Posts Tagged ‘keyboards’

 

K552-1

Yet another in the growing group of inexpensive mechanical keyboards, the K552 is manifestly similar to a few of the others I’ve tried. It is a tenkey-less model that uses a metal top plate and floating keys. The switches are Outemu blues, and they feature single color backlighting, red color only. Key caps are double-shot ABS. There are nine levels of brightness available for the backlights, as well as fully off. As I’ve come to expect from this type of cap, the contrast isn’t the strongest with the backlight all the way off. In a normally-lit room, however, it should be sufficient to locate the letter you’re looking for, or the home row.

None of the brightness levels are overly intrusive. Even the lowest of the illumination settins works to significantly improve legibility. The font featured here on the key legends is about what you’d exect. A bit “gamer”, but useful enough. I’ve mentioned before all these backlit keys seem to be manufactured by the same few companies, or at least to a similar standard.

The structural rigidity is significant. Unlike some of the other models in this price range, the K552 features a one-piece plastic under-tray that exends all the way around the sides and beyond the surface of the top plate. This adds a more substantial feel to the keyboard. The flip up feet have a rubber traction wrap on them, wich is appreciated.

In Use:

If you’re familiar with the blue switch ‘board, this one provides the same typing feel as others of its ilk. It has the Outemu switches, which I’ve found to be just a bit heavier and more tactile than other Cherry-based switches. As well, they seem to have a bit crisper click sound. I’ve very close to calling the Outemu switch my favorite of the clones in the blue type. I like them fine, and think they’re a great value for the money. The noise will be an issue in a shared environment, so prepare yourself for that.

Kumara makes a brown-switch version of this same ‘board, so that might be the better choice to lower the noise level down a bit. My undersanding is that the switch type is the only difference. There are also other versions of the ‘board that feature no backlight (even less money), multiple color LED (non changing), and RGB programmable LEDs. The RGB is, of course, more money as the addition of the more expensive LEDs will add complexity and material cost. Even the most expensive version is less than $60 at current prices (Spring 2017). Because the RGB feature is not important to me, but is a feature that others are interested in, the value of these various versions is subjective. For reference, the single color backlight is about $35 at this time. The non-lit version is under $30, if maximum value is your watchword.

The K552 is a good typing machine, and feels very solid under your fingers. It has no sag, squeak, or other unaccountable mechanical sound during the typing process. Since I didn’t mention it before, the device arrived in perfect condition, and everything works as expected. The small lip around the outside of the key block doesn’t quite function as a bezel, but it gives a little protection to the floating keys, such that impacts from the side are less likely to bear upon the outside perimeter as heavily. Think of it as sort of a meta-bezel.

At this point, I’ve become altogether familiar with the 87 key layout, and don’t really find it to be an impediment at all to my work. I don’t do a lot of numerical entry, however. If you’re all about the Excel spreadsheets and data entry, you’ll want to shop for a ‘board with a numeric keypad. They are out there, and often just a small amount higher in price than their TKL competitors.

As with other blue switch ‘boards, this will likely not provide any significant advantage for gaming. Depending on your preference, you might find it slightly stiffer than you’re used to, but no blue switch is ultra-stiff, so you needn’t worry that it will be unworkable for the average typist.

Because everything about the layout is standard, you have no adaptation to do in terms of reach and spacing. ANSI layout is maintained right down the line. There are function layer commands for things like media control and auto-launching some Windows features, like the calculator. The LEDs can be turned up and down with this FN key command layer, as well. All is as expected.

Summary:

All in all, you get a solid and useful keyboard for your money here. I wouldn’t say that it is particularly stunning looker, but it is a “quiet” enough design that you have some dress up options at your disposal. Because of the raised “Redragon” logo panel, it would take a bit of work for you to arrive at an altogether custom appearance. You could sand down the logo and repaint the top plate a different color, but that is a bit more work than you may want to do.

The red LED will be something of a limiting factor for key replacement, as you’ll want to make sure that you select alternate key caps that will go well with the red lighting (unless, of course, you plan to simply turn the LEDs off altogether). If your key caps are altogether opaque, the red light will still propagate from beneath the keys. Of course, if you have a keyset designed for backlighting, that will do just fine. I may re-cap this keyboard when I have some caps in hand with which to start a project. I’ll touch base with the results.

Usage Case:

I see this is a nice option at the cost. It goes for about what the Drevo Tyrfing and a few other keyboards cost. I still feel that, for customizing, the Tyrfing is one of the best options. That said, it has a particular acoustic component that may not be to everyone’s taste. The Kumara provides a nice option, and I think that it would serve well. I believe that it is a step up on fit and finish as well as build quality, when compared to the cheapest mechanicals.

For a home user or someone in a situation where typing noise is not a factor, this offers a lot of performance for the dollar, and may also serve as a an interesting option for a “project ‘board”. For someone looking to dip their toe into the waters of mechanical keyboards, or someone who wants a device that they can try customizing without worrying about ruining a very expensive device, this could be the very thing.

Out of the box, it provides good tactility and audible feedback, looks fairly nice, and has a sturdy feel. That’s a lot to get for less than forty bones.

Cheers, and happy typing.

 

Azio MGK-1 Mechanical Keyboard

Posted: June 11, 2017 in keyboarding
Tags:

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In the beginning of my mechanical keyboard journey, I found myself purchasing examples of the breed that went for well over a hundred dollars. They had Cherry MX switches. At that time, there weren’t nearly as many choices as there are today. You had old IBMs, the Cherry ‘boards that were easily available, and then a few fringe players that were hard to find and expensive.

Due to the recent advent of Cherry clone switches, there are a vast array of new keyboards to look at. I’ve already investigated a good number of the least expensive new ‘boards. Those proved to be quite useful devices, though many of them were hampered by a few small design oddities. In terms of making the clicking sound and sending the character to the computer, however, they were just fine. They worked as well, or even better than the “real” Cherry ‘boards.

The gap in my knowledge base was the “mid-priced” products. There are a good number of devices that go from $60 or so to up around the $100 range that I didn’t have any experience with. In some cases, the value brands will offer a bucks-up version of their keyboard that features either a “real” Cherry switch complement or one of the more expensive clones, like the Kailh or Gateron switch. In other cases, we’ll see brands that have chosen to position themselves in this price category and built their product from the ground up to satisfy this requirement.

The Product:

The Azio MGK-1 features Kailh switches. It has a single color backlight, but this is implemented in a “non gamer” fashion. What that means is that there aren’t a million different flashy effects. It’s on or off, with a reactive mode that lights up the key you’ve just hit, and lets you adjust the brightness. There are three levels of brightness, and the top brightness level isn’t blinding or disruptive. In a room with normal amounts of ambient light, the LEDs at full are fine.

