Effective Programming

where agility meets computer science

May 16, 2020 - LB

Mechanical Keyboards - Favorites

Hard to pick just one

If you’ve not already, be sure and checkout my first mechanical keyboards article where I review the basics.

Everyday Use

Hands down, my favorite keyboard is the Leopold FC660C 60ish% mini keyboard. Technically, the Topre switches are not mechanical but for my money, they provide the most dense, tactile “thud” of the bunch and I find that to be quite satisfying. I find them quieter than most other tactile switches and dare I say smooth, like butter. Similar keyboards include the Realforce R2 TKL and HHKB. I’ve got the Realforce R2 (TKL) and between the two, I definitely prefer the form factor of the Leopold as well as the fit and finish. It just feels like a notch above the products that Realforce manufactures. I haven’t yet picked up an HHKB but I know it is a crowd favorite and I don’t doubt I’d like it as much - although I’m not sure, it is missing a few keys I use regularly. In any case, these are by far the most expensive keyboards I’ve ever seen. It takes some committment buy them, especially if you’re just exploring, but turns out, I’ve been happiest with them, so much so that I picked up a 2nd one for my home desk. I rationalize the cost by considering them one-time, fixed-cost, static investments that I’ll likely use for the rest of my life :-)

I should note that I’m typically using a Mac and most software I run on the Mac doesn’t heavily depend on Function keys. In fact, native cursor movement tends to conform to emacs key bindings which affords me the ability to quickly move my cursor in Terminal or Xcode without having to resort to moving my hand to find the arrow, home or end keys I may be tempted to do on larger, TKL or full size keyboards. That said, the Leopold has arrow keys whereas the HHKB does not - and I do find myself using them lazily from time to time.

Gameplay

Admittedly, the most popular modern mechanical switches are the line of Cherry MX switches. Within this line, I tend to prefer the tactile Browns (standard resistance) vs the Clears (heavy resistance). They feel much different when compared to the Topres and I like them, if for no other reason, for the variety they impart into my daily routine. My initial experience was on a Magicforce keyboard and admittedly, I was not a happy camper. I tried Clears on a Vortex Race 3 but was unhappy with the ringing noise from the key-press case combination (and honestly, the resistance was too heavy for me). I eventally landed on a Varmilo v87m and at this point, realized how much of a difference PBT keycaps make. The Varmilo keycaps have a slightly lower profile and the PBT material has a delightful textured finish that I’d not seen before. I find the keys slightly loosey-goosey (typical Cherry MX) but I appreciated the very slight profile difference (specific to the Varmilo). Surprisingly, I can’t type quite as fast on the Varmilo but I think that has to do with the slightly lower profile and slightly loosey-goosey keys (I tend to run keys together for some reason).

While I tend to avoid big box brands, I borrowed a keyboard at work, a Corsair K70 with Cherry MX Browns. Oddly, it felt like no Browns I’ve used before. It felt like dampened Blues to me. The sound was slightly different the keys felt less loose. That led me to wonder if indeed, I might actually like a big box keyboard specifically made for gaming (as opposed to what I’d term a boutique build). I did not like the full-size form factor so I started looking around for a decent TKL and found a CoolerMaster MasterKeys Pro S TKL on ebay and upon receipt, couldn’t be happier. I like this keyboard! I could use it all day and for whatever reason, prefer it to the Magicforce and Varmilo. It has backlighting which makes it easier to use for gmaing in a darkish room. I don’t like the keycaps quite as much as my Varmilo PBTs but I’m not sure it’s worth trying to find a good set of PBT for a backlit keyboard … so I’m just making do for now.

You’d think that’d be the end of it - but no. I started playing some competitive FPS (first person shooter) games recently and a good friend highly recommended the Kailh Box line of mechanical switches. I read up on them a bit and inadvertently came across someone else that prefers them. They appear positioned as a more stable version of the standard Cherry MX series. Whew! That! would be nice! I certainly find the Cherry MX Browns a bit loosey-goosey so I set out looking for a decent keyboard I’d not already tried outfitted with a set of Kailh Box Browns - looking for that Tactile bump with a bit more stability overall. Turns out a few friends at work picked up the CTL with box switches and looking a bit further I found the ALT - an even better form factor! But that price! Wow, did I really want to try this? Kept looking and almost by sheer luck, came across the Anne Pro 2 and the rest, as they say, is history. The colors, PBTs, Box Browns, form factor, price, build, wireless bluetooth, and even the provided software! I can’t really describe it. It is a different feeling keyboard for sure - but I like it. It provides a great counter to my everyday Topres and I prefer it to every other gaming keyboard I’ve got. It isn’t just a stable Cherry MX Brown. It is different somehow. I find it fun to type on. Not annoying at all but also, not like any other Cherry MX Brown I tried.

