Best PC upgrades under £100: get a faster PC for less
16th May 2013 | 14:00
What are the top PC upgrades if you've got a strict budget?
One of the greatest things about the PC is the sheer variety of hardware at our disposal. Whereas with a sealed-box console, or even a laptop PC, you're stuck with the original hardware your device shipped with, you can upgrade your desktop machine ad infinitum.
Upgrading doesn't have to be expensive either. Sure, you can drop £800 on a new top-end graphics card, or £1,500 on an octo-core Intel CPU, but you can get an awful lot of PC grunt for £100 or less.
SSD prices are dropping almost daily, you can pick up a huge amount of RAM for practically nothing, and GPU power is simply incredible at today's 'low-end'. We've put together our pick of the best £100-or-less upgrades for each important category, so sit back and enjoy. Then sit up, get out your screwdriver and upgrade.
What's the best upgrade if you've only got one hundred of her Majesty's pounds to play with? Well, that's actually a trickier question than it might seem. Realistically, and annoyingly, it's a question that's most likely to be answered with another question. Namely: what do you do most often with your PC and where are its main failings?
The instinctual answer for a PC gamer like me might be to spend the lot on a new graphics card, but realistically we need to know a few more things first. What card are you running in your rig and - almost as importantly - what screen are you plugging it into?
If you're more into your image manipulation or video editing, a bigger screen with more desktop real estate or a good chunk of RAM might be a better investment.The thing is, there's no point in spending the cash in one place if you're still going to be horrifically limited by another part of your setup.
The easy example is someone sitting on a gaming rig running a lowly 19-inch 1,280 x 1,024 monitor. If you've got a graphics card capable of throwing around frame rates in the 40s at that resolution, then chucking in an even faster GPU is only going to make that experience marginally smoother, giving you little impact for your cash.
Dropping the £100 on a 21.5-inch screen running at the full HD resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 would make everything you do with your PC far better. You are, after all, looking at your monitor for practically everything you do with your PC.
Keep the balance
Obviously, your games are going to run slower at that resolution, but you can always drop the graphical settings a little in favour of running at a higher res - or just cope with the slight blurring of running at a non-native res until you can afford to upgrade.
In terms of post-processing effects, you can drop AA settings when running a higher resolution too if you need to boost frame rates without negatively affecting image fidelity. The upgrade blade cuts both ways though, so if you're struggling to hit gaming frame rates with your existing GPU and low-res screen then upping the resolution will just make things even more of a struggle. In that situation a new GPU is the only way to go for the gaming side of things.
Less sexy upgrades, like a new SSD or more RAM, are well worth a look if spending the cash in other places is going to wind up giving you an unbalanced rig. You may not get as much of a visual impact from such an upgrade, but the day-to-day benefits can be considerable.
If you're a laptop user, these kinds of upgrades can make a huge difference. Storage and memory are pretty much your only options for upgrading your notebook, but dropping an SSD into your machine can give you the double-whammy of faster boot times and an even longer operating battery life. More RAM will make everything feel a little quicker on a portable device, and might mean you won't have to buy a whole new laptop for a little while longer.
Cooling and clocking
There are other relatively inexpensive options for extending the life of your existing desktop components too - overclocking your CPU can give you the extra bit of performance that might put off that expensive upgrade.
Dropping less than £50 on a closed-loop liquid CPU cooler will give you the thermal headroom you need to indulge in a spot of the ol' chip-cooking. That should give you a performance boost without you spending a huge amount of cash.
The outside counts too
You don't need to simply spend cash on your internal components either. If you've already got a decent GPU, an SSD, a good chunk of RAM and a reasonable HD monitor then you're not going to be gaining anything dropping £100 on your internals.
There are still some effective upgrades that won't require you to wield a screwdriver. A good quality keyboard can be a joy to use. Whether you just use your machine for gaming or you like to indulge in a little light wordplay on the side, a decent keyboard is a worthy investment. I'm a big fan of mechanical switch keyboards, but they are on the pricey side. You can, however, pick them up for less than the £100 mark we've set ourselves in this upgrade session. Personally, I think Gigabyte's latest is one of the finest keyboard I've ever used, and while £100 for a board is a lot of cash, it's something that will probably outlast most of the other upgrade options in this feature.
