Mechanical keyboards are not just one type of product. They have developed into an internet phenomenon over the past ten years, with a sizable fan base and active community of hackers (including yours me) participating in the fun. That has not only allowed the market for keyboards to expand with options, but it has also led to some intriguing exchanges between amateurs and manufacturers.
To create a “endgame” mechanical keyboard a few years ago, you would have needed some pretty good manufacturing and programming abilities, or you would have had to wait for one of the many group buys organized by individuals who had them. Then, you’d have to fork over $300–400 (or more) and wait once more for a year (or more!) for the small batches to be produced and delivered. But for those select few, getting a special work of nerdy art with all the extra bells and whistles was worthwhile.
That’s not the situation anymore, read more on Helvetica Forever. Manufacturers have been keeping an eye on the most wanted homebrew designs and implementing their features into premium keyboards offered directly to the public, even though group buys for custom keyboards are still available. Though not quite as impressive as some of the best examples you’ll find in boutique shops, these super-boards nevertheless contain roughly 90% of the functionality for less than half the cost. Additionally, the majority of them are made to be disassembled and customized to your liking.
In conclusion, you can purchase a frickin’ great keyboard for a lot less money than you might imagine. And the number of choices is astonishing. But first, let’s go over some of the extra features you’ll be paying for and how they specifically impact the experience.
Ultra-premium mechanical keyboard features
Body – Unlike luxury mechanical boards, which are housed in bodies made entirely of machined metal, most keyboard bodies are constructed of plastic, occasionally with a steel or aluminum plate for the switches to offer a little strength. Some of them go so far as to employ brass for certain parts, such as the switch plate or just an additional internal weight to give the board weight.
All mechanical keyboards have switches, however advanced users don’t prefer to be limited to a single option from among the countless possible switch kinds. In order to avoid the need for solder, current boards use circuit boards with open switch sockets. You may exchange switches to a different type or even mix and match them on the same layout thanks to these modular keyboard designs. So go for it if you like linear, nearly silent alphanumeric keys like the Zeal PC Zilents and a space bar that makes a loud clack like the Kailh BOX Navy. The switches’ compatibility with the typical Cherry-style pin layout is the sole actual requirement. Some of these designs offer the option to completely eliminate switches in order to save money, with the understanding that you will supply your own.
Similar to switches, keycaps are a component that practically every mechanical keyboard aficionado enjoys customizing. There is an almost unlimited variety of styles, profiles, and characteristics, but it might be challenging to locate a set that can fit the design of a specific board. The majority of these boards provide a “normal” set of marked keycaps (not blanks, sorry fancy-pants typists!) with premium PBT plastic and a typical OEM or Cherry profile. However, some models don’t include keycaps, allowing you to save some money if you already have a set you want to use.
Programming – One feature that really distinguishes a high-end keyboard from a low-cost one is the ability to customize the key and layer arrangement. To that purpose, the majority of these tinker-friendly designs are compatible with either a specially created programming tool or a well-liked open-source community tool, such as QMK or VIA.
Layout — For a long time, custom keyboard makers preferred the laptop-style “60%” layout; however, the somewhat larger and more useful “75%” format appears to be in right now, and manufacturers have adopted it. All the usual keys are present, along with Esc, the F1–F12 row, an arrow cluster (hugely helpful for beginners), and possibly Delete and a few additional keys on the right side. Numerous more elaborate designs also feature a rotary dialer wheel, which is a logical and convenient location for volume settings. The only drawback is that a few keycaps (usually the right Shift key) are not quite standard size.
Lighting – Unless you enjoy typing in the dark, lighting doesn’t actually improve the keyboard experience, and even then you need specific keycaps that work with LEDs. However, as it’s a sought-after feature, many expensive boards still incorporate it, either with white LEDs or RGB lights in various colors. Some boards even have additional LEDs built inside that illuminate a strip across the bottom or side of the body—a piece of bling ripped off from gaming keyboard designs.
Internals — A keyboard’s internal components can also influence how well a user types. Many luxury boards now contain custom-cut interior foam padding to reduce noise, following the example of bespoke designers. The most upscale employ a process known as gasket mounting, which suspends the switch plate between layers of silicone and gives the keys a distinct “bounce” as if they were on small shock absorbers.
