Ask any professional gamer and they’ll tell you; when it comes to gaming hardware there is no room for average. That’s because a missed action or keystroke can mean the difference between victory and defeat, getting fragged or pwning the competition. While most gamers, including me, will never attain the level of skill that a professional needs to be able to compete on the highest level, we all hate losing because of hitting the wrong key in the final moment of a late-night PvP battle.

And lately gamers have more choice then ever, thanks to an explosion of mechanical keyboards aimed at the run-and-gunner. Mechanical keyboards, with real microswitches under each button, may be pricey but they last longer and will give far better performance than normal keyboards. They’re more reliable, and don’t wear out over time – but should you buy one?

COUGAR 700K (approx. R1 799)

Cougar

COUGAR is a new brand to the South African market which arrived just a few months ago with a range of high end keyboards and mice. The COUGAR 700K is the top-of-the-line gaming keyboard from the company and comes with all of the bells and whistles one would expect from a high-end peripheral. COUGAR has done well to differentiate the 700K from other, better known brands with some clever additions and changes to what we’ve seen from gaming keyboards in the past. For instance the row of customisable macro keys that run down the left-handside of the keyboard are places at a significant angles compared to the rest of the keys making them easy to identify and almost impossible to hit by mistake.

“COUGAR’s UIX software is simple and easy to understand and allows for enough levels of customisation to suit our needs…”

The design of the COUGAR 700K will likely not appeal to everyone with its chunky palm rests and aluminium backing plate but there will definitely be a chunk of players who will gravitate to its looks. The Cherry MX keys are the de-facto standard for mechanical keyboard and with good reason too. They provide a fantastic level of tactile feedback and ensure that you get you’re still enjoying using the 700k hours into a gaming session.

COUGAR’s UIX software is simple and easy to understand and allows for enough levels of customisation to suit our needs but isn’t the best on display in our test. One thing that we found to be a bit of an issue with the COUGAR 700K was the split spacebar which leaves the right hand half of the key as an unassigned macro key. From pure force of habit we changed it to also be used as a spacebar but kept hitting the middle of the keys instead of either one which grew more frustrating the more often it happened.

VERDICT: The new kid on the block has all the right moves. 

Logitech G910 Orion Spark (approx. R2 499)

Logitech

Logitech is the 500-pound gorilla in any peripherals discussion. The company has been around for ages and makes some of the best keyboards with the G910 Orion Spark representing the pinnacle of its G-series of gaming goodies. The G910 is unlike any other keyboard in our test because of one major design decision taken by the team over at Logitech. The surface of each key is drastically indented to cradle your fingertips ensuring that you always feel like they’ve found the right place on each key. The WASD keys in particular have a slightly different feel to the rest of the keys which makes them easier to find as well. It’s a wonderfully comforting feeling for when you’re gaming but actually makes regular every day typing on the G910 an absolute nightmare especially for anyone who touch types.

“This is a keyboard for gaming, not typing, and it’s very, very good at that.”

Similarly, the self-designed switches have a smooth action that lacks the tactile feedback of mechanical keys loved by typists, and we weren’t mad about the font choice for the keys as it felt over-stylised to our eyes. But this is a keyboard for gaming, not typing, and it’s very, very good at that. There’s even an extendable smartphone dock which allows you to use your phone as a second screen, with data from games or the desktop right in front of your face.

Annoyingly, though, there’s no way to charge your phone while it sits in the cradle if your charging port is at the bottom of your smartphone. The Logitech G910 Orion Spark is a phenomenal gaming keyboard and that may be its biggest downfall. It’s almost too focused on gaming to be useful every day – which at this price is going to make you think twice about picking one up.

VERDICT: The ultimate gamer, but pricey and inflexible. 

Razer BlackWidow Ultimate (R1 800)

Razer

The manufacturer who more or less invented gaming keyboards and mice, Razer has kept pace with more recent rivals well – even if some of its ergonomics have remained polarising choices. Razer’s BlackWidow Ultimate is exactly what you would expect from a gaming keyboard with bright, backlit mechanical keys and a row of customisable macro keys down the left of the keyboard. The secondary functions of the keys aren’t backlit which sometimes made it difficult to see them in a dark room with the powerful backlight shining in your eyes something which caused some minor irritation in non-gaming use. The keys themselves are appreciably louder than most of the other keyboard in the test because of Razer’s use of its own proprietary switches which mimic those of Cherry MX’s Blue switches.

“Razer’s Synapse software is by far and away the standout of the bunch…”

The debate between mechanical keys with a smooth action – like the two keyboards above – and ones with a slight tactile click as you press them is key here. Gamers are supposed to prefer the former, while touch typists prefer the latter. But really it’s a very personal thing – even in our office, opinion is divided. So our best advice is a bit lame really – try before you buy.

When it comes to the bells and whistles, however, it’s much easier to come to a firm conclusion. Razer’s Synapse software is by far and away the standout of the bunch allowing you to customise any of the company’s peripherals, including the BlackWindow Ultimate, quickly and easily with enough granular control to give them different profiles for individual games.

It’s a stand out feature and definitely worth looking into if you switch between different genres of game often. The BlackWidow Ultimate is the gaming keyboard equivalent to high end German sedan. It’s solid, dependable and has all of the features you would expect but lacks any of the flair or excitement that buying silly, fast, red Italian sports car would give you.

VERDICT: Great if you like clicky keys and customisable software features. 

SteelSeries APEX (R1 500)

SteelSeries

The SteelSeries APEX is physically a beast of a keyboard. With 22 macro keys spanning the length and breadth of the keyboard as well as a set of media controls on the right hand side, the APEX casts an imposing figure on your desk. While all of those buttons have their uses our favourite keys on the APEX are the additional diagonal arrow keys which are fantastic for strafing in first-person-shooters. Although we like the ability to map a bunch of macros to all of those additional keys, there comes a point where there may actually be too many of them on the keyboard.

“The SteelSeries APEX is a membrane keyboard and not a mechanical one like the others on test.”

We consistently missed the enter key on the number pad by hitting the media controls on the right instead and could never quite find the escape key which felt like it was hidden in the vast ocean of macro keys on the left.

However even with all of the good and bad that can be said about the wealth of keys at your disposal, the SteelSeries APEX is an unfortunately flawed keyboard that puts it at the bottom of the pile here. Firstly, while there is anti-ghosting for the 20 most used keys, that still leaves a host of combinations that will result in lost key presses. Ghosting is a problem that many keyboards face when three or more buttons are pushed simultaneously such as when you’re running diagonally in a game while jumping and performing an action. More importantly, the SteelSeries APEX is a membrane keyboard and not a mechanical one like the others on test. As much as we want to like it, the difference is palpable: it has less travel and a softer touch. You might prefer that: for us it’s worth spending R300 more on the COUGAR above.

VERDICT: All the keys in the world can’t make a good keyboard. 

The Winner

The good news is that there is no one single solution for gamers with each manufacturer focusing on different aspects of the keyboard. The bad news is that no one manufacturer has made the perfect keyboard. While the COUGAR 700K is the out-and-out best keyboard in our test, that split space bar would drive us insane in the long run and would push us to buy something from the likes of Logitech or Razer instead. That being said there are merits to buying all of the keyboards above with the exception of the SteelSeries APEX which just isn’t up to the same standard as the rest of the kit on show.