The keyboard and mouse combo is the hallmark of PC gaming, and spending a decent amount of cash on a quality mouse will deliver its own rewards. I was happy gaming with an old Microsoft Intellimouse for years, but as soon as I laid my twisted claw on a Logitech G9, I was hooked on weighty, accurate gaming mice.
You don't need to go all the way up to £100 for a rodent that will enhance your experience. We've split up the categories over the page, offering our pick of the best £100 or so upgrades for each. What we can't do, however, is tell you which is necessarily right for you and your rig.
The beauty of the PC is that no matter what system you've got now, there is probably an upgrade out there that will improve your system for under a ton.
Pint-sized pixel-pushers for less than a ton
For any PC gamer, the graphics card is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you're thinking about upgrading your machine. We've hit the end of this last generation of graphics cards, and with the new AMD and Nvidia GPUs coming sometime around the tail-end of this year, prices are about as low as they're likely to get.
That said, we could see new silicon filling the gaps in this generation, like the HD 7870XT, but that may still not drive prices down. This generation has seen AMD become a far more aggressive competitor over price than it has in the past, and that means us consumers get far more graphical grunt for our money going for a Radeon card over an equivalently priced GeForce card.
The example in the sub-£100 market is the HD 7770 going up against the GTX 650. That's a complete mismatch in terms of gaming performance, with the Radeon card posting significantly better results in the latest games than the Nvidia GPU. At 1080p resolutions and the graphics settings on full there's at least a 10fps difference between the two GPUs in most titles. Batman: Arkham City is the exception, but in other Nvidia and AMD-sponsored titles, the gap is at least as wide.
When that's around 25fps for the AMD card against the 14fps for the Nvidia, the difference is essentially between being able to play and not being able to play at all.
The fact though that you can nail playable frame rates at the top settings - and that includes 4x AA as standard in our gaming benchmarks - at the familiar 1,920 x 1,080 resolution is fantastic. And it shows just how much graphical power is available for such a relatively small outlay these days. This is the sort of performance that we were seeing from the £200 to £250 graphics cards found in the previous generation. If that's the jump in performance from the last generation to this, what about the new GPUs that are on their way?
From what we've heard, the new HD 8000 and GTX 700 series of cards - from AMD and Nvidia respectively - are unlikely to herald the sort of performance improvements we've seen in the last round. The new graphics cards are only set to offer incremental improvements, so we wouldn't expect to see much more graphics pace coming out of the £100 segment in six months' time, unless you can find a cheap HD 7850 1GB under the ton mark.
That AMD card is our budget choice if you can stretch to the £125 it currently costs, as it absolutely hoses the competition in all of our benchmarks - it even offers playable frame rates at the crazy-high resolution of 2,560 x 1,600.
With a strict £100 limit on your upgrade, the HD 7770 won't disappoint - it's a proper gaming-capable GPU offering amazing performance for a great price.
AMD Radeon HD 7770
GPU: Cape Verde XT
Radeon cores: 640
Core clock: 1,000MHz
Memory clock: 1,125MHz
Memory capacity: 1,024MB
Cores for cash - that's the mantra for the budget CPU hunter
When we were considering the various components to include in this feature, we agonised over whether or not to include processors and motherboards. Harsh words were spoken, mugs were thrown and tea and blood were spilt.
They are quite obviously the key upgrades for a PC, but generally when you're upgrading one it makes sense that you upgrade the other. And trying to keep below the £100 budget and pick up a decent mobo/CPU combo would be practically impossible, especially when you consider you're looking to improve the performance of your current rig.
In the end, we decided that including motherboards in the test would be an exercise in futility - if you're not upgrading the processor there's probably very little to be gained by changing motherboard as well.
