keyboard so, like the BlackWidow TE Chroma, you’ll need to install the software on every computer you use the board with to keep your settings.
The Corsair K70 LUX RGB comes with more fun extras than our other picks, including a pack of additional, textured keycaps for the WASD keys (for shooters) and QWERDF keys (for MOBAs) and a ring-style keycap puller. Exercise caution when removing keys with this tool to avoid scratching them.
The K70 LUX RGB also comes with an optional palm rest that I found soft and comfortable, if a bit low. But other panel members disliked it and removed it immediately—one person said it wasn’t useful for his large hands, another said their sweaty palms made the soft surface slick and gross. Unlike our other picks, the K70 LUX has two sets of feet to prop up the board—one pair in the front, and one pair in the back—to keep the board even, but elevated. You can also achieve the slight negative slope recommended by ergonomic experts by only using the front pair, and it’s the only one of our picks that allows this.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The K70 LUX RGB is one of the most expensive gaming keyboards we considered. But all our panel members said they’d pay $20 to $40 extra for the LUX over its closest competition, the slightly cheaper Strafe RGB and Razer’s BlackWidow Chroma.
The K70 LUX’s space bar has a tread-like texture on its surface, like the extra included keycaps. But Corsair doesn’t include a regular, smooth space bar—if you want that, you’ll have to buy one and replace it yourself. This is unfortunate, because none of our panel testers liked the texture. It provides a little more grip over a smooth spacebar, but after weeks of using the keyboard for typing and gaming, I’m still not sure how that’s useful.
Like the Razer BlackWidow Chroma, the K70 LUX uses nonstandard key sizes for the bottom row, which makes finding replacement keycaps trickier.
The K70 LUX’s predecessor, the K70, had issues with LEDs dying or not displaying the correct colors. We experienced no issues with the LUX’s LEDs, and have not seen widespread reports of a problem.
Not many gaming keyboards are what I’d call tasteful, and the Corsair K70 LUX RGB has a huge, blocky font and a shiny—but at least not glowing—logo at the top. The metal backplate and open design of the K70 LUX look nicer than the black plastic of most other gaming keyboards, but the overall design (and the treads on the spacebar) isn’t my favorite.
We tested the only keyboard that currently has MX Silent switches, the Corsair Strafe RGB. Though the keyboard is undeniably quieter than other mechanical options—including Cherry MX Red switches, which have the same linear travel and 45g actuation force as the MX Silents—our testing panel found it wasn’t worth the trade-off in feel.
Instead of the smooth, crisp tactile response characteristic of mechanical keyboards, the MX Silent keys felt mushy and resistive, like pressing down into a thick cushion. And typing on the keyboard wasn’t completely silent either, but sounded a bit like banging on a damp, hollow log. Our panel testers decided the Corsair Strafe RGB with MX Silent switches wasn’t worth $150—they’d rather buy a cheaper, nonmechanical keyboard or deal with a louder mechanical keyboard instead.
So, what can you do if you work or game in a shared space, and need to keep your keyboard quiet? Option one is, of course, to consider a nonmechanical keyboard. The next-best solution is to install little rubber O-rings on underside of each keycap to dampen the sound each key makes when you press it down. It’s a fiddly, time-consuming process, but you should only have to do it once.
Our panel tested out a couple different types of O-rings on linear Cherry MX Red switches, and found that they successfully dampen the sound of a key bottoming out, but don’t reduce the sharp sound a key makes when it springs back up. Tactile switches like MX Browns add a little more noise to each keypress, and clicky switches like MX Blues will make a racket no matter what. (For the love of keycaps, don’t get clicky switches if you work in a shared space, unless you really hate everyone around you.)
O-rings also slightly reduce key travel (that is, how far down each key can go) and add a slightly mushy feeling to the bottom of each keypress, because you’re pressing each key into a tiny rubber ring rather than hard metal or plastic. But our panel testers unanimously preferred O-Rings on regular switches to MX Silent switches and found them more pleasant to type on.
