When we introduced our new System Guide format in February, we cut out peripherals in order to focus more closely on internal PC components. Our plan was to revisit keyboards, mice, displays, and such things in a separate guide, which we would be free to flesh out a little more and update as needed, independently of the already lengthy System Guide.
Today, that plan comes to fruition. Welcome to our first peripheral staff picks.
Our aim here is a little different than with the System Guide. Rather than provide an exhaustive overview of the entire market, we’ll mostly tell you about the products we, TR’s editorial team, personally like—or would purchase for ourselves.
We’ve chosen this focus partly because our editorial work tends to center on internal components, and the breadth of our experience with the myriad peripherals and accessories out there isn’t all-encompassing. Also, in many ways, peripherals are more a matter of personal preference than internal PC parts. We can benchmark things like graphics cards and make very specific recommendations based on the results, but we can’t guess what kind of mouse you might like, what brand of headphones you prefer, or what type of external backup solution would best suit your needs.
Finally, you might notice the “powered by Newegg.com” logo at the top right of this page. As with the TR System Guide, Newegg is the sponsor for our Peripheral staff picks. When possible, we’ll link to Newegg listings for the products we recommend. Newegg still has no input on our actual recommendations, nor does it have any say in the editorial content of this article. If we want to recommend a product Newegg doesn’t carry, we’ll simply link to another e-tailer. That’s the same deal as with our System Guide.
All right. Now we’ve explained everything, let’s look at our recommendations.
We like keyboards here at TR, probably because we spend quite a few hours each day typing up the stories you see on the site. We particularly like mechanical keyboards, which have a discrete switching mechanism with a metal spring under each key. Mechanical keyboards tend to provide better response than the more commonplace rubber-dome offerings.
Lately, the mechanical keyboard market has seen something of a renaissance. Many vendors have come out with mechanical offerings of various shapes and sizes, with a wide variety of different key switch types. We’ve singled out a few of our favorites for the staff picks:
|Rosewill RK-9000 series||$74.99-$149.99|
|Corsair Vengeance series||$89.99-$149.99|
|Cooler Master QuickFire XT series||$89.99-$119.99|
|Unicomp buckling-spring series||$79.00-$109.00|
|Vintage Model M||$90.00-$105.00|
|Topre Type Heaven||$150.00|
The Rosewill RK-9000, Corsair Vengeance, and Cooler Master QuickFire XT series are all based on Cherry’s MX series of key switches, and they’re each available with different versions of that switch type. Before we talk about the keyboards themselves, let’s introduce the switches briefly.
The most common Cherry MX switch types are the blues, browns, reds, and blacks. In short, the blue and brown switches provide tactile feedback when the key reaches its actuation point, and the blues also generate an audible click. The reds and blacks, by contrast, have no tactile or audible feedback whatsoever. They’re smooth and silent all the way down to the bottom-out point. The only difference between them is that the blacks are stiffer.
We prefer the brown switches for typing. The blues are a little loud for our taste, and the lack of tactile feedback on the reds and blacks can lead to inadvertent double keystrokes. Some gamers like the reds and blacks for that very reason, however, since it’s possible to repeat keystrokes quickly without a tactile bump or a dead zone getting in the way.
This article provides more detail about the main Cherry switch types. You might also encounter Cherry MX green and clear switches. Those are pretty much just stiffer versions of the blues and browns, respectively. We haven’t used any keyboards with MX clear switches, but you can read about the greens right here.
Rosewill’s RK-9000 series (pictured above) and Cooler Master’s QuickFire XT are both relatively plain, no-frills designs. They have no extra macro or media buttons, and some variants of the QuickFire XT even lop off the numeric keypad altogether. Gamers may appreciate the extra mousing area that compromise affords.
Corsair’s Vengeance keyboards, meanwhile, are more stylish and full-featured, with aluminum surfaces, volume control knobs, and special media keys. The Vengeance K95 is probably the most tricked-out of the bunch, since it’s got a block of 12 macro keys for MMO games. The Vengeance K70 lacks those extra keys, and the Vengeance K65 also does away with the numpad. Corsair also includes LED backlighting in select models. Just make sure you avoid the K60, which is an older version of the K70 with rubber domes under some of the keys.
