It is my philosophy that life is too short to use a lousy keyboard. I will admit that, for most people, keyboards are not a large concern, and typically only enter their consciousness if they are either a) broken or b) astoundingly bad.
One does not have to go far, however, to find some astoundingly bad keyboards. They’re fairly common on the laptops you’ll find kicking around. Especially the business-class PCs that are often foisted upon us at work. Absurd key layouts, uneven actuation force, squeaky keys, friction-laden key travel, mushy feedback, flexing chassis, and more are to be found on the worst of the keyboards I’ll see in a day. Even on the better keyboards that might come with a modern computer, the chance is fairly slim that you’ll get one that really dances along with you when you start typing more than a few dozen words at a time.
If you are in the business of being at the computer and creating a lot of text, a keyboard you have to fight all the time can really be a drag. Your hands will get stiff if you’re having to hammer the keys to get the job done. If it’s too floppy, you’ll get a lot of errant key presses. Poor feedback can lead to a lot of mistakes, and generally slow you down at every turn. You’ll have to “gear down” just to get the words out. Not awesome.
Thus, we have mechanical keyboards. Not a new idea. In fact, it’s quite an old one. When the idea of keyboards to enter data into computers first arose, it was still very much the “analog era”. The theory was that, if you needed to send a signal, you had a mechanical switch. A keyboard, in essence, is just a large number of spring loaded switches. Even to this day, it is the same. They are all, if you want to get technical, mechanical devices. The differentiation is that we consider “true” mechanical switches to be individual, with their own mechanism under each key cap, rather than a gang of rubber domes beneath a bunch of scissor switches or plungers.
How it turns off and on:
There are a great many ways to go about creating the switch mechanism for a keyboard, and an equal or greater number of ways to create the spring force that returns the switch to its original position and allows the typist to recognize when the key has been pressed.
One of the most reliable of the methods for creating a switch is to create a capacitive relay that opens and closes a circuit as the mechanism of the switch is enacted. Most mechanical switches use simpler and less expensive methods to accomplish their ends, typically having some device that presses a membrane at the bottom of the switch during the key’s travel. In the end, there’s still an actual “touch point”, a place where the circuit is cut or completed. Mechanical switches used in keyboards often have an expected life cycle of something like twenty to fifty million key presses. That’s scraping the bottom edge of eternity, for any normal person. Capacitive switches, because they don’t rely upon anything touching anything else, but rather a differential voltage, can last far, far longer. In theory, they can also accomplish their task with the very minimum of noise, vibration, and harshness introduced into the switch movement.
The capacitive switch is the type used in the Topre style key switch. This is the type of switch featured in the Realforce keyboard. This is one of the few implementations of this technology in keyboards today. Why? Expense, mostly. When a task can be more easily accomplished with a simpler, cheaper mechanism, that’s usually the way the industry goes.
Above the switch itself (insofar as the actual on/off mechanism is concerned), there is the device to create the resistance necessary to give us feedback and to return the key cap to its top position when we release tension. The norm in mechanical key switches is to use either a coiled or a leaf spring. Cherry MX switches and all their many copies, use a coiled spring, as do the IBM “buckling spring” switches. ALPS switches typically use a leaf spring.
As a reminder, the average keyboard uses a dome of thin rubber to provide the tactility and resistance. A plunger pushes down on this dome of rubber, which pops back when the key is released.
Topre: The Hybrid Switch
The Topre keys in the Realforce keyboard are, in many ways, a hybrid of rubber dome and spring-based resistance. Instead of using a large sheet of rubber domes on top of the circuit board, they use a discreet dome for each switch, with a light pressure spring encapsulated within the rubber dome. These are solidly mounted to the circuit board, with the key caps bearing upon them via a plunger from above. The deformation of the spring inside the mechanism enacts the capacitive switch. That is the more primary function, rather than to be a major source of resistance.
Some would argue that the Topre switches are not “true” mechanical switches, because they use rubber domes as part of their mechanism. I will leave that distincition to those who are more sanguine about long arguments than I am. For me, I’ll just say that they are an interesting and different design, both in theory and in practice.
Topre key switches come in 35, 45, and 55 gram activation weights. Most of the keyboards feature the 45 gram switches, while some feature a mix of 35 and 45 gram switches, arrayed so that, at least in theory, the lighter switches are the ones under the fingers with less mechanical leverage upon the keys. The key switch that is featured on my keyboard is the 55 gram version.