Our recommended switch tester comes with a set of six Red and six Blue O-rings from WASD keyboards, so we suggest getting the switch tester and trying out those O-rings on a cluster of keys. If you like how they feel and sound, then buy some. If you don’t want to test them out first, we recommend the Red O-rings. None of our panel testers could tell the difference between Red and Blue in our tests, and the Red O-rings will have the least impact on key travel. (There are lots of different types of O-rings, many of which are cheaper. If you’re interested, you can learn about them here.)
When your keyboard first arrives, we recommend testing every key and making sure every LED works. If you get a dead switch or light, contact the seller right away to arrange an exchange or repair.
Mechanical keyboards need a little more tender loving care than most keyboards, because dust, skin particles, hair, crumbs, and all kinds of nasty stuff can and will fall into the spaces between the keys during everyday use. Once a week, you should unplug your keyboard, flip it upside down, and shake that grossness out into the trash, then blow out the rest of the gunk with some compressed air. If your fingers leave an oily residue on the keycaps, give them a quick wipedown with a microfiber cloth. (I personally use these ones, but any will do.)
For a deeper clean, you should pull off all your keycaps and follow this fantastic cleaning guide by Ripster. If you spill something in your keyboard, a key squeaks, or you suspect a switch is broken, check out the maintenance guides at over at r/MechanicalKeyboards—they’ve got you covered.
Don’t be discouraged if none of the keyboards we recommend above exactly match your preferences. That doesn’t mean your ideal typing experience doesn’t exist. There’s a huge ecosystem of boutique and custom keyboards that offer distinctive layouts, customizable cases, programmability, and premium materials. A mechanical keyboard can be a cherished, personal peripheral, perfectly tailored to its owner’s preferences. Several Wirecutter writers, including myself, have fallen deep into the custom keyboard rabbit hole and found it to be a rewarding hobby, but there are drawbacks. Boutique and custom boards often cost substantially more, are harder to find, and sometimes require you to assemble them yourself. Most people will be happier with our main picks.
Many boutique keyboards include partial programmability, meaning you can create custom function layers, which comes in handy when the boards lack all the physical keys of a full-sized one. Some—like our typing pick, the Code—include DIP switches on the bottom to toggle on different preprogrammed layouts. Boutique boards tend to have better build quality and hardware features than easier-to-find mechanical keyboards. Almost all boutique boards have removable cables and standard (or very close to standard) key layouts for easier customization (companies like Corsair and Razer often use odd key sizes and cabling). Durable milled aluminum cases are common too. (The Code, which nails all these features, is an exception—it’s as good as many boutiques.)
Boutique keyboards can be harder to find—Amazon doesn’t stock all of them, and speciality sites often have limited supply. There’s also the murky world of keyboard group buys, where you pay up front, then wait for it to be manufactured and imported, which can take months. The group buy site Massdrop has made this less confusing, but you still have to wait weeks or months and the selection of available products changes on a daily basis.
Mechanical keyboards come in many more sizes than just full size and tenkeyless. A 60 percent keyboard like the Vortex Poker 3 eschews the number pad, function row, and arrow keys for a smaller footprint—great if you have limited desk space or like to carry your board around. These boards use function layers to make up for the missing keys. The less common (but increasingly popular) 65 percent keyboards add arrow keys and a few extras to the 60 percent layout. They still save a lot of space, if that’s important to you, but you don’t need to use function layers as much. These boards include the Magicforce 68, Leopold FC660M, and Varmilo VA68M and VR68M, among others. (Most Wirecutter writers involved with this guide own at least one 65 percent keyboard.)
More exotic layouts become possible if you’re comfortable with a soldering iron. The Ergodox ergonomic keyboard, for example, consists of two hand-shaped halves. Then there are the enthusiast-favorite 40 percent keyboards like the Planck, which have only the alpha keys and modifiers (e.g., enter, shift, space). They make heavy use of function layers to make up for the missing keys, and are highly portable. There are also custom-built boards in more common styles like 60 percent, 65 percent, tenkeyless, and full. Some of the most popular custom kits in this group include the Red Scarf (various sizes), WhiteFox (65 percent), and KC60 (60 percent).
With a custom board you get full programmability, meaning each key can be customized to whatever function you like. This is much more advanced than the programmable layers or DIP switches you see on other boutique boards, and something to consider if you value typing efficiency.