Here are some of your choices now that you are aware of what to search for. Once more, even while they are significantly more expensive than conventional keyboards and on par with the best gaming designs from brands like Cooler Master or Razer, they are still less expensive (by roughly half) than a custom design from a mechanical keyboard group buy.
The GMMK Pro has received positive reviews and has received a lot of support because it was the first and best-known mainstream keyboard to slavishly mimic concepts from the mech community. This design checks off just about every requirement with a well-liked 75% layout, modular hotswap switches, a stunning full-aluminum shell, a rotary dialer, RGB lighting for the keys and the side of the case, QMK-compatible programming, and even a gasket-mounted case. Even more options are available for practically all components, including ANSI and ISO (international) layouts. The only drawback? Starting at $170 without any switches or keycaps, it is expensive.
While Keychron specializes in wireless keyboards that are initially created for Mac, the first model in their Q series is more specifically targeted at keyboard fans in general. This board has a full aluminum housing, hot-swappable keys, a plate fitted with a gasket, internal foam for sound absorption, and support for QMK and VIA programming. Although the ABS keycaps are a bit disappointing, many of the components are available in a variety of colors. For a few dollars more, you can purchase the normal 75% all-key layout, the “knob variant” (which includes screw-instabilizers and additional gasket mounting), or a little smaller 65% configuration without the F key row. There are variations that are completely lacking in switches and keycaps.
Drop (previously Massdrop) has long been a source for high-end keyboards and components, and the business is now producing its own. Although these versions lack some of the more ostentatious features, such as rotary dials, their straightforward, adaptable designs are excellent for novices. The modular RGB-packed boards are available in a variety of configuration sizes and as “barebones” kits without switches and keys. High-quality, extremely thin aluminum bodies are an option, as are bulkier, higher-profile ones. All of these can be programmed using QMK or an online tool that is user-friendly for beginners. Prices for the basic 65% layout ALT start at $140, however a more traditional tenkeyless CTRL design is also a popular option.
If you want a high-quality board that is as small as feasible, you can choose the NK65. Even though the 65% arrangement doesn’t cut any corners, it still has a full aluminum design and has an arrow cluster. The board boasts internal silicone sound dampening, RGB lighting, full programming via, uh, VIA software, and a beautiful coiled USB-C cable. If $185 is out of your budget range despite having switches and keycaps (though it does come in a stylish purple! ), there is a “Entry Edition” with a plastic body that costs $95. For a comparable design with a larger tenkeyless layout, see the NK87.
Users who A) want to save money and B) want a wireless option—which is surprisingly hard to find in this category—should consider the Kono 67°. Internal sound-absorbing foam, Bluetooth and 2.4GHz wireless with multi-device connection, hot-swap switches, full RGB lighting, PBT shine-through keycaps, and the ever-popular rotary dial are all included in this 65% design. White or black, switches and keycaps included, it costs only $90. The metal body (this one is plastic instead) and QMK programming, though there is a proprietary custom layout tool, are what you have to give up for that wonderful price.
Here’s another choice with fewer features in exchange for a significantly lower cost. Similar in appearance to the 75% boards at the top of this list, the Feker IK75 substitutes Bluetooth and USB-based wifi for the metal body. A hotswap PCB, rotary dial, and (surprisingly) a gasket mounted plate are still included. You still need to provide your own switches and keycaps because the programming tool is proprietary. If you want to wear some 1990s style, it does come in some cool translucent plastic case colors.
TH80 Epomaker Theory
The greatest semi-premium design that is reasonably priced, doesn’t require the customer to have any additional parts, and is produced by Epomaker. Another 75% design, this one has a plastic shell, Bluetooth/2.4GHz wireless choices, and switches (quite excellent Gaterons!). However, it also has keycaps. You receive a rotary dial, RGB lighting, and a custom programming tool, giving you everything you need to begin customizing. Simply remove the hotswap switches and put in something more personalized when you’re ready to upgrade. Although you might have to wait a while for shipping, it’s hard to beat at under $100.