Mechanical keyboards are all the rage computer enthusiasts and gamers. If you’ve been using a rubber dome or scissor switch keyboard for your whole life, buying a new clicky keyboard might be intimidating, to say nothing of the considerable expense. Even the cheapest models from mainstream suppliers start at around $80, and go well into the hundreds for RGB lights and programmable extras—a lot of dough to drop on something you aren’t sure you’ll like.
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To that end, we’ve gathered a collection of dirt-cheap mechanical keyboard picks. These all come from relatively unknown brands with cheaper components than most of the enthusiast models, but they’ll give you a good place to start if you want to investigate the wider world of mechanical keyboards. Best of all, they’re each $40 or less, so trying them out won’t cost you much more than a standard keyboard.
Why These Keyboards Are So Cheap
First, let’s temper your expectations just a little bit. These are, obviously, not as high quality as some more expensive keyboards—but we were surprised at how good they were. Some of it has to do with general build quality, but a big factor is the switches inside.
The individual key switches are what make mechanical keyboards unique: their complex spring-and-slider construction gives the keys a much longer, more satisfying “feel” than rubber dome keyboards, which is why they’re so coveted by typists and gamers. German corporation Cherry has been manufacturing its patented MX switches for over 30 years, and while they’re not the only switches that can be found in mechanical keyboards, they are the de facto standard.
Since the patent on Cherry MX switches expired, competitors have made “clone” switches that are generally sold to keyboard manufacturers for much less. These switches have the same basic characteristics as Cherry MX switches, including cross-shaped stems that are compatible with the same keycaps, and different colors corresponding to different switch types. The main difference: these clone switches are mass manufactured in China with (presumably) less strict tolerances gives them a looser, more shaky feel than the genuine article. That said, they’re very much preferred by bargain-hunters, since real Cherry MX switches or equivalents cost about a dollar per switch, instantly putting keyboards outside the range of an impulse purchase.
In addition, these keyboards tend to lack more advanced features like programmable RGB backlighting (or backlighting at all, in some cases), detachable USB cables, and other niceties like that. You may find one of those features occasionally, but you’ll rarely find them all on one board.
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Cherry MX switches come in different colors, each coded to quickly explain different variables of the switch itself: the strength of the spring, the “bump” or lack thereof at the point where a stroke is registered, and whether the key makes an audible “click” as it’s pressed. Other manufacturers have copied the color coordination scheme along with the Cherry MX switch design, so we’ve broken the recommendations below along those lines.
If a lot of that mechanical keyboard jargon sounds like another language to you, check out our explainer on all the different mechanical keyboard terms.
The Best Cheap Keyboard With “Blue” Switches: Redragon K552-M KUMARA
Blue switches are generally preferred by typists, thanks to a low actuation force and a loud “click” with each press of the key. It’s odd, then, that the Redragon board ($30) is explicitly aimed at “gamers,” who tend to prefer a linear switch for rapid key presses (see below). Nevertheless, this model is one of the cheapest on the market at just $30. More expensive models can be had with different flavors of LED lighting, but they’re all equipped with the same blue clicky switch. (The Amazon listing for the Redragon says that it uses “Cherry MX Green equivalent” key switches, but this appears to be a mistake—they’re definitely Blue clones.)
The switches themselves come from a company called Outemu, a common supplier of “clone” switches. Though the stems are a tiny bit more loose with a stiffer central spring than standard Cherry MX Blues, they give an acceptable approximation. The tenkeyless (also known as “TKL”) layout is plenty for most users who don’t do rapid data entry, but there’s also a full-size version with a number pad called the Redragon VARA ($40) for those who prefer it. Standard key sizes mean that aftermarket keycaps can be installed. The Redragon comes with a free plastic keycap tool for pulling them off, but the USB cable is fixed in place.
The board seems to have a bit of metal in the case (if not a full metal plate), which is something of a luxury at this price point, and gives it more heft and stability than other budget keyboards. The keycaps aren’t especially attractive, with standard ABS plastic and stamped legends that will wear down fast under constant typing. The case has a significant lip at the edges, which will make it harder to clean, but the Cherry-style stabilizers will save some headaches when swapping out longer keycaps. The Redragon board can be had with rainbow, all-red, or multicolor RGB lights for a bit more cash.
If you don’t like the look of the Redragon, you have a few other options with blue switches:
- This Eagletec model ($40) is a bit larger, has a full metal plate, and (for a few more bucks) has options for blue LEDs or a fetching white-on-silver color scheme, with the same Outemu blue switches.
- You can also grab this keyboard for $33, though and it’s available from a few different suppliers with their logos stamped onit: TOMOKO, Mpow, and Pictek. You can find full size versions, tenkeyless versions, and backlit versions out there—just make sure you search all three brand names to cover all your bases.
- If you prefer a smaller layout, the Qisan Magicforce (discussed in more detail below) is available in a blue switch variant for $40.
- Another small alternative is the the DREVO 84 keyboard ($40), which includes white backlighting, doubleshot keycaps, and a choice of blue, brown, red, or black (like red, but stiffer) switches. Its non-standard layout will take some getting used to, though, and finding a full keycap set might be harder, so we don’t recommend it for beginners.
The Best Cheap Keyboard With “Brown” Switches (and a Small Form Factor): Qisan Magicforce Mini
Brown-style switches use a tactile bump to give physical feedback and a light spring like Blue switches, but without the distinct “click” sound. They’re a popular alternative, a sort of middle ground between the noisy blue switches and smoother linear designs. The Qisan Magicforce Mini ($40) is a great way to test them out, and it’s often recommend as a starting point by mechanical keyboard enthusiasts. (If you prefer gold, this version is the same price with a different color plate.)
