Looking for a “Good” Keyboard – Evaluation Geek

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Mechanical keyboard photo

I jumped on the mechanical keyboard bandwagon the way in which lots of people do, with a reduced Razer Blackwidow. That was six years in the past. I actually can’t let you know what number of keyboards I’ve purchased and constructed since then, as a result of plenty of them have been deconstructed, “cannibalized” for elements to place into different keyboards. As a result of I’m on a hunt.

I’m just about completed with my “essential” keyboard, the ridiculous customized challenge I take advantage of for work (sitting on prime of my other ridiculous custom project). Should you’re questioning, it’s a wi-fi Varmilo VB87M, with the hard-to-find aluminum add-on case, switches swapped out for BOX Navy, and the Galaxy Class DSA keycap set. No, what I’m looking for is the “excellent” transportable mechanical keyboard, or no less than the right one for me. It’s an merchandise that, as far as I can inform, doesn’t exist but.

I’ve spent that a part of lockdown not constructing extravagant knock-off LEGO sets, however shopping for, tweaking, testing, and returning tiny keyboards. I’m looking for one thing that may let me kind in (relative) quiet in public, so I can exit to Starbucks with a pill and thump away to my coronary heart’s content material with out bothering these round me.

The irony that I’ve been doing this in the course of the COVID pandemic (and may’t actually go away my home anyway), and wouldn’t be shut sufficient to others to trouble them if I may, isn’t misplaced on me.

A Very Explicit Set of Abilities Options

Anyway, listed below are the options I’m trying to find:

  • 60% or 65% type issue for portability
  • Bluetooth (and inner battery) for wi-fi connections
  • Hotswap sockets for making an attempt out totally different “silent” switches
  • Premium supplies (ideally a metallic case)
  • Full programmability for my weird-ass customized structure

I don’t want the switches themselves, or the keycaps—I can provide these from my rising assortment. Small keyboards aren’t laborious to search out, and neither are ones with hotswap sockets—you’ll find dozens of each on Amazon, no have to hunt round for customized suppliers. There are even a number of with good metallic instances. Bluetooth keyboards have been surprisingly skinny on the bottom in mechanical type for a number of years, however now you’ll be able to spot several from Chinese manufacturers.

Razer Huntsman Mini
Michel Crider

The surprisingly troublesome side of this treasure hunt has been the programmability. I’ve harped on this before, however I feel it’s completely important for a small keyboard to supply full programming choices, together with transferring across the FN modifier button. It is because a keyboard smaller than “TKL” measurement is already asking the person to study a brand new structure, probably together with totally different spots for the arrow keys. Having the ability to customise the placement of various nontyping capabilities is necessary for making on a regular basis use comfy.

For my very own workflow, I want always-on arrow keys, and comparatively easy accessibility (which means one layer down) to quantity, mute, and the Print Display screen button. Having access to play/pause, and having an choice for a devoted Delete key could be a bonus. The devoted arrow keys are the actual killer on the 60% measurement. I would like to have the ability to use the right-side Alt, Home windows, Menu, and Ctrl keys for the 4 arrow buttons if the cluster isn’t accessible. I take advantage of Caps Lock as a operate key on this case.

Shut, However No Cigar

I’ve seen a number of keyboards come near this platonic transportable supreme within the final 12 months or so. The Drop (Massdrop) ALT is much and away the nicest keyboard I’ve tried on this type issue. Its programming is great, it makes use of a full metallic building with pretty magnetic ft, and it has hotswap switches. Alas, it’s not wi-fi. Not a candidate for my wants.

Drop Alt Mechanical Keyboard
The Drop ALT could be excellent for me, if it have been wi-fi. Michael Crider

I attempted out the Keychron K6. It’s received an important structure, multi-device Bluetooth, and an choice for a sort-of metallic case (metallic over plastic) and hotwap switches. Too unhealthy that there’s no approach to change the important thing assignments, and its terrible “gentle” button the place the Delete key must be makes it a ache to make use of for writing. Keychron promised a way to reprogram its keyboards in 2020, and didn’t ship. (Y’all thought I’d overlook that, huh?) It’s still directing users to programs like SharpKeys for programming, which is ineffective in the event you use totally different keyboards for a Home windows machine, or certainly, if you wish to use your Keychron for a laptop computer or Chrome machine. Do higher, Keychron.

Keychron K6 with tablet
The Keychron K6 hits all the precise {hardware} notes, however affords no programming. Michael Crider

I purchased the Epomaker SK61S from Amazon. On paper it has every thing I want: hotswap switches, Bluetooth, 60% structure, key programming. After I received it in, I discovered that the switches have been fairly troublesome to get out and again in, however that’s not a dealbreaker. As soon as I had the switches I wished, I wouldn’t want to do this frequently. Then I booted up the Home windows instrument essential to program the customized structure and layers … and my coronary heart broke. There was no approach to transfer the FN key round, which means it was inconceivable for me to get that bottom-left arrow cluster. Defeated as soon as extra, I returned it to Amazon.