What about those Unicomp and vintage Model M keyboards? They’re based on old-school buckling-spring switches. Those of us who were around computers in the 1980s and 1990s likely remember them. Quite a few mechanical keyboard purists prefer buckling springs, even though the keyboards based on them lack many of the bells and whistles of newer designs—and aren’t particularly pretty to look at. We’ll concede that buckling springs do feel extremely satisfying to type on.
Finally, there’s the Topre Type Heaven, which is outfitted with electrostatic capacitive switches. You can read all about this keyboard and its rather unique switch type in our review. In short, it’s not a mechanical keyboard in the strictest sense of the term, but it provides smoother, quieter action than conventional mechanical designs, yet it lacks the mushiness of classic rubber-dome offerings. The downside is the price: $150, which is rather onerous for a keyboard without media or macro keys.
Mechanical keyboards aren’t really appropriate for use on the living-room couch. There, light and wireless options are ideal. Here are a few we like:
|Enermax Briskie combo||$11.99|
Enermax’s Briskie combo is a very affordable, laptop-style solution with a nice and snappy key feel. It even comes with an optical mouse in the box. Thanks to its full-sized layout and light weight, the Briskie should be equally at home on a coffee table and in front of a desktop PC.
Logitech’s K400 is more couch-centric. It fits comfortably on one’s lap, and instead of a numpad, it features a laptop-style touchpad. We’re not all that thrilled with the key feel on this thing, but it should be fine for the kind of typing required to control a home-theater PC—mostly quick Netflix and YouTube searches.
Last, but not least, there’s the Rii N7. This keyboard is similar in concept to the K400, but it’s much smaller: the size of a remote, in fact, with BlackBerry-style keys.
Mice and controllers
Most of us are less particular about our mice than about our keyboards, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our preferences. For the most part, we’re quite keen on comfy gaming mice with high-precision sensors and other perks, such as on-the-fly DPI adjustments, macro buttons, and software that supports custom bindings and profiles.
|SteelSeries Sensei Raw||$59.99|
|Corsair Vengeance M65||$69.99|
|Cyborg Rat 7||$99.99|
|Cyborg Rat 9||$139.99|
Among wired gaming mice, we’re partial to Corsair’s Vengeance M65. We reviewed the M60, a slightly older version of the same rodent with a lower-precision sensor, and we liked it a lot. Its wide shape is particularly nice for those of us with large hands.
Logitech’s G500s is another tethered option, and it’s also priced around the $60 mark. Logitech gaming mice tend to have narrower shapes that suit some mousing styles better. The G500s—and its wireless sibling, the G700s—also have some handy macro buttons just above the thumb rest, which can always come in handy. I use the G700, the predecessor of the G700s, for day-to-day mousing, and I’m quite pleased with it. Plenty of other folks swear by Logitech’s gaming mice.
A nice wired alternative for lefties is SteelSeries’ Sensei Raw, which Geoff uses in addition to a right-handed mouse in order to avert RSI during long work days. The Sensei Raw has a symmetrical design with thumb buttons on both sides and the requisite on-the-fly DPI adjustments. Geoff digs the soft-touch coating and the fact the LED lighting can be toned down, as well.
Moving a little upmarket, we have Cyborg’s Rat 7 and Rat 9. Geoff gave the former our Editor’s Choice award a few years back. The Rat 9 is the same thing, but wireless. These mice are completely adjustable, from their width and length to the height of their palm supports, so they can be tailred to match the shape of the user’s hand. That perk comes at a price, though. These things aren’t cheap.
Don’t need a fancy gaming mouse? We also like a couple of Logitech’s no-frills rodents:
The Logitech M510 has a full-sized, ambidextrous design, while the M505 is smaller and meant to cater to laptop users. Both of these mice are wireless, too. For everyday desktop tasks that don’t require an extreme amount of precision or speed, they’ll do just fine.
