Photo: Whitson Gordon

Mechanical keyboards are a total game-changer, but popular models can reach into the hundreds of dollars. There are cheap mechanical keyboards available, but can they really measure up to their expensive cousins? Here’s what I’ve learned from my keyboard obsession.

Cheap Keyboards Can Be Good, but Often Require Sacrifices

As mechanical keyboards have become more popular, the market has become flooded with sub-$50 models, from smaller brands like Redragon and Velocifire and from bigger names like Corsair.

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Let me spoil the conclusion for you right now: there are some decent keyboards in this price range...but you have to be careful and do your research, and you’ll almost certainly have to sacrifice some features.

Photo: Whitson Gordon

The popular Redragon Kumara series, for example, ranges from $30 to $50, depending on the color and backlighting you want. They even have a $42 model with real RGB LEDs and five different lighting modes—something that isn’t incredibly common at this price point. It isn’t customizable per-key, and the LEDs are a bit dimmer than what you’ll find on more expensive models, but it’s still pretty cool to find in a board this cheap.

Its metal construction is pretty sturdy, and the keycaps are textured and double-shot injected, so the legends won’t wear down over time. However, it also uses lower-end Outemu Blue (i.e. clicky) switches, with no option for linear Brown or Red equivalents. In fact, Brown and Red switches are much less common at this price point than Blue, no matter what keyboard brand you go with. (If you’re just diving into mechanical keyboards, here are the differences between all those switch types.)

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Outemu switches aren’t bad, but the blues are much louder than their Cherry counterparts, and some users complain that cheaper switches feel “inconsistent”—that is, certain keys may require slightly different actuation force than others on the board. I’ve also noticed that the keys are somewhat wobbly, which just contributes to the board feeling less polished. They are, however, double-shot molded, meaning they’re created with two layers of plastic and the letters won’t wear off. Design-wise, the legends are very “gamer-y,” which isn’t inherently bad, but is pretty common on these cheaper boards.

The $40 Gigabyte K83, on the other hand, is a similarly cheap board with a different feature set. Instead of using Outemus, it’s rocking genuine Cherry MX switches instead—either Red or Blue, depending on your tactile preferences. In exchange, though, it eschews backlighting entirely, and uses lower quality laser-etched keycaps. Some laser-etched keycaps are more wear resistant than others, but reviewers of the Gigabyte complain that the lettering rubs off easily. It’s also a full-size board, with no option for a more compact (and more ergonomic) tenkeyless variant like the Redragon offers.

These are just two examples, but you can see how when you spend less, you lose some choice. You may be able to find a keyboard with the features you want, but only with off-brand blue switches. Or you’ll get a keyboard with genuine Cherry switches and miss out on the lighting and other niceties. If you’re lucky, you’ll get exactly the feature set you’re looking for, but chances are you’ll have to sacrifice here or there.

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Just be sure you read the descriptions closely: cheaper, lesser-known brands may not always call out the fact that they use off-brand switches, or may be unclear about the fact that they have multiple LED colors that are not RGB. Others may have significantly lower build quality. Do your research before you buy, and you’ll probably be decently happy with the result.

Expensive Keyboards Crank the Build Quality to 11 and Offer More Choices

Name-brand keyboards tent to cost a bit more, but you get more for your money, too. Many gaming keyboards lie around the $70-120 mark and use Kailh, Gateron, or genuine Cherry switches, with more options and features. But once you get deep into the world of mechanical keyboards, you’ll see rather expensive options from slightly less mainstream brands, including WASD, Das, and Ducky—and that’s where the build quality can really take a leap.

Photo: Whitson Gordon

Take the $150 Code keyboard, for example: its heavy steel backplate gives the keyboard a very solid, rugged feel, and typing feels smoother than most other keyboards—even ones with the same Cherry MX Blue switches. It’s hard to describe, and one of those things you have to experience to truly understand—but where cheaper boards can sometime feel “hollow,” the Code feels smooth, solid and consistent the whole way through. (And its keys wobble significantly less.)

The Code also has a detachable cable with cable routing on the bottom, and some physical DIP switches on the bottom that let you customize the backlighting and key layout. And, not only is it available in both full-size and tenkeyless variants, but it offers many different switch types, from popular Cherry MX Blue and MX Brown boards to less common MX Clear and MX Green boards. There’s even one with the rather rare Zealio switches manufactured by Gateron—my personal favorite.

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You may still have to make a few sacrifices, of course. The Code’s keycaps are laser etched, so they will wear down eventually. (Thankfully, it uses a standard layout, so you can replace the keycaps easily—which is not true of many midrange “gaming” boards.) The Code also doesn’t offer any RGB backlighting though the LEDs it does have produce a much cleaner white than RGB LEDs usually do. If you want RGB, the similarly priced Ducky Shine RGB is a great option, with better keycaps to boot—though it contains build quality sacrifices in other areas. $150 keyboards are a big step up, but you can’t expect the world.

Of course, it doesn’t stop at $150. The more you dig into mechanical keyboard culture, the more you’ll find even more expensive boards at the $200 mark or above. Some add Bluetooth connectivity, some have aluminum cases, and some use very unique switches you can’t easily find elsewhere. The rabbit hole goes deep, my friends.

At the end of the day, budget models are nice, but you get what you pay for (at least, to a point). Much like headphones and other subjective areas of tech, budget models offer a kind of a blissful ignorance: if it’s your first foray into the mechanical keyboards, you’ll probably be rather impressed...until you discover the really high quality stuff. My advice: If you’re new to the scene, cheaper boards are a decent way to dip your toe into the pool and find out what you like before plopping down hundreds of dollars. But once you experience a well-built keyboard, you won’t want to go back.