Pointing the Way
The keyboard and mouse are your most direct connections to your PC, and the most hands-on aspects of your desktop. In its most basic form, a computer mouse is a simple device, a sensor on the bottom with two buttons and a scroll wheel on top, that lets you interact with the files and programs on your computer as though they were extensions of your own hand. But while a mouse is simple in concept, this basic pointing device has found several unique incarnations.
Thus, it pays to know what distinguishes one from another when you go shopping for a new model.
What Type of Mouse Suits You?
Over time, several categories have evolved, each made for different uses. The most common of these is the mainstream desktop mouse, designed for use with a desktop or laptop PC at a desk or table. Aside from the usual right and left mouse buttons, common features include a scroll wheel and additional thumb buttons that let you navigate forward and back in your Web browser.
Travel mice offer many of these same features, but come in a smaller size. They’re designed to fit easily into the pocket of a backpack or laptop bag. For this same reason, however, travel mice tend to be too small for most human hands–you can use them just fine, but they become uncomfortable when you work with them for long periods.
Generally speaking, travel mice are wireless and battery powered, so you may want to bring along a spare set of AAA batteries.
The Right Mouse for Gaming
Gaming mice amplify every element of the basic mouse concept to the extreme. Depending upon the style of game that the mouse is intended for (MMORPG, first-person shooter, real-time strategy), you’ll see a variety of specialized features. What these mice have in common is a combination of high-performance parts–laser sensors, light-click buttons, gold-plated USB connectors–and customization like programmable macro commands and on-the-fly dpi switching.
For maximum comfort, many gaming mice can also be customized physically. Removable weights are common, letting you tweak the total weight one way or the other. Some models take this even further, letting you shift the center of balance, or adjust the height and pitch of the palm rest.
For non-gamers, these features are overkill; for dedicated gamers, they provide a competitive edge. Finding the best gaming mouse for you comes down to knowing your preferred style of game, determining whether or not you will take advantage of more complex functions, and then tweaking the chosen mouse to your specific tastes.
What’s the Best Ergonomic Mouse?
Ergonomic designs put all of the typical mouse functions into a form factor that places your hand in a neutral position. Designed to reduce the stresses that cause carpal tunnel and repetitive strain injury, ergonomic mice may look unusual and take some getting used to, but they do alleviate some very real problems.
If ergonomics are a concern, you’ll want to pay attention to the size of your mouse, making sure that it’s not too big or too small for your hand. Weight is also a consideration. Some people prefer a heavier mouse that anchors the hand, while others, especially players of MOBA games, want something very light that furnishes little resistance as the peripheral moves about.
But as a rule of thumb, a heavier mouse requires more effort to move, and even though the difference may not seem like much, over time it can mount. It’s not just weight and size that are important, though. The design can also lead to unnecessary strain on your hand and wrist.
The most comfortable mice with fit the contour of your hand, rather than having a flat, shallow shape. Some mice have a thumb rest, providing a resting spot from which the finger can rise as needed to activate controls.
The simplest way to hook up a mouse to your PC is through a wired USB connection. Computer mice are usually plug-and-play devices, with no additional software to install (with the exception of some gaming mice), meaning that plugging in the cable is all of the setup you’ll need to deal with.
Unlike wireless alternatives, a wired device will draw its power over USB, so there are no batteries to worry about. Wired connections are also preferred for gaming use, as they are free from the lag and interference issues that wireless options are prone to. If you want more freedom and less cable clutter on your desk, however, it’s hard to beat a wireless mouse.
Instead of a wired connection, wireless mice transmit data to your PC through one of two primary means: an RF connection to a USB receiver or Bluetooth. Both have their pros and cons, but if you want to reduce the number of cables on your desk and gain the flexibility to use your mouse unhindered–or even from across the room–wireless is the way to go.
Most wireless computer mice connect to the PC via the same 2.4GHz wireless frequencies used for cordless phones and Wi-Fi Internet. A dime-sized USB dongle–small enough to plug in and forget about–provides the link to your PC.