The Azio is a pretty swanky looking ‘board. It has a blacked-out aluminum top plate with a brushed finish. The floating key caps feel pretty nice. They sit atop Kailh blue switches. As much as the top appears to bespeak high levels of weight and structure, the underside is fairly mudane or even underwhelming. The red plastic base features basic fold out feet that seem a little flimsy and don’t feature traction inserts. The metal top plate provides enough rigidity, however, while the minimal underside keeps weight low (if that is a concern).

In terms of nits to pick with the looks, I would only say that the LEDs used for the num lock, caps lock, and Windows lock are a bit brighter than I prefer. They are probably twice as intense as is required, and don’t appear to be configurable.

With build, I’d like to see better flip-up feet and a bit more material used on the underside, just to give the ‘boad a bit more substance.

In Use:

The employment of a blue type switch typically comes with several choices preset about the ‘board. The sound is going to be significant. The click of these switches has a bright, crispy sound that will either be something you’re totally into, or a real annoyance.

The sound of the Kailh switches, while consonant with the other blues I’ve tried, is not quite the same as the Cherry or the Outemu brands. The Outemu brand is the loudest of them, with what I feel is the “crispest” sound. The Cherry are, to my ears, the highest pitched in their sound, but not quite as loud. The Kailh switches are slightly mellower in their sound. These are all somewhat subtle distinctions, however, and would be hard to isolate without being in the room with keyboards thus equipped.

To my mind, blue switches have always been a mixed bag. I like the sound, and I like the feel (mostly), but I find that I often type a bit better with some of the other switch types. They are rewarding, but I’ve had a hard time warming up to them in some cases. I think that they are right on that threshold of weighting where I can’t “float” type, but if I go at them like I’d do with a buckling spring, I overpower them and bottom out hard. Shrug. It’s an issue that just using the particular key type for a few days would clear up. All of these technologies have a small amount of spin-up time where you’re not as comfortable as you might be.

The layout and key position of the Azio is altogether standard, so there is no adaptation needed to cope with that. If you’ve typed on a blue switch ‘board before, you’ll be able to get right to work here. As I said, the sound is a little more mellow than some blue-equipped boards. Let that not be code for “quiet”, however. Anything but. There are no quiet blue switch keyboards. Even with O-rings installed, they are going to make some noise. Also, O-rings kind of ruin the key feel, at least for me. Opinions must vary, because they carry on selling those things. Someone must like them.

Overall, I find the typing experience to be quite similar to the blue switch ‘boards I’ve already used. Which, I suppose, is to be expected. It can’t be more than it is. There is no fairy dust or unicorn powder at play. In terms of actual typing, I don’t know that it offers anything that the cheaper ‘boards don’t.

If looks are important, and you want to have a prettier or classier ‘board on your desk, then this one does have an advantage. Also, it does come with a palm rest, if you use such things. I find that most of my implementations do not require a palm rest, and that their inclusion would only hinder my progress. Thus, I have not used the included part for the Azio in any of my testing. Keep in mind that, when touch typing, it’s better form to have your wrists at a flat angle, and well above where the palm rest would normally have them. Just sayin’. If you’re going to be typing up a storm, we don’t want you to get yourself all ginked up.

Summary:

The Azio keyboard is a nice looking, good functioning device. If you have a fairly tasteful computer rig and you want a mechanical that goes along with this aesthetic, I think you could do worse. It’s significantly less expensive than something like a DasKeyboard, which would be in a competitive space. Since this is a full-sized unit, it will likely just sit in the same place for its whole life. Thus, any small concerns I have over its toughness are probably academic.

The Kailh switches seem good. I don’t know if they offer anything in particular that the Outemu switches lack, but there is no reason that I can see to shy away from them. If a keyboard you are interested in has this brand switch, I think you’ll find that they work as expected.

In relation to the full-fat Cherry MX keyboard market, the Azio is something of a value option. If you are less concerned with the looks, know that there are keyboards that will perform at a similar level for twenty or twenty-five dollars less. If this is not a meaningful economy for you, then the Azio might be the right choice. Also be aware that, if you’re something of a gearhead, you can purchase a set of aftermaket key caps to customize the look and feel of your ‘board. Doing that, you can take the cheapest of the ‘boards and make it look as nice as the Azio, or take the Azio and use it as the launch point for something amazing. Anything with minimally-invasive badging and a standard key complement will be great for such a project. There are excellent PBT key cap sets for as little as $20 available online. I’ll be doing a whole article on #keyboardhotrodding in the future where I talk in greater detail on this point.

Usage Case:

This is an “at home” keyboard. It’s too loud for work, and it’s not really suited for going into your backpack and accompanying you to the local coffee shop to hipster out. For that, I’d look at something like the Magicforce 68, or at least a tenkey-less model.

As with other keyboards using this switch type, I don’t think it offers any great advantage for gaming, and could actually be something of an impediment, if you’re used to a membrane keyboard or something with linear switches.

Typing is where it’s at for this machine. In an enviornment that is not noise-averse, it could be a really good option. It has the looks, and it has them at a price that isn’t quite as shocking to the average consumer. Also, it should be mentioned that Azio makes a fully Mac-based key format, so you don’t have to re-map anything or guess if the media keys will function. The Mac version is all in silver and white, so it will match up with the aesthetic of the computer in question.

Just know that this version is about 1/3rd more expensive, due to tooling and volume concerns. Still, far less than than a Matias, and possibly more attractive in the visual sense for some buyers. I will not say that the blue switches are as good as the Matias tactile pros, however. They have advantages, but overall typing joy still goes to the Matias, in my estimation. That’s a whole seperate argument, however, and in the PC sphere, the cost of a Matias ‘board is well over double that of the Azio. So, then, not a fair comparison.

Back in the land of apples-to-apples, it’s a pretty good bargain. In the realm of Kailh switches, I think that it’s one of the less expensive options (many of the others I’ve seen are kitchy in some way, while this is fairly standard in form and execution).

So, for the traditional keyboardist who mainly wants good typing feel, a handsome device, and a reasonable price, this would be one I’d recommend to try.

Cheers, and happy typing!

Note: It should be mentioned that the stabilizers on the larger keys have an interesting issue wherein they require great care when replacing keys, and often don’t quite line up on the first go ’round. Also, a few of the keys (the spacebar and the right shift) have non-standard spacing for the stabilizer inserts. This will make replacing these two keys problematic. I ended up finding it impossible to replace those two keys when re-capping the keyboard. While this isn’t necessarily the biggest deal, the stock caps on this ‘board are not the absolute best. If you’re like me, you’ll find that you want to upgrade them. In this, you’ll have to look for a special “compatibility pack” to help you out, if even that can. I’ll have to give this ‘board a demerit for the two issues listed above, and put it in the “probably don’t buy” category as a result.

