A Gaming Keyboard Ain’t Cheap
So, maybe you’re new to the PC gaming scene, or maybe you’re an old hat who has finally decided they want to spring for a nicer set-up. You browse around online, do some research, and– good god! Is that how much keyboards cost?! Yeah, the sticker shock can be a little bit intense the first time you see a keyboard pushing $200, and researching budget alternatives can be tough because it’s hard to know what’s actually a suitable substitute for the pricier models and what’s just $50 worth of cheap junk. Today, we’ve got you covered as we take a look at the best gaming keyboards on the market for $50 or less.
But first, what exactly is it that makes a keyboard a gaming keyboard? There are a handful of fairly ubiquitous features that do make varying degrees of difference on your actual performance while playing. Read on.
The first, and arguably most significant differentiator for gaming keyboards is mechanical keys. For those in need of a quick primer, most cheap generic keyboards use membrane switches – a silicone dome that connects with the underlying circuit board when depressed by one of the keys. These are easy and inexpensive to mass produce and work well enough for everyday typing, but they have a tendency to be a bit, shall we say, “mushy” and in some cases are prone to breaking after extended use. Mechanical keyboards, on the other hand, house a series of physical mechanisms that react to each keypress. This leads to more precise and more responsive typing, and they tend to hold up better over longer periods of time.
It’s worth noting that not all gaming keyboards are mechanical keyboards (only three of the five listed here feature true mechanical keys, while the others tout “mechanical-feel” keys), but you can imagine why precision and accuracy would be important for the primary input device used for playing video games. It’s also worth noting that there are a number of different kinds of mechanical switches which each respond in subtly different ways, but for the purposes of this article the only one you need to know about are MX Blue switches which have a tactile and auditory “click” not unlike old typewriters (Editorial Note: none of the mechanical switches featured here are Cherry branded, but all claim to be equivalent to Cherry Blue switches).
The other major differentiator for gaming keyboards are premium features designed to make your life just a little bit easier when enjoying a good game. These range from nearly universal features like the ability to lock the Windows key so you don’t accidentally open up the Start menu during a game to more high end options like customizable macro keys. One fairly common feature is “anti-ghosting” or features designed to ensure that inputs are not lost when pressing multiple keys at the same time. While full, n-key rollover might offer some peace of mind to professional-level players, for most consumers any amount of gaming-focussed anti-ghosting will provide more than enough protection from lost inputs.
With one exception, all the keyboards we reviewed in the budget category were fairly light on these kind of features. They all had Windows lock and some amount of anti-ghosting, but little else outside of that. The Corsair keyboard did come with macro keys and dedicated media playback buttons, but it was also one of the most expensive models we reviewed and there were significant tradeoffs in other areas. In general, though, just be aware that if you’re buying in at this price point, most of the more high end features are going to be omitted to cut costs.
The final way “gaming” keyboards tend to be different from regular keyboards is simply in the way that they look. While most low-cost, generic keyboards look just that, gaming keyboards are more visually distinct featuring brightly colored backlights, unique lettering on the keycaps, customizable lighting effects, and more stylish bodies. In some cases this can start to get a bit silly, but on average gaming keyboards look slicker and nicer than your average model. These aesthetic flourishes, of course, won’t improve your performance in any measurable way, but if you’re spending the extra cash for a nicer keyboard, it absolutely should look the part.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of what exactly goes into a mechanical keyboard, let’s breakdown the ones we’ve reviewed over the past couple months. Starting on the most expensive end of the spectrum we’ve got the Corsair K55 RGB and the ET Robot E-Sports SHJING at $48 and $49 respectively. Right off the bat, it should be noted that the despite being one of the most expensive models on this list, the Corsair keyboard is one of the few to not feature mechanical switches. The ET Robot model, on the other hand does boast MX Blue switches, but lacks a lot of the higher end features that are packed into the Corsair. In this pairing we can clearly see the tradeoff of keyboards at this price point, and you, as the consumer have to start deciding what’s most important to you. At essentially the same price, would you rather have mechanical switches or would you rather have customizable macro keys? Neither answer is necessarily right or wrong – it all just depends on what matters most to you – but just know that you’re not going to be able to have both for less than $50.
Meanwhile we have the EagleTec KG010 for $40 and the Redragon K552 KUMARA at $31 bringing up the middle of the pack pricewise. Both of these are incredibly solid keyboards for the money, and both of these feature similar tradeoffs over the slightly more expensive Corsair and ET Robot models. Each of these keyboards are largely devoid of premium features outside of the ubiquitous Windows lock and anti-ghosting features. Both of these keyboards are down to a single-color backlight without the wealth of fancy lighting options seen on the Corsair and ET Robot keyboards. Both, however, do have mechanical switches, which, depending on what you’re looking for, might easily make these the clear winner over the more expensive Corsair model. The biggest difference between these EagleTec and Redragon keyboards is the physical size of the rig itself. The EagleTec model is a full, 104-key affair, while the Redragon ditches the number pad in favor of a more streamlined design. For me personally, if I’m paying a sizable amount of money for a keyboard, I want something that’s going to have the full 104 keys on it, but I know there are plenty of others who don’t mind and even actually prefer the more compact form.
