Are you a fan of mechanical keyboards but are not at all keen on the levels of maintenance and care that they require? You might be fine with putting extra care into something you spend a noteworthy amount of money on, and that’s perfectly fine and even very commendable. I’m of the lazy sort though and I firmly believe in throwing money at something that’s not only going to last me a decade or two of key-bashing but is also going to tolerate my penchant for clumsiness. Regular mechanical keyboards have never lasted outside of a year or two on my somewhat hazardous and crumb-strewn gaming desks.
Optical keyboards, on the other hand, have eliminated a few of the most common threats to a keyboard’s longevity by relying on far less critical and fragile moving parts that would be subject to the stresses and dangers that each key would undergo beneath the fingers of an angry gamer. Optical key switches rely entirely on light for key-stroke registry and when adequately reinforced, become almost immune to failure from stress, liquid spills that short out exposed contacts and even pesky dust and rust particles that seem to make themselves at home on just about any exposed metal surface. Optical keyboards make for fine alternatives and can be very formidable tools, even when they aren’t being compared to the best mechanical gaming keyboards on the market. And as somewhat of a bonus, most optical keyboards come with mechanisms that are similar to mechanical ones and mimic their actuation properties, so that you can still enjoy the feel of those beloved Cherry MX keys that you’ve grown fond of.
To elaborate a little: photo-optical or optoelectronic keyboards aren’t really new. They’ve been around for a long while and have only previously been applied in more industrial and economic sectors. After dying out for a dormant decade or two, interest in optical switches has seen a small resurgence and has found a bit of momentum and purpose amongst gamers looking for the next best level in key responsiveness – and nothing’s more responsive than light! Optical keyboard switches operate by relying on an infrared emitter that beams light to a sensor within the key. The key itself, when pushed down, prevents infrared light from reaching the sensor and breaks the circuit, producing a change in the signal.
We’ve lined up the best optical keyboards on the market and spread them out for you below, complete with important specs and the most relevant “pros and cons” we could find. With a little luck, you’ll find the keyboard that’s going to stick with you through the ages (or the next handful of decades, but that kills the dramatic nuance of the whole thing, doesn’t it?).
Types of optical keyboards:
As of right now, there are two major optical switch types that matter – Analog Optical switches and Digital Optical switches.
Analog switches are capable of reading multiple different “positions” instead of the usual “on/off” signal that digital switches emit. This allows analog switches to be pressure sensitive by emitting different signals that depend on how far down you’ve pushed a key. For example, using an analog keyboard to steer a car in a videogame would give you the same level of control as a joystick would, letting you finely adjust the angle of the front wheels. Currently, the most common analog keyboard switches are Flaretech switches, which come in both linear and tactile CherryMX emulation options.
Digital optical switches function in a similar manner to mechanical or membrane switches in that they both only have two “states”. Pushing down on a key will activate the switch and only emit a single signal when the key “bottoms out” or bridges the contact. Digital optical switches work by utilizing a key press to block light from a sensor, creating a responsive and very low latency switch.
Best Optical Keyboards of 2018
TESORO Excalibur SE Spectrum
The Excalibur was the poster-child of optical gaming keyboards when the technology had made its comeback. Outfitted with some of the best keyboard techs at the time to complement its lightning fast response time and bleeding edge switches, the Excalibur SE Spectrum features all the bells and whistles that you’d expect from a great mechanical keyboard.
The Excalibur SE Spectrum features digital optical switches.
- The Excalibur comes with TESORO’s Infrared switches that provide a tactile feel that’s similar to CherryMX Speed keys, which are basically CherrMX Reds that carry a slightly more linear feel with low actuation force and travel times.
- With 512kb of on-board memory, all your configurations, macros and custom maps would be saved on the Excalibur. You could just plug it into any computer and it would remember all your preferences without the need to painstakingly re-configure.
- Backlit keys with fully programmable RGB lighting that comes with 10 preset lighting modes with the option to program your own. TESORO’s switches also feature a 6-key anti-ghosting rollover feature that accurately tracks rapid key presses that overlap each other.