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The tired old adage says that you get what you pay for. Well, sometimes you do, and sometimes you’re disappointed. In the end, if you fork over long green for a product, the expectation is that you are going to come away with something you’ll enjoy, something that will last. You hope that your investment will turn out to be a warranted and useful expenditure.

If we avail ourselves of the many resources that the modern era provides, it is possible to be a more informed consumer than at any time in history. If someone’s purchased a product we’re interested in, anywhere in the world, chances are that they may have shared their experiences. With common products, there’s absolutely no reason you can’t get a really good bead on what they’re like, and if they have fatal flaws. All it takes is a little time and access to the web.

Thus, our large purchases should, in a world of good and light, be low risk. Not altogether without risk, because this is the real world, and not everything is perfect, or what we expect. But mostly good.

I have more than a few high priced keyboards, some of them well documented here on this forum. I have a strong sense of what to expect when I plunk down big money for a keyboard. I can tell you about what to expect, as well. At least within some frame of reference, anyway. I can help you get what you pay for in that class of high-priced gear.

The situation becomes less clear when the amount of money being spent is far less. I found that, in the current atmosphere, I didn’t have a strong grasp on what one could expect for “average human” money. I understand that most people don’t have any interest in paying over a hundred dollars for a keyboard. Perhaps it’s not something that’s financially feasible for them, even if they’d love to do so. They need a decent keyboard, but they have to look at the bottom line. More likely, they just haven’t taken leave of their senses, as I have.

While keyboards featuring “real” mechanical switches are far less expensive than they once were, the form factors and feature sets of those ‘boards are not always exactly what a normal consumer is looking for. Even looking at spending $40 to $60 for a budget priced mechanical might put some people out of the running. I get that. There are more important things. If you’re having a tough time making the rent or putting food on the table, that’s an extravagance you can’t pursue.

Thus, I’m seeing if we can get a good typing experience, a good quality keyboard, for far less. Here, we are below even the cheapest mechanical designs, down into the territory of a simple peripheral.

The typical replacement keyboard of wired type is going for something like $8 to around $30, depending on brand and features (U.S. money, 2017). Many of them group around $15, give or take a few dollars.

These are straight up rubber dome keyboards, usually with full stroke keys, but some of them featuring laptop-style scissor switches instead. Those are becoming more and more popular. I don’t think it’s a great trend, but I’m not consulted on these things. Which is a shame. I have thoughts. Ah, well.

What I wanted to do was see if there was something that was “better” than what the run of the mill rubber dome keyboard could provide, while still being as affordable as possible. Less than even the cheapest mechanical.

What I found, after some poking around, was that there were some ‘boards being touted as “half mechanical” or “mechanical feel” designs. I found one that didn’t look so outlandish that I would be tempted to regurgitate into it, and ordered an example.

The model I picked was from a company called Masione. It didn’t seem to have a name, per se, but it does say “Gaming Keyboard” on the box. The Amazon listing goes something like “USB Connected Seven Color Backlit Gaming Keyboard with Mechanical Feel Switches.” That’s what we’ll go with. Yeah, the ad wizards were up all night coming up with that one. Very catchy. Rolls right off the tongue. The cost was around $22 dollars, all together. That’s rounding up. It’s not exactly a caviar budget item. Most should be able to swing that kind of money.

What it looks like:

As befits a gaming-inspired keyboard today, this one has LED backlighting, all manner of weird light shows using said lights, and some, ahem, interesting design elements going on. In the main, though, it looks like some of the space saver models from Dell that came out several years ago. You know the ones. They look like they did their darnedest to take every cubic centimeter of extra material off. The Masione is sort of like a garish, less-well-done version of that.

The box it came in was fairly well printed, with a full wrap of information. that information was accurate enough, though it didn’t go into extensive detail. It was described as having “mechanical touch plunger keys”, which was the primary point of interest for me.

How it works:

Though there is no mention of such language in the official literature included, the listing on Amazon called this model a “half mechanical” design.

I don’t believe that there is any logic in the idea of something being half mechanical. I don’t think it’s a state that one could find in a keyboard. Mechanical feel? Sure, I guess.

Here’s how the keyboard works. It is, underneath, a normal enough rubber dome keyboard. The sole component that imparts resistance and tactile feel to the key presses is a dome of rubber. The actuation point of the device is all the way down at the bottom of the stroke. If you don’t press the key all the way, you won’t see a character sent to the computer. The rubber dome has to collapse all the way to initiate the membrane switch below it.

Mechanical keyboards, in the main, have their actuation point at the half-way point of their travel, or a bit deeper in some circumstances. They also feature a resistance mechanism utilizing a sprint of some kind.

A normal rubber dome keyboard has an in-built stem that reaches down below the baseplate of the ‘board, acting directly upon the rubber dome. One of the issues with this design is that the plunger arm that is inbuilt into the bottom of the key cap will often have a lot of surface area that is a friction-bearing zone. This is necessary for key stabilization during the keypress. The negative thing is that, when “stuff” gets into the keyboard, it can easily get into this cylindrical channel and cause the keys to be very sticky or friction-laden. Because these little accidents often only affect a few keys, you’ll get very uneven resistance, with some keys requiring you to smash them down like a concert pianist during a crecendo. Not awesome. Even brand new, the plunger-on dome feeling can vary a lot between keys, and the effect of wear can make things get a lot worse.

Here’s where the Masione’s design comes in. It is a “dome and slider” mechanism. Instead of having the plunger be of the same, possibly not-ideal material that the keycaps are made out of (Likely ABS plastic), the key cap can sit upon a slider that’s built into the base plate. Once pushed onto that slider, the keycap can depress it as normal. The slider, though, can be made out of a plastic and with a design that maximizes stability, while reducing friction and the possiblity of being compromised with contaminants (like your Mountain Dew, Fred).

In the Masione’s case, it uses a slider that mimics the look of the Cherry MX key switch. That is to say, it has a faux switch housing built up from the base plate, and a slider that has a cross shaped top. This design rejects a lot of dust and debris, while being very stable. It also allows people to take the keys off easily and safely, so that cleaning the keyboard is not a terrible job. Finally, because the stems are compatible with all the thousands of key caps out there for the Cherry MX design, you can replace a broken key cap or customize the look of your ‘board, should you desire. (More on this later.)

Dome and slider keyboards have been around for quite a long time. I believe the 90s were the period when they were most prevalent, but the information on this design isn’t exhaustive. At least, my understanding of it is not. They were, typically, not ‘boards that songs were sung about. They were good to fair, for the most part.

Hands on:

The Masione keyboard has a few, ahem, design oddities. The first is a wildly oversize bottom row of keys. The space bar is almost three times the size of a normal model, if we measure from the base up toward the function row. It’s huge. This is the sort of thing that keyboards used to do a lot, but is rarely seen today. The Windows, Function, and Alt keys are likewise massive. What does that mean? it means that you had better not break them, because you won’t find a good replacement.

