Have you ever been over to a fellow gamer's house, maybe in your early introduction to the world of quality hardware, and marvelled at the technology he (or she) had? Maybe you were entranced by the RGB-everything, or the curved 21:9 monitor, or the insane level of silence his water-cooling system could achieve. Or, what about his keyboard? Did you think of that? Ya know, the one with the fancy Cherry MX Blues in it that went all "clickety-clackety? Yeah. That one. Besides its silky smooth response and its satisfying sound, what was so special about it? Probably the fact that it was about $200.
You may be thinking "Woah! They go for that much? Sheesh..." Well, hold on to your socks, my fellow lower-middle-class college students! Cherry's patent on their oh-so-clickety-clackety mechanical switches ran out. Do you know what that means? That's right! We now have some Korean knockoffs! Yeah, they may not have the greatest backlighting system, or, heck, they may not be backlit at all. They may also not have braided special cables, or macro keys, or some funky branded design. But you know what? Most of them work pretty darn well, even for my daily driver that set me back a whole $34.
Just to be clear, we're gonna be covering REALLY cheap mechanical keyboards. This means we're specifically looking for something $40 or less. We'll also be basing our selections on three different criteria to judge these on: functionality, general aesthetics, and overall quality. To not make reputation an issue all of our selections got no less than four stars on their reviews, which I do go through and read. I'll also shorten the title of the product within reason since a lot of manufacturers love to add the entire specification chart into it. So without further ado, here's a list of some of my favorites that I have tested, bought or heard enough reviews about to form an opinion. Just for reassurance, all five of my selections will be straight from Amazon.com to make sure they are easily accessible, and with Prime, shipping'll be free too.
For number five, we're looking at the Hcman Mechanical Gaming Keyboard. This tenkeyless keyboard claims to feature switches similar to Cherry MX Blues and is fully backlit with six colors, nine different modes of illumination, and variable intensity. It comes with a blasted aluminum base plate, black double-shot injection keycaps, media keys, anti-ghosting, and is driverless. Though I personally found the colors a bit annoying, especially with certain patterns of illumination, you can set the intensity all the way down to zero. So if you like the look of it, but not the backlighting, that's always an option. At a whole $26, this sounds like a pretty good deal, but let's look over it a bit closer.
Pros: Decent finish, somewhat programmable backlighting, extra function keys, Blue-style switches, anti-ghosting, good build quality, compatible with all versions of windows and mac, actually has a braided USB cable, a key cap puller, and all at a really good price.
Cons: The colors cannot be programmed to one solid color, sadly. So if you don't really like having a rainbow flashing at you the whole time you're using it, this one may not be for you. Speaking of which, its keys are also only programmable through the certain keys on the keyboard itself, since it doesn't come with a driver and all that. Also, the legend on the keycaps are a little "gamery" for my tastes, but your mileage may vary. Also, since it's tenkeyless, it is way more ergonomic, but doesn't come with a numpad. Come to think of it, only one on our list has one. So, if you fancy yourself some "Accounting Simulator 2017," you may want a full 104 keyboard.
Next on our list is the EagleTec KG011 Mechanical keyboard, with an aluminum base plate and white double-shot injected keycaps which are also anti-ghosting. Its users claim that it has Outemu Blue switches, which require noticeably more actuation force than Cherry MX Blues when operating, and also seem to be a bit louder.
Pros: This keyboard comes in a LOT of aesthetic variants. Though the one in the picture is white and silver, there's also a black version with both versions featuring several different backlighting layouts such as solid colors, no backlight, and RGB. Though this one doesn't come with a braided cable for durability and aesthetics, it does come with a numpad in case you tend to use it a lot. It's pretty solid and heavy, so it won't be moving around very easily.
Cons: All of that being said, the legend on the keycaps is a little wonky, and very weird to read. It's a little too "gamery" and its price is on the higher end of the list at around $40. But, compared to the name-brand mechanical keyboards, it's definitely not a bad price by any means.
At number three, we have the Redragon K552 Mechanical Keyboard. Being one of the most reviewed and highly reviewed cheap mechanical keyboards, it comes with a metal base plate, double-shot injected keycaps, and various formats of backlighting such as none, red, and RGB. They claim to feature "Cherry Green equivalent" switches, but they actually are Outemo Blue switches. They're good, but actually not very close to Cherry MX Greens when it comes to the actuation force. This one also doesn't have any braided sleeve on the cable, nor does it have a numpad. This keyboard look and feels quite a bit "gamery" (I've said that about a lot of these, haven't I?), but at a whole $33, there's really no room to complain about this one. Now onto my take:
Pros: Very good price for a well-made, backlit, anti-ghosting, fairly well-built, reputable mechanical keyboard. The reviews say that the backlighting is not too bright on its highest setting, but still adequate with a monitor right in front of it.
