Posts Tagged ‘keyboards’

Review: Quisan Retro Keycaps

Posted: October 21, 2017 in keyboarding
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UntitledHere and there, you’ll see a mechanical keyboard with the old style, typewriter keys on them. Most of the time, these fetch a tidy price, and are considered a bit of a niche item.

Having tried a lot of the frequently-available key types on my mechanicals, I had never tried out a set of these round, metal-bound keys before. Buying a keyboard already thusly-equipped was certainly an option, but I had other plans.

Here’s what I did:

I purchased two identical keyboards, Eagletec KG010N models. I kept one of them bone stock, while I stripped the other of its stock keys and installed the Quisan aftermarket models. One thing to note here: the Quisan keys are not the cheapest caps in the world. Even through Amazon, they fetched about $30 for the set. The keyboard they were going on only cost $37, so the economies are a little out of the ordinary there.

That said, i couldn’t find any keyboard equipped with oldy-woldy keys for the aggregate price, so I call it a win.

Packaging:

Quisan, in my experience, doesn’t really waste a lot of the capital you give them on the package. Perfectly serviceable, but they know you’ll discard the box about nine seconds after getting it.

One really nice inclusion with the package is a layout board, which is a thick piece of plastic with cross-shaped protrusions cooresponding with the layout of a full-sized keyboard. This not only made it easier to apply the keys as delivered, it can be a tool for laying out a custom format at a later date. Trust me, fishing the keys out of a bag and trying to find the “7” key in amongst crap tons of loose caps isn’t fun.

All the keys came in good condition, as did the box.

Installation:

These keys are circular or oblong, but conform to the position and size of the standard key layout for a Cherry MX ‘board. Quisan employed ABS plastic for these caps. The external surround may be metal, but I suspect that it is plastic with a chrome applique. The legends purport to be double-shot, but I have reservations. I think they’re more likely laser ablated, as I seen no evidence of a double shot mold on the back side of the keys.

Installing the keys is fairly straightforward, although the round edges sometimes require a bit more careful effort to get lined up. It should be noted that the stems on these keys are rectangular, rather than being round. This doesn’t seem to have any direct impact on performance or fit. It didn’t impede my progress, nor did I encounter any confounding situations during the installation. Provided that your keyboard has a standard layout and key size, they should work.

In Use:

The popular conical, square edged keys gained their market share for a reason. For one, they are reasonably easy to produce. For another, they have well-delineated edges that make it easy to get your fingers into the right spots while typing.

They’re not the only way to do it, though. There are spherical keys, as well as these, the pure round syle. When you first put your hands onto a keyboard sporting this retro style key set, you might feel a little bit out of your element.

Quick typing is still possible, however. You just have to take a few minutes to get your bearings. I found that things settled down and started to get comfortable after a few hundred words. These keys aren’t dead-flat. There is a perceptible dish on each one, so that your fingers can still find their way home after zipping around.

Are these keys quite as easy to type on as the standard? Maybe not. Not at first. Any high-style piece will have small concessions that need to be made. I didn’t find that I had a massive uptick in mistakes or lack of efficiency, though.

Being higher above the switches than the average key cap, this set will increase the total height of the ‘board. They’ll also make it a bit more succeptible to impacts from the outside of the ‘board. I would say that placing these on your “traveler” keyboard may come with some concerns. For home, no worries.

I found that these keys yielded a change in the sound of the typing inputs. They still sound like the clicky blues that they are, but it is a bit less clacky, and carried a bit less of the high frequency tizz you’ll sometimes hear, especially from the Otemu brand. Still, they’re a lot louder than the normal office setting would approve of.

Downsides?

Well, I suppose that I must hit the space bar fairly hard, because I can feel the raised rim of the bar on my thumb every time. It isn’t painful, but it’s a feeling that lets me know that I’m hitting a hard corner. If I typed for several hours at a time on it, I can foresee that I might start to feel like things were getting less fun. The race between backside and hands being the first thing to give out, though, might mean that it would never rise to the level of real annoyance.

Final Thoughts:

Let us not fool ourselves. Getting a set of caps like this isn’t primarily for their perfect ergonomics. It isn’t for absolute comfort, either. It’s for the looks.

I got the white-face keys, and they look really sweet on the black-anodized brushed aluminum on my keyboard. Is there an element of being on the verge of hipsterism? Oh, yeah. Most definitely.

The good news, though, is that these key caps work pretty darned well, and can fit on any normal ANSI layout keyboard without much difficulty. You can have your style and still get some work done.

Even if you don’t have a mechanical keyboard kicking around, you can still get into the game with a cheap one and these keys for something like $70 and a few minutes’ work. My kind of party.

Cheers, and happy typing.

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The IBM Model M is a vaunted, classic design. Perhaps the crown jewel in the pantheon of easily-had vintage keyboards. And, may I say, deservedly so.

Being the owner of a Unicomp Ultra Classic, I already knew what buckling spring keyboars with membrane switches felt like. I hadn’t, however, had a chance to really play with a classic one since they’d been standard fare in front of actual IBM computers. That’s a long time gone, y’all. The 80s. I was just a wee lad then. No more than, like 240 or so.

My friend, Dave, had a few old keyboards kicking around. He let me borrow them, and asked if I could tune them up and get them working again. I said, “Heck, yeah,” and off I went.

The Model M he gave me had no cord, and it looked a bit rough around the edges. Not filthy, but the keys were dirty, and the whole thing loked like it could benefit from a going over.