The next thing to be concerned about is the “big ass enter” key. Yep. One of those. Like it wasn’t sure whether it was an ISO or ANSI format. So it sort of went for both. This design was big in the early 90’s if I remember correctly. The downside? Tiny 1×1 backspace key. The single width backspace takes some time to get used to, and can be really infuriating while that learning curve is curving. You get a lot of this:

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(The big group of equals signs are failed taps at the backspace. This design helps you really steer into the skid.)

These design elements can take some getting used to, but are not outright dealbreakers. They’re deal…complicators.

The huge spacebar, other than imparting an odd sound to the key press, doesn’t really do much to impede your progress. I have found that, contrary to accepted touch typing mechanics, I hit the backspace with my ring finger on my right hand. It should be the pinky finger, but hey. I’m old. That would be a new trick. In any case, that’s a bit of a stretch from the home row, and requires pretty fine motor control. In the course of an evening, I was able to get it down pretty well, but it takes a little forebearance on the typist’s part.

Other than those things, it’s pretty much just like another keyboard you might find. It should be mentioned that there is a nice, heavy aluminum backplane to this keyboard, so that it is a good bit stiffer and more significant in feel than your average plastic fantastic you’d get with your PC.

The key action. That’s where everyone wants to go, right?

Key actuation force is quite light. That’s the first thing to notice. I would say that it is maybe a bit lighter than a Cherry MX Brown. They don’t feel the same, but the weighting is similar.

The keys don’t feel mushy, despite the light weight. There is a nice key control, and a certain level of initial resistance that makes the “give” come on with a sense of tactile response. Again, you can’t float type. You have to bottom out. That’s the technology. That said, because it’s light, and has a fairly “present” feel, it’s easy enough to type with some speed and accuracy. The typing feel is, I suppose, a pale imitation of the Topre switch. The feel is along the same vein. If you liked this feel, you’d dig Topre. Topre keyboards are about ten times as expensive. I’m not kidding. Maybe twelve or fourteen times as expensive, depending on the model.

The feel of the keys is siginficantly better than an of your garden variety rubber dome keyboards. A clear and easy to feel difference. Much more tactile, much less mushy. Generally a much more sorted-out feeling. There is a certain lack of positivity remaining, however. Because the bottom of the travel is touching the rubber dome against a membrane switch, it has a soft landing feel, a sort of padded sensation. For some, this might be their preference. It might decrease the amount of stress coming back into your fingers. On the other hand, there is a definitive, clear sense of a full key press on a mechanical switch, because the key cap is actually hitting the base plate. The “clack” part.

This is not a loud keyboard. I would say that it is approximately the same sound level as a Topre or a Cherry MX Black, if not just slightly less loud than the Cherry model. It has something of the “thock” sound that the Topre produces. Probably not quite as loud. In general, this is not a keyboard that will bug nearby folks with its noise. It just kind of mutters. The only key that really makes much noise is the space bar, but that’s a fairly low frequency sound, and I actually like that particular sound. I took it into work, however, and my nearest co-worker did not agree. At least when I was typing at 100wpm in his ear with it.

Compared directly to a mechanical:

The typing feel and action is pretty good on the Masione keyboard. In the kingdom of cheap membrane keyboards, it is something of a heroic aberration. For a percentage of typists, this will be the exact feel that they want. Light effort, soft landing, plenty of tactile response. Just enough sound that you can have a sense of the typing action taking place. No unpleasant sounds or feelings.

However, all is not perfect in Masione land. I find that the incidents of dropped keystrokes is far more prevalant than with a mechanical. Not because the keyboad malfunctions, but because the keys have to be pressed right to the stops, and any level of float or any lazy press on my part will not register. That’s just a limtation of the technology, and one of the reasons that we have a whole generation of computer users who are sued to typing really hard. They have to.

I could adapt, if this were my daily driver. Sure. No problem. I would just unleash the beast and type hard. I can do it. If I can adapt to the oddities of the layout, I can get the key press requirements down.

The Masione does an admirable job of trying to class up a fairly pedestrian technology. It hits a lot of marks. It does have a certain level of mechanical feel. In a more traditional layout, it would make an even larger case for itself. Even with its dubious design choices, it has a place in the market. I’d still take a MX Brown switch keyboard ten out of ten times, if money were not an object.

Usage Case:

If you want to get a better keyboard, but aren’t ready or able to spend a lot on the enterprise, this little guy will get you some distance toward a better typing experience. There would still be room to grow, room to explore, but you would have your foot wedged in the door to the promised land.

There could be a circumstance wherein you will need a servicable ‘board, but will be reticent to bring an expensive piece of equipment into the theater of operations, so to speak. For instance, you have a terrible keyboard at work, but they won’t buy you a new one. Without going out backward for the week, you could bring the Masione in, and at least have a tool that wouldn’t impede you at every turn.

So, as an inexpensive upgrade or a semi-perishable tool for rough conditions, this could really fit the bill.

Final Thoughts:

I’m indifferent to the gamer design elements on this keyboard. The backlight is reasonable when left in a single color, and can be shut off, should it prove distracting. The typing dynamics are good enough to use without risking a trip bummertown, though some inadequacies of the rubber dome technology persist.

This is a good keyboard. For the money, I don’t know that it would be easy to improve upon it. You’d almost have to comb through a local recycler to find a good used model to do so. That is with the caveat that there will be a bit of learning curve, due to the key placement and shape.

Spending another ten or twenty dollars would get you into a “real” mechanical keyboard that would be more my taste. If you dip into the price bracket of sub-$30, the only real contender is the Velocifire TKL01. It’s a better keyboard. It has its own faults, but it’s a real mechanical. I’d pick that, if for no other reason than because of its normal layout.

If you’re intrigued with the idea of this keyboard, I’d encourage you to give it a try. Even if it doesn’t end up being something that you’re head over heels about, it’s inexpensive enough that it can serve as an emergency spare, or be given to some friend or relative who could really use an upgrade. The Masione would be an upgrade for many of them. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Cheers, and happy typing.

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Opening Salvo:

In my adventures with mechanical keyboards, I have tried a lot of switch types. Most of them, I’d be bold enough to say. One common switch I’d failed to try out, though, was the Cherry MX Red switch. I’d played on ‘boards that had this switch here and there, but not long enough to really get much of a feel for them.

I knew that they were light. I knew that they were linear. I knew that they were purported to be the bee’s knees for gaming. In my recent round of acquisitions, though, I decided to make getting a red switch keyboard a priority.

One of the secondary missions of the buying spree (did I call it a buying spree? Sigh.) was to evaluate the Cherry MX-style switches from other companies. This lead me to the purchase of the Drevo Tyrfing ‘board.

