I use keyboards a lot – for my work, for my hobbies, for connecting to friends, for entertainment. Society labels computer use as "screen time", but it'd be just as accurate to say it's "keyboard time". The ying to the yang of screens, keyboards are just as important, and even more customizable.
There exists an absurd subculture of people dedicated to building custom keyboards. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
the olden days
I have always been on the far side of picky when it comes to the thing I'm typing on. I'm old enough that my earliest keyboards were mechanical, because, in that era, they all were. Those old mechanical keyboards were not pleasant typing experiences. Deafeningly loud, clunky, bulky, and horrendously beige – despite the internet's nostalgia, the mechanical keyboards of yore were very much not sleek.
So when "mechanical keyboards" started trending again in the past few years, even though I play host to strong keyboard opinions, I ignored them. "Kids!" I scoffed.
It took a pandemic to slap some sense into me.
(I use the word "sense" haphazardly; spending hundreds of dollars on keyboards may seem the diametric opposite of "sense". But when the computer is an appendage, bridging brainwaves to megahertz should be optimized, little matter the cost.)The Keychron K3
I had not realized the subculture had mislabeled the venture – these were no mere "mechanical" keyboards. No, they were exploring the world of full-on bespoke input devices.
And so, I bought a custom keyboard. And then another. And then another.
If you will let me, I will now enumerate the specific benefits of customizing a keyboard:
- Removing extraneous keys (such as the 10-key) means less wasted desk space
- LED backlighting makes the keyboard practical in the dark
- Make those LEDs full RGB to unlock disco superstar mode
- The physical "feeling" of typing can be customized to my preference and application
- What the computer does when I hit each key can be changed
- The key caps themselves can be designed to my preference
The pandemic – or rather, that is, spending an eternity trapped inside my home office – has inspired in me a slew of computer customization. Custom desk, custom case, custom operating system, custom cabling – all now fill my office. So even if I hadn't already cared, a custom keyboard was inevitable.
Anyway. Moving along.
Actually, no, wait, let's talk about mice.
In addition to all the boring suit-and-tie businessman mice collecting dust, I have four manchild RGB glowing gaming mice. Some were expensive, some were cheap. They funny part is, no matter the cost and internet reputation, they all work about as well as each other. There's little practical difference (in my not-so-humble opinion of course) between the Glorious Model D and the Logitech G203 and the Corsair M55 and the Redragon M711.
If only I could say the same about keyboards.
There's an issue here, of course. When it comes to many of these keyboard customizations, we're looking at some abject minutia. And we're doing it from our desks, with no physical access to the devices which we're researching. If there were a way to put my grubby mitts on these keyboards before buying them, life would be simple. But I cannot. My only method of experiencing all these nuances for myself is throwing away time and money having something shipped to my house, and then hoping the vendor honors their return policy.
So now let's talk about the keyboards on which my dumb ass has wasted time and money.The Durgod Hades 68 keyboard and Glorious Model D mouse
I have both the Corsair K70 and K70.2, one with Cherry MX Red, the other Cherry MX Low Profile Speed switches. They're fine. You could use them all day and never complain about it. I did. But... they're large, the K70's machined metal was so rough it gouged my fingernails several times, they use some l33t hackerman font for the keys, the Corsair software kind of sucks, and the caps themselves have the feel of cheap plastic, and the USB cable is hardwired and bulky.
Hold on, we've got to pause again, sorry.
I threw the bit "Cherry MX Red" in there with no explanation. If you know what that is, great, skip these next paragraphs. Otherwise... hello and welcome to a world of mountain-sized trivialities. I will be your guide.
When you push a key on a keyboard, the key moves (unless you're using a Mac :rolleyes: get rekt) and then the computer does something. The apparatus that governs the key's movement is called a "switch", and while all switches both move (except Macs) and actuate, there are a million nuanced variations to this behavior.
The standard "I don't know just give me something" option is the "Cherry MX Red". "Cherry" is the original creator of these "MX" type of keyboard switches, and "Red" is their model with the most balanced, straightforward action. Cherry distinguishes their various switch models by the color of the plastic button inside – Red, Brown, Blue, etc – and each different color corresponds to a different physical action. The colors themselves are arbitrary but have become something of an unofficial industry convention – Reds are the standard, Blacks are like Reds but require more push, Browns are like Reds but with a bumpy feel, Blues are clicky, Greens are even clickier – and so on.
Cherry's original patent on MX switches expired, and other manufacturers began making direct clones of Cherry MX switches, but for lower prices. So now there's Gateron Reds, and Kailh Reds, and dozens more. And since it's not really standardized (only sort-of standardized), despite them being sold as equivalent no two manufacturer's Reds are exactly the same. And then the floodgates broke, and the other manufacturers started introducing new
colors actions :audience gasps: Things are getting really wild out there, with Teals and Jades and maybe even one day a Chartreuse.
The rainbow awaits.The Redragon M711 mouse with the Keychron K3 fading into the bokeh
But anyway, if "Cherry MX Red" means my one keyboard had a fairly middle-of-the-road typing action to it, what about "Cherry MX Low Profile Speed"? A key pressed with that switch will fit a shorter keycap ("low profile") and actuate a shorter distance into the push ("speed" a.k.a. "Silvers").
Unfortunately things only get more complicated from here.
The next keyboard to enter the arena is a Keychron K3 with Keychron's own Low Profile Optical White switches (a normal keystroke, but with very little actuation pressure). This keyboard for some reason caused an fervor in the community which was likely just corporate astroturfing mitigated by the fact that it worked. Sadly, in practice, this keyboard kind of sucks. It looks pretty enough, but the keys themselves are wiggly and just unpleasant to spend any serious time typing on. Also, there is no software. The key mappings and lighting cannot be changed.