On the flip side, we've kept in the CPU category for precisely the opposite reason. AMD has kept the same CPU socket for a few generations now, so older boards are still compatible with more modern CPUs, and you can pick up a decent AMD processor for less than £100. In terms of Intel, that's below where the bottom-end starts.
If you're looking to upgrade your CPU, there's probably not a lot of choices for your current Intel board as it's likely not going to be pin-compatible with the latest CPUs from the same company.
So, as with the graphics card market, AMD gets the value crown. If you've got an AMD AM3 board from the last year or so, there's a good chance that you'll just need a wee BIOS update to allow compatibility with the latest FX chips.
If you're looking to move up from an old Phenom X6, you may not necessarily be gaining a huge amount - the previous generation of AMD processors had superior single threaded performance, which is arguably more influential in gaming. But pick up anything below the top-end of the last AMD CPU generation and you're laughing.
The FX-6300 uses the updated Bulldozer tech - codenamed Piledriver - and is the finest £100 CPU around. It will happily run up to a 5GHz overclock, and at that speed it will post games performance almost rivalling an Intel Core i5-3570K at stock speeds. For such a relatively modest upgrade cost, you're getting an awful lot of CPU technology, and a hell of a lot of multi-threaded performance for your cash too.
That multi-threaded performance will also come in handy if you're looking for your machine to do more things other than gaming. For any multi-threaded application, the Piledriver tech really makes use of those six threads of processing goodness - especially if you start waving that good ol' overclocking stick about in earnest.
The performance boost this budget CPU can give an ageing AMD system is thoroughly impressive and is well worth the cash if you've got a motherboard that is capable of supporting it. AMD has been good in supporting the upgrade path, so it's worth investing in. A little extra processor performance will also always help keep your performance graphics card filled with data too.
Socket: AMD AM3+
Memory cache: 14MB
More, more, more! Can you ever have too much memory?
Memory is probably one of the least sexy of the upgrades on offer. After all, unless you're foolish enough to be trying to run an APU as fully fledged gaming system, then you're not going to get much benefit from boosting the memory inside your beloved rig. Or are you?
Memory performance is a lot more opaque when it comes to assessing how it affects your computing experience - it's more about what you do with your PC and how you use it. For most of us, 4GB is a perfectly adequate amount of memory to be jamming in your rig, but with prices of DRAM being so low these days - especially for the sort of performance RAM we're talking about here - you're never going to lose out sticking a good chunk more memory in your rig.
Granted, dropping £200 on a 32GB kit is probably going a tad overboard, but when you can pick up an 8GB upgrade for less than £40 it's certainly well worth a gander.
Gaming is probably the least memory intensive thing you do with your PC - after all, most of the games that we're playing these days have been put together with the last generation of consoles very much in mind. Those sealed boxes are so memory limited that developers have worked around the scarcity of DRAM, and so the resulting titles that hit the PC aren't so bothered about system RAM and are more interested in what your GPU is up to. For those sorts of games, 4GB is really all you're going to need.
That said, there are some PC-specific titles that very much benefit from a memory upgrade. Titles like my beloved Football Manager, with its heavy emphasis on computation and data processing, soak up any memory on offer. And if you're doing anything that requires multi-tasking and switching between programs - or anything that requires a lot of computational work - then more RAM is always handy.
Although we're talking up desktop upgrades in this feature, memory is also one of the few upgrades anyone can do to their laptop. Doubling the RAM on offer in your portable machine can really make a difference to how it performs, and again needn't cost the earth to install.
But as I said, this is all about the desktop and in that market Crucial's Ballistix Tactical LP range has really captured our imagination in recent months. As CPU coolers get ever larger and impinge on the DIMM slots of your mobo, a set of low profile RAM modules can really help. It also helps that these low profile modules are so darn good.
This kit is rated at 1,600MHz, but is capable of running at much higher frequencies - we had the 8GB modules running at 2,133MHz without trying. Because they're low-voltage they can be pushed when it comes to overclocking. They're pretty low latency too, and that's arguably more important than raw speed.