TESORO Gram SE Spectrum
Paying close attention to the success of the Excalibur, TESORO decided to up their game and create a more exciting keyboard that took all the best parts of the Excalibur and boosted them with newer additions and a more premium design. The resulting Gram SE Spectrum was an optical keyboard that boasted the benefits of optical switches but was identical in feel and tactility to premium mechanical keyboards.
The Gram SE Spectrum features digital optical switches.
- The switches used on the Gram SE Spectrum conform to a standard that allows them to be customized and swapped for different switches. As of now, TESORO offers Red switches on the keyboard and a handful of Blue switches out of the box. Since the optical switch allows for a contactless connection, you can simply use the large tweezers that are provided to extract switches you wish to swap and easily insert a new one. The adaptability of the board even allows you to outfit it with other keys of your choosing, should they be CherryMX or Kailh. You can also swap the keycaps on the board for an extra personal touch.
- The Gram SE Spectrum bears the design of a floating keyboard, but is completely sealed and is dust, air, and liquid proof, allowing you to even go so far as to wash it down if the need arises. Like the Excalibur, the Gram also features 512kb of onboard memory to store configurations and settings, making it very plug-and-play friendly.
- The Gram Se Spectrum comes with a very configurable backlight that switches between 16 million colors and can be adjusted between each individual keys. There are also several lighting modes and presets to choose from, and you can even create your own light profiles. Like the Excalibur, the Gram also features a 6-key rollover to prevent ghosting.
Instago 61 Keys Optical Switch Multi-color RGB
Instago Mechanical Gaming Keyboard can take your gaming experience to a new high level. Its intelligent light management chip ensures that you can complete color spectrum with 16.8 million colors available at your fingers tips. Backlit also can be activated by voice, which makes your light rhythm totally follow the background music. The ergonomic arc and slope design of this Instago keyboard , gives users the most comfortable hand feeling and reduces fatigue, comfortable, detachable wrist rest with soft-touch coating.
BenQ Zowie Celeritas II
Of all the keyboards on this list, only two would come from names that would sound familiar to the everyday user; the Zowie Celeritas from BenQ would be one of those keyboards. An interesting addition to the Zowie line, the Celeritas II is aimed at competitive gamers who value practical speed above all else. But this keyboard is far from perfect and features a few questionable design choices, such as the rubberized key coat or the incredibly linear switches that cannot be easily swapped for more ideal ones.
The BenQ Zowie Celeritas II features digital optical switches.
- The switches on the Celeritas II are Flaretechs, similar to the Wooting One, but the similarities end there. The Flaretech switches on the Celeritas II were tailored by BenQ to make the Celeritas II unique, which led to them being digital switches. The Flaretech switches on the Celeritas grant it a 0.2ms response time as well as a 100,000,000 key-press life cycle. The switches themselves feel odd at first, due to a very small actuation force and low travel distance, but it doesn’t take long to get used to after a minute of gaming.
- The Celeritas II looks rather sober for a gaming keyboard and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A few good design choices on the Celeritas II help with creating a comfortable palm rest. The matte finish on the keyboard’s plate in particular feels rather great on your skin and is even rather comfortable if you’ve got sweaty palms. Another great feature is the contoured ergonomic key profile, but the odd key actuation and layout negate the ergonomics when you’re typing. The board seems to not really bring up any problems once you’re immersed in a game though and the rapid movements it allows feel completely natural.
- The Celeritas II is a backlit keyboard, but is limited to the color Red. You can adjust the brightness of the backlight and that does indeed come in handy, but the lighting options are somewhat lackluster, compared to the competition. The Celeritas II features a full-key rollover that comes in rather handy with the super-low response time for the Flaretech keys. A rather interesting feature on the Celeritas II is the PS/2 adapter that comes with the keyboard. When using the PS/2 cable, you gain access to RTR (Rapid Time Response) mode, which can really shorten the time between your rapid key-presses and works great for games like StarCraft and Dota, to name a few.
