How to Choose A Custom Mechanical Keyboard?
In this blog, we will help you learn how to pick the custom keyboard that’s most suitable for you.
A trend hitting the mechanical keyboard market is customizable mechanical keyboards. People can easily make any keyboard they want because customizable mechanical keyboards allow users to personalize the typing feel, remap the keys, set the key combinations, and more.
Customizable mechanical keyboards are generally offered in kit sets:
• Fully assembled kits: They come with a stock keyboard and are ready to use out of the box. You can choose to disassemble it and replace the other parts that you prefer.
• Barebone kits: For some barebone kits, they need to be assembled manually by the users. They are usually sold without switches and keycaps. So users need check and buy some accessories that are necessary for the keyboard and compatible with the barebone kits.
The key features that matter to you
First and foremost, you need to think about the major features you want on your keyboard before choosing a build because some of these crucial features often come already built on the stock keyboards. In other words, it’s not easy to modify the keyboard build so choose wisely at this step.
There are plenty of different keyboard sizes, full size, 96%, tenkeyless (80%), 75%, 70%, 65%, 60%, etc. Each size is quite distinctive with its own unique layout design. When the keyboard gets smaller, the number pad, editing keys, function row, and the numbers are often removed. (Click here for more info.)
ANSI, ISO and JIS layouts
Apart from the sizes, there are also three kinds of logical layouts you should be aware of.
• ANSI (American National Standards Institute) layout: It is most common in the United States.
• ISO (International Organization for Standardization) layout: The ISO layout is commonly found in Europe.
• JIS (Japanese Industrial Standard) layout: It is specifically designed for Japanese keyboards.
Keyboard cases come in a variety of mounting styles. Here are some of the common keyboard case mount styles that should be noted.
• Gasket mount: Use gasket material and insert them between the plate and the bottom case.
• Tray mount: The PCB is attached to the bottom case on several screw-in pins.
• Top mount: The plate is attached to the top frame.
Of these mounting styles, the gasket mount design is generally considered the most popular in the community because of its soft and flexible typing feel. When compared, others are stiffer and less elastic.
The cases of the keyboard can be made from different types of materials, such as aluminum and plastic. In addition, case materials sometimes go through different production processes, which affects its final quality, typing feel, and price tags. Generally, however, metal keyboard cases tend to be more durable and stable, while plastic-made cases are lighter and more cost-effective.
• Wireless: A wireless keyboard can either connect through Bluetooth or with a specific wireless adapter (such as a 2.4 GHz adapter) included with the board. So users have no worries about wires and spend less effort to set up on the desk. However, full-metal body keyboards hardly enable wireless function because metal usually blocks wireless signals. So comparatively, all-metal keyboards with wireless viability have an unstable connection.
(Keychron is testing the feasibility of incorporating wireless on an all-metal custom keyboard, expecting a breakthrough of wireless stability.）
• Wired: Wired keyboards are directly connected to the PC through a cable, which provides stable typing performance without signal interference or noticeable latency. Therefore, it is a common feature for lots of custom keyboards that creates an optimal gaming experience for competitive gamers.
To freely program the key feature, many keyboards come with driver/software support programming capabilities, such as remapping the keys, adjusting RGB lighting, and creating macros that trigger multiple inputs with a single keypress. Let's compare some commonly used driver/software on the market.
• QMK with VIA: QMK is an open-source keyboard firmware most widely accepted by the custom keyboard community. QMK Firmware has a lot of special features that allow users to remap any key, configure multiple layers, combination keys, macros, backlighting, RGB, etc. Via is an open-source extension of QMK which makes the QMK experience much more user-friendly.
• Others: There are also some drivers and configurators developed by keyboard manufacturers for their keyboards to be programmable, but probably most do not include the essential traits of editing layers and combination keys.
Generally, polling rate is a measurement of how often devices report to connected computers. It has Hertz (Hz) as a unit of measurement. The higher the value is, the faster the keyboard reacts.
In practice, a mechanical keyboard with a polling rate from 125 Hz to 250 Hz is enough to meet the demands of daily use in the office. But to obtain less input latency and a better gaming experience, competitive gamers are strongly recommended to have a 1000 Hz polling rate or higher.
• Soldered PCB: The PCB (the circuit board that registers the keyboard's inputs) has all the switches soldered on it, thus making the switches unable to be pulled out by hand. If you want to replace the switches, you are required for soldering experience and proper tools.
• Hot-swappable PCB: The PCB has pre-installed the hot-swappable sockets that allow the switches to be slotted into them. You can just quickly swap the switches easily without any soldering training. (Click here for more info.)
Note: Optical switches are not normally compatible with any hot-swappable keyboards. If a keyboard has both optical switches and hot-swappable features, that means the hot-swappable modules only work with certain optical switches.
Anatomy of custom mechanical keyboard
Now the following items we are going to talk about are all the easily customizable features you should look out for and determine based on your personal preferences.
The choice of keycap could be a bit complicated as it has a lot of elements to consider.
• Material: There are usually 2 common types of plastic used in keycap production: ABS and PBT. ABS is the more common option with a shiny finish made of thinner plastic, while PBT tends to be oil-resistant and more durable.
