Building a keyboard to last
I spend a lot of time typing - or gaming - on my keyboard. And I mean a LOT. It is the primary interface between me and my computer. I want it to feel nice. Sound nice. And work. Reliably. But first and foremost it is a tool. And if I learned one thing from my father it is to always get the best tools you can afford, and then to make sure they last as long as possible. So I set out to find a keyboard which checks off all the boxes. No compromises this time, we are aiming for perfection (as defined by me).
I still have my first Cherry G80-3000 in use. I bought it somewhen in 1999. I love it. The newer version is not the same anymore. Build quality, haptics, general feel cannot hold up to the old, beige input device you could repurpose as a blunt weapon. I used it for nearly 15 years and only stopped because connecting it to a Mac was a painful endeavour.
Having that kind of longevity in mind — when I say “last keyboard” I mean it. Most of the components were chosen in a way that I can fix nearly all issues that could come up over the next decade or two. There might be various reasons why I will have to replace it some day, but there is also a chance all reasons continue to be of theoretical nature and not happen. I am looking forward to see how many years of service I will get out of it.
Time for a checklist
- Material should be aluminium - it’s sturdy and unlikely to fail for mechanical reasons
- PCB needs to be swappable
- Preferably open source firmware
- Swappable switches
- macOS and Windows / Linux compatible
- Not wireless
- either full size or TKL
The material is important to me. No matter how good the plastic is, it will wear off at some point and break or become not nice to touch. This is true for the case as well as for the key caps. Aluminium will most certainly not degrade like that.
Being able to swap the PCB makes repairs easy. Or replacing it if it is beyond repair. Paired with an open source - depending on your definition some offer source available or require binary blobs - firmware it does not matter a lot what changes. With time and enough questionable conviction the keyboard will work.
Switches are important. Not as important as r/mk wants you to believe, but important. At the end of the day the deciding factor is how they sound and feel. I prefer a light acoustic feedback and a clear bump during actuation for work and linear for gaming.
Some things I absolutely do not want or care about:
- Wireless - a synonym for unreliable
- a battery that will go bad at some point
- „Ergo keyboards“
- alternative layouts
If you ask anyone who is into mechanical keyboards for a recommendation or advice you will hear an opinion. Most likely a strongly held one. Sometimes not necessarily based on any facts or even reality, but who cares when you are an enthusiast, right? (Ask “audiophiles” to hear golden contacts. I dare you.)
Finding a base board is hard. And I mean really hard, because there is a lot of good ones out there. There are some that are easier to repair and mod than others. There are tons of additional features you might want, or not. My general advice is pick one that looks good to you, has swappable switches and meets your quality standards.
Having chosen to go all in on aluminium I still had a nice selection of boards. Not wanting any of the extras reduced it further. I ended up with a Keychron Q3, which checks all the boxes on paper.
After receiving it the weight and build quality convinced me I made the right choice. I like the board so much I actually got a second one for my gaming / ML system. I can only say good things about it so far. Everything works as expected and tools to disassemble it are in the box.
Holy Pandas are most likely some of the most hyped switches in the mk community. They are tactile. Really tactile. Not the most, but still high on the list. Drop has a run with a remake of the original tooling, Invyr Holy Pandas.
To me personally they live up to the hype. They are a joy to type on, have the right amount of tactile feedback and as they are not factory pre-lubed you can make the call if you want to go down this annoying, time consuming rabbit hole to get the perfectly lubed switch compared to what these unreliable machines would do. (If you think I am exaggerating better do not read any reddit thread if you should lube your switches.)
I used Krytox GPL-205 G0. I wanted to have the experience of lubing my hand picked switches myself… once. Once is the right amount. I can speak to the topic and can confidently say I will never do this again. It made a noticeable difference in sound and feel, so there’s that. I ordered my second Q3 with Kailh Crystal Burgundy - I prefer linears for gaming - which are factory lubed. They are good. I see absolutely no reason to redo the work. But I also apparently do not know what I am talking about and just do not have the refined taste of an r/mk users.
What an odyssey. I found a shop offering full aluminium keycaps. They were pricy. More than what I was hoping to spend, more than I was comfortable with. But this was a once in a lifetime thing, right? A lot of money later I placed my order. I confirmed with the shop delivery in a few months - they had a backlog - and went on with my life. One year later I received my order... but only after the first order got lost by FedEx two months prior.
Fun fact - FedEx claimed to not have lost my package but could not deliver it. After 5 weeks they sent me a customs invoice which I paid. Immediately when hitting “pay” I received an email that they lost my package. Great company. Then they ignored all attempts to contact them. I had to involve my lawyer to get my money back from FedEx.
With all the delays I checked in with the vendor a few times. Remember this is an enthusiast, small batch, high price premium product. Support is via Discord. And the gentleman is the most unpleasant, sarcastic and unprofessional person I had the unfortunate pleasure of doing business with lately. I had to fill a PayPal complaint to get a reaction when I could expect a delivery after they were four months late. Which is also the reason I am not linking to the website. I cannot in good faith support or recommend their business.
The quality of the keycaps is exceptional. Perfectly machined, laser engraving is great, snug fit and the free, artisanal caps included have a certain charm. I could not be more happy with the quality of the product.
Was it worth it?
Absolutely. This is peak keyboard performance. I program faster than I never have. My typing accuracy is through the roof. The keyboard even solved an np-hard problem on its own!
Joking aside - I got no idea. I really like the keyboard. It is everything I wanted it to be. The switches provide enough counter force to work nicely with the keycaps. The aluminium caps are not exceptionally cold when not typing on them and have a nice feeling. It was costly. Excluding my time the whole build gets close to 1000€.
Do I recommend building your own keyboard? If you are intrigued by the hobby absolutely. You can start in the $100 to $150 range for a really solid build customised to your preferences. If you “just” want a nice feeling, mechanical keyboard you can get some as low as $50ish which are in my opinion still a noticeable upgrade over most keyboards shipped as part of a pre-built computer or a laptop / MacBook. Realistically once you cross the $200-$250 price range it starts to be more of a hobby than a noticeable quality difference.
If this build was worth the money and time is something I can answer in ten to fifteen years when I am hopefully still typing on the exact same board, with the same switches (I ordered spares, just in case) while the keycaps look as good as they do today.
>> posted on Aug. 6, 2023, 2:52 p.m. in hardware