Cons: Again, a little too "gamery," but honestly, that's not a surprise with certain brands when the switches are actually mechanical. Other than that, and the big, noisy logo, all else seems to be tolerable. Of course, it doesn't have a braided cable, nor does it have macro keys, or a driver for backlight programming, but it has clicky-clackey, and that makes most of the drawbacks of these keyboards okay.
Number two on our list is the Qisan Mechanical Keyboard. This tenkeyless keyboards features Outemu switches which they claim to mimic Cherry MX Browns, a blasted aluminum base plate, and an extremely compact design, making it very convenient for traveling or LAN parties. This compact design is achieved by merging the "F" and
"ESC" keys with the tilde number keys, completely negating the whole top row on a standard keyboard. It also features a really useful cable setup on the bottom, allowing for proficient cable management. It has white keycaps and no backlighting, but for this keyboard, backlighting is not necessary, since it's mostly for business and portable applications. That being said, again, this one does not come with a numpad. TL;DR:
Pros: Well built, modern looking, VERY compact, decent switches, and a really nice setup for cable management. What drawbacks it has from the "F" keys not being media keys, it makes up for it by re-purposing other keys that didn't have an "F" function, so you still technically get media keys. Overall, this one seems to be a perfect design and purpose for the average consumer and would appeal greatly to someone who maybe travels for business, and would like a much more enjoyable typing experience than their mushy laptop keyboard can give them.
Cons: It is on the higher end of our price range at $39, which still isn't bad, but it also has no backlighting, and its small size may not be for everyone or every application. It also doesn't have a braided cable for durability and aesthetics, but that's negated by its clever setup.
Now onto our number one selection, we have the keyboard that I'm typing on right now, the Pictek PPC023B-PTUS Mechanical Keyboard. This tenkeyless keyboard features switches that definitely imitate Cherry MX Blues, a black metal base plate, and black keycaps. It has no backlighting, but personally, I don't really care about backlighting. Unless it has a driver for me to program each key individually, I don't want it, especially if it has a bunch of different colors. From my experience, it gets really old really fast. The logo above the arrow keys is surprisingly well-designed and non-intrusive, and differed greatly from the logo in the pictures. Which, honestly, that was a pleasant surprise, since I wasn't a huge fan of the other logo anyways. The cable is nothing special. It doesn't have any braided sleeve, nor does it have a clever setup like the last one, but it touts all over its description and pictures the fact that this keyboard is water-resistant. This is largely due to the well-placed drain holes on the bottom which allow all of the water from a spill to get out. While that's pretty cool, the rule applies for any electronics: if it gets wet, and it's allowed to dry for a good three-four days, it should work 8/10 times, depending on what it is. Either way, at least it's a better design for letting it dry.
Pros: Very well built, good typing experience, and at $34, it hits the mark on our quality/price ratio. It comes with a key cap puller and its logo is well-designed and very non-intrusive, which is a nice change of pace. The legend on the keycaps is very traditional, easy to read, and it won't make you look weird if you decide to use it at work or school.
Cons: However, these switches are mimics of Cherry MX Blues, and they are loud. Very loud. If you're looking to use it around other people at the office, you may want to pick up a bag of small o-rings to put under the key caps. That should make it somewhat quieter. It, of course, has no backlighting, and no braided cable sleeve, but neither of those matter in my book. Plus, again, this one is tenkeyless, so it doesn't have a numpad. But with all of these, if you really need a numpad, you might like the full 104 key selections, or you can get a separate mechanical numerical keypad.
In conclusion, mechanical keyboards are starting to become less of an enthusiast novelty and more accessible to the average consumer, which I think is awesome. If you still can't afford these for some reason, you can still get mechanical switches if you can pick up an old IBM Model M or a Dell AT101W on eBay. If you can get one really cheap, or you have one lying around, pull the key-caps off and carefully disassemble the switches. With the switches open, you can take the separate leaf-spring and make the switches linear, which is much better than their default raspy, slightly sticky action. Or you can leave it if it feels good to you. All of this comes down to personal preference. Again, this list is based on my personal opinion and observations, so feel free to try out any selection you like. At under $40, you're not losing much if you don't like it. That's the best thing about this: you have tons of options and can spend as much or as little as you want to.