• Profile: It mostly refers to the 'height and shape'. Some common profiles are OEM, Cherry, XDA, and SA profiles (all keycaps that contain the letters “SA,” i.e. OSA, generally have a curve on top). Choosing the keycap profile is totally dependent on personal preferences. But you may have to double-check if the keycap profile is compatible with your keyboard if you purchase the keycap set separately.
• Manufacturing methods: it normally refers to how legends are made on the keycaps and the overall manufacturing process. There are a few methods like dye-sublimation, laser-etched, and double-shot.
• Backlight shine-through or not: If your keyboard has backlighting, you can consider see-through keycaps to maximize the backlighting effect at night.
Note: You may have to double-check if your keyboard features north-facing RGB (LED backlight on the top side from the top view) or south-facing RGB (LED backlight on the downside from the top view). South-facing LED design is mostly made for premium non-shine-through PBT keycaps and has no interference issue with Cherry profile keycaps and presents a better lighting effect from the typist's angle. The north-facing works for shine-through keycaps like ABS keycaps.
Mechanical switches are one of the most important features that dictate what your keyboard will feel like to type on. Switches can vary in smoothness, depth, resistance, and noise levels. Nevertheless, they are classified into three main types: linear, clicky, and tactile.
• Linear: Smooth and consistent keystroke with quiet noise.
• Tactile: A small bump on each keystroke with moderate noise.
• Clicky: A small bump on each keystroke with loud click noise.
Some of the popular switch manufacturers are Cherry, Gateron, and Kailh. Some even have their specialty offers and lines. You may need to do a bit of research to find out which will fit your needs the best.
The plate is the component that helps to hold the switches in place. The most common ones are made with aluminum, brass, steel, FR4, or polycarbonate. Plates made of different materials can vary in rigidity. The best plate material for your build highly depends on your personal preference as well as other factors like case materials. They add rigidity and stability to your switches and can also affect the typing feel of your keyboard.
Stabilizers (aka 'stabs') are essential keyboard parts that prevent larger keys like the space bar from shaking, rattling, or tilting when pressed, and help bind the keycaps to the switch. The commonly-seen stabs can be sorted into three kinds: PCB screw-in, plate-mounted, and clip-in variations.
Most custom keyboards favor screw-in stabilizers as they are screwed into the PCB directly to make it best securely attached and stable. Plus, screw-in stabs are easy to mod and have a lot of different options on the market. Always go with screw-in if possible.
Many high-end custom keyboards offer a detachable cable, or you may choose to customize it yourself. There are plenty of cable types on the market, like some really good-looking coiled cables. You can find a ton of custom mechanical keyboard cables with interesting colors, straight or coiled lines, and USB connectors to add even more flexibility and flair to your set-up.
A few other additional items like badges, palm rests, and carrying cases are optional because they are not necessary and totally depend on your interests. Just make sure these accessories are compatible with the keyboard before you place an order.
We list some very commonly-seen methods on how enthusiasts will fine-tune their keyboards. Go and try it for yourself!
Note: Be aware that some actions may void the provided warranty. To be on the safe side, always check the warranty policies with your keyboard’s manufacturer if necessary.
Mod the switches
Lubing the switches can be a good way to improve the sound quality and the feel of the linear and tactile switches. This process is a bit more time-consuming and requires more tools. Otherwise, you can purchase the pre-lubed switches so that you do not need to spend too much time doing them yourself. You can try filming switches as well.
Mod the stabilizer
To reduce the sound of stabs and improve the keyboard typing feel, there are three common steps: clipping the stabilizers, lubricating them, or the Band-Aid mod. Of all three mods, lubing will have the biggest impact on the stabilizer performance. Please note that these mods listed above do not apply to all types of stabilizers. You can browse online videos to check for more details before starting any project.
Sometimes the bottom case of the custom keyboard can sound hollow, and reverberate the switch ping when typing . This is most common with metal cases. Adding some soft material like sponge foam or fibers to the bottom case is an easy way to reduce the noise and hollowness inside a keyboard.
Where can I get the parts?
There are a plethora of places to purchase the parts no matter if you want to go for in-stock parts or group buys. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages.
• In-stock parts: You can get the parts shipped within just a couple of days/weeks, and guaranteed after-sale service, except for limited options available.
• Group buys: You may have to wait for several months for the parts from a group buy. It usually comes with a high price tag as the factory can't lower the average production cost due to limited quantities, but you are guaranteed a unique design.
Making decisions for every part could be hard, especially for beginners with less knowledge of it. But the easiest and most efficient way for beginners is to look for the stocked parts and start with a fully assembled keyboard kit. By starting with this, you will learn what your preferences are and still end up with a unique product!
What about European keyboard users?
There are a variety of different languages used across the EU countries that use the ISO layout to produce their keyboards with their dedicated language keycaps. As a result, the demand is not high enough to offset the price tag and is often the reason why most custom keyboards on the market have ANSI layouts.
In order to satisfy EU users, brands like Keychron produce ISO layout barebone version keyboards without keycaps and switches. EU users can all pick the ISO layout barebone keyboard option and add their favorite switches with their own languages.
For those who are itching to have a try, we recommend starting with Keychron custom mechanical keyboards. They are suitable for most people who work in the office and play games at home. With driver and software support, they are widely used and adaptive in various application scenarios. Both typists and gamers can enjoy an improved typing experience, increased productivity as well as advanced gaming performance.
Here we go! 👉 Keychron Custom Keyboards Collection