It is a tenkey-less design of fairly normal proportions and feature set. Featuring a rather “quiet” design, it has a single color backlight (nominally white, though it has a bit of a blue component). Other than a somewhat “gamer” font on the key caps, it looks business-like.

The Tyrfing I purchased is in black, with Outemu red switches. In the current market, mechanical keyboards that feature the Cherry MX key switches, which are made in Germany, often come in at greater than $100 in cost. Because the patent has run out on that switch design, several other companies have begun to produce similar switches. One of those, Outemu, has switches featured on some of the most economical models. Some Outemu-equipped keyboards can be had for as little as $32 or so (Spring 2017, U.S. money).

In my early investigations of these switches, I’ve found them to feel and type much like the more expensive Cherry models, upon which they’re based. In some cases, they might diverge slightly, but that has not always proved to be a bad thing. The difference in cost is far more compelling than the difference in key feel or performance. The verdict on how they will perform over a long duty cycle has yet to be reached. The stated lifespan of the switches is fifty million key presses, just like the Cherry switches. This will be a hard assertion of reliability to test, as it would take lifetimes to input that many key presses for most usage cases.

So, then, in the short run, the Drevo keyboard’s use of the Outemu switch shouldn’t be a large mark against it. The configuration allowed me to pick up the keyboard for less than $40 on Amazon. The testing of a new switch type doesn’t come much cheaper than that, at present.

I would venture a guess that the current pricing is about as low as we’re likely to see. I wouldn’t be surprised if the prices will end up trending higher, if the overall user experience proves to be good over the next year or so. As people learn to trust the new switch manufacturers, they’ll be able to dial in a profit margin that still gives them a market share, but maintains their economic advantage over the competition. But that is all guess work. Let us go back to the main topic of the review.

External Overview:

The Tyrfing, like a lot of its counterparts, has an aluminum top plate, a “floating” key design and no bezel. Thus, it has a small footprint, being approximately the same width as a 15.4 inch laptop. Unlike a lot of its competition, the Tyrfing is blissfully free of badging. There is a small Drevo logo on the space bar’s vertical surface, but that’s it. Drevo’s logo is actually kind of neat, being a horse’s head coming out of a gear. Looks like something you’d see on a race car.

The LED backlighting can be turned off or made to operate in various flashy ways. I think that the best usage case is to have it solidly on. it isn’t distracting in this way, and provides the best legibility for the key legends. When the LED is turned off, the legends are deep gray on black, in effect. The key caps, while on the subject, are double-shot ABS, which is something of a surpise at this price point. This means that the legends can’t wear off, being made from a translucent plastic that is directly bonded to the black plastic outside cap. This is more or less the gold standard method for key cap manufacture. Sweet.

While we’re on the topic of thoughtful features, the Drevo has a red and black braided USB cable. It looks a lot like my favorite guitar cables, which gives me some tender feelings toward the ‘board. The cable can be routed in the midde or either side, using a cable routing channel built into the underside of the unit. Because of its understated looks, this keyboard could probably make it in an office setting without setting of any alarm bells for your boss.

Yes, it could be wished that the key caps had a slightly more legible and professional font, but it’s far from the worst or most garish thing I’ve seen lately. With the LEDs either off or in a non-flashing mode, it looks all right.

The construction of the keyboard is solid, and everything fits together as you’d expect. There are rubber feet at all four corners, and the flip-up feet also have rubber cladding, so that the grip upon the work surface is still good when the inclination is in place. That’s a nice touch, and is not always found, even on more expensive units.

In Use:

The red switch is a linear model, with no tactile bump or click function. Featuring light resistance, the listed weight required to create a key press is 45 grams for the “legit” Cherry MX switches, but 50 or 55 (depending on the literature) for the Outemu. This is the same amount as on the popular brown switch type, and a little lighter than the blue switch, which has been the switch of choice for a lot of typists.

In comparing the feel of the red switch to that of a brown switch keyboard (this one featuring actual Cherry MX brown switches), the weight seems about the same. Because of the lack of tactile bump, there is a smooth feel to the keystroke on the red switch. This is more noticable in pressing a single key than in the act of touch typing, but it is a palpable difference. It shows that, yes, both switch types are doing what they are intended to do.

I have found that linear switches tend to yield a fairly quiet typing result. This has been borne out by my Cherry MX Black keyboard, which is one of the the quietest of my mechanicals. The black switch and the red switch, in design, are essentially the same. The only real difference is that the red switch has a lighter actuation force. Other than the lighter spring tension, it should feel the same. And it does.

Outemu has done a nice job in making a smooth switch that is fairly low effort, but solid enough under the fingers to keep from having a lot of errant key presses. Whereas the black switch keyboard I have can become a bit tiresome after a period of typing, this one should be less taxing. It is a keyboard that you can “float” quite well, in that you don’t have to press very hard, and once you learn the activation point of the switches, you don’t have to really bottom out very often. I am not terribly good at this, but it is said to be the most ergonomic way to type. I tend to smash the keys to the stops most of the time.

It is nice to not have to type “hard” to get the characters sent. It minimizes missing characters in a string, and allows you to work in a way that isn’t too taxing. I have found that I like the feel of the red switches more than I thought I would. In point of fact, I find it to be nearly the equal of the brown switch type, in my ability to enjoy the typing experience. That had not been my forecast, and I’d steered clear of the switch for a few years becuase of this misapprehension. I often find that things we think are true would benefit from actual testing.

The red switch is primarly marketed toward the gaming market, as it is supposed to be a “fast” switch for doing first person shooter games. Many typists spurn its advances. I was among them. I have now learned better. The red is a better switch than I had given it credit for in this regard. That’s nice for me, becuase I’m not really gaming at this point. I am, however, typing like a mad bastard.

The sound of the Tyrfing keyboard is about as unobtrusive as you’ll find in a true mechanical that isn’t using special silencing methods. If you’re able to type without bottoming out the keys hard, you can further limit the noise. So long as you don’t work in an ultra noise- averse enviornment, you should be fine. The vigor with which you press the keys will, of course, have some impact on how loud the presentation will be. This is true, even with membrane keyboards. If you type angry, there will be some noise.

I have not felt that the volume of the keyboard is an impediment to nearby coworkers in an open office setting, and no one has complained. It’s louder than a normal rubber dome keyboard, but the quality of the sound doesn’t contain any unpleasant components. There is no ringing or other harmonic noise from the key presses. Just a kind of wood-block sound as the keys hit and reset. A mild, industrious sound, to my ears.

The typing dynamics are normal for this key layout, and I had no problem locating anything. I didn’t have to squint at my hands at any point. That’s a plus. Typing is positive and feels nice. I am able to type quickly and accurately. As with most mechanicals, the qualitative elements of the typing experience are night and day above a rubber dome or scissor switch. I have found that there is no real learning curve for the red switch. You simply put your hands on the home row and get to work. That’s what we hope for, and so I will call this a win for Drevo and Outemu.

