The standard keyboards that come with most computers, derived largely from layouts used on typewriters going all the way back to the 1800s, were never designed for gaming. Nevertheless, because most video games involve pushing buttons of some sort, keyboards have been adapted to the purpose quite well. Of course, there is always room for improvement, so manufacturers now offer a variety of keyboards tailored specifically to the needs of gamers.
A Keyboard is a Keyboard?
You'll hear it over and over at LAN parties and see it posted repeatedly on Internet forums: "A keyboard is a keyboard - go with a cheap one." People are much more willing to spend a little extra on a mouse than a keyboard, and those that are fussy about them tend to be more concerned about typing than playing games. Furthermore, a gaming keypad used in conjunction with your existing keyboard provides most of the advantages of a gaming keyboard at a lower cost.
Still, there are a number of things a specialized keyboard can do for gamers. As well as the usual array of media controls, they have extras such as dedicated programmable hotkeys, improved ergonomics, integrated gaming keypads and even LCD screens. Another thing to consider is that a good keyboard can serve you well for years and will likely outlast most of the other components in your game system.
Personal preference plays a large role in choosing a keyboard, and there are many people who will never part with their ancient IBM "buckling spring" models, clones of which have been making a comeback recently. Although I have several newer keyboards lying around, I'm partial to a very old Fujitsu with a DIN connector, just because the membrane underneath the keys feels lighter to the touch - perhaps from years of use.
The vast majority of the keyboards on the market today use "dome-switches." These consist of a rubber membrane that is molded into a dome underneath each key, and a contact on the underside of the dome completes a circuit when the key is pressed. The early IBM keyboards many still cling to use a coil spring under each key, which creates a distinct feel and makes an unmistakable clicking sound. Unicomp continues to manufacture keyboards using this technology. Some high-end keyboards use mechanical switches that are extremely durable and built to endure tens of millions of keystrokes.
Let's have a look at some of the latest keyboards promising to improve your gaming experience.
Logitech has had considerable success designing mice for gamers, so they are now targeting the same market with keyboards and even keypads. Featuring an integrated 320x240 GamePanel color display, the G19 is their premium offering. The display is quite versatile and can be configured to show you system information, your VOIP window, game statistics or even game maps in games that support GamePanel. An array of hotkeys on the left side can be used to record macros on the fly, and it has handy media controls and USB ports. You will also have to deal with yet another power cord, and let's face it, $200 is an almost ridiculous amount to spend on a keyboard - a second full-size monitor could be added to your system for that kind of money. By comparison, the Logitech G11 has no LCD, but it has more hotkeys, and sells for just $70.
The SteelSeries 7G is really the opposite end of the keyboard spectrum from the Logitech G19. At first glance it looks just like a standard keyboard - no fancy LCD, no separate media controls and not a single extra hotkey. Instead of bells and whistles, the 7G emphasizes extremely solid construction and highly reliable gold plated mechanical switches. It also has an improved PS/2 buffer-system that allows it to recognize as many simultaneous key presses as there are keys on the keyboard. No doubt, $150 is a hefty amount to pay for a keyboard, but you can rest assured that this one was built to last.
Razer is well known for its mice, but they also have several keyboards aimed at gamers. Foremost among these is the Tarantula, which is fully programmable using the included software, offers 10 additional gaming hotkeys and has internal memory for storing profiles. Replaceable keys are one of the Tarantula's more unusual features. They provide you with 10 alternative key tops sporting a variety of icons, and a small tool that lets you swap them out with the standard keys. This gives you a visual reminder of what the key does in the game.
You may associate the Merc with Ideazon, which was acquired by SteelSeries about a year ago. The Merc combines a conventional keyboard with a gaming keypad, providing over 30 dedicated gaming keys on the left side of the device. The pad has an ergonomic layout, with large movement keys and 11 very convenient shortcut buttons. It will register up to seven simultaneous keystrokes, and while it takes up a significant chunk of desk space, it's a nice addition to your arsenal at a reasonable price. They also sell a backlit version called the Merc Stealth.
What sets the Zboard apart from other keyboards mentioned here is that you can actually remove the keyset and replace it with one designed specifically for the game you are playing. They provide you with distinctively shaped movement keys as well as color-coded, labeled keys for common game commands. Purchasing a keyset for every game you play could start to get expensive, but there are general purpose keysets, such as the one for FPS games. Although typing on some of the keysets is a little awkward and the split spacebar isn't ideal, the Zboard is a unique solution with support for scores of games, including World of Warcraft.
Among Microsoft's latest gaming peripherals is the SideWinder X6 keyboard. It has an abundance of programmable keys and an adjustable backlight that can be dimmed with a large knob on the top edge. The X6's most striking feature, however, is a keypad that can be moved from one side of the keyboard to the other. Setting up macros or recording a series of keystrokes is easy, and you can switch quickly between three profiles with a key dedicated to this purpose. It's a solid keyboard for gaming, but I'd probably wait for the price to drop a little.
There are some very unusual PC cases on the market, but the 3R System L-2000 Ldorado is the first one I've seen that doubles as an LCD stand. The Ldorado lets you adjust your monitor's height and angle, as well as rotate it 90 degrees. Although the bulk of the case sits behind the display, the drive bay and switches are still facing forward. It's a neat option for people who demand a desktop system but have limited space.