Best Mechanical Keyboards: Holiday 2021by E. Fylladitakis on December 17, 2021 11:30 AM 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 2021
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: 2021
(Prices are Dec-17 or MSRP)
|Category||Gaming Option||Professional Option|
|Mainstream||Redragon K551||$34||Logitech G610||$60|
|Advanced||EVGA Z20||$65||Das Keyboard Prime 13||$130|
|Top-Tier||Corsair K100 RGB||$180||Das Keyboard X50Q||$110|
|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.
Meanwhile, mechanical switches are also sometimes favored on the belief that they help 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 is usually 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 users who do not want to break the bank and are content with a basic keyboard, our recommendation lies with the Redragon K551 RGB mechanical gaming keyboard. The Redragon K551 essentially is the simpler, non-programmable version of the K556 that we reviewed earlier this year. It is using cloned Cherry MX switched made by OUTEMU, which are of passable quality. Although it lacks any advanced features, the $34 price tag cannot be overlooked.
For users that favor quality and want an elegant keyboard for their workstation but still need to stick to a budget, Logitech offers the revered G610 for just $60 this fall. It is a relatively simple keyboard but it still offers basic key and lighting programmability. The design is proven and it is made using genuine Cherry MX switches, ensuring that it will last for many years of everyday use.
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 necessarily 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 particular 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.
EVGA’s newly released Z20 is our primary recommendation for gamers that want a full set of features on a budget. The Z20 features per-key programmable RGB lighting, a fully programmable layout, and short-stroke optomechanical switches. Although hardcore veterans will still insist on a keyboard with tactile feedback, perhaps the only significant feature that the Z20 lacks, the retail price of $65 is a steal for a product of this class.
For users who want to focus on productivity and require an elegant and durable solution, we believe that the Das Keyboard Prime 13 is the most sensible option in this price range. Although its retail price of $130 may appear ludicrous for the keyboard’s features (or their lack thereof), the Prime 13 is a keyboard specifically made for the professional that will be typing thousands of words on a daily basis. The Prime 13 lacks any advanced programmability options though, which may drive professionals that rely on pre-programmed keystrokes and macros away.
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.
Our recommendation to advanced gamers and enthusiasts remains the same as last year and it is no other than the Corsair K100 RGB. Ironically, the K100 RGB is not a purebred mechanical keyboard but a hybrid with optomechanical switches. Corsair’s keyboard still outperforms virtually everything available on the market, as it offers a very wide array of features and is supported by Corsair’s Utility Engine (CUE), which is probably the most advanced software currently on the market. Very few keyboards were released that could compete with Corsair’s K100 RGB this year, with Corsair responding by lowering the retail price tag of the K100 RGB by $50 (currently $179), making it very difficult for any competitor to overcome the K100 RGB in terms of quality, features, and cost-effectiveness.
Meanwhile, for professionals who do not shy about spending a significant monetary amount for the main tool of their trade, there are numerous unique and ergonomic options available. One of them is the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard that we reviewed last year, which is a real toolbox at the hands of an IT expert. However, the very high $300 price tag limits its market potential to just the handful of top-class experts that can actually make the most out of such a device.
For typists that spend many hours using the same keyboard, our recommendation lies with 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.
Finally, for professionals who would rather stick with the typical key layout, we recommend the Das Keyboard X50Q. Das developed this model primarily for professionals who would like to increase their productivity and/or wish for more control over their notification options. The X50Q supports more than just per-key programming, with the keyboard’s software allowing for the installation of applets. Many applets are available for free but the company also offers the API code for developers to build their own applets, making the $110 X50Q perhaps the most versatile professional keyboard currently available.