Finally, we’ll throw in a recommendation for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 controllers:
|Xbox 360 USB controller||$39.99|
|Xbox 360 wireless controller for Windows||$49.99|
You can get ’em in both wired and wireless flavors. (The wireless one linked above is marketed toward Windows users, and it comes with a wireless receiver in the box.) We won’t debate the superiority of keyboard and mouse control in games. However, we will say that some games, especially racing titles, can be a lot more fun to play with a controller. Some cross-platform games just have crummy mouse and keyboard controls, too.
Whatever the reason, having an Xbox 360 controller around is always handy. Windows has drivers for them out of the box, and most cross-platform games will support them with no setup required. The same isn’t necessarily true for other PC gamepads.
There was a time when buying a budget display meant putting up with a TN panel. These days, IPS-based monitors are available almost at every price point. The most affordable ones only have six bits of color depth per channel (rather than the usual eight bits), so their color reproduction may not be much better than that of TN solutions. Nevertheless, they have considerably wider viewing angles, so you won’t see hues shift too much when viewing the screen off-center.
Though IPS panels are more widespread than ever, TN panels still rule in one notable market segment: high-speed panels. 120Hz and 144Hz offerings can refresh the image twice as fast as conventional, 60Hz displays. That higher refresh rate can produce visibly smoother animation, provided your graphics card can keep up.
Some high-speed displays can also sync up with active-shutter 3D glasses. These glasses work by shielding each eye from every other frame on the screen, so that in practice, one’s left and right eyes each get their own, 60Hz image feed. The effect is stereoscopic 3D imagery not unlike what one might see at the movies (albeit implemented differently). The only catch is that a rather powerful graphics card is needed, since each frame must effectively be rendered twice—once for each eye. For graphics card recommendations, check out our main System Guide.
|Acer H226HQLbid||21.5″ 1920×1080 IPS||$129.99|
|Asus VS239H-P||23″ 1920×1080 IPS||$159.99|
|Asus VG248QE||24″ 1920×1080 TN||$279.99|
|Asus PA248Q||24″ 1920×1200 IPS||$319.99|
|Achieva QH2700-IPSMS||27″ 2560×1440 IPS||$389.95|
|Dell UltraSharp U2713HM||27″ 2560×1440 IPS||$699.99|
|Dell UltraSharp U3014||30″ 2560×1600 IPS||$1,099.99|
Among $200 monitors, there are options aplenty. We don’t have first-hand experience with either the Acer H226HQLbid or the Asus VS239H-P, but those displays have solid specs and encouraging user reviews on Newegg. We think they’re safe bets for folks seeking a budget-friendly 1080p monitor with a 6-bit IPS panel.
Above $200, we have a few favorites. There’s the Asus PA248Q, which is a 6-bit model with more inputs, more adjustments, and a taller (16:10) aspect ratio than the sub-$200 options above. Geoff has a couple of older versions of this display, and he likes them well enough. Shoppers with a little more scratch can spring for a 27″ Korean monitor like the Achieva QH2700-IPSMS, which has an 8-bit IPS panel with a 2560×1440 resolution. Korean monitors like these are cheaper alternatives to full-featured models like Dell’s UltraSharp U2713HM. They tend to have less connectivity and either minimal or no on-screen controls, but they’re also a good bit more affordable.
Then there’s the Asus VG248QE. This 24″ display has a 144Hz refresh rate and supports Nvidia’s 3D Vision stereoscopic glasses. We tested a larger predecessor to this model, the VG278H, and were quite impressed by its image quality and color reproduction—despite the TN panel. If you’re looking for the smoothest gaming experience possible, or you must have stereo 3D support, the VG248QE is a great choice. The Newegg user reviews bear that out.
At the higher end of the spectrum, it’s hard to go wrong with a 30″ Dell display. The UltraSharp U3014 is the latest revision of this imposing classic, which features a humongous panel with a 2560×1600 resolution (and thus a taller, 16:10 aspect ratio than typical 27″ screens). Dell has also built a plethora of inputs—even a card reader—into this thing.