Epomaker SK61S

I even tried to make my very own keyboard a number of years in the past. I succeeded, after a trend—I needed to monitor down one of many solely Bluetooth-capable PCBs made for customized keyboard builders (which, sadly, isn’t made anymore) and completely solder the switches in place. It even let me use 5 buttons on that lower-right cluster—4 arrow keys and a FN button out of the way in which. I received a customized plate printed for my structure, and even tracked down a secondhand Poker 3 case, as a result of that’s a phenomenal, easily-available, minimal case. All I needed to do was Dremel out a bigger gap for the USB-C port, and punctiliously place a 3.7-volt battery so it wouldn’t be punctured.

However the PCB for that keyboard was … iffy. It ceaselessly disconnected from Bluetooth and gave repeated keystrokes over the wi-fi connection. When a number of Bluetooth connections have been lively, particularly a mouse and headphones, it will intrude with the opposite units. I attempted actually laborious to make my lovingly customized job work, nevertheless it simply couldn’t be relied upon for an hour of problem-free typing. This labor of many hours (and {dollars}) is now sitting unused in my closet.

A Fragile Compromise

For the time being I’ve settled on a candidate for my transportable keyboard that I’m not thrilled with, however which technically fulfills all of these factors above. It’s the GK68XS, a barely bigger variant of the Epomaker keyboard I purchased beforehand. It has all the identical options, plus an additional six keys that allow it to have a full arrow cluster (with an sadly “squished” proper shift key). That little modification permits me to make use of the arrow keys without having to maneuver the FN key round.

Michael Crider

The programming is simply as unhealthy because it was on the smaller keyboard, however I can add in devoted quantity keys and bind Print Display screen to one thing simple to recollect. Its Bluetooth is way more dependable than my customized job, the hot-swap switches appear to be improved, and it has a extra comfortable shorter profile than the Keychron. I’m utilizing it with Kailh’s BOX Silent Brown switches, which have the fantastic really feel of corridor impact stems and a small tactile bump, however dampen the sound of the keys with inner foam, in order to not disturb imaginary Starbucks patrons (or my girlfriend once I’m typing in the lounge).

EPOMAKER GK68XS close-up
Between this bizarre backspace key placement and my odd customized structure, this part of the keyboard is de facto bizarre. Michael Crider

However after all, there needs to be a draw back. For the GK68XS, it’s the Backspace/Delete key. Most 65% keyboards maintain Backspace proper the place it normally is, and put Delete subsequent to it on the precise. For some cause this keyboard transposes Backspace one key over, places Delete down (the place it will be on a TKL board, however which is awkward right here), and strikes the tilde key from the left facet to the precise. What?

That is annoying. Nevertheless it’s workable. That successfully shortened Backspace is one thing I can adapt my muscle reminiscence to, and the remainder of the keyboard’s options are fairly nice. I’ve ordered a metallic case for this one, with the intention of constructing it my semi-permanent transportable board. Hopefully, I’ll even be capable of use it in public someday this 12 months, after the lengthy look forward to vaccination ends.

No Such Factor as Endgame

I’ll use this keyboard. I’ll get pleasure from this keyboard. However I’ll purchase (or construct) one other one. Probably even earlier than the 12 months is out. As a result of I’m striving for perfection, despite the fact that I do know I can’t obtain it.

Within the high-end mechanical keyboard neighborhood, there’s a psychological aim—the “endgame.” The concept is that you could spend sufficient money and time, researching, shopping for, constructing, programming, tweaking, to get the right keyboard … or no less than, the right keyboard for you. Superb is making an attempt to make this for lots of people with the upcoming GMMK Pro, for instance.

GMMK Pro promotional image

This sort of considering goes into nearly any passion. I’ve seen the identical factor occur to individuals who love tweaking their house workplace setup, or constructing and customizing bicycles, or guitars, or house theaters, or kitchens, and even one thing so seemingly easy as a fountain pen. My vital different does this with cactuses and succulents. Wherever there’s disposable revenue to be spent on one thing you get pleasure from, the concept you are able to do so in such a approach as to “excellent” it appears to be a standard aim.

Limited Edition Fender Noir Telecaster
Our editor Cam’s Fender Noir Telecaster with a Naked Knuckle Piledriver pickup. Cameron Summerson

There’s a straight associated saying amongst keyboard nerds: “There’s no such factor as endgame.” This text explores the fundamental concept that irrespective of how a lot money and time you spend making an attempt to get to excellent, one thing retains you coming again. It’s doable that it’s that nagging feeling that, nonetheless “excellent” you suppose your present setup could be, it could possibly be a tiny bit higher.

However I feel there’s a much less cynical reply to this conundrum. And it’s that the love of the passion itself makes you return, time and time once more, to search out your new “excellent” keyboard. Not since you want it to be higher, and even really need it to be higher. However as a result of the search itself is what you loved, and sharing that search with the people who find themselves on the identical journey.

On the danger of sounding saccharine, the actual “endgame” was the chums (and keyboards) I met alongside the way in which.

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