April 20, 2024


Sapiens Digital

The Best RGB Keyboards for 2020

How to Choose the Right Keyboard

How to Buy the Right RGB Keyboard

If anyone ever invents a time machine, it would be fun to take an RGB keyboard from the late 2010s back to the year 1977 just to show the stunned onlookers what the human race has accomplished. No, we didn’t get personal jetpacks, and a keyboard isn’t quite on the level of the Space Shuttle or the Tesla Roadster. But an RGB keyboard is a marvel of modern engineering, binding advanced electronics with eye-popping, gratuitous gee-whiz. It’s a vivid reminder that the keyboard has evolved from a dull beige PC peripheral into a sophisticated gaming weapon.

RGB keyboards—desktop-PC keyboards with multicolor lighting that’s customizable to various degrees—are on the leading edge of input-device innovation, and they command, in some cases, the very highest prices for their kind. They are based, though, in some tech that goes back…way back.

The ABCs of RGB

Consider a very popular model for describing the representation of colors by numbers. It’s called the “additive primary,” the idea being that when you overlap three beams of light—red, green, and blue, each numbered for intensity along a slider from 0 to 256—you get every combination of light that we humans can see. That forms a potential variety of 16.8 million colors. (Well, actually, it’s 16,777,216, meaning 256 times 256 times 256, but who’s counting?) This basic color technique is reflected in the color wheel and/or sliders in the software for RGB-capable PC keyboards meant for gamers.

We’ll say this more than once, but it’s important to distinguish these RGB models from “single-color” backlit keyboards or multicolor-backlit keyboards of a limited color range. Many premium PC keyboards feature some form of backlighting—LEDs that shine through and around each key—in one color, typically red, blue, or green. Changeable RGB lighting added to a keyboard, though, is way more sophisticated, and reflected in the price.

Now, of course, RGB lighting is hardly an essential feature. But for some gamers, in some games, it has very stark benefits, which we’ll get into below. And since the possible combinations of RGB colors are so broad on a keyboard with 100-plus keys, even when you’re not using the peripheral, you can sit back, turn on The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” set the keyboard’s colors to cycle, and talk to Carl Sagan. (He’s been dead for decades, but that doesn’t matter.) But we digress.

The Basics: Why Do You Want RGB Backlighting?

Here’s the nutshell version of keyboard-backlighting evolution: First, you had keyboards with solid-color backlight options. Then came multiple-color backlight options, in which you could change whole zones of keys, or all of the keys, across a limited range of colors. Finally, RGB keyboards arrived.

Backlight illo

The “RGB” label is a very specific thing; keyboards that cycle through a limited array of colors are not the same. An RGB keyboard offers the full RGB spectrum of colors, allowing it to display subtle pinks, bright purples, dark reds, and every color in between. Essentially, you can choose any color from the RGB color wheel, and have it be the backlight for the entire keyboard, or just a key or two.

The ability to program each key’s color individually, versus programming the whole board or key clusters, is another important distinction. “Per-key RGB” is the ne plus ultra backlighting feature of keyboards in this market; be sure that’s what you’re getting if you are serious about your backlight programmability. (More on that in a bit.)

Corsair K68 RGB Keyboard

Since RGB backlighting is such a specific and premium feature (it’s costly for the manufacturer to implement), “RGB” will usually be in the name of the product, but not every company uses that specific phrase, so look closely while you shop. These keyboards are easy to spot on sight, though, as the promo photos usually show the keyboard displaying a rainbow of colors, as opposed to just one color.

Now, of course, keyboards like these look nice, but what can you do, practically speaking, with the RGB lighting on a keyboard? Depending on the board in question, you have some very interesting options. Let’s consider a few.

Highlight the Navigation Keys. Anyone who has gamed much on a PC knows the WASD keys as north-west-south-east directional keys, but how many of us whack the wrong key at the wrong time nonetheless? Or maybe there’s a game that has a different navigational system, one it doesn’t let you change. Maybe you want to change it yourself, and need help remembering the new key locations. Colorizing the four navigational keys differently from the rest of the board is handy for that. (Some gaming models come with differently textured WASD keycaps to help you feel them, too.)