Some folks with deep pockets might also want to explore the nascent 4K category. These newfangled high-PPI monitors all have a resolution of 3840×2160, which is equivalent to four 1920x1080p frames put together. There are some associated challenges, though, not least of which is the fact that all the 4K monitors we’ve seen present themselves to the host system as dual-display setups. Not all games handle multi-display configs well. On top of that, some Windows apps have inadequate support for such high pixel densities, and encountering the odd firmware kink isn’t unheard of.
No doubt about it, there’s a price to be paid for being an early adopter—not just figuratively, but also literally. 4K monitors are pretty darned expensive.
|Dell UltraSharp UP2414Q||23.8″ 3840×2160 IPS (8-bit)||$1,067.24|
|Asus PQ321Q 31″||31.5″ 3840×2160 IGZO||$2,999.00|
We have two recommendations here. Asus’ PQ321Q is a 31.5″ specimen with an IGZO panel, and we’ve used it for our own 4K testing. This was one of the first 4K panels to hit the market last year, and it wasn’t without rough edges—but it has field-upgradable firmware (via a hidden USB port), which has allowed Asus to roll out bug fixes that users can apply themselves. That perk is one of the reasons this monitor has such good user reviews.
If $2,999 is too rich for your blood, Dell’s UltraSharp UP2414Q squeezes the same resolution into a smaller, 24″ panel priced at just over a grand. We can’t vouch for this monitor ourselves, but user reviews of it are fairly encouraging. Considering the pixel density, it’s almost a bargain.
Before we move on, we should bring up the latest version of Oculus VR’s development kit, which is available for pre-order for $350. If you like to live on the bleeding edge, it doesn’t get much bloodier than this: state-of-the-art stereoscopic VR goggles that track both orientation and position, so one can look around a 3D scene as if one were standing inside it. Oculus VR is about to be acquired by Facebook, so I expect we’ll see more affordable goggles from the company eventually. In the nearer term, though, the development kit is the only way to play the growing list of games that support (or will soon support) Oculus’ VR technology.
None of us could be described as audiophiles, and we typically don’t review audio gear other than sound cards. That said, we do appreciate high-quality sound, and we have a few speaker and headphone recommendations in mind.
|Cyber Acoustics CA-3602||2.1 speakers||$49.99|
|Creative Inspire T12||2.0 speakers||$65.99|
|Sennheiser HD 558||Headphones||$129.95|
|M-Audio Studiophile AV-40||2.0 studio monitors||$149.99|
|Audioengine A2||2.0 studio monitors||$199.00|
|Alesis M1A Active 520||2.0 studio monitors (USB)||$199.00|
At the budget end of the spectrum, Scott recommends Cyber Acoustics’ CA-3602 and Creative’s Inspire T12. These are both stereo speaker setups that provide passable, albeit not exceptional, sound quality. Audiophiles need not apply, but those of us watching Netflix shows, listening to podcasts, and enjoying the latest music videos on YouTube should be happy enough.
The most cost-effective way to get high-quality audio is probably to purchase a pair of good headphones. Geoff and I use Sennheiser’s HD 555 and HD 595 cans, respectively. The HD 555 used to be the better deal of the two, but it’s now been discontinued and replaced by the HD 558. The HD 558 is based on a similar design, and judging by the user reviews at Newegg and other places, it delivers an excellent experience for the money. Just be sure to use a decent sound card. (See our System Guide for recommendations on that front.)
Last, but not least, Bruno Ferreira, our resident coder and musician, has some suggestions for stereo studio monitor setups. M-Audio’s Studiophile AV-40 is the least expensive of the bunch, at $150, while the Audioengine A2 and Alesis M1A Active 520 both sell for around $200. The latter has a USB input, so it’s possible to dispense with a discrete card and still get good sound quality. No matter which setup you go with, though, these studio monitors should provide terrific audio fidelity for the money.
