Best Mechanical Keyboards: Holiday 2020by E. Fylladitakis on December 9, 2020 3:00 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 2020
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. 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 and/or ergonomic designs). 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: 2020
(Prices are Dec-09 or MSRP)
|Category||Gaming Option||Professional Option|
|Mainstream||Redragon K551||$39||Logitech G413||$60|
|Advanced||Razer BlackWidow Elite||$85||Das Keyboard X50Q||$130|
|Top-Tier||Corsair K100 RGB||$230||Das Keyboard 4Q Smart||$200|
|Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB||$200|
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.
Mainstream Mechanical Keyboards
Trying to decide where to even begin our recommendations this year proved to be particularly tricky. In short, the low-end of the market, at around $35-60, has been flooded with clones. In fact, the vast majority of these budget keyboards are using switches that are not just clones of Cherry's original switches, but clones of their clones. With so many keyboards of various qualities and questionable parts sourcing, actually reviewing the keyboards is critical; and we haven't taken a look at very many of these boards thus far.
We did test a few such keyboards over the last couple of years, but the number of boards that we are able to review is barely a drop in the bucket for the number mechanical keyboards available today. In many cases, "cloned-clone" switches show great force disparity and other quality control issues, resulting in poor behavior and performance that do not justify the upgrade from a typical keyboard to a mechanical one.
Moving up just a bit in the stack, we have "mainstream" keyboards. These cost a bit more, but come from better established manufacturers who aren't using clone-of-clone switches. Still, this is a similarly packed market.
For several years prior, the Cougar Attack X3 had been our mainstream recommendation. Unfortunately, it is difficult in find in stock as of late, and when it can be found, it's for almost doubt last year's price. Therefore, with value in mind, our recommendation this year lies with the Redragon K551 RGB Mechanical Gaming Keyboard. It is a rather simple mechanical keyboard that is using cloned Cherry MX switches, yet its retail price of $39 shipped is rivaling that of far more mediocre membrane gaming keyboards.
For those that favor quality but still need to stick with a budget, Logitech’s G413 is also a reasonable choice. It is relatively simple keyboard, with standard red backlighting and practically no advanced features or programmability options. On the other hand, it offers a great build quality and uses Logitech’s proven Romer-G mechanical switches. The retail price is significantly higher than that of the Redragon K551 though, at $60 shipped.
Advanced Mechanical Keyboards
Going above basic, mainstream mechanical keyboards, we have higher-tier "advanced" keyboards. These boards come with additional, specialized features, which are not necessary required for a keyboard but can come in handy. Keyboards in this range often come with extended programming features and additional keys, or RGB lighting, or simply better aesthetics. Aesthetics in particularly is a strictly subjective topic – there's a good argument to be had that gaming-focused gear is particularly gaudy these days – so we've decided to split our recommendation two ways, offering separate suggestions for a gaming keyboard and a professional (productivity) keyboard.
For gamers that want a fully programmable keyboard with RGB backlighting, our recommendation lies with the Razer BlackWidow Elite. The BlackWidow Elite features Razer’s proprietary mechanical switches, per-key macro and RGB lighting programmability, handy media controls, and a basic USB hub. It currently retails for $85, making it a great deal for such a product. What it lacks though is the presence of extra macro/programmable keys.
For professional use, we believe that the best choice would be the Das Keyboard X50Q. It is a keyboard meant for both gaming and productivity but we find that it excels for professional use. It features Omron’s Gamma Zulu mechanical switches, RGB lighting, extensive programmability options, as well as various notifications and message previews. The programming versatility reaches down to the level of having lighting-based notifications on the keyboard based on certain events. It also supports applets and offers a software API for developers to create their own applets. With a retail price of $130, it is not cheap, but it will be a weapon at the hands of an expert.
Top-Tier Mechanical Keyboards
When it comes to top-tier keyboards, our focus shifts almost exclusively over to quality and features. These are the keyboards that are the best of the best, even if they cost more than the rest.
Ironically, our top pick for advanced gamers and enthusiasts is not actually a purebred mechanical keyboard, but rather is a hybrid keyboard with both optical and mechanical features: the Corsair K100 RGB. Corsair’s latest keyboard outperforms any gaming keyboard that we have reviewed to this date. It is a fully-featured keyboard with extra macro keys, RGB lighting, per-key programmability, and extended profiling support. Corsair's Utility Engine (CUE) is one of the best software suites in the market at the moment, allowing for very extended programmability options without the need for third-party software.
That said, perfection comes at a price: $230, to be precise. That makes the K100 the most expensive keyboard in our guide, and one of the most expensive keyboards on the market altogether. That said, Corsair has arguably earned their take; we feel that there is nothing that a world-class gamer may ask from a keyboard that the K100 RGB will not be able to deliver.
Meanwhile, for professionals who spend many hours using a single keyboard, we would suggest looking at an ergonomic keyboard, such as the Kinesis Freestyle Edge. Ergonomic keyboards can have a significant impact on the prevention of health issues in the long run, and in the case of the Freestyle Edge, the keyboard itself is excellent. Kinesis offers a slew of advanced features and programming options, which should be enough to satisfy even the most demanding of users of a $200 keyboard.
With that said, ergonomic keyboards aren't for everyone; if nothing else, it is difficult for users who need to switch between different keyboards every day to get used to the unique layout of an ergonomic keyboard. So we do not recommend it for users who switch between workstations.
For professionals who would like to stick with the classic key layout, we'd suggest looking at the Das Keyboard 4Q Smart RGB. The 4Q is a keyboard that was very clearly designed with productivity in mind, from the switches used to how it goes about deciding when and how to light up the various keys as status indicator. However the $200 price tag is a bit on the high side for what you get, especially as Das Keyboard’s own X50Q applies a lot of internal competition to it.