Corsair K70 RGB Rapidfire WASD

Color Keys for Functions. It’s fantasy game time! You have five melee attacks, four spells, three helpful potion types, and two weapons to swap among. Keeping all that straight isn’t impossible if you can spend the time, but getting there means many life-threatening mistakes along the way. Now, if you can define macro areas of your keyboard for each of these tasks, then color-code them uniquely, not dying while learning becomes easier.

Cooldown Notifications. Let’s say your game avatar has three active abilities that include “cooldown” periods, figured at 8, 13, and 23 seconds. You could just watch their bars on the screen to see when those powers regenerate. But it’s a lot easier to set three ability keys to blink at the timed interval after each ability has been activated. In the meantime, you keep your eyes where they should be: on the action. MOBA players, such as League of Legends fiends, stand to gain from this.

Enemy Alerts. Your in-game characters don’t have eyes in the backs of their heads—well, most don’t—but in some games, your futuristic gear includes the ability to know when you’ve been seen by the enemy. Only you’re concentrating on what’s hiding in the shadows before you, or maybe on that nice lootbox someone left in your path. Wouldn’t it be great to have a short row of lights flash on and off when an enemy notices you? Even better: What if you could color-code the flashes according to enemy type, if your fancy electronic gear provides that info?

Efficiency in Building. This is a variant on our cooldown notifications, but for real-time-strategy (RTS) hounds. Say you start to work on a factory, but when it’s done being built, you have to manage its production to create mechas. Set a key to blink or change color/intensity when the factory’s ready, and without delay, you can place your order for that behemoth that will send all Tokyo fleeing in terror.

The RGB Kitchen Sink. For that matter, what about setting a row of lights that blinks red when you’re being borne down upon by a certain minimum number of enemies? Different lights blinking that signal the arrival of allies? A bank of lights for each online friend in an MMO quest that fades as his or her health diminishes? (Great for healers, this one.) One that signals when your warehouse is full, and you need to sell some of its contents? Or when your fuel gets low? Or…when you haven’t had a bathroom break in four hours?

This list could easily be much longer. Suffice it to say, while you won’t find much use for RGB lighting in games such as Stardew Valley or Cities: Skylines, it’s an entirely different matter for DOTA 2, or for players whose hands visibly twitch when they think of their next Doom match.

So, how to assess what makes for a quality RGB keyboard? Glad you asked…

What to Look for in an RGB Keyboard

Separately Lit (“Per-Key RGB”) Keys. We mentioned this earlier. It’s not enough alone to have RGB lighting. In a truly customizable RGB keyboard, each key must have its own, discrete RGB programmability. That’s not a given; some budget keyboards may provide multicolor backlighting, but not per-key backlighting. While RGB per-key is more common these days, check to be sure what you’re getting.

SteelSeries Apex 7 TKL (Full RGB 2)

Lighting Controls for Groups of Keys. Now, just because each key is separately backlit, it doesn’t mean you want every key to be different from all the others, all the time. You may want to create a group of keys with a certain color to handle a particular in-game effect, and who wants to program this one key at a time when a board likely has 100-plus keys? You want to be able to isolate a zone of keys and apply that color all at once.

A Lighting On/Off Toggle. In DOS days, we had something called a “boss key,” usually F3, that you’d whack when your manager was rounding the corner and you didn’t want to be caught digitally goofing off. This is something like that, a hardware control that sobers up your keyboard fast when the situation demands it.

RGB Effects That Tie In to Games. Never mind the advertising that states you can hit a key and send a bomb-like wave of color blossoming out. That’s nice to see, but if you plan to do more than just watch your keyboard, you’ll want to concentrate on RGB effects that help you play better. Look for specific game support in the software that lets you go deeper than simple key remapping.

Topre Realforce RGB TKL (Enter)

All the Hues You Paid For. Make sure any so-called “RGB” keyboard you are considering actually can show 16.8 million colors. A more limited color palette can result in a phenomenon known as “stepping.” With a less-than-true-RGB keyboard, when the board executes color fades or blossoms, you may see a kind of jerkiness to the transitions, actions that aren’t smooth and draw attention to themselves. Be sure to check the specs.

Good Software. Here’s the double-edged sword of RGB illumination: You need sophisticated software to control all the glowing lights, sort of like running the console at a rave. A budget-priced colorized keyboard with only hardware controls governing the lighting won’t be a “true” RGB keyboard.

