Gaming keyboards demystified

Now that you know what to look for in a gaming mouse, it only makes sense to consider the finer aspects of its companion—the gaming keyboard. This exercise is all the more important because although gamers are generally more aware about mice, keyboards invariably tend to get ignored even by those serious about gaming. Their biggest folly, I believe, is buying a membrane-based gaming keyboard.

What's wrong with membrane keyboards, you ask? For starters, they are cheaply constructed, but the main issue lies with the switches themselves. These type of input devices employ polydome switches, which aren't exactly chosen for their exquisite quality or excellent performance. No, the only reason why they exist in keyboards costing little more than a McDonalds value meal is solely because they are cheap.

The Corsair Vengeance K60 is surprisingly easy to clean

Mechanical keyboards are superior to membrane based keyboards in all aspects


Go Mechanical
Unlike sophisticated spring-actuated switches found in mechanical keyboards, polydome switches have to contend with plastic-on-plastic friction. That's why your average membrane keyboard tends to jam up in a few months time. This can be prevented by using self-lubricating engineering plastics such as Delrin, but these are too expensive for regular keyboards. Despite their premium pricing, membrane-based gaming keyboards don't employ Delrin. Therefore, I personally don't see any point in spending a small fortune on a keyboard that will become as hard as a typewriter in a few months time. Mechanical keyboards, however, do not face such issues.

The main reason why you should opt for a mechanical one instead, however, is because it requires an actuation force of only 40-55g to register an input. Polydome switches, contrastingly, are much harder to press, with an actuation force as high as 150g. Moreover, due to their design, the only way to register an input is by completely bottoming out the key. On the other hand, mechanical switches require just 2mm of travel to do that. In effect, not only do they cause considerably less amount of fatigue while operation, but they are also significantly faster than membrane keyboards.

What's more, all switches tend to bounce about when pressed. Manufacturers prevent unwanted keystroke duplication by adding a delay between consecutive inputs on the same key. Membrane-based keyboards tend to have a much higher delay than mechanical ones. While this may not hinder regular typing, it does make a big difference in video games. In short, it's downright criminal to waste big bucks on a membrane keyboard. Now that we have established how mechanical keyboards are faster, more comfortable and durable than their membrane-based counterparts, let's explore how to select the one that's best suited to your gaming needs.

The BlackWidow has a typically Russian overbuilt feel to it

The BlackWidow has a typically Russian overbuilt feel to it


Build quality matters
Most mechanical keyboards (apart from those using very expensive Topre keys) use switches from Cherry MX Corporation. The only thing differentiating them is the overall build quality, fit and finish levels, extra keys, driver suite and other random bells and whistles. Weight, in fact, is the best way to gauge a keyboard's build quality. Any good mechanical keyboard will be reasonably heavy due to factors such as the thickness and density of the plastics used, whereas some keyboards such as the Razer BlackWidow also include a metal stiffening plate, which prevents trampolining—the tendency of the keyboard to flex at its centre under stress.

The sound generated by the keycaps (not to be confused with the sound of the mechanical switches) is another good measure of quality. Well-built keyboards possess keycaps that aren't wobbly and emit a dead mechanical tap when bottomed out. These keyboards have thicker keycaps that sound and feel better than the cheaper ones. Virtually no gaming keyboards use low-cost printing method such as laser etching and pad printing, so you can rest assured that the keys will look good for a long time. Extras such as tangle-free braided cables, sturdy rubberised feet and optimum adjustable rake go a long way in ensuring longevity and ease of use. Make sure you make a note of these things.

Types of mechanical switches
Mechanical keyboards are differentiated in two broad categories based on the type of switches they employ—tactile or linear. Cherry MX switches have a total travel of 4mm, but they register an input at around the 2mm mark. Tactile switches produce a pronounced audio or tactile feedback when you reach the point of actuation. This proves excellent for those who want to save time and effort by typing/gaming without having to bottom out keys.

The Cherry MX Red switches are the most sought-after amongst gamers

The Cherry MX Red switches are the most sought-after amongst gamers


However, the sound and/or tactile bump generated by such switches can prove annoying for some. The linear Cherry MX switches, then, are exactly what they need. These provide no audible or tactile feedback when you hit the actuation point. Unfortunately, that makes one press keys harder and further than what's usually required. While some may say that linear switches are better than the tactile ones for gaming, it's best that you try them for size and decide for yourself. I personally prefer the tactile ones, despite their rather sharp clicky note.

Linear or tactile?
The Cherry MX switches come in four main and widespread flavours—blue, brown, black and red. The blue and brown switches are tactile, whereas the black and red ones are linear. Both blue and brown switches generate a tactile bump at the actuation point, but the blue one additionally generates an even more pronounced audible clicking sound. The actuation and release points on the brown switch are very close, which makes it easier to double-tap. This can't be said for the Cherry MX blue switches, in which the actuation point is a bit lower than the release point. This makes double-tapping a tad more time consuming.