Companies use proprietary connections like these because they allow optimal battery life. These USB dongles also provide connectivity to more than one device, meaning that you can use the single adapter for your wireless mouse–or mice, if you have one at work and one at home–as well as one or more keyboard, assuming that all are the same brand. Bluetooth options don’t monopolize a USB port, and the stable, easy-to-manage connections are ideal for use with more mobile devices, like ultraportables, tablet PCs, and 2-in-1s.
In regular use, a Bluetooth connection gives you roughly 30 feet of wireless range, but may not match the battery life offered by devices with a USB dongle. New innovations, such as motion sensors tied to power and connection management improves the battery life over older Bluetooth devices, which maintained an always-on link, draining battery quickly.
Sensors and Sensitivity
The humble trackball has been superseded by two types of light-based motion sensors: optical (or LED) and laser. Unlike previous mechanical tracking options, light-based sensors have fewer issues with dust and dirt, and the absence of moving parts means that there are fewer failures.
Optical sensors pair a glowing LED light–often red, blue, or infrared–with a small photo sensor, tracking movement by repeatedly imaging the surface below the mouse, translating any movement into cursor movement (the frequency of imaging is called the polling rate, and numbers in the hundreds every second). Because of the imaging sensor used, optical mice are less prone to problems caused by lifting the mouse in use or mousing on an uneven surface. Laser mice operate in a similar way, but use an infrared laser diode instead of an LED.
This allows for greater sensitivity (measured in dots per inch, or dpi), and faster polling rate. The one drawback is that the increased sensitivity makes laser mice more finicky about the surface on which they are used. Premium gaming mice generally use laser sensors, but are recommended for use with mouse pad surfaces that are made specifically for gaming.
In order to offer the higher sensitivity of a laser sensor and the versatility of an optical mouse, some mice use both in tandem. Gaming mice also offer sensitivity adjustment, letting you shift from high dpi for tight cursor control circumstances (such as lining up a sniper’s shot) to low dpi (and thus faster cursor movement) for melee combat and run-and-gun situations. Below are the top-rated computer mice in our testing (click through to read the full reviews).
Finding the Right Fit
Maybe your old keyboard has typed its last letter. Perhaps your gaming ambitions have left you dissatisfied with the mediocre model that came with your desktop PC. Or maybe the one you have still works fine for what it is, but isn’t as comfortable and sturdy as you’d prefer.
Whatever the reason, anyone can benefit from a better keyboard. After all, is there any part of your computer more hands-on than your keyboard? For these reasons, and more, it pays to know what makes a one a good fit.
Keyboards come in a variety of types, from those optimized for efficiency to sculpted ergonomic designs that cradle your hands and relieve stress on the joints. When shopping for a keyboard, here are a few specific features to look for.
The simplest way to connect a keyboard to your PC is via a standard USB port. Keyboards are usually plug-and-play devices, with no additional software to install (with the exception of driver packages for some gaming models), meaning that plugging in the keyboard is all the setup you’ll need.
Unlike wireless keyboards, a wired model will draw its power over USB, so there are no batteries to worry about. Wired connections are also preferred for gaming use, as they are free from the lag and interference issues that wireless alternatives are prone to. Some motherboards still come with an older-style PS/2 port for plugging in a keyboard without needing USB; if you go this route, which many gamers prefer for performance reasons, you’ll probably need a USB-to-PS/2 adapter. (Some gaming keyboards come with these.)
If you want more freedom and less cable clutter on your desk, however, it’s hard to beat a wireless keyboard. Instead of a wired connection, wireless keyboards transmit data to your PC through one of two primary means: an RF connection to a USB receiver, or Bluetooth. Both have their pros and cons, but if you want to reduce the number of cables on your desk and gain the flexibility to use your keyboard at a distance–whether it on your lap at your desk, or from across the room–wireless is the way to go.
Most wireless keyboards connect to a PC via the same 2.4GHz wireless frequencies used for cordless phones and Wi-Fi Internet. A dime-size USB dongle–small enough to plug in and forget about–provides the link to your PC. Companies use proprietary connections like these because they allow for optimal battery life.