Outemu Brown switches are pretty much spot-on replicas of Cherry or Gateron Browns, with a satisfying bump at a much lower volume than the Blues. The keycaps feel a bit flimsy and standard printing won’t last forever—a big drawback with some of the odd choices for volume and media keys on the function layer—but overall it’s hard to find a better small mechanical keyboard for just forty bucks.
The smaller format is well thought-out: it uses the popular 60% layout (dispensing with the function row) but adds back a full arrow cluster and the Delete, Insert, and Page Up/Down keys for less reliance on a function layer. You’ll still be wishing for a bigger keyboard if you often use F1-F12, but for everyone else, it’s an elegant compromise. A very thin aluminum plate doesn’t do much for stability, but the removable microUSB cable, small size, and light weight make this one handy for travelling. And like the Outemu switches above, the ones in this keyboard also come with Cherry-style stabilizers for easy keycap swaps, with a keycap tool included in the box.
There are Magicforce keyboards with backlighting, as well as full-size variants, but they’re much more expensive, running around $70. You can also get the smaller versions with blue or red switches at the same $40 price point, if you prefer those. But for other cheap brown-switched boards, there are a few others available:
- If need a keyboard with shiny LEDs, the Velocifire TKL01 ($30) will give them to you with “Brown” switches and a slightly larger build.
- A good compromise between them is the TKL78 ($30), also from Velocifire, which uses a “75%” layout with a full function row, but a shorter layout with the arrow cluster crammed into the right modifier area.
- The DREVO 84 keyboard ($40) includes white backlighting, doubleshot keycaps, and a choice of blue, brown, red, or black (like red, but stiffer) switches. Its non-standard layout will take some getting used to, though, and finding a full keycap set might be harder, so we don’t recommend it for beginners.
The Best Cheap Keyboard With “Red” Switches: LESHP Backlit Keyboard
“Red” switches are the most common among keyboards specifically designed for gaming, because they combine a relatively light spring with a linear slide action. There’s neither a tactile bump nor an audible “click” when pressing down on the key, it’s just smooth motion up and down. Red-style clone switches are especially hard to find in cheaper boards, though, which tend to go with brown or blue switches for broader appeal. Thankfully, the oddly-named LESHP keyboard includes them for just $40.
The LESHP board is aesthetically the least pleasing of our three recommendations: though the build is light plastic throughout with exposed screws, the black case is clearly trying to ape the Razer BlackWidow design. That comparison isn’t helped by the “rainbow” LEDs, which, despite their appearance, are not true RGB—each row only lights up one color (though an all-red version is available). At least the keycaps are doubleshot ABS plastic, meaning the backlit legends won’t wear out with use. The media legends and lighting function controls are merely printed, but they’re on non-alphanumeric keys, meaning they’ll probably last a while.
LESHP does include a full-sized layout, and while the six-foot cable isn’t removable, it’s braided for extra toughness. The key switches themselves are from a company called “JWH,” and are quite loose compared to genuine Cherry keys, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing on a gaming design. The backlighting is pretty dim even at the brightest setting, but the layout is completely standard (not always a given on a gaming keyboard) and Cherry-style stabilizers mean easy keycap replacements.
If the multicolored LESHP doesn’t strike your fancy, you might like these alternatives:
- The smaller DREVO 84 keyboard ($40) includes white backlighting, doubleshot keycaps, and a choice of blue, brown, red, or black (like red, but stiffer) switches. Its non-standard layout will take some getting used to, though, and finding a full keycap set might be harder, so we don’t recommend it for beginners.
- DREVO also sells a more conventional tenkeyless board in the same style, but only with the stiffer black key switches, for $37.
Low-Cost Upgrades for Your New Cheap Keyboard
If you’ve tried out the mechanical lifestyle and decided you’re a fan, you can go out and spend more money on a board with more features, like programmable layouts, custom designs, RGB lighting, and so on. But you can also upgrade the board you already have, keeping your total cost low but getting a nicer-looking board.
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- Add new keycaps: all the recommended boards above use standard Cherry-style stems and standard key layouts, so any set of replacement keys will work with them. You can get a new matching set fairly cheaply, or upgrade them with thicker PBT plastic, or even try a different profile like DSA or G20 for a different feel on your fingers.
- Create custom keycaps: for the ultimate in keyboard customization, there are a few vendors who will let you choose the color and printing style on individual keycaps, or even upload your own artwork for custom printing (like I did with my Overwatch set pictured above). WASD Keyboards and MaxKeyboard are two options.
- Remove ugly logos: sometimes the branding on these cheap boards is…less than stylish. There are a few options if the logo printed on the case isn’t to your liking, it’s possible to remove them from plastic with a little rubbing alcohol, sugar cubes, or acetone. Just make sure to test each method on the back of the keyboard before you go rubbing away at the logo—strong stuff like acetone especially can ruin some cheaper finishes.
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- Quiet your keyboard with O-rings: if the noise of your mechanical keyboard is bothering you (or your coworkers), these tiny plastic rings can help dampen the sound. They’re especially useful if you’re forceful typist who bottoms out the keys with every press.
- Get a protective carrying case: some people enjoy their mechanical keyboards so much that they take it along with their laptop to type with it on the go. There are sleeves made specifically to protect the keys and case of your keyboard inside a laptop bag or backpack. Just check the dimensions to make sure it’s big enough for your keyboard.
With the right upgrades, you’ll be living the keyboard high life without the high cost.
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