I selected it because I have large hands, and I am known to type with a good amount of force. A slightly heavier actuation weight will sometimes serve to allow me to not have accidental key presses. It can also reduce the wear and tear on my hands from hard bottoming out on the keyboard under tray as much. I can’t compare and contrast the experience between this, the heaviest of the switches, and the lower weight ones at this time. I pretty much bottom the keys out all the time, regardless. That’s just how I’m used to typing.
The Topre keyboard has a different feel that any other keyboard I’ve ever tried. It is very solid in feel, such that the key, when you begin pressing on it, is sort of any “all or nothing” actuation. Rather than some switches, like the Cherry MX series featuring tactility, they do not “roll in” or “bump”. Rather, you know, for sure, that the key is going to go down as soon as it “breaks” from its top position. I am on the fence about how best to describe them, in regard to tactility. Depending upon how you define “tactile”, they are either highly tactile switches, or they are completly front-loaded linear mechanisms, a simple on/off. I’m going with the former, I suppose.
The sound of the Topre switches has sometimes been described as a “thock”. I would say that, of the mechanical switches out there, they create the least noise. They should not annoy nearby coworkers, or get you in trouble with someone watching TV in the same room. Unless this person is super sensitive. Then, no keyboard will help you. The noise, to me, is a purposeful mutter. Primarily low-pitched in tone, the typing noise has no click or clack involved, though there is a characteristic sound. Probably more akin to a rubber dome keyboard, though with a somewhat more authoritative sound. It bespeaks a solidity of design and mounting, since there are no rattles, vibrations, and the like.
Keep in mind that a significant element of the sound of a keyboard is related to the keycaps and the harmonic resonance frequencies of the chassis. If you put the same set of keys in different keyboards, with different keycaps, there will be a good bit of change in the timbre of the switch noise. The Realforce 87U is built well, but it isn’t necessarily trying to emulate the massively overbuilt designs of yesteryear. It’s heavier than you might expect, but it isn’t going to allow you to fend off a brown bear attack (though those are somewhat uncommon in most cases). Thus, the chassis doesn’t create a lot of extraneous noise during the course of your typing.
Let us, at last, get to the topic of typing dynamics. If I had a few adjectives to throw at this board, they would be fast and solid. The Topre switches are very positive in action, and it doesn’t take much time to get acclimated to them. After a few minutes, the keyboard sort of disappears, and you can just pay attention to what you’re typing. While this type of switch doesn’t provide the same mechanical hallmarks as some other technologies, it functions very, very well. I’ve typed for several hours on multiple occasions, and never found it to be overly tiring. If you tend to like a softer key feel and less mechanical effort, you may want to consider the lower weight versions of the switch. There is no real possibility of a partial keypress on the Topre. Do or do not. There is no try. As it were.
The Topre keys present as slightly higher tension than other switches that have the same measurable weight, because of their force curve. The solidity I mentioned comes from the very good keycap control (no key wiggle to speak of), and also from the fact that the switches return to their top position quickly, but without a lot of muttering. There is no friction, grit, or bind that I’ve been able to sense during the typing action.
What does all this lead to? Hmm. I find that I am able to type quite accurately with this keyboard, and that I do enjoy the typing experience. It lacks some of the joyous clatter that I’ve become used to, but the sound that it does create is quite purposeful and satisfying. If you want a really good keyboard, and sound level is an important consideration to you, this could be a great option. It is, however, the least “mechanical” feeling of the many switch types out there, in some ways. It feels good, but it is not trying to be anything that it is not. Think of it this way: Many of the clicky switch designs out there are trying, in their own way, to emulate the old IBM Model M keyboard. Unicomp is still basically making it. Those that are not going in that direction are basically trying to either a) give you some of that feel with les noise, or b) give you a linear switch that is far better for gaming than for typing.
Putting things into perspective:
How, then, are we to classify the Topre switches, and the Realforce ‘board they are featured on? The Topre switch, perhaps, is better described as going altogether its own way, with no presumption of having to provide anything other than a quality typing experience. To me, they feel like the best of all possible rubber dome actions, in many ways. If rubber dome keyboards were like this, few would ever find reason to fault them.
