How to Choose the Right Keyboard
Wireless keyboards serve a whole army of masters. They’re great if you’re trying to declutter, or like typing with your keyboard on your lap. Mobile productivity hounds who want gear that’s ready for travel swear by them, too, and some models let you swap one typing peripheral among desktops, laptops, and tablets. In the vast majority of situations, there’s no difference between using a keyboard with a wireless connection and a standard wired one. The only time you’ll notice is when it’s time to charge it…or when you forget to.
Apart from introducing a couple of new factors that you need to pay attention to (namely, connectivity and battery life), picking out the best wireless keyboard isn’t all that different from picking out the best keyboard overall. Hit that link for our best picks across wired and wireless models. But since you’re here, let’s go through the issues specific to wireless ones.
Bluetooth? RF? There’s More Than One Way to Wireless
Wireless keyboards (and wireless mice, too) use two primary technologies to connect to devices: Bluetooth, or a 2.4GHz radio-frequency (RF) connection. The latter connects to your device via a USB dongle; Bluetooth models assume your host computer supports Bluetooth, or you have your own Bluetooth dongle. Each connection type offers distinct advantages and disadvantages.
In modern keyboards, 2.4GHz RF offers a stable connection and, at times, a near-imperceptible amount of typing lag. No desktop or laptop has built-in support for these keyboards; you need that USB dongle. And because a USB dongle is an extra part, you can lose it if you swap it between systems often or carry your keyboard around. Some keyboards have a storage slot for their dongles, which is great, but it’s still a tiny part you need to keep track of. The dongles are often keyed to the specific keyboard you own, so losing one can mean the keyboard is out of commission for good. (Models that support a more forgiving RF dongle like one with Logitech’s Unifying technology can work off of a replacement dongle or another device’s dongle, but these are the exception, not the rule.)
Bluetooth connections, while also reliable, are slightly more prone to lag and/or momentary connection loss, especially when you have many Bluetooth connections going on in one place (such as an office or a coffee shop). These issues do resolve themselves and can often be fixed simply by re-establishing the connection if they don’t, but they can be an annoyance. Bluetooth also tends to drain a keyboard’s battery faster. On the plus side, though, devices with Bluetooth support can connect to phones, tablets, and other devices without a USB port.
The bottom line? It’s nice to have both. The 2.4GHz RF kind is generally the better connection type, especially if you’re planning on connecting to one, stationary PC. Bluetooth adds a lot of versatility, though. Not only can you connect to more devices, but having it is a nice safety if you forget the USB dongle. In keyboards made in the last two or three years, you’re most likely to see keyboards with just a 2.4GHz connection, though there are a few Bluetooth-only options, and some that support both. I would urge you, though, to not count out a keyboard just because it relies solely on Bluetooth, as you may not even notice a difference if you’re using it at home.
In addition to 2.4GHz and Bluetooth, any good wireless keyboard will allow you to connect to a device directly using its charging cable. Without this option, there’s always a chance that you’ll forget to charge the keyboard or replace its batteries, and you may find yourself, unexpectedly, temporarily unable to use it. Models that rely on disposable AA or AAA batteries, though, likely don’t have a USB connection option.
While it’s by no means a deal breaker, connecting via USB Type-C at the keyboard end is generally better than a micro-USB connection, as USB-C is easier to plug in and the port may allow for faster charging under some circumstances. What matters most, though, is that you have a cable option of some kind.
The Power Source: Wireless-Keyboard Battery Life
Without a PC-connected cable to power it, every wireless keyboard, of course, needs a battery to run. Most wireless keyboards these days rely on built-in lithium-ion batteries you can recharge, though you do occasionally run into some that rely on good old AA or AAA cells.
While some keyboards that rely on the latter can get amazing battery life (Logitech’s K860 is rated to last for two years on a pair of AAAs), a keyboard with an internal battery and a charging cable is more convenient, because you can plug in while you recharge. There’s nothing worse than realizing that your keyboard is out of power, so you can’t use your PC until you run out to the store and pick up more batteries (or salvage some from a TV remote).
So, how long should a wireless keyboard battery last? For an internal battery, most keyboards in the last two years get at least 20 hours of continuous use with its key backlighting on (if it has key backlighting, that is). Many manufacturers provide two battery-life estimates based on whether or not you use the backlighting, as it can reduce the time between charges by more than 50 percent. In our review testing, we find 25 to 30 hours often translates to somewhere between one to two weeks of heavy daily use.
With removable AAs or AAAs, look for the estimated battery life to be measured in weeks or months, not hours. Even the cheapest battery-powered keyboards should get hundreds of hours of battery life from a set, especially if they do not have backlit keys.