Old School

I picked up a few other keyboards along the way and have to say that most left me pleasantly surprised. My favorite and most practical of the bunch turns out to be the Dell Bigfoot. A huge keyboard for sure that requires a PS/2 to USB adapter but no doubt about it, those ALPS switches are great. Favs for extended typing. They aren’t known for being the best made, long-lived switches but I’ve never had a problem and bigfoots abound on ebay. Just try to pick up a clean one with a PS/2 to USB adapter and you should be set. Admittedly, this keyboard also gets the most nods when I bring it into work. In the same vein, I picked up a good condition Apple Extended Keyboard but truth be told, I’m going to have to mod it since I can’t find a trustworthy commercial ADB-to-USB connector. DIY videos abound (ifixit, back to life) so looks like a project for a Teensy!

I did try the modern incarnation of the ALPS switch in the Matias Mini Tactile Pro but this was one of the keyboards I sent back the same day. It rattled, it was plastic, the reviews were not good and talk about loosey-goosey! I know at least one person that prefers this keyboard to many others so your mileage may vary - but it wasn’t for me.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the infamous IBM Model M switch. Unicomp remade this older switch and I picked up the Unicomp - Spacesaver M Black to try it out. It is close to the IBM switch but not quite the same. The Unicomp remake is conveniently USB and works great - but for some reason, I don’t like it. It isn’t too heavy, it isn’t too loud, it is sturdy and well-made. Unicomp offers great support but I just don’t find myself pulling it out of the box to use very often. Again, YMMV so I’d just advocate you give them a try if you’re a fan of the older IBM Model M switch.

Hybrid

Worth a mention, given how much I like the Topre (non-mechanical) switches, I have tried other hybrid keyboards. I picked up the Razer Ornata at a reaosnable price and used for roughly a week. Some folks at work really liked it. While it does have a bit of a domey feel, I found it to light both in resistance feedback and sound. It lacks substance. It lacks gravitas. It is a favorite amongst many at work and the backlighting scheme is cool. I think it fits a good space for folks less overly concerned about the switch but also wanting to pick up something after-market. I saved it as a backup keyboard and someone else in the family currently uses it as they main - but not for me.

With that same line of reasoning, I found myself at Walmart one day - banging around on their keyboards and, in the store, I really liked the Corsair K55 so I brought it home. After using it for 10 minutes side by side with my other boards, it was much to mushy in comparision. Again, kept as a backup keyboard and in fact, one my kids really liked the rainbow of colors so I promised it to them once we get them a setup - but again, not for me.

Since the Topre switches aren’t technically a mechanical switch, I wondered what other commercial manufacturers were also doing to approximate the success that Cherry has had around their switches. I tried the Razer Ornata and while I certainly liked it initially, I quickly came to realize how much I appreciated much more depth in my keystrokes. That keyboard clicks and that keyboard has a domey feel but it didn’t have depth. It didn’t have substance. I hard a hard time getting the feedback I wanted from that keyboard. Still have it because my kids like it but it isn’t the sort of thing I pull out very often.

Wrap Up

After much experimentation then, I think I’ve landed on the following top considerations:

  • I prefer tactile switches. The sound varies but is usually related more to the keyboard and overall build as opposed to the switches themselves.
  • I don’t like heavy switches but I do want to feel a very positive, dense punch when I’ve completed a keystroke. I’m not sure how to describe it but words like substance, density and gravitas come to mind.
  • I do not like ringing, rattle or other “incidental” noise.
  • As much as I like the Topre’s for everyday work, I’d miss the Kailh Box Browns more. If I could only buy one keyboard, I’d buy the Anne Pro 2 again. I miss it if I don’t get to use that keyboard everyday.
  • Finally, I have come to believe that PBT double-shot keycaps make a difference. I think their natural texture has a positive pyschological affect on me and it turns out my top picks (Leopold, Anne Pro2 and Varmilo) all came stock with PBT keycaps.

What do you think? Give me some feedback if you have a chance!