Assembling your own keyboard also gives you complete choice in what switches you want to use. There are traditional Cherry switches, of course, but perhaps you want to go with something more exotic like the extremely light Gateron Clear (a favorite of gamers) or tactile Zealio switch (prefered by heavy typists). The main problem with custom kits is availability. You usually have to wait for Massdrop or another site to run a group buy, pay in advance, and then wait months for them to arrive.
Like mainstream keyboards, the vast majority of boutique keyboards use Cherry-style switches. So, you can change out the stock keycaps—usually thin ABS plastic with lasered legends that will fade—for much more durable and stylish ones. “Double-shot” ABS keycaps are thicker and have legends that never wear off, and PBT dye-sublimated caps are made from harder plastic that will last for many years with no signs of wear. You can read more about different keycap materials at the Deskthority Wiki. Custom sets can be hard to find as they’re often limited edition, but Originative and Pimp My Keyboard offer some high-quality sets.
Most mechanical keyboards use Cherry or Cherry-clone switches, but some people swear by the much less common Topre switch. These are “electro-capacitive” switches that use the conductivity change in the spring to register presses. They also have a stiff rubber dome for an extremely tactile experience. These are only available in a few boards, and you’ll pay handsomely for them. Popular models include the 60 percent Happy Hacking Keyboard 2, as well as full-size and tenkeyless Topre Realforce boards.
If this all sounds confusing, there are deeply knowledgeable communities of mechanical keyboard enthusiasts at sites like r/mechanicalkeyboards, Geekhack, and Deskthority. All these sites are great resources for mechanical keyboards, though you may find yourself off the deep end with the rest of us.
There really is a keyboard for everyone, but it might take some work to find it if you’re picky. For most people in the market for a new mechanical keyboard, one of our main picks should be a good fit.
General use and typing
We tested the Code 61-Key, which is a rebadged Vortex Pok3r. At a glance, it looks like a 60 percent version of the bigger Code keyboards. But it lacks the Code 87 and 104’s fantastic build quality, and its keycaps feel cheap and hollow. The LEDs in our review unit initially made an unpleasant, high-pitched buzzing noise at medium and high brightness levels, but downloading the latest firmware fixed the issue. It’s a fine keyboard, but ultimately we think that 60 percent keyboards are too small for most typists’ needs, and navigating function layers for missing keys is a complication most people don’t want.
The Das Keyboard 4 Professional and Prime 13 have a thick border around the keys which isn’t quite a palm rest, but depending on how you rest your hands when typing, its sharp edge can dig into your palms and thumbs. Our panel testers and I found that propping up the Das boards softens the angle at which the edge meets your hand, mitigating the issue, but that’s not ideal for your wrists.
The Ducky Shine 5 couldn’t match the Code’s build quality or modern design, and the casing flexed a bit under normal typing pressure. It’s available with Brown, Blue, Red, Black, and Nature White switches, but no Clear switches, which are well-liked for typing.
The WASD V2, made by the same company as the Code, is similar to our top pick and allows for even more customization: You can choose the color of every keycap on the board, customize the font and location (top or side) of the legends. But it lacks backlighting, a feature all the keyboards we tested had.
Our panel did not like the Corsair Strafe RGB with MX Silent switches because it didn’t feel as satisfying to type on as other mechanical keyboards. The panelists concluded they’d rather buy a cheaper, nonmechanical board or deal with a louder mechanical keyboard with sound-dampening O-rings instead.
We’re holding out hope for a great Bluetooth mechanical keyboard, but the Lofree, a typewriter-inspired board that’s launching on Indiegogo, isn’t quite it. In addition to our myriad reservations about crowdfunding campaigns, we tested a final production model of the Lofree and don’t recommend it. The board is available only with Gateron Blue switches right now, though the company says Browns will be available later this year. And in service of the typewriter aesthetic, the company made some design choices that make the keyboard harder to use: The Enter and left Shift keys have two switches beneath each key, making them exceptionally difficult to depress, and some of the keys aren’t where you’d find them on a traditional keyboard. At least the Bluetooth connection was reliable in our tests, but we don’t recommend spending $100 on it.