These USB dongles also provide connectivity to more than one device, meaning you can use the single adapter for your wireless keyboard–or keyboards, if you have one at work and one at home–as well as one or more computer mice, assuming that all are the same brand. Bluetooth options are regaining popularity of late, largely because they don’t monopolize a USB port and because Bluetooth connections are stable, easy to manage, and offer compatibility with more mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets. In regular use, a Bluetooth connection gives you roughly 30 feet of wireless range, but may not match the battery life offered by devices with a USB dongle.
New innovations, including hand-proximity sensors tied to power and connection management, improve the battery life over older Bluetooth devices, which maintained an always-on link, draining battery quickly.
Layout and Ergonomics
Not all keyboards are created equal. In fact, not all keyboards are even laid out the same beyond the standard QWERTY keys. Roughly half of the keyboards available offer a 10-key numeric pad, even though it’s an ideal tool for anyone who frequently needs to tally numbers or enter data into a spreadsheet.
Smaller distinctions include placement of the arrow, Page Up and Down, and Home and End keys. Additionally, most current keyboards have basic media features such as playback controls and volume up and down. In order to help users stave off carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive stress injury, many keyboards are available with designs that put your hands into a neutral position as you type.
The result is not only greater comfort, but reduced stress to the joints and tendons, ultimately helping you to avoid painful inflammation and expensive surgery. Ergonomic features can range from the simple–like padded wrist rests–to the elaborate, with keyboards that curve and slope.
Keys and Switches
One aspect of keyboard design that you’ll see mentioned in reviews–but that most people don’t give a second thought–is the type of switches used for individual keys. You may not care about the specific mechanisms that reside beneath the keys, but you will certainly feel the difference.
The three primary types of switches are silicone dome switches, scissor switches, and mechanical switches. Budget keyboards, such as those that come bundled with new desktop PCs, generally use silicone-dome switches, which use two dimpled layers of silicone membrane that form a grid of rubber bubbles or domes as the switch for each key. The springiness of the silicone rubber makes for a soft, mushy feel as you press each key.
The switch type also requires you to “bottom out” with each keystroke, pressing the key to the bottom of the key well to type a letter. And because repeated flexing of the rubber membrane causes it to break down, silicone dome switches lose their springiness and responsiveness over time. Some newer keyboards mimic the low-profile, chiclet-style keyboards found on full-size laptops and ultraportables.
While a few of these use plain silicone dome switches, many use a scissor switch, which adds a mechanical stabilizer to each key for a uniform feel, and an attached plunger under each keycap allows for shorter key travel. As a result, scissor-switch keyboards have a shallow typing feel, but are generally more durable than rubber dome switches alone.
Most keyboard enthusiasts, however, won’t have much to say for either style–instead, they’ll be singing the praises of mechanical keyboards. The switches used in these are a bit more intricate, with a spring-loaded sliding keypost under every key.
There are several variations available, each tweaked to provide a slightly different feel or sound, but generally, mechanical switches provide better tactile feedback and have more of the “clickety-clack” sound that many associate with typing. The sturdy switch mechanisms and springs are significantly longer lasting, and can be more easily repaired. These switches also register each keystroke with a much shorter amount of travel, making them ideal for touch typists.
The downside to mechanical switches is that they usually require a lot more space than silicone dome switches, which means that you won’t often find them on shallower keyboards. That could change now that venerable switch maker Cherry has introduced a new low-profile mechanical switch.
While all keyboards offer the necessary keys for typing, sometimes typing isn’t your main concern. Gaming keyboards are designed for competitive use, equipped for maximum specialization and control, optimized for specific styles of gameplay, and built to exacting standards of responsiveness and durability. They also appeal to the gamer aesthetic, with designs that impress and intimidate with pulsing backlighting and dramatic color schemes.
Premium gaming models almost exclusively use high-grade mechanical key switches and sculpted keycaps, and offer numerous customizable features, like programmable macro keys, textured WASD keys, and swappable keycaps. There are others that let you tweak the color and intensity of the backlighting to make finding certain keys faster and to personalize the look of your keyboard. Anti-ghosting is an essential feature, allowing multiple keystrokes to be registered simultaneously–something standard keyboards can’t do.
