The Drop CTRL Hotswap mechanical keyboard.
My introduction to Mechanical Keyboards
The origins of this post begin with an unfortunate series of events which culminated in my first mechanical keyboard (the original Corsair K70) being destroyed by an ill placed glass of orange juice, and my attempts to repair said keyboard.
I purchased the K70 around 6 years ago, when I decided to take the plunge and enter the world of mechanical keyboards. Back then popular “gaming” brands were only just starting to offer mechanical keyboards, the vast majority were still membrane and Ducky was as meaningful to me as a bathtub toy, I was rather naive to the custom mechanical keyboard market to say the least.
Cost was also a big factor, the thought of spending over £100 (
R2162.36 Inflation Adjusted), at the time, on a keyboard was not something I was to cheerful about. Which seems quaint, now that many gaming keyboards with their array of rainbow RGBs are selling for well over £150 (
Whilst attempting to fix my Corsair K70 it become rather evident that the logic of combining mechanical switches, which are replaceable in their very nature, with a mass-produced device that was never intended to be user repairable is completely idiotic.
This post seeks to highlight the innovations which have taken place over the last few years in the Custom Mechanical Keyboard landscape and show the benefits of building your own keyboard rather than looking towards ubiquitous brands such as Logitech, Razer, Corsair for your next board.
Getting started: Your first mechanical keyboard
For many, you may be interested in getting a mechanical keyboard for the first time. Too often us gamers instinctively look towards a gaming brand name, I sure did. Unfortunately, whilst many of these brands have significantly improved their mechanical keyboards, they are still set on limiting the end-user’s options through developing proprietary switches and fittings. Non-standard bottom rows, which limit customising or replacing key-caps.
This practice counters the interoperability which companies such as Cherry, Kailh, Ducky and GMMK, to list only a few, provide.
Examples of this can be found in Logitech’s Pro X with its non standard bottom row and Razer’s Huntsman Tournament Edition, with it’s proprietary red switches. Both keyboards represent a positive trend in the mechanical keyboard market, but only go so far. Repair-ability and customisation is still too limited.
Custom Mechanical Keyboards
You may be thinking, why should I care about all this, this seems like a lot of jargon for something that does not particularly matter?
For many, that is a completely valid question, mechanical keyboards and especially a custom mech, is certainly not for everyone. However, if you find yourself typing a lot, for school or work, or game a lot the right mechanical keyboard could significantly improve this experience.
Almost all mechanical keyboards are not cheap, the higher the quality the more they will cost. The intention of this post is to help others avoid my experience of throwing away a brand name keyboard with some working mechanical switches, as you can’t fix the board itself. A custom keyboard can, if planned correctly, be an investment as each competent of the keyboard can be easily replaced if needed. The experience of building one will also give you confidence to fix or build another at a later stage and the end product will be specifically tailored to your needs.
Standard vs Non-Standard Home Row
Most brand name keyboard companies alter the size of the bottom row keys (ctrl, alt, windows, etc). Which limits your ability to purchase high quality Double Shot PBT Keycaps, whether this is for replacement or customisation. You won’t usually find this on custom mechanical keyboard kits.
Double Shot PBT vs ABS Keycaps
A term many may not have heard of, yet probably experienced the effects of, are keyboards with ABS keycaps. These often become very smooth and glossy over time and have the laser etched characters fade over time. Whilst Double Shot PBT will not experience these issues as the characters are a separate piece of plastic. PBT also hold up to wear far better, than ABS.
With that said you can still find high quality ABS keycaps, however these are usually limited to manufactures such as GMK.
Soldered PCB vs Hotswap PCB
Hotswapable PCB designs are one of the big innovations in custom mechanical keyboards over the last few years and is one of the primary reasons I decided to write this post. Hotswap eliminates some of the difficulty and learning curves associated with getting into a custom mechanical keyboards and offers a flexibility previously not possible for user experimentation.
Traditionally, if you wanted to get a custom mechanical keyboard, you would need to research compatible components or a pre-configured kit and assembling it would require soldering every switch to the PCB. Whilst personally I don’t find soldering a very difficult skill to learn, the tediousness and barrier of entry this causes is undeniable.
The defacto hot-swap sockets are developed by Kailh and are compatible with all Cherry MX, Kailh and Gateron switches.