Crucial Ballistix Tactical LP 8GB
Capacity: 8GB (2x 4GB)
Solid state drive
Sub-£100 SSDs are no longer the tiny, slow devices they used to be
The solid state drive market is probably the most vibrant of all sectors of the PC components landscape, and that means it's also the fastest moving. Which can make it both good and bad news for the consumer. More specifically, that's bad news for the early-adopter as new technology is rolling around at a rate of knots.
This makes your latest performance SSD purchase effectively obsolete almost by the time you unwrap it and jam a Windows installation on it. But for the rest of us, it's great news as we can then get the top drives of the last generation - which, let's not forget, are still quality examples of SSD-dom - for a fraction of the price they once retailed at. It also means that where we were once scrabbling around for storage space for both our OS and a handful of games on a 64GB SSD, we can now look to spread out a bit more with 120 to 128GB drives now dropping below the £100 mark.
We've had SandForce drives knocking around the £70 mark for a 120GB drive - something like the Kingston HyperX - for a while now. And though they're definitely decent drives, especially for the money, they don't represent the pinnacle of SSD controller technology any more. For that you've got to be looking towards the likes of Marvell, Samsung and the OCZ-owned Indilinx.
Now that those guys are tossing out new SSD memory controllers that are toppling the SandForce stranglehold, we're seeing prices drop once more. But what's the benefit of an SSD upgrade?
Well, it depends on your starting point. If you've yet to take the plunge then it's a great time to make the upgrade from your existing mechanical hard drive. The difference between booting your PC and your games from an SSD over an HDD is practically night and day, but in general day-to-day use you'll notice your PC is much faster and more responsive too.
The easy example is the classic virus check. Originally, checking for viruses took forever, because the whole system was bottlenecking around the spinning platters of your hard drive. With solid-state storage, the bottleneck has been shifted to how fast your CPU can churn through the data the solid-state drive is throwing at it. Run a check on a rig with a HDD, and the CPU utilisation will hover around 15 per cent - chuck that onto a PC with an SSD, and the CPU will max out if you let it.
Lean on me
If you were worried about taking the plunge because of reliability fears, you can probably relax now. SSD failure rates are now below that of HDDs, and the performance degradation that used to accompany the early drives has more or less been eradicated.
So what do we recommend? Well, right now OCZ's Vector is the finest SSD around, but it's only just ahead of its older Vertex 4 stablemate - and you can pick up that excellent drive for less than £100 in 128GB trim. And because it's running on a Marvell controller with Indilinx firmware, it's a lot more versatile than an equivalent SandForce-based drive.
The Vertex 4 128GB then is a top-performing SSD, with enough storage for your OS and the games your playing right now for a bargain price.
OCZ Vertex 4 128GB
Controller: Marvell with OCZ/Indilinx firmware
Memory: Synchronous MLC NAND
Interface: SATA 6Gbps
Form factor: 2.5-inch
Chilling your chips for fun and frosty frolics
There are multiple reasons why you should think about upgrading the cooling in your PC, and considering that effective new solutions are available for less than £50, it's also one of the cheapest upgrades you can make to your machine. So why would you want to upgrade your PC's cooler?
If you've stuck with the stock cooler that arrived with your CPU - or the budget cooler that came with your rig when you first purchased it - then it's probably not giving your CPU a lot of protection when it's getting ragged. A decent performance CPU cooler, by its very definition, will keep your processor running cooler than with a stock option.
If you're getting flaky performance from your rig when you really stress it, a quality cooler could solve all your problems. A decent cooler will also run a lot quieter than a budget or stock chiller. That could be because of an improved fin-stack and heatsink array, or because it ships with a bigger fan. Larger fans don't need to spin as quickly to shift the same amount of air across the heatsink, they therefore run far quieter than fans spinning at maximum speed.
A quieter-running rig may not be your primary requirement for your gaming PC, but it sure can make a difference to your experience when you're actually getting to hear the game and not the turbine roar of your chip cooler every time CPU load rises above 2 per cent.
Performance is going to be your primary concern with a gaming PC, and a decent CPU cooler can really make a difference. The origins of CPU overclocking came from people who couldn't afford to upgrade, trying to squeeze the last drop of performance from their existing rig.