The blues have an actuation force of 55g as opposed to the 45g figure of the brown switches. The red switches are the most sought after due to their low 45g actuation force and a very linear feel, devoid of audible and tactile feedback. The black switches are exactly like the reds, but their actuation force is considerably higher at 60g. Choosing the right switch, then, is a matter of striking a balance between the double-tap speed offered by the linear switches and the ability of the tactile switches to communicate when the actuation point has been reached.

Rollover, ghosting, and keyblocking
If you have heard enough gaming keyboard spiel from manufacturers, you probably have come across jargon such as anti-ghosting, key rollover and key blocking. Key blocking is the tendency of the keyboard to refrain from registering any input when multiple keys are held down simultaneously. The key rollover figure is closely related to this phenomenon. You will generally see it advertised as X-key rollover, where X is the number of keys that can be pressed simultaneously before key blocking occurs.

It is of utmost importance to gamers because certain types of games such as stealth-based FPS (sneaker shooters) require multiple modifiers for crouching, running, leaning and zooming being held down even as you press more keys. Therefore, a keyboard with 6-key rollover will let you hold down a lot more keys than one with 2-key rollover (4KRO), while also allowing you to use the WASD cluster as usual. Although some PS/2 keyboards let you hold any number of keys down (NKRO: n-key rollover), certain USB gaming keyboards also boast of that capability. However, it's very rare that one would require any more than 6KRO.

Ghosting occurs when you press two or more keys and the keyboard mistakenly register an extra key that wasn't pressed at all. This is caused by keyboard design that determines key input by shorting entire rows and columns of the keyboard matrix. Fortunately, this issue is no longer observed in modern keyboards. Among these parameters, rollover is the only one that deserves to be considered then. At any rate, you can test your keyboard's rollover and ghosting capability with this handy tool.


N-key rollover makes a gread deal of difference in stealth FPS games

N-key rollover makes a gread deal of difference in stealth FPS games


Is a 1000Hz (1ms) polling rate relevant?
A polling rate figure of 1000Hz (1ms) is commonly touted by most gaming keyboard manufacturers. But is it really required? If you consider the fact that (as explained earlier) Cherry MX mechanical switches require an anti-bouncing delay of 5ms, isn't this 1ms "ultrapolling" advantage rather moot? Well, that surprisingly isn't the case. Yes, it's rendered irrelevant by the 5ms anti-bouncing delay, but only if we consider double taps. You see, the first key press or multiple actuations of different keys aren't limited by the anti-bouncing delay. In these circumstances, a lower 1ms latency can actually make a difference in games that require precise timing.

Still don't believe me? Allow me to illustrate with an example. Consider an ultra-twitchy game such as Super Meat Boy, where the sprite travels an onscreen distance of, say, 2000 pixels in a second. In this case, a quick polling rate of 1000Hz (1ms) will let you jump after every 2 pixels. However, the default USB polling rate of 125Hz will register an input only once every 16 pixels. If you head over to MS Paint and measure 16 pixels, you'll realise that's a lot of latency. In fact, it's a bit wider than Meat Boy himself! However, Meat Boy in reality runs at half the speed, which still makes a world of difference in a game as precise as that. In the very difficult and timing-dependent stages of the game, I personally have seen a difference with 1000Hz keyboards.

Other bells and whistles
With the important bits taken care of, it's time to take a look at the frills that most gaming keyboards are equipped with to justify their premium price tag. No gaming keyboard is complete without a driver suite that lets you customise key assignments, set profiles, macros and more. It also pays to have at least one column of macro/programmable keys next to the WASD cluster. This is of utmost importance for MMO/RPG gamers, who benefit from binding complex tasks to such programmable keys. Since gamers are no strangers to travelling with their gear to BYOC LAN parties, having inbuilt memory on the keyboard saves you from having to setup the whole shebang on a different computer.

Backlighting comes in handy for noctural gaming sessions

Backlighting comes in handy for noctural gaming sessions


For the price, it also doesn't hurt if the manufacturer throws in a wrist rest. Gaming is largely a nocturnal activity, so it's a good idea for a keyboard to be backlit. Mechanical keyboards with individually backlit switches are always better than those using edge-lit lighting clusters. A few extra media control buttons can make listening to music and watching movies free from the travails of fumbling with the GUI. An analogue jog dial for volume control is any day better than half-assedly co-opting F1 and F2 keys for the purpose with the help of a modifier key.

Well, that just about covers all that you need to look for when choosing a gaming keyboard. Just make sure you try out different types mechanical switches before zeroing in on the perfect one for you. Good hunting!

Published Date: Sep 10, 2012 07:00 pm | Updated Date: Sep 10, 2012 07:00 pm