Since LED backlighting heavily affects battery life, t’s good to look for customization and controls to help you manage power. Any backlit keyboard will let you turn these lights on and off, but some will offer extra options, such as brightness-level controls and the ability to automatically turn off the lights when the power gets low. Some configuration apps, like Corsair’s iCue, offer more universal power-related controls and features, like controlling when the board goes to “sleep,” and adding a system-level battery indicator.
If you’re looking for a wireless keyboard because you’re setting up a media PC to hook up to your TV, keep in mind that there’s a subset of wireless keyboards made specifically with this use case in mind. Entertainment keyboards, sometimes called “media center keyboards” or “lapboards,” are all-in-one solutions made to work on your lap, rather than set on a surface. Most are long, and some have larger-than-ordinary keys. Some models also have an underside surface contoured to rest on your lap. They also always have a touchpad or other mouse substitute to make input control more manageable, with no separate mouse required.
Most such boards are made for navigating web browsers and media players like Plex, or for gaming. Because they’re designed for only occasional typing, they often don’t make for the best general-use keyboards (though there are exceptions). Still, the best ones, including our recommendations, are well-suited to their specific tasks.
The Fundamentals of Buying a Keyboard
Beyond connectivity and battery life, there’s no difference between picking a standard, wired keyboard and a wireless one, though you are picking from a much smaller range of options.
KEY LAYOUT. Most wireless keyboards are full-size, meaning they have 104 keys or more, including a number pad. Most, particularly productivity-focused models, use low-profile scissor-switch keys, similar to what you’d find in a laptop. (Mechanical keyboards tend to be wired models, more often than not, though there are exceptions.) This keeps their dimensions slim, making them more portable and helping to maintain the sleek, minimalist look popularized by Apple’s Magic Keyboard. With that in mind, the best wireless keyboards don’t overcommit to that aesthetic so much that the keys feel bunched together too closely.
EXTRA FEATURES. Generally speaking, wireless keyboards tend to come with some quality-of-life features, such as dedicated media and macro keys. A few, like Logitech’s high-end keyboards, also come with the ability to connect to multiple devices and swap among them with a single button press. Gaming keyboards will come with the same suite of media and macro perks, and some include customizable RGB lighting and advanced configuration software.
There are also a few features you’re unlikely to find. Though a few keyboards on our list come with a wrist rest, it’s less likely that a wireless keyboard will include one. Also, without a wired connection, it would be impossible for a keyboard to offer USB passthrough ports on the body, so that’s not something you’ll find, either.
OTHER SWITCH TYPES. Among wireless keyboards, you’ll spot the occasional model using membrane or mechanical key switches. Membrane keyboards actuate, triggering the signal that goes to your computer, by pushing down a rubber dome at the base of the key. Mechanical keyboards do the same via a physical switch with a spring or other tactile actuator. Relative to scissor switches, both types of keyboards provide more key-press travel, which leads to a more comfortable typing experience. Many people prefer the low action and light touch of scissor switches, though, so this ultimately comes down to personal preference.
Like standard keyboards, mechanical keyboards generally offer a better typing feel and better build quality than membrane-switch keyboards, but they are also considerably more expensive. The two major benefits to a wireless mechanical keyboard are its more decisive feedback, and the longer travel, both of which allow for more confident typing. (Also, if you like the clack a keyboard makes, mechanical keyboards make more noise and, according to some, a more appealing sound.) At the moment, most, but not all, wireless mechanical keyboards are gaming-focused.
Last, but not least, in the last year or so, multiple companies have produced wireless ergonomic keyboards, which use an alternative key-layout shape to minimize repetitive stress injuries in your hands, wrists, and arms. The wireless ergonomic keyboards we’ve seen employ a curved, unibody design that prevents you from twisting your wrist. They are, by and large, helpful if you experience wrist or arm pain when you type, though they can take some getting used to when you first switch to one from a standard keyboard.
So, Which Wireless Keyboard to Buy?
Now that you what to look for in a good wireless keyboard, we’ve taken all the guesswork out of the equation and put together a list of the best ones we’ve reviewed. Whether you’re planning to use the board for work, gaming, or just everyday computing, it isn’t hard to cut the cord without compromises.
If you’re looking for more in-depth explainers on how to choose the right keyboard for you, also check out our roundups of the best keyboards, the best mechanical keyboards, and the best gaming keyboards, all of which have wireless candidates mingling with the best of the wired models we’ve reviewed.
Where To Buy
Pros: Extremely user-friendly.
Seamlessly streams media to devices on your home network.
Remote access streams content anywhere.
Third-party channels provide free, extra content.
Cons: Many features cost extra.
More difficult to tweak than open source media servers.
Bottom Line: Unlike most media servers, Plex is actually user-friendly and lets you easily stream content to several devices on your home network without having to overcome significant technical hurdles.