Final Verdict:

For under $40, they have created a useful and (mostly) attractive keyboard. The switch and build quality have nothing to apologize for. I believe it provides a high-value entrance to the market, and one that should work for a variety of tasks and surroundings. Because it doesn’t draw attention to itself, it took me a little time to appreciate the Tyrfing, but it is a grower. The more that I use it, the better it works, and the faster I can type. That’s a good outcome.

We live in an interesting era. I feel that a great typing experience is much closer to hand and affordable that it was, even five years ago. Some of the keyboards in the $35 to $60 range are really good now. Amazingly good.

For the money that I paid for my first mechanical, one could easily get three or four different mechanicals at these prices, deciding what form factor and switch type they liked by the process of A/B testing. That’s pretty cool. I’m not saying the the average typist should get a whole cartload of keyboards and winnow them down after deciding, but if you want to do GREAT SCIENCE, I’m all in favor of that. As, I suppose, you knew I would be.

Cheers, and happy typing.

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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.

Key Weighting: 

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.

Key Feel:

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.

Sound: 

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.

Typing Dynamics: 

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.

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Back in the day…

Let us, for a moment, cast our minds back to the 1980’s. The hair was big. The shoulder pads were impressive. The rise of the home computer was upon the world. Well-heeled citizens were able to pay a great deal of money for the honor of having an “actual” computer in their homes or business offices.

A few years prior, computing was wholly the province of big business, the military, and research divisions at universities. It was the era of great specialization in computing. Every one of those massive mainframe computers was a custom thing, almost built to spec. They often had their own bespoke operating system. They required a staff of people to keep them running. They were expensive beyond conception.

A matter of cost:

When computers slowly filtered into businesses and homes, they were not exactly cheap. The early IBMs cost as much as a sports car. Their keyboards would, in today’s money, cost a thousand dollars or more. Yeah. Think on that for a moment, my friends.

The economics of the age were such that all the peripherals were given a lot of development time, and were allotted significant amounts of material cost. Thus, they were built like tanks, with little to no engineered obsolescence included. They would persist for tens of millions of key presses per switch.

The Old Classics:

IBM typically made their own hardware in house in the early days. They would only sub contract out if the economics of tooling just didn’t work. Their buckling spring keyboards were and are considered benchmarks for computer peripherals. People still create custom adapters so that they can use these vintage ‘boards with their new computers. That’s how good they are.

Apple computers had a less cohesive strategy with regard to how they approached their keyboards, but most of their famous early models utilized switches made by ALPS, which was a Japanese company who made a whole range of different electronic switches (I believe that the still make switches for some applications to this day). The ALPS range was probably the second most lauded key switch type, behind the IBM.

Between the two, they were used in the vast bulk of the keyboards on the vast number of desks through the early nineties. Unlike the buckling spring technology in the IBM keyboards, ALPS key switches could be created in linear, tactile, and clicky styles with fairly small differences in their design. In a lot of ways, it was more the ALPS switch that served as the archetype for the dominant key switch of today, the Cherry MX series. In more than a few cases, the color scheme’s indications are even shared in common. Thus, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of these switches.

The Apple Extended  Keyboard:

I will confess that I have never been an Apple guy. I’ve used them, of course. The first personal computer I ever got to use was the Apple IIc, I believe. Green monochrome monitor. That’s about all I remember. I have been told that, in the kingdom of Apple keyboards, the model called the Apple Extended keyboard was considered the greatest of their products. It utilized the ALPS switch, and had many great things to commend it. I remember its charactaristing typing sound. A busy, industrious sound, without any “ping” or unpleasantness. Unlike the old modem sound in my roommate’s Apple, which would cause grown men to weep and beg for mercy.

From then to now: 

Beyond the AEK, I am under the impression that the quality of Apple’s keyboards went on a downturn. This was not novel to Apple. In general, cost cutting measures took a great toll on the quality of keyboards throughout the computer industry. The technology of choice, starting in the 90s, was the rubber dome switch. While this technology can and has been implemented with good results, it is much less expensive and far less complex to assemble. It lends itself to lowest common denominator build quality.

At this point, fast forwarding to the modern day, it is quite difficult to find a keyboard included with a PC or Mac that is anything better than passable. A modern Mac is an expensive piece of equipment, but when I’ve been in a position to use their new keyboard, I was not overly impressed. At all. To me, the cheap keyboard included on the Chromebooks I’ve owned were just as good. So, then. Even on premium offerings, you’ll likely be on your own to get something that really takes care of you.

Can we just…have awesome again?

In the last several years, we are seeing a renewed interest in good quality keyboards. Many of these are built for PCs, rather than Macs, with the key layout and badging for the PC user. I should indicate that it is fairly easy to make a Mac work with a PC keyboard. You just have to make sure that the key mapping is such that the modifier keys do the appropriate thing for your OS.

Both the gaming style and the business style mechanical keyboards tend to reflect the aesthetic sensibilities of the PC side of computing. The Mac user who wants an awesome keyboard is somewhat limited in terms of what is available, and what has some “Apple” feel to it.

Here we find the Matias keyboard entering the arena. Available in both PC and Mac layouts, it tries to have the feel of the Apple Extended, while being modeled after the keyboard that was included in the 90s EMac (remember the tinted, transparent plastic on the case, so you could see inside?). At least, that is the impression that a non Apple person brings to it. I could be a bit off on exactly what style is evocative of what era. I’m trying, folks, but I’m vaguely out of my depth in some of the Apple history stuff.

Matias has developed a switch that is a slightly-modified version of the ALPS switch. They were forced to do this when ALPS got out of the keyboard switch game many years ago. While not identical to the ALPS switch in design, sound, or feel, they are quite similar. Essentially, they are a modernized, slightly redesigned version of the latter-day, simplified ALPS switch.

With a Matias keyboard, there are three types of switch. One is a “quiet” switch, which is tactile force curve without an obvious click. A “light action” or “silent” switch, which is also tactile, but with a very light resistance. Finally, there’s the tactile pro switch, which is both tactile and clicky. That’s what we’ve got here.

We are in click city, right where we want to be.

Upon first exploration: 

I have the PC version of the keyboard, as I have no Apple stuff of my own. Unboxing the keyboard, I find that it is a moderate version of the full size form factor. 108 keys, full number pad, navigation cluster. In the old days, this would be a “space saver” design. The different models in the Matias line come in pearl white, gloss black, and silver. The PC version is gloss black.

I have come to find that gloss black is not my favorite when it comes to anything where it can gather dust or be touched by my grubby little hands. It looks great and Darth Vader-like…for about a minute, then it is scratched and dusty for the rest of time. A new ‘board has to offer me something special to entice me to buy it, should it come in said glossy black.