A quality cooler will allow you to get the most out of your processor and extend its life, even if you might be shortening its actual operating life. A processor running at a higher frequency generates far more heat than it does running at its stock speeds, and if your cooler can't cope with this excess heat and shift it away from the CPU, then it will probably fall over. If you can upgrade to a cooler that allows you to keep running your processor at 1GHz over the base clockspeed, then you're going to get a good chunk of extra performance out of it.
Modern air-coolers are excellent at shifting heat around, as well as remaining relatively quiet while they're at it - but a closed-loop liquid chiller will go that extra mile especially in terms of overclocking. Where once liquid-cooling was the realm of the serial tinkerer or the clinically insane, closed-loop systems now require no real maintenance and are no more expensive than their air-cooled brethren.
Last month, we checked out the Cooler Master Seidon 120M, and it's a fantastically effective chiller, despite the single fan, for a bargain price. It's easy to fit and very good at what it does.
Cooler Master Seidon 120M
Manufacturer: Cooler Master
CPU compatibility: AMD and Intel
Fans: 1x 120mm PWM
Fanspeed: 600-2,400 rpm
The window to your digital world…
Resident technocrat, and all-round monitor-snob, Jeremy Laird, has long been of the opinion that a good monitor is a purchase that will most likely outlast the rest of the PC you're plugging it in to. It's the window to your digital world - and it's also one of the few upgrades you can make to your rig that you will use every single time you come to switch the thing on. So investing in a decent monitor is surely a sound idea.
With that said then you could argue that the £100 limit is a bit tight in this instance - you should really be spending as much as you can afford to pick up the best monitor you can. Prices of monitors though are at a point where you can grab a 22-inch screen for a ton - and we're not talking the VGA-only, 1,680 x 1,050 screens here either. You can pick up a full HD panel with all the inputs your heart could desire. Okay, maybe not if your twisted heart desires the newness of DisplayPort or Thunderbolt, that is.
The only difficulty is that graphics performance is inextricably linked to monitor resolution, and with flatscreens you really want to be gaming at the native res of your screen for the best results. If you've been gaming on a lowly 1,280 x 1,024 screen, then there's a good possibility that your GPU won't be able to keep pace with a full HD panel. If you've been running at 1,680 x 1,050, then there's not a lot more strain being placed on your graphics card moving up to a 1080p resolution.
And a larger resolution isn't just great for gaming, that extra screen real estate is incredibly liberating when it comes to regular desktop use too. Having more displayed on screen is always a bonus, and with the widescreen setup having multiple windows sat side-by-side, it makes things easier too.
If you're not bound by a tight £100 limit though there are alternatives out there too. At the moment there's a glut of affordable IPS screens around, offering response times around the same speed as the budget TN panels, but with far better viewing angles and colour reproduction.
There's no denying IPS screens give better visual fidelity than a budget TN screen, and Viewsonic's excellent VX2370Smh is available for just around £136. It's quite incredible how cheap IPS screens have become.
But if £100 is your limit, the Iiyama E2278HD is a great budget screen too and wont leave you too far behind, it's a full HD monitor with a decent display. It may be a lowly TN, but with a full HD panel and an LED backlight it's still a very crisp, reliable monitor. And if you're making the step up from something smaller with a low resolution, the 22-inch Iiyama will definitely satisfy those big screen cravings.
It may not have the top-end tech of an IPS screen, or the styling of an expensive bezel-less panel, but for £100 it's a bargain. There's also the fact that multi-screen desktop set ups are far more useful than having just a single screen.
Being able to pick up a 22-inch, full-HD monitor for just £100 is incredible and will help any and all kinds of multi-tasking you care to throw your PC's way. So whether it's a main screen upgrade or the addition of a second screen to your desktop set up, £100 is all you need to spend.