Durgod Hades 68
Then I got the Durgod Hades 68 – a keyboard with almost half the standard keys absent. This one uses Gateron Silent Brown switches, which are supposedly "tactile" (meaning they should feel bumpy) but in practice, likely due to the o-ring silencers, feel nearly the same as linear. This keyboard isn't right for no fault of Durgod. A brand with very little presence off Amazon, Durgod make a surprisingly solid product. Sturdy, well-built, pleasing to the hand and eye. And the software to manage the keyboard is the best I've found. No, my issues with this keyboard are all my own. Allow me to explain with yet another digression.
One of the trends in the custom keyboard subculture is seeing how few keys you can get away with on your keyboard. I mentioned earlier a 10-key being a waste of desk space, but this is just the beginning. Enthusiasts remove key after key after key, finding ways to design away things like the Function keys, Page Up and Down, Home, End, Delete, even the arrow keys. They move them behind Fn+ key combinations. The most
nerdy adventurous remove numbers, punctuation, and even lesser-used letters from their keyboards, although that starts becoming more like a stenographer's chorded keyboard.
The point is, this Hades 68 is called such because it has only 68 keys (a "full" keyboard has 104). I wanted to try out typing on a minimalist keyboard, and now I have. It turns out, I miss some of those keys. Quite a bit. The Hades 68 is difficult for me to type on.
The verdict is troubling. And beyond the missing keys, I don't think I care for "Silent" switches, but they're soldered on, so there's no changing that. Despite my choices, the Durgod Hades 68 is a good keyboard, and a beautiful design, if you can get away with something so minimalist.The Havit HV-KB390L
Then there's the Havit HV-KB390L, a cheap Amazon special with many reviews and a high rating. It comes with Kailh Low Profile Blue switches, meaning the keycaps are short, and pressing the keys make an audible clicking sound. This is, by far, the nicest typing experience of this bunch. It's got just the right number of keys (87), has the most solid typing action, and is evenly backlit. The only complaint I have, and I admit that this is a rather stupid complaint, utter bullshit really, but I cannot stop thinking it, is that this keyboard is not nice to look at. It is a physically ugly keyboard. It is black with black keys, and a chrome silver band wrapped around it. It glows this pale blue color. And you can't change any of these things. The keycaps aren't removable, the backlight color isn't changeable. It just is what it is. So I like it... but I'm a greedy, finicky asshole who is never satisfied, and so the quest continues.
Glorious GMMK Pro
I took a plunge and ordered the Glorious GMMK Pro with Gateron Blue switches. The Glorious mouse I have is nice, and they've got a real sleek website extolling their keyboards. They're pricey, but they promise the ultimate keyboard experience. Ultimate is what I want, so I bought one. And what a mistake that was.
what's brown and sticky?
For being what was supposed to be the paramount custom keyboard, Glorious sure shat the proverbial bed. So what's wrong here, where to start? How about that the keys that require "stabilizers" – the longer keys, like 'space' and 'backspace' and 'enter' and 'shift', you know, the ones you hit ALL THE TIME – are sticky. As in, you hit the Backspace key and it sticks down, registering as if I'm holding down the key when I am not.
a Glorious GMMK with Cherry MX Browns
This is so basic an issue, I thought I must be doing something wrong. I searched online, answers were easy to find. "Oh yeah, it's known for that." According to reddit I'm supposed to dismantle the keyboard and replace the stabilizers with 3rd party ones (at $25 a pop), or I suppose, if I'm feeling cheap and inadequate, I could try to make do by using a toothbrush to clean out some lubricating goop that Glorious overfills into their builds. Yeah, fuck you I'm not doing any of that.
But that wasn't the only issue.
Glorious sells their keyboards piece-by-piece, and it's up to you to assemble the thing at home, like LEGOs but for people with even fewer interpersonal skills. Great, fine, whatever, I'm socially awkward and have time on my hands, I can do this. Except the keycaps they are so happy to sell you for an additional $50 a set do not support backlighting. It's a backlit keyboard. That doesn't have backlit keys. What the merry fucking fuck, who thought this was a good idea?
And while we're on the subject of keycaps... unlike all my other keyboards, Glorious makes them with a curve. Keys on the top row are higher than the row below, which is higher than the row below it, and so on, until the bottom row curves slightly up on the bottom lip. "Nice! How *~*ergonomic*~*!" Except that this means you cannot move a key to a different position on the keyboard without ruining the keyboard's topography. So if you're planning on rearranging some of the function keys – you know, customizing your custom keyboard – nope, fuck you you can't.
dear lord how long does this go on
Also, let's see, there's no Caps Lock indicator light. The default action is to make the side lighting ground effects blink while Caps Lock is enabled. Yes, that's right, they think people want their entire fucking desk to blink the whole time Caps Lock is set. So you use the software to disable that, like any actual human being would. And now there's no way to tell if Caps Lock is on or off. Sigh.
yet another paragraph
There's also a volume wheel. Neat, right? Except it doesn't have any backlight at all, so it looks kind of ugly. And it's crooked. At least the one I have is. When you spin it, you can see it wobble side to side. This isn't a removable or adjustable part, it's crooked for life, like an LA street gang.
Pardon my french, but fuck this keyboard right back to the returns department.
Ducky One 2
Now that I'm getting rid of the GMMK Pro, I'm replacing it with what my unjustified optimism believes will be my actual ultimate custom keyboard, a Ducky One 2 with Kailh Thick
Juicy Jade clicky switches.
Shoot me an email in a few weeks time if you want to hear me complain about that one.
I feel this pressure to have all of my blog posts end with a "Conclusion" – some sort of profound closing insight. But what is there here? Nothing. All of this means nothing. It's meaningless. Life is meaningless. At least it's short. And while it passes me by, my keyboard glows brightly in the night.