The finish on the keyboard was known to me when I ordered it, so I have nothing that I can complain about. I would like a matte finish version with the PC layout, though. That would be my pretty awesome. Actually, if we’re thinking about what our ‘druthers might be, I’ll say that I’d prefer a full aluminum top plate, with a brushed finish. That is not an option, so I take what can be had.

When first putting hands to the keyboard, I had a moment of doubt and fear.

There is a particular feel to this keyboard that I find a bit disconcerting. Here is how it manifests. The key caps on all the 1×1 (normal) keys have a lot of mechanical play in them. Thus, if you put your finger on the key top, then wiggle it around, there is probably half a millimeter of travel in all directions. Hmm. Not awesome.

Cherry switches tend to control the key caps much better, and thus feel more solid upon first interface with your hands. Then there’s Topre-switch keyboards, which have a solidity that I have not seen in any modern switch of any kind. But let us not cloud the issue with talk of Topre, as they are a thing unto themselves, to be dealt with in other articles.

Typing Feel: 

When I started typing, I noticed right away that the Matias ALPS-style switches had a feel that was quite unlike anything else I had tried. They are quite loud, but not as loud as a buckling spring. They are heavier than most switches, but not quite as heavy as, again, the buckling spring. Their sound is authoritative, low, and consistent across the switches.

Unlike the Cherry MX Blue or Green, they do not have a lot of high frequency “tizz”. Rather, their click and their bottom-out sound are far more “genuine” to my ears. I find the sound quite compelling, and to give me all the “feels” that I expect when I use a clicky mechanical switch. When up and running at a good clip, it kind of makes the sound of a large bag of pistachio hulls being shaken together. It’s one of those sounds that, the more I hear it, the better I like it. I just want to type faster, so that the sound will keep happening.

Give unto us thy judgement: 

Ah, you want the important stuff. I see. All right. I’ll play your game. My initial concern about the slop in the key caps was proven to not be reflected in the typing feel. There was no key friction or stick if I didn’t hit each key perfectly on-center, nor was there a sense of being unable to find myself in space.

Really, the key movement was one of those things that seemed like it would be an impediment, but proved to fade into nothing when the typing happened. Which is great. I don’t have a lot of experience with ALPS boards, and it is possible that many of them had this sort of feel. I don’t know. I imagine that some of that comes down to the key caps.

Switch action is quite different from any other switch in my collection. The closest in most metrics would be the buckling spring design used in my Unicomp Ultra Classic. This makes complete sense, as both ‘boards are, to all intents and purposes, homage boards to the golden age of keyboarding at the computer.

The Matias tactile switch has just the slightest amount of give at the very top of its travel, then the tactile bump comes, and the key accelerates downward, making its joyful clatter. The amount of tactile response is right up there with the best of any switch I’ve used. Very communicative. Very satisfying. In a lot of ways, the act of typing on the Matias is getting almost everything right. Well weighted, without feeling too stiff. Tactile, without feeling odd or rough. As a final thought here, I will say that there is no sense of grit, friction, or pushback to be found here. Just the tactile feel and the wonderful sound.

The Caveats: 

But…there’s always a but. I think that, for a lot of typists, they might find the effort on this ‘board to be a bit higher than they’re used to. I will say that I have been typing on it using a setup that is not entirely perfect, and that a good bit of the typing experience can be attributed to the ergonomics of your desk/chair/posture combination.

Still, if you’re used to a soft key feel, this might take a bit of getting used to. I would say that it is only a bit more effort than a Cherry MX Blue. Not as heavy as a buckling spring keyboard, and due to the small amount of softness at the top, there’s a feeling like the keys let you ease into their travel.

I am also not in love with the key caps. I think the legends are a little weird, and that the key caps could be of better quality. I’d like to see thicker, denser caps, as well as a font that, to me, was a little more aesthetically pleasing. I should remember, though, that some of these choices were made with a different aesthetic sense in mind. The slightly thin font for the key legends is evocative of the Apple Extended, without actually being that awful italic font. The legends are on the lower left, rather than upper left or center of the key top. The font does have a bit of that vintage Apple vibe. None of which really keys into my subconscious.

One can replace ALPS key caps, though the number of possible replacement manufacturers is quite small, compared to the Cherry MX style switches. Other than the new market, there are a few old ‘boards, like the Dell ATT 101 series, that have good quality ALPS key caps you might harvest. I am afraid that there may be some specialized keys that they don’t adequately replace, though, so you might have to look for a few custom keys to fill out the set, or deal with a few off-theme keys remaining.

If you’re touch typing, the look of the keyboard isn’t very important, but there is an element of aesthetics involved in really digging on a piece of hardware. I am shallow that way. I like them just a little better when they’re pretty.

Most of my quibbles are fairly small and somewhat beside the point. I will admit this. To my hands, I think I would rather type on one of these Mattias boards than I would most other mechanicals, and all rubber domes/scissor switch low profiles/etc..

Does it climb the podium?

As clicky tactile switches, they put the MX Blues on the shelf in a moment, unless you’re simply unable to expend the extra effort they require. I would say that they’re second only to the buckling spring switches in my Unicomp in terms of feel and joy, but they are a bit easier to acclimate to, as the Unicomp demands that you be on your game and type like you mean it.

Speed? Well, again, it is hard to tell. I think that it’s possible that this is one of the faster ‘boards that I have. Not as “go ahead, dude, don’t let me slow you down” as the Topre switch, not as, “I am flying, flying without wings” as the MX Brown switches, but fast and fun and great sounding.

On the computer that is currently sporting this ‘board, I have more or less decided that it has kicked the DasKeyboard that I had before it to the curb. That’s saying a little, as the Das is not exactly chopped liver. Especially considering I just re-capped the ‘board with a set of sweet PBT key caps. I just find that the Matias has more of what I’m looking for right now. That could change with different implementation, different day, etc., but I don’t think it will. I really feel that there’s some magic in this particular switch, and that it does what it does about as well as anything available.

Usage case:

This is not a gaming board. At all. It is also no good for open offices where it’ll make your coworkers want to kill you. It’s going to be great for the person who types a lot, likes the clack of the keys, and has the space to let ’em roar without drawing aggro from nearby organisms. Bonus points if you’re an Apple fan.

A word on quality control and part failure:

I have heard that there are some quality control questions about the Matias keyboards, but I haven’t encountered anything like that myself. In my experience, electromechanical things tend to break at a couple different intervals through their use. Trust me, I work around tech all day, every day, and I know from whence I speak.