Panel tech: TN
Native resolution: 1,920 x 1,080
Response time: 5ms
Input: 1x DVI-D, 1x VGA
Bargain armour for your gaming gear
Buying a new chassis for your PC is less of an upgrade and more of a full body transplant, but a new case can make it feel like an entirely new machine. And while you can spend an absolute fortune on a new chassis, it can also be one of the most inexpensive upgrades for your PC.
It need not just be a cosmetic change either, a new chassis can be upgraded for entirely functional reasons. When you're putting together a machine yourself, chances are you've allocated more of your budgetary resources to the internal components. You know, the ones that make all your games look awesome like your graphics card - so you may well end up with a bit of a dog of a chassis once you've assembled your new machine.
That's not such a problem when you first build a rig, and hell, most of us are going to be more interested in what's happening on screen than what our PC looks like to the naked eye. But aside from being less appealing than a dose of gonorrhea, a budget chassis will come without a lot of the improvements we've come to expect from a quality case.
A lot of budget chassis will ship without adequate cooling, and some may even ship without any exhaust fans either. When it comes to getting the most out of your components, decent airflow is vital for keeping everything chilled inside. Even with the best CPU air-cooler around, you need somewhere for all that heat to be vented out safely, and externally.
High air flow
But combine a new chassis with a new cooler for your CPU and you'll be getting really close to accessing the full potential of your processor. The added thermal headroom you'll gain from having effective cooling in your machine will really allow for some serious overclocking. Good airflow is always going to be beneficial for the other components too, especially if you can get a good flow going across the GPU too.
There's also the matter of PSU placement. As the heaviest part of your PC, it's become general practice to place the power supply at the base of the rig to improve stability. A lot of budget chassis - even new ones like the Cooler Master Force that's just been launched - still jam the PSU right up into the roof of the case.
So what's our budget recommendation then? You can easily spend up to the £100 budget on a new performance chassis, and there are plenty to choose from. Bitfenix does an excellent range of cases, including our favourite wobbly mini ITX chassis - the Prodigy. Corsair has also put together a brilliant range of affordable and downright desirable cases too, though sadly, the amazingly beautiful Graphite 600T is a little over our budget at £135, beautiful though it is.
Cooler Master has the classic High AirFlow (HAF) series of cases, and at just £63, the HAF 912 Plus is an absolute bargain of a chassis, and will comfortably house all but the most awkward of PC configurations. The HAF 912 Plus comes with a chunky 200mm fan on the front and a 120mm fan exhausting from the rear, as well as space for a large top-mounted fan or liquid-cooling radiator. The looks may still be a little polarising, but it's striking at the very least.
Cooler Master HAF 912 Plus
Manufacturer: Cooler Master
Motherboard support: mATX, ATX
Drive bays: 4x 5.25-inch, 6x3.5-inch
I/O panel: 2x USB 2.0, 1x eSATA, audio and mic
Fans: 1x 200mm front, 1x 120mm rear
Dimensions: 230 x 480 x 496mm
Making the difference between fragging and being fragged…
For some PC folk, dropping a chunk of cash on something that isn't going to affect the performance of your PC might seem like a waste of time and money and not a real upgrade at all. But as the primary input device for most of us, a good mouse can a huge difference to your overall experience.
Personally speaking, I used to be more interested in my machine's innards and stuck with the same mouse and keyboard combination for years without really considering upgrading them. I used the same grubby Microsoft Intellimouse for maybe a decade, without ever feeling the need to make a change. It wasn't until I was testing the Logitech G9 that my world shifted and I realised what a difference a quality, weighty mouse could make to my gaming world.
For the laptop crowd, a new mouse can really help too. Most trackpads, let's be honest, are far from responsive, so a mouse can really change things up. Decent little wireless mice - like the excellent Roccat Pyra optical mouse - can be found for around £30.
For serious gaming though, a laser mouse is where it's at. An accurate, sensitive laser sensor on a gaming rodent isn't just about sending the mouse pointer flying across the screen at the slightest twitch - a better sensor will make all mouse movements smoother and easier to judge. It's not just about looking for the highest DPI setting a mouse is capable of either, as some of those can be incredibly twitchy and not at all that smooth.