The full-size Das Keyboard 4 Pro for Mac has the full complement of Mac modifier keys in almost the right order, and two USB 3.0 ports, compared with USB 2.0 on the Tactile Pro. Its anodized aluminum top shell gives the keyboard a very solid feel, and you can choose either “Clicky Blue” or “Soft Tactile Brown” Greetech (Cherry clone) key switches. If you know you want Blue- or Brown-style key switches, this is the Mac keyboard for you—it feels great to type on. We also like that the 4 Pro includes dedicated keys and buttons for screen brightness, media playback control, eject, mute, and sleep that are more convenient to use than F-key overlays, as well as a fantastic volume dial along the right-hand edge of the keyboard. However, the 4 Pro is more expensive than the Matias Tactile Pro, doesn’t have F-key labels for Mac-specific special functions, has an odd (for Mac) numeric keypad layout, and puts its Fn key in a location that can be frustrating for Mac-familiar touch typists.
Matias’s Quiet Pro for Mac is nearly identical to the Tactile Pro for Mac but has a different color scheme (silver body, black keys, white key labels) and uses the company’s Quiet Click key switches. It has the same features, keys, and layout as the Tactile Pro, but it’s much quieter to type on—still a bit louder than most nonmechanical keyboards, but nothing close to the volume of the Tactile Pro’s “Matias Click” switches. (Go to the Quiet Click key switches page and listen to the audio samples of the two switches.)
When switching directly between the Tactile Pro and the Quiet Pro, the latter’s keys feel a bit mushier; and though Matias says the two switches require the same activation force, the Quiet Pro keys feel like they require a tiny bit more. I find the Tactile Pro more enjoyable to type on, but if the click-clack of a traditional mechanical keyboard isn’t an option in your office or home, the Quiet Pro is a good option that gives you all the Mac-specific features and layout of the Tactile Pro. (Matias told us that a new version of the Quiet Pro, due in February 2017, will have a detachable USB cable and slightly modified Quiet Click switches that won’t affect the feel of the keys but will increase reliability.)
Matias’s Laptop Pro for Mac is essentially a Bluetooth-equipped “quiet” version of the Mini Tactile Pro—it has the Quiet Click key switches of the Quiet Pro, along with the black/silver color, but the size and layout of the Mini Tactile Pro. That means the Laptop Pro has the same issue as the Mini Tactile Pro, with the Shift, Control, arrow, and fn keys bunched together, but without the Tactile Pro’s superior keys. On the other hand, the Laptop Pro is much quieter, and it does have Bluetooth.
The budget-priced Nixeus Moda Pro ($65 with Blue Cherry-clone switches, $90 with Brown), isn’t as nice to type on as the Tactile Pro or the Das Keyboard 4 Pro for Mac. More important, though it’s advertised as a Mac keyboard, the Moda Pro requires you to physically swap keycaps to get an (almost) Mac layout, and it has no Mac-specific features other than an aluminum-and-white color scheme.
The Corsair Strafe (available with Cherry MX Brown, Blue, and Red switches) is a fine keyboard, but our panel members didn’t like its red-only backlight and textured spacebar. They unanimously preferred the Logitech G610’s white backlight, regular space bar, and volume roller.
The keys of the ThermalTake Poseidon Z Illuminated feel slippery and thin, and our panel members didn’t like its blue backlight. All the panel testers were willing to pay at least $15 more for the Logitech over the ThermalTake for its better look and feel.
The SteelSeries Apex M500 is available only with Cherry MX Red switches, which are the second-most-popular for gaming, but too light for most typists. Our panel members also didn’t like the Apex M500’s blue backlight.
The only other tenkeyless gaming keyboard we tested, the Logitech G410 Atlas Spectrum, makes a terrible metallic pinging noise when any keys are pressed. Polygon encountered the same issue with two different G410 boards, and, like our panel testers, ultimately liked the BlackWidow TE Chroma better. The G410 is also limited to Logitech’s proprietary Romer-G switches (which aren’t compatible with any custom keycaps).