Finally, bringing up the rear in terms of both price and quality is the YouFu K2 Black. This thing is a measly $23, but somehow even that feels like you’re paying too much for what you’re getting. There are basically no premium features, no mechanical switches, and the build quality on display here just feels poor. The one single advantage it has over the other keyboards that aren’t made by Corsair is that it has a full RGB backlight rather than a single-color. The only reason I’d recommend this is if the most important feature to you is that full-color backlight and you’re not willing to spring for the almost $50 Corsair model. If that’s the case, then by all means chase your bliss, but for anyone else, do yourself a favor and spend at least seven more dollars to get a keyboard that is orders of magnitude better than this one.
Now that we’ve covered all of our bases, let’s start handing out awards:
Best Premium Features
The Corsair K55 RGB wins this one literally without contest. It’s true that this particular Corsair model features membrane switches which is certain to be a dealbreaker for some, but if you’re willing to make that trade-off in favor of a keyboard that has customizable macro keys, dedicated media playback buttons, a full RGB backlight, and customizable color and lighting effects, this is literally your only option.
Best High End Experience
It probably shouldn’t be surprising that the most expensive keyboard we reviewed in this budget category is also just plain the nicest keyboard on this list. The ET Robot E-Sports SHJING is a slick, stylish looking keyboard with satisfying, responsive mechanical switches, and a bevy of fun and unique lighting effects. Sure it’s pushing the very edges of our category here, but it’s still technically less than $50, and if you can afford it, you’ll have bought yourself an extremely nice keyboard for the money.
ET Robot may have won the best high end award, but the EagleTec KG010 follows extremely close behind it for ten dollars less. This was the keyboard that I pulled out of the box and felt like I had somehow gotten away with something I shouldn’t have. There’s just no reasonable way a keyboard this good only costs $40. But it does, and I can’t imagine you’ll find a better value anywhere. It doesn’t have all the eye-catching lighting modes of the ET Robot model, but outside of that, these two devices can go toe-to-toe. They both have Blue MX switches, they both have sleek and sturdy aluminum frames, and they both feel like they’re made with robust design and clear attention to detail. The EagleTec model just happens to be $10 less. For that reason, the EagleTec KG010 is 2018’s best gaming keyboard under $50.
The Keyboards We Tested
Our Score: 7/10
Solid entry level gaming keyboard.
Though it lacks true mechanical switches, it boasts a feature set that includes dedicated media buttons, customizable macro keys, and a programmable LED backlight.
- Attractive design
- Customization is completely self-contained
- Premium features work as advertised
We Didn’t Like
- Wrist rest feels like a cheap afterthought
- Somewhat overpriced for an entry-level gaming keyboard
Our Score: 9/10
The best budget gaming keyboard I’ve been able to find. With a brushed aluminium body and actual mechanical switches, this looks and feels like a keyboard that costs twice the price.
If you don’t mind the lack of customizability, this keyboard is an incredible value.
- Brushed aluminum design makes the keyboard look and feel spectacular
- Real mechanical switches for less money than basically anyone else
- Feeling like you somehow gamed the system by paying only $40 for this
We Didn’t Like
- Lacks premium features that might improve actual game performance
- Does not include a matching wrist wrest
- Backlight is static, one-color
Our Score: 8/10
In spite of its compact frame and sparse feature set, the Redragon K552 KUMARA mechanical gaming keyboard boasts a sturdy design and real mechanical keys for just about the lowest price point on the market.
- Sturdy, solid design feels like it’ll last for a long time
- Real mechanical keys
- Just about as affordable as gaming keyboards come
We Didn’t Like
- Compact design omits numpad and limits accessibility
- Looks slightly generic
- All-but devoid of premium features
Our Score: 5/10
The YouFu K2 Black is about as cheap as gaming keyboards come, but that low cost comes with a high tradeoff. Outside of its RGB backlight, there’s not much here to recommend.
- Has a full RGB backlight which is uncommon at this price point
- Technically it is a keyboard
We Didn’t Like
- Shoddy and cheap feeling with clear lack of quality control
- Design looks like an aftermarket modification of an existing keyboard
- Misleading ad copy
- Inexpensive, and yet it still feels somehow overpriced
Our Score: 8/10
Though it’s on the high end of the budget category, the ET Robot E-Sports Mechanical Keyboard is just about the nicest looking and nicest feeling model we’ve reviewed at this price point.
- Sleek, attractive design
- Solid aluminium frame and Blue MX switches feel sturdy and robust
- Braided USB cable
- 24 lighting modes to play around with
We Didn’t Like
- On the expensive end of the “budget” spectrum