That said, most makers’ software has something akin to an “easy mode” with preset illumination patterns, such as a color wave, a color cycle, or a breathing effect. If you’re willing to dive deeper, per-key RGB keyboards also offer “freestyle” modes in which you can tweak the backlighting of individual keys, or groups of keys. Be sure to check out what the software offers before you make a purchase, because it will make a huge difference in your ownership experience. In our own testing, we’ve found Logitech’s and Razer’s software the easiest to use, with Corsair’s deeper in some respects and a bit more challenging.

Razer Blackwidow Keyboard Synapse color settings

How to judge? The utility’s screens must be easy to read, in a good-size font with strongly contrasting text and background. The application should be well-organized, with clear tabs or subsections, and you should get a robust, comprehensible in-product help system. It should provide simple ways to achieve the lighting effects you want, and a good macro editor that binds the effects to keys with conditionals that aid you in play. Research the possibilities and limitations of the keyboard’s software before you buy. Some companies offer their keyboard software manuals online. And of course, reviews, reviews, and more reviews: Read ’em.

Community-Created Lighting. Some RGB-keyboard manufacturers, such as Logitech, offer pre-configured lighting effects for a series of games, but we’re also interested in being able to share profiles with friends, or import those that come recommended to us for a specific game. Keep this in mind, then, when shopping for your RGB keyboard: Can you import profiles containing effects sets developed by others? Can you export your own?

Corsair’s RGB keyboards have a good community following. With Corsair’s RGB keyboards (and mice) you can run lighting patterns created by the community along with all the traditional options available in its software, Corsair Utility Engine (iCUE). This opens up a world of lighting options, an almost unlimited buffet of cool lighting tricks. Razer and its very active fanbase have also gotten into this kind of thing with its Chroma Workshop. (Chroma is Razer’s software that governs lighting in its compatible devices.)

Game Profiles. This is a no-brainer: Any gaming keyboard worthy of its name should support unlimited game-specific profiles, in which you can customize a host of controls specific to a program or game, including lighting settings. And each keyboard should have at least one, but hopefully two or three, onboard profiles. That means it stores the profile(s) in the keyboard’s internal memory, so you can take them with you. That’s handy when you’re engaging in tournament play that allows each contestant to bring only a keyboard, not a full computer.

Mouse Syncing. This feature allows the keyboard RGB illumination to be coordinated with your mouse, assuming your mouse is RGB-capable, too, and of the same make. If you’ve selected a “color wave,” for example, the wave can leave the keyboard off the right and continue on through your mouse! And if you have the keyboard and mouse synced, you can control the lighting for both at one time, as opposed to having to tweak each individually.

Media Controls. These are not specific to RGB keyboards, but insist on them, since you’ll be paying top dollar. Most top-shelf keyboards offer dedicated media controls now, as opposed to just pressing the Fn button and then, say, F9 for volume. Check out exactly how the media controls are set up, and whether the keyboard uses a knob, a button, or a wheel. We are huge fans of volume wheels on keyboards. (Corsair’s high-end RGB models have an awesome volume roller for this, and some keyboard makers have incorporated similar features.)

A USB Hub. Again, this isn’t a feature specific to RGB keyboards. An additional USB cable plugs in to your PC alongside the main one for the keyboard data, powering a USB port that allows you to plug a USB device directly into the keyboard (usually at the back). We’ve used these ports for a USB headset or mouse, or to plug in a USB flash drive to load or retrieve a few files.

Corsair K95 Platinum USB Ports

All the Other Good Stuff (That You’d Expect From a Non-RGB Board). Don’t forget the more prosaic physical features. How adjustable is the keyboard height? Is it corded, or wireless? (Most RGBs are wired, because of the extra power demands.) If it’s a mechanical keyboard, what are your key-switch options, so it will give a good response to your touch? (See our guide to the best mechanical keyboards for more on that rather complex issue.) That’s where our deep-dive reviews come in, which should make it easier for you to locate just the RGB keyboard you need.

Corsair K68 Cherry Switches

For more of the highest-rated keyboards (not just RGB ones) that we have reviewed, also check out our roundup of the best keyboards overall. Also check out our picks for the best gaming PCs and best gaming mice.

Where To Buy

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