The Bloody B945R is great keyboard and is seemingly held back from being one of the best by what is simply a quality issue that’s passed off as a “design trait”. The type of noise one would look for in a gaming keyboard is entirely subjective to an individual and a major selling point of the B945R is its “Machine gun like key-sound profile”, which, at a 100 odd decibels (read as “A LOT”) quieter than an actual machine gun, is still pretty loud. Aside from the sound, the rest of the aesthetics of the Bloody B945R are exceptionally great, regardless of perspective.
The Bloody B945R features digital optical switches.
- The B945R features a unique “Light Strike” optical switch that was developed by A4Tech to be featured exclusively on the Bloody line of keyboards. The Light Strike or “LK” switches retain many features from mechanical switches, but provide the perks and performance upgrades of an optical switch. The Light Strike key featured on the B945R is similar to the conventional CherryMX Blue, but feels much more “clicky” compared to them. A noticeable downside to the B945R is that the keys feel like they’ve got a small amount of “play” in them, as if they weren’t fit very tight to the switches. A4Tech has stated that this was to add a certain “ping” to the acoustics, but it definitely takes some getting used to.
- The beauty of the B945R lies in its design. It is simply idealistic to behold and the aluminum back plate, beveled edges and exposed bolts give it an “ex-machina” feel. The B945R comes packaged with a detachable rubber padded wrist rest which sits on an aluminum base to go with the back plate. A unique touch to the B945R’s large key-layout is the left-hand side number pad. This puts all those extra keys in close reach for all your macro needs and comes in particularly handy when playing MMOs or strategy games. The B945R’s keys are rated at a 100,000,000 lifespan and the B945R itself is dust and spill proof.
- The B945R features an RGB backlit keyboard that is fully programmable using the KeyDominator 2 control suite. But if you’d rather not waste much time with drivers, the B945R features on-board memory and built-in presets that can be cycled through with a few select hotkeys. The keyboard also features a full-key rollover that is somewhat of a necessity with its low travel distance keys that encourage incredibly fast key-presses.
Gigabyte Aorus K9
The Aorus K9 is Gigabyte’s entry into the optical-switch exclusive club. The Aorus K9 carries over the finer features of Gigabyte’s Aorus mechanical keyboard line and pairs them with the optical performance of Flaretech’s switches. Gigabyte is easily the first of many “Founder” manufacturers to pick up optical keyboard technology and the demand for them is already growing at a steady pace.
The Aorus K9 features digital optical switches.
- The K9 uses Flaretech switches, similar to the Wooting One, with the only difference being that that K9 lacks the analog abilities and the technology of the Wooting One. They keys on the Aorus K9 come in two flavors: Flaretech Reds and Flaretech Blues. The boards are shipped with your choice of keys as well as four extra keys of the opposite flavor so that you can test them out. Thanks to the Flaretech key design, the switches can be easily extracted and replaced with a simple tool that’s included with the packaging.
- The Aorus K9’s design is kept simple with a floating keyboard layout that allows the backlight to illuminate the outsides of the keys as well as the insides. They keys feature a gentle ergonomic sweet for comfortable finger-reach and positioning. The keyboard’s layout is rather standard and surprisingly compact yet comfortable, without the removal of the number pad. The classical design of the keyboard lacks a wrist rest, but is angled in such a way as to ensure comfort without the necessity of one. The K9 is also completely spill and dust proof, and like all Flaretech keys, offers a lifecycle of 100,000,000 clicks.
- The K9 is fully backlit and allows you to customize the lighting schemes in some very detailed ways. The Aorus Engine suite allows you to switch between 16 million colors and assign them to each key as you please, along with several interesting light features and profiles that give you complete control over personalization. The Aorus K9 features a full-key rollover that goes great with the 0.2ms response time.
The Wrap Up
Optical keyboards might be somewhat new to the world and after laying in the dark for so long, the technology might not be as well known. But, it seems to be taking off pretty rapidly and will be main-stream before long. Picking one up before the rest of the world gets their hands on them might be a smart move in the long run, but whether you want one due to the novelty, performance, durability, customization or edge on the competition, you will definitely be adding a worthy tool to your arsenal.
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