Polygon tested the Corsair K70 RGB (not the newer LUX version) and agreed with our panel, “the K70 RGB, with its sleek, aluminum-brushed look, and straight-forward design, now punched up with strong lighting effects, is my new favorite.” The older K70 has a more refined font than the LUX model and a normal space bar, but we don’t recommend it because of widespread reports of LED issues, and it’s not available in as many switches as the LUX.
Before the K70 LUX arrived, the Corsair Strafe RGB was our tentative full-size gaming pick. But the Strafe RGB lacks media keys and a volume roller, and its plastic casing looks and feels cheaper than the K70 LUX’s metal one. All of our panel testers felt these features were worth paying extra for, so ultimately we recommend the K70 LUX over the Strafe RGB.
The full-size Razer BlackWidow Chroma isn’t available with linear switches and our panel members greatly preferred the K70 LUX’s media controls, volume wheel, and open design. (We’re still considering the BlackWidow Chroma for a future category with additional macro keys.)
We’re also considering the Roccat Ryos MK FX for the extra macro keys category, but our panel members don’t like the built-in palm rest and how much desk space the board takes up. So far our testers prefer the Razer BlackWidow Chroma, but we’re waiting to test the promising Corsair K95 RGB before we make a final pick.
Logitech’s G910 Orion Spark, G910 Orion Spectrum, and G810 Orion Spectrum are also available only with Logitech’s proprietary Romer-G switches, and they only allow macro recording for the function and dedicated macro keys. Our panel testers particularly disliked the G910 Orion Spark’s bezeled keycaps and asymmetrical palmrest.
Cooler Master’s MasterKeys Pro boards allow only hardware macro recording. It took me a very frustrating hour to figure out, even with years of experience testing gaming peripherals and the help of three different YouTube tutorials.
The SteelSeries Apex M800 is available only with the company’s shallower, linear QS1 switches, and the SteelSeries software is less intuitive than Logitech’s or Razer’s.
The Razer BlackWidow X Chroma is available only in clicky Green switches—similar to Cherry MX Blues—but you can’t buy it with a tactile switch equivalent to the overwhelmingly popular Cherry MX Browns.
At CES 2017, Asus debuted the ROG Claymore, a mechanical gaming keyboard with a number pad that you can remove entirely or attach to either the left or right side of the board as necessary. This design is a brilliant idea, so it’s surprising that this is the first time we’ve come across it. Smaller boards without the 10-key portion are popular among professional e-sports players because you can keep your mouse arm closer to your body during long gaming sessions to prevent neck, shoulder, and back pain caused by bad keyboard ergonomics, but only a few tenkeyless mechanical boards with customizable multicolor backlighting and programmable keys are widely available.
We don’t yet have pricing or availability information for the full Claymore, but Asus will begin selling the Claymore Core—just the TKL board without the attached number pad—for $160 in the first quarter of 2017, and it will be available with Cherry MX Brown, Blue, Red, and Black switches. We look forward to testing it as soon as we can.
Cherry also announced the MX Board Silent at CES 2017. The MX Board Silent is an update to Cherry’s G80-300 mechanical keyboard, using the company’s new MX Silent switches to reduce noise. Two versions of the keyboard will be sold: one using MX Red Silent switches for a higher resistance, and one using MX Black Silent switches for a slightly lower resistance. The keyboard will be available in gray and black for $150.
In January 2017, Razer announced that it would be updating the BlackWidow Chroma with the release of the Chroma V2. The BlackWidow Chroma V2 will add the option for a new switch design—the Razer Yellow switch—which has a linear design the company claims is more silent than its current offerings. The new Chroma V2 also includes a detachable wrist rest. We plan to test this keyboard as soon as we can, and we’ll update this guide with our impressions once we do. Although Razer has yet to announce a refresh of our gaming pick, the Tournament Edition, we expect to see a new version of that keyboard later this year.
In March 2017, Logitech announced the G Pro, a mechanical keyboard designed for professional gamers. The tenkeyless keyboard has Romer-G key switches, a detachable Micro-USB cable, and customizable RBG lighting. Logitech also claims its switches are 25 percent faster than standard mechanical switches. It is available now for $130, and we will look into it soon.