First, no matter how well a product is made, there will be a level of attrition right at the beginning of a product’s life. In the first few days, there will be a small percentage of things that just don’t work. From there, you’ll lose a part here or there to iffy build quaity or quality control. Things like poorly done solder points, parts that didn’t quite get machined or formed correctly, or your “weakest link in the chain” element of the device failing. From there on, it’s down to abuse taking the rest, right up until the mean time between failures threshold begins to be reached with the least robust components in the system.

My particular Matias has easily survived its maiden voyage, and nothing really concerns me about how it’s acted so far. I don’t plan on beating it like a rental car, nor do I expect to put it through harsh climatic trials. The switches are rated for a duty cycle that would take me a great long time to even begin approaching, even if I used this keyboard to the exclusion of all others. Hey, I like it, but I’m not married to it. I will freely admit to having a wandering eye and a curious mind. It’s allowed.

In any case, I would say that, if the possibility of getting a lemon is foremost in your mind, make sure that you review the return policy at the outlet where you purchase it, and keep the box until you know that things are copacetic.

Is it worth it?

That is always a difficult question. I think, for the right person, it is. If you are a typist who likes a very tactile feel, and a keyboard with wonderful audio feedback, this could be love. There are a lot of really good keyboards at lower prices out there. The Unicomp, for one. I see that as perhaps the most compelling alternate choice. That, of course, is a PC-sourced ‘board, through and through. Nothing could be less Apple than the keyboard that came on IBMs, made on the same tooling it was in the ’80s. Cherry MX switch keyboards abound, and are typically less expensive. The new generation of inexpensive Cherry-clone equipped keyboards are even cheaper. The Matias is many times the price of a ‘board using Chinese-made clone switches. (Spoilers, those are darned good ‘boards.)

I would say that the direct competition in that range of “real” switches would be the Cherry MX Green switch. It is stiffer and has a stronger click than the blue switch. I think the Matias switch is cooler, but for someone who doesn’t favor the style of the Matias, or wants to do a lot of hot-rodding in terms of custom key caps and the like, the switch might not be enough of an incentive.

As with all of these things, if you can get your hands on the ‘board for a day, or even a few hours, a lot of the unknowns that I can’t answer for you will quickly clarify. This is a mostly subjective game. All the ‘boards have keys that send letters to the computer. It’s just how you want it to feel and sound and look as it does so.

Cheers, and happy typing!

This is a little guide to what to expect, and what to expect to pay, with the market being what it is right this moment.

1) Rock Bottom: At $20 to $30, you’re looking at keyboards that purport to offer “mechanical feel”. These are typically dome and slider designs. Essentially, these have a stabilized, separate top slider/plunger above the rubber dome. Yes, they type better than your average keyboard at this price range. Yes, they are louder. Yes, most of them are highly “gamer” in look. If this is all you have, in terms of capital, to throw at the project, this is going to give you a significant improvement over your garden variety ‘board. They all have some little annoyances.  Weird key layout. Lights and sirens. That sort of thing. These are quiet enough for most settings, and very light to type on, if you would prefer a soft typing feel. Expect a review of one. I’m typing on one right now. For GREAT SCIENCE.

2) Maximum Value Mechanical: At $30 to $60, you’ll find a significant number of keyboards from companies you’ll probably not recognize, coming straight from China. These will typically carry knock-off switches based upon the Cherry MX design. At the low end of the price range, you’ll find Outemu switches, with Kaihls, Zorros, and others just one step up in cost. At the upper end of the price range here, you’ll find Gateron switches. The good news here is that the knock-off switches are pretty darned good. They will sometimes have a bit more variation between batches than the legit Cherry switches, but they are quite serviceable. In some cases, the clone switches may actually be better (for a given taste) than the originals. The bad at this price range is that a lot of the ‘boards are pretty garish or gamer-centric. Some of them are as ugly as sin. If you’re willing to mod the ‘boards with different key caps, this can often be ameliorated. Except for some of the awful badging. For that, you might need a spray paint can and a dream. I’ll have some reviews coming on cheap ‘boards in this price range soon.

3) Mid Priced Mechanical: $65-$120. The bulk of these ‘boards have real Cherry key switches, and there are more tasteful designs available, if you have little interest in LED lights or gaming-specific design elements. Here you also see a few of the other key switches being available. Of note for the “seasoned” typists in your midst is the Unicomp line, which offers the same switch technology from the old IBM keyboards. These are available new, made in the U.S.A, and are built like tanks. They’re not the prettiest keyboards, but they will last you forever, and are a typist’s dream. If you don’t mind putting fort a bit of effort while typing, in any case. Pretty much any layout and form factor is available in this price range. Some, further up the price spectrum here, will feature premium key caps, often made of PBT plastic, which is the highest grade material for this purpose.

4) Premium Mechanicals: When you pay more than $120, you’re often, paradoxically, getting less, rather than more. Less light show tomfoolery. Less whiz-bang features. Less flashy stuff as a whole. Here, the rarest key switches make an appearance, such as Matias switches, and Topre switches. These ‘boards are, for the most part, aimed at the pure typist, though there are a few ultra-expensive, battle cruiser style gaming ‘boards afoot, mostly from Corsair, Coolermaster, and Razer. Please see my “key switch” article for full rundowns of all the switches that I mentioned here. I go into tiresome detail there, and you’ll be sick of me if you read it. I promise. It’s true.

The Short Course, for those TLDR folks: 

For the sake of not having to navigate to other articles, I’ll run things down a bit here at the end.

Switches with a light or soft feel:

1)”semi mechanical” dome and slider designs

2) “red” style switches, “brown” style switches.

3) Topre 35g switches

4) Matias silent switches.

Switches with a moderate resistance:

1)  “blue” switches from all manufacturers

2) Matias tactile and quiet tactile switches,

3) Topre 45g and 55g models

Switches with heavier resistance:

1) black, clear, and green switches from various manufacturers

2) Unicomp “buckling spring” switches.

Switches, from quiet to loud

Quiet:

Topre switches of all weights
(unconfirmed) Matias silent
(unconfirmed) Matias quiet tactile
Semi-mechanical switches

Kinda Quiet: 

Black switches
Brown switches
Red switches
Clear switches
<All above colors are similar in sound, and vary due to ‘board construction and back plate material. Also, all color-badged switches come from various manufacturers, and will vary a bit in sound, but not much.>

Kinda Loud: 

Blue switches
Green switches

Loud: 

Matias tactile
Unicomp buckling spring

All the loudest of the switch types have an innate click during the key travel that cannot be minimized with dampening mechanism or typing lightly. Some of the quieter key types will still make quite a racket if you type exceedingly hard. In a modern office setting, I would think very carefully before putting anything louder than the clear switch into a shared work space. It could cause distraction or contention with office mates. Certainly, people will poke their head around the cube divider to see what’s going on if you show up with a Unicomp.

Hope this helps you out, if you are considering the purchase of a mechanical keyboard.

Cheers, and happy typing!