Benefits of hot-swap sockets vs soldering switches:
|Ideal for beginners||Higher failure if hot-swaped too often|
|Easy of use||Tricky to re-solder hot-swap socket|
Many hot-swap PCBs have RGB LEDs pre-installed, reducing the added soldering of 100s of LED connections. However, as the table above illustrates, hot-swap sockets will be more likely to fail if you repeatedly change switches, the sockets are rated for more than 100 insertions. The good news is that if a specific socket does fail it is possible to re-solder a replacement.
DIY kit vs Assembled Kit
There is no right answer to this question other than finding that which meets your needs. You will often find there is far more design variety to be found in the DIY kit market, whether this is a pre-configured kit or custom parts you’ve sourced yourself.
One issue with custom DIY kits is that you will often be limited to 60% and 65% keyboard sizes, as the majority of PCB and case designs are compatible with these sizes. There are a handful of 75% pre-configured kits, yet these tend to be in the minority.
Full sized keyboard PCBs are also very rare in the custom mechanical keyboard landscape, and while they exist they are overall less popular due to their increased cost and labour.
There are also many Assembled keyboard kits, which can either be purchased with switches or as a barebones assembly, which only have the PCB, stabilisers, and frame assembled. Many of these will also have hot-swap sockets and LEDs pre-installed. When comparing this to custom kits it will depend on what PCB you chose, as some have hot-swap sockets and LEDs pre-installed and others don’t. Pre-assembled keyboards will obviously involve far less work to setup, mainly installing switches and keycaps, but will be more limited in their availability and designs.
Many custom kits and pre-assembled kits will utilise PCB’s with USB-C connections, unlike many of the name-brand keyboards which are either Micro-USB or tethered to the board.
Wacky world of Keyboard Sizes
Long ago most keyboards were all one size and had about 104 keys, however, as mechanical keyboards have exploded in popularity a variety of sizes have emerged to cater to different user preferences. As mentioned briefly above the custom mechanical keyboard community is quite fond of 60% keyboards, I suspect mainly to reduce how much soldering they need to do.
The landscape today can be summarised as follows:
|Name||Size||Number of Keys||Image Link|
|Full-size||100%||104, 105 or even 108 keys||Image|
|Tenkeyless (TKL)||80%||87 keys||Image|
|75%||70%, 75%||84 keys||Image|
Keyboard size is a rather subjective preference, and whilst I suspect a 40% may be a too dramatic change for many, the space one can save by eliminating the num-pad is rather significant and has been shown to be both ergonomically beneficial and well suited to gamers. I’ve made the switch over to a TKL keyboard, and don’t honestly mind the lack of a num-pad.
Unfortunately TKL is still not quite as popular in the custom mechanical keyboard community, 75% are more common. However, there are a handful of companies producing good barebone and assembled TKL kits, with hotswap support, including; GMMK and Drop.com
Mechanical switches are so varied and subjective they almost deserve an entire post dedicated to the options available. This post is certainly not meant to be a deep-dive into all mechanical switches and I certainly won’t attempt to determine a “best” type.
However, one thing which is important to address with regards to switches is that while Cherry MX Switches may be the most well known and are good switches in their own right, the custom mechanical keyboard community no longer views Cherry as the benchmark for switches. Or at least many of the other brands have started to innovate and produce either superior products to Cherry or variations which Cherry does not offer. Such examples would include Kalih Box, Kailh Low Profile and Zeal Zealios v2.
Firstly one will need to determine what type of switches they prefer, switches are usually differentiated by their tactility:
|Linear||Smooth with same feel throughout key travel|
|Tactile||Noticeable silent bump before the activation point|
|Clicky||Noticeable loud bump/click before the activation point|
Many gamers prefer linear switches as they allow for faster or more responsive key presses, especially repetitive key presses. However, some gamers prefer tactile switches as they feel these are prone less to unintentional key presses and provide a little more feedback. Clicky switches are less popular with gamers partially due to their noise as well as their heavier feel which makes them slightly less responsive and can be tiring over extended periods.
For typists tactile and clicky switches are the more popular usually. However, I personally enjoy the typing experience on linear keys though my experience with tactile switches is a little limited.
One of the fantastic benefits of a custom mechanical keyboard is to design the switch selection to what works best for you. Having a hotswap keyboard makes this even easier.
I’ve personally used a combination of Kailh Box Jades (clicky) for function keys including; ESC, Backspace, Enter, Windows, F1-F12, Caps, etc. Followed by Kailh Speed Silvers (linear) for alpha and numeric keys.