Recently, we have seen a range of 8,200 DPI mice arrive - possibly using the same Avago LaserStream sensor - with exceptional tracking performance. Given that the likes of Razer are throwing out mice for £110, you might reasonably expect something with such a high DPI capability to be hitting the same sort of sky-high price tag - but the best mice are easily within our budget.
Corsair has really started to make a name for itself in the peripheral market over the last year or so, and the update to the M60 mouse - smartly named the M65 - comes with the Avago sensor and that incredible tracking capability. So how come the Corsair isn't our recommendation then?
Well, newcomer to the UK market Shogun Bros is also looking like it's using the same sensor in its Ballista MK-1 gaming mouse - and while it will retail for around the same price as the Corsair, it has just a little more functionality and style about it.
Primary among the extra functions is the addition of a pair of programmable buttons positioned along the side of the right mouse button. They're easy to get at and provide more control for your mouse hand.
To be perfectly honest, either the Corsair or the Ballista mice will give you a fantastic experience, so if you can't find the one, the other will still impress. Though it's worth noting that the Corsair one is available in stormtrooper white. Yes, we know.
Shogun Bros Ballista MK-1
Manufacturer: Shogun Bros
DPI: Up to 8,200
Customisable buttons: 10
Polling rate: 1,000Hz
Still the primary input device of choice, so make it a good one
The humble keyboard is probably one of the last things you'd really considering upgrading. After all, that grint-stained, crumb-infested beige board you've been using since you bought your first PC is still functioning.
But after the mouse, it's the secondary input device for your rig, and in-game is on an equal footing with the rodent for priority. The mouse/keyboard combination has come to be a talisman for PC gaming community, but if you just spend the cash on a good gaming mouse and neglect its keyboard companion, you're doing all of PC gaming a disservice. Okay, that might be a tad emotive, but a good quality keyboard can really enhance your gaming experience, as well as improve any work you happen to do on the side too.
As we've seen over the last few months you can now spend an absolute fortune on a gaming keyboard should you so wish. The Razer DeathStalker Ultimate, despite its overly hyperbolic name, is a decent keyboard with a few light teething problems - but it comes with a ridiculous £250 price tag.
There's also the Mad Catz STRIKE range, with the 5 and 7 in the series hitting £150 and £250 respectively. But neither of those boards come with the one thing I look for when I'm spending cold, hard cash on a gaming keyboard, and that's mechanical switch keys. If you're upgrading your board then you want to make sure it's got the finest keyboard tech.
Membrane switch keys are the standard tech used in most keyboards for the simple reason that they are cheaper to produce and can be used to make the fashionable chiclet key style of low-profile boards. Unfortunately, they're not particularly durable or responsive, something that you'd really want your keyboard to be, especially if you're spending a ton on one.
Mechanical switch boards come with that familiar clickety-clack sound when you strike them, making you feel like you're typing along with Stephen J Cannell at the start of The A-Team. They're also incredibly durable, lasting long after the membrane switches have perished, and are far more responsive. That's also what makes them such good candidates for gaming keyboards - we love them.
Of all the keyboards I've tested recently, somewhat bizarrely, it's Gigabyte's Aivia Osmium keyboard that I've fallen in love with. In fact, this entire article has been lovingly typed on my chunky Osmium board. It may be rather plain-looking - despite the bright LED backlighting - but its one of the most responsive, sturdy and functional boards I've ever used.
It's got simple macro functionality for the casual MMO enthusiast, media controls, independent wheel controls for the lighting and system volume and it's also the only board that manages to jam in a USB 3.0 pass-through for good measure.
I genuinely wasn't expecting to fall so convincingly for the Osmium, but its simple aesthetic and rock-solid build quality - coupled with its overall responsiveness - makes it my favourite gaming keyboard out there. It may not have a fl ashy LED display, but I would wager it'll outlast many a pricier board.
Gigabyte Aivia Osmium
Layout: Europe 105-key
Keyboard tech: Mechanical switch
Interface: Wired USB 2.0
Macro keys: Five
Extras: USB 3.0 pass-through