Other extras include pass-through USB ports or audio connections on the keyboard, which simplifies the process of connecting peripherals to a desktop PC that may not be easily accessed. Finally, gaming keyboards are often outfitted with software and extra keys for macro commands, letting you prearrange complex strings of commands and activate them with a single press of a button. The number of macro commands that you can save, and the ease with which they can be created, vary from one model to the next, but it’s a valuable tool.
These aren’t the sorts of bells and whistles everyone will use from day to day, but for players that invest time and money into gaming, these keyboards offer a competitive edge. There are certainly a lot of choices out there, so start your search with our roundup below of the best keyboards available. In the market for a mouse as well?
Your Weapon of Choice
If you’re a gamer, you take your choice of keyboard seriously. When your keyboard doubles as your game controller, it’s more than just a tool for typing. It is to you what the katana is to a samurai (or cyborg ninja): an extension of yourself, your interface with the digital world.
If you care about PC gaming, it pays to know what makes a keyboard great, what differentiates one from another, and what’s on the market today. We’ve rounded up the best keyboards you can buy, along with a brief guide to help you find the keyboard that’s right for you.
Switch It Up
Most gaming keyboards use mechanical switches, which pair each key to its own spring-loaded switch. They are designed to provide superior audio and tactile feedback.
The majority of these switches use mechanisms from Cherry MX, and are identified by color (Black, Brown, Blue, Red, Silver), each with a slightly different design, tweaked to provide a specific feel while typing. Which switch you want depends on what types of games you play, and what else you do with your computer. Cherry MX Black switches have the highest activation force, which makes them ideal for games in which you don’t want to have to worry about accidentally hitting a key twice.
This, though, can give them a stiff feel that’s not well suited for games that require nimbler response, so for those types of titles you may prefer Cherry MX Red switches. But because both of these switch types lack tactile feedback, there’s a compromise candidate in Cherry MX Brown switches: They have the same actuation force as the Red variety, but add the tactile bump to aid with typing. If you need a keyboard that can switch back and forth between hard-core gaming and traditional work tasks, this is the kind to look for.
Some manufacturers have developed their own mechanical switches as an alternative to Cherry’s. Logitech’s Romer-G switches are now available on many of its gaming keyboards, and the company claims they have a longer lifespan (up to 70 million keystrokes) and a shorter travel distance than Cherry switches. Occasionally, you will still find gaming keyboards that utilize silicone dome switches, which form little domes in a silicone membrane, using the rubbery material as the switch.
The result feels mushy and requires a full press with each keystroke, slowing down the speed at which commands can be entered. A slight variation on this is the scissor switch, which still uses a silicone membrane and dome switches, but has a slimmer profile and adds a stabilizing scissor mechanism beneath each key. Scissor switches are most often used on laptops, but a few low-profile keyboards can still be found for desktops and gaming.
Trick It Out
Features that would be unimportant on a regular keyboard take on new significance when adapted to gaming.
Backlighting, for example, is not merely a way to illuminate keys in a dark room; newer twists on the old backlight include adjustable color, and multiple lighting zones with separate backlight for arrow and WASD keys, highlighting the most frequently used control keys. Another customizable feature is the swappable keycap. Because mechanical switches are distinctly separate from the keycap itself, sometimes the keys can be removed and swapped out for others that feature molded sculpting, texturing for better tactile control, or differently colored plastic.
Some keyboards only offer swappable WASD keys, while others also include number keys that can be switched out. A gaming keyboard may have more to offer than exceptionally well-made keys, adding features like macro command customization and dedicated macro keys. Some go so far as to include entirely new features, such as statistic tracking, text and audio communication, and touchscreen displays.
And not all keyboards are made for typing–specialized gaming keypads put a selection of 10 to 20 programmable keys right beneath your fingertips, combining the same customization and ergonomic designs seen in gaming mice and applying them to keyboard-bound game functions.