Dave let me know that his aspiration was to find a way to make the keyboard a high-visibility device for his father, whose vision isn’t what it used to be.

On the case, I researched how best to get this stuff going. And, not surprisingly, Unicomp had what I wanted. They had a cap set in bright white, with big, block legends, and they had replacement cords that would fit the plug design on the back. Credit card smoking, I was off to the races.

IBM keyboards of this era have two-piece key caps. The top part is thin PBT, while the interior piece, which has the slider element that sits over the coiled spring, is a thicker, beefier piece of PBT. Together, they’re quite a heavy plastic element, and lend something of the solid element that people love so much about these keyboards. It does make them a bit more laborious to take apart, but not too bad. A normal key puller works fine, it just has to work twice as much.

It took me perhaps an hour to install the new cable, test all the keys, and install the new key caps. Everything worked fine, and I quickly got down to typing. I can’t say there’s really any qualitative difference between the original IBM and the Unicomp. They feel and sound just about the same. The build, however, is a different story. The original M I have here, built in 1988, is a huge and heavy beast. I’m not going to say that the Unicomp is small or light, because it isn’t. The original, though, is bigger in all the dimensions, and dominates a desk surface. The fact that it works with absolutely no sense of wear after all these years might give you some clues. None of the switches stick in the slightest, or have a weird force curve. Everything feels just as tight as it must have on the day it left the factory.

The new key caps fit on without any problem, but for two stabilized keys on the numeric keypad. Those use a different stabilization technique, with a metal bar, rather than the conical stabilizer that became common in the later years. With a conical insert, I’m sure I could get those installed, as well. Also, the key set didn’t come with a space bar, which I think is fine, because the OEM spacebar still looks great and doesn’t detract from the looks, to my eyes.

What do we get out of it? Well, you get a keyboard that looks and functions almost like brand new, and one that has the cache of a vintage piece. Really, the only thing it lacks is Windows keys and a Menu button, but both of these things can be overcome with a few mouse clicks. The typing feel is just what you’d expect, with a stiff, solid action and great tactile feel. A typist’s keyboard. It’s good and loud, again, as one would expect.

If you don’t mind putting forth a little effort in the typing process, there’s a lot to be said for one of these old bad boys. They are essentially inestructible, and they are fantastic typing tools. Remember that the old ones will be PS/2, so you may need a USB adapter for them in the modern idiom. Other than that, not much bad can be said.

I would say that, if you can find one for cheap at a yardsale or recycling center, jump on it. Buying them off of Ebay is probably the most expensive way to do it, and you may be just as happy with a new-built ‘board. If you love the idea of the old “M”, but want something with zero miles on the odometer, look at Unicomp. They’ll sell you one, still built in the USA, for reasonable money, as these things go. All the feels, none of the worries about ancient hardware.

Cheers, and happy typing!

(Great thanks to my friend Dave who let me borrow this keyboard to do the review. Good luck getting it back, my friend! I’m fleeing the country with it!)

Much has been made of the wonder and beauty of the IBM model M keyboard. They are often held up as the best typist’s keyboard of all time.

And, for many, that’s exactly what they are. Or, at least, they are the best keyboard they’ve been able to use. Before the Model M, there was a similar set of keyboards that used the buckling spring technology that defines the Model M. These, the Model F keyboards, were employed in the XT and AT eras of the IBM PC. Thus, these are old keyboards, ones that take a bit of effort to find and get working today, all these many years later. Imagine any other element from the early to mid 80’s computers still being applicable to today’s tasks. Think of any? Yeah, there aren’t many afoot.

A Little History:

A guy named Richard Hunter Harris invented the buckling spring mechanism that was used on the Model F, then on the Model M. In the F, it was employed with a capactive switch below it, while the M made due with a membrane switch that required an actual physical action to employ. This changes both the sound and the feel of the keyboards, though they obviously have a strong familial resemblance.

The Model F is simply a little smoother, a little higher in pitch, and a little lighter. Just a bit. Still not a model for those who don’t want to put forth any effort.

The Model F came out in 1981, and was produced in some form up until 1994. That said, the Model F largely fell into obscurity after 1986, when the Model M came out. It was used in a lot of different keyboard types and applications, but the best known are probably the XT, the AT, and the 122 Key Terminal board.

The AT keyboard that I have for review is in great shape, and has no poorly-working keys. I can’t tell you if it differs from when it was new, but it doesn’t betray its age in any mechanical way.

The AT layout went with, not surprisingly, the PC AT era computers. These were predominanly 80286 PCs. The layout carries Function keys on the side, numbering from one to ten. No Windows keys, because that wasn’t yet a thing. Caps lock, Control, Alt, Escape, and a few other keys are in different places. There are no arrow keys. The space bar is the biggest thing you’ve ever seen.

The AT carried a 5-Pin DIN connection, and “spoke” the AT keyboard language. This means that it could take two-way communication from the PC, such that the Num Lock settings and so on could be set on the computer side. The somewhat more modern PS/2 keyboard interface (that purple, round connection that is largely disappearing now) talks this same language, so it is possible to adapt the AT keyboard to a modern computer.

Getting It Working:

I discovered that my current desktop computer didn’t have a PS/2 port after bringing a few old ‘boards home to try. Yep. It’s a fairly current, fairly high spec Dell XPS, and it doesn’t feel that it needs to bother with ancient connections that are not plug and play