External storage and backups
We cover internal storage pretty extensively in our System Guide, but backups and external options are the realm of our staff picks. We’ve singled out a few options here, from a cloud backup service to a drive dock and 5.25″ card reader.
|CrashPlan||Cloud backup service||$4.00-$5.99/month|
|Thermaltake BlacX 5G||2.5″/3.5″ USB 3.0 drive dock||$40.99|
|Kingston DataTraveler 128GB||USB 3.0 thumb drive||$62.99|
|Rosewill RDCR-11004||5.25″ card reader, USB hub||$27.99|
The easiest way to back up your data is probably to use a cloud service. Several of us have signed up with CrashPlan, which lets its customers back up an unlimited amount of data to the cloud for a monthly fee of $4 to $5.99. (The exact price depends on the contract length.) CrashPlan locks up data using 448-bit encryption, and it offers the option to set a private password that won’t be kept on the company’s servers. The downside of this, of course, is that losing the password means losing access to the data. But the upside is that nobody else, save perhaps for the NSA, should be able to steal your files.
For local storage, we like Thermaltake’s BlacX 5G USB 3.0 drive dock. Any internal 3.5″ or 2.5″ drive can be inserted in the BlacX and connected to a PC via USB 3.0, which is awesomely convenient. And the BlacX isn’t just handy for backups; it can also help salvage data on hard drives recovered from failing or inoperable PCs.
Need something more portable? USB 3.0 thumb drives have come down in price quite a bit lately. Offerings like Kingston’s DataTraveler 128GB can be purchased for less than $70, and they’re capacious enough to store important files: tax forms, photos, family videos, and so forth. Thanks to their USB 3.0 interfaces, these drives also tend to be much speedier than the sluggish thumb drives of old.
Finally, if you’re building a full-sized desktop PC, chances are you’re going to have some unoccupied 5.25″ bays in your enclosure. It may be a good idea to populate one of them with something like Rosewill’s RDCR-11004, which offers card reading capabilities and a six-port USB hub (including two SuperSpeed ports). I suppose this doesn’t count as external storage in the strictest sense of the term, but hey, it can’t hurt.
Other odds and ends
|Edimax EW-7811Un||USB Wi-Fi adapter||$9.99|
|NZXT Sentry 2||Fan controller (touch screen)||$27.99|
|NZXT Sentry Mix 2||Fan controller (mechanical)||$34.99|
Plenty of folks stick PCI Express Wi-Fi adapters in their PCs. However, few are aware that bit-sized USB dongle adapters also exist—and that they’re tantalizingly inexpensive. Edimax’s EW-7811Un offers 802.11n connectivity for only $10. The small size and lack of external antennae might lead one to think the wireless reception isn’t so great, but that doesn’t seem to be so. Out of over 900 Newegg reviewers, 72% awarded the dongle four or five stars, and only 13% gave it one star. Either way, at $10, it’s not much of a gamble.
Most of the motherboards we recommend in our System Guides have pretty serviceable fan-control features built in, either in their firmware or in the Windows software that accompanies them. The thing is, motherboards only have a handful of fan headers. For systems with more fans than the motherboard can handle, a discrete fan controller is a wise purchase.
We’ve singled out a couple of recommendations here, both from NZXT. The Sentry 2 is the lower priced of the two; it supports up to five fans at 10W per channel, can monitor internal temperatures, and has a fancy touch screen. The Sentry Mix 2 doesn’t have a touch screen (fan speeds are controlled with mechanical sliders), nor does it sense temperatures, but it supports up to six fans at 30W per channel.
And that brings us to the end of our very first TR peripheral staff picks.
We haven’t covered everything, but that’s okay. Again, this is a list of staff picks, where we talked about the products we know and care the most about. We think that’s more valuable to you guys than a lengthy attempt at exhaustiveness.
Not that we’re not open to suggestions, of course. If there are products you’d like us to include in the next edition of our peripheral staff picks, hit up the comments section below and let us know. Assuming we haven’t already tried them, we’ll try to get our hands on those items and see for ourselves whether they belong here. We can’t guarantee that we’ll agree with you, but we promise to hear you out.
Finally, if you enjoyed this article, don’t forget to check out our main System Guide, in which we recommend internal components and custom PC builds, and our how-to-build-a-PC guide, where we walk readers (and viewers) through the PC assembly process with plenty of helpful tips, photos, and video footage. Finally, if you need other folks to chime in on your tentative hardware selections, our forums are always a good place to start.