Reasonable typing speed can be achieved with many keyboards. Some of them require a lot more practice and a lot more accuracy to achieve that speed without a ton of typographical errors (more than what you make simply because you can’t spell or fumble-finger stuff because your technique is iffy). Some limit your maximum speed because of oddities that will take you out of the typing momentum, or limit your total typing output because they are tiresome to use.
When I’m attuned to a good mechanical keyboard, I am able to type a little faster, a little longer, and with less frustration. In fact, on the best of them, I find reasons to type longer than I really need to. The Topre-equipped Realforce is one of those keyboards. I think that I probably type about as fast with this board as I can type with anything. It’s a very willing dance partner. Fatigue is minimal, and would be even less with 45g switches, I predict. Because of the inherent price of keyboards with Topre switches, I can’t in all good conscience and fiscal responsibility just buy up a large variety of different models to compare and contrast. Perhaps one day, I’ll get one with 45g switches, but it will almost certainly be in a different form factor. (Yes, you know I have one in mind already, and am simply biding my time!)
Does it have “the look”?
The look of the keyboard is altogether conventional, but for the tenkey-less layout. It doesn’t have backlighting, fancy logos, weird fonts, or anything to draw attention to itself. It is not a showy ‘board. It is really the anti-gaming keyboard, not because it couldn’t acquit itself well in the realm of gaming (though it wouldn’t be my pick), but because it is, in all ways, understated. The average person would not look twice at this keyboard. In fact, they’d probably wonder why you had such an old-timey peripheral hooked up to your computer. I actually quite appreciate this. If you want to bling out your ‘board, I think that the Cherry key switches are the way to go. There are a million different options for replacement keycaps. There are wild RGB effects. There are all manner of other gizmos. I don’t think that’s the market for this keyboard at all, and I already have a gaming ‘board.
The intolerably long conclusion:
So, conclusion time. This is a great keyboard. It’s a very expensive keyboard. If you are a hardcore typist who likes a very positive key feel, but doesn’t like loud clicking or a great deal of clatter, then this technology is something you want to look into. There are examples of the Topre switch in keyboards that cost significantly less than the Realforce, but I am given to understand that you do sacrifice some built quality with those models. If you like the idea of the switch type, but need a numeric keypad, there are full size keyboards that cost about the same as the 87U.
There is even a nominal gaming model. I don’t think the characteristics of this switch type really work to their best advantage in gaming, but some may disagree. In terms of key weighting, you must search yourself and decide if you prefer a somewhat stiff key feel, or if you would like one that you could use with minimum of effort. This same keyboard comes in 45g and 55g. The difference of ten grams doesn’t sound like very much, but it is certainly palpable, especially after long hours of typing.
In the end, this is a keyboard that will last a long time, one that will work best for a touch typist who enters thousands of words per day at the computer. Does the quality justify the price? I would say that it might be a stretch to say it does. There is, I think, a certain price that you’re paying for the “halo effect” of the switch type. The preference for key feel is also highly subjective, and what you’re accustomed to using will have a strong impact upon your initial experience. As I mentioned earlier, all keyboards take some level of familiarization to use them to best effect. The Topre, to my mind, has one of the easiest learning curves, as I was off to the races on the first night.
If noise level is not an issue, that opens up the field of contenders a bit, but the Topre still deserves consideration, if your budget will stretch that far. For me, I don’t believe that the Topre switch can quite match the typing pleasure of the buckling pring key switches on my Unicomp, but those switches are loud, even for people who like loud keyboards. They also require a determined hand. You need to get “over” the buckling spring keyboard. Jumping from a laptop keyboard to the big Unicomp is like you’re playing a different sport. It takes some getting used to. One more data point is that the Unicomp is about one third the cost, and it’s made in the USA.
Comparing the Topre to the Unicomp is not a terribly useful thing to do. They’re altogether different products, with different aims. The form factor question alone makes it questionable.
Who actually needs this?
What is the market for these keyboards? Professional or dedicated typists who create hundreds of thousands of words per year, who have a more or less conventional touch typing form, and who need a solid, fast, but unobtrusive keyboard. Oh, and they’ll need to be willing to throw long green at the problem. Sound like you? Realforce sells through Amazon, and you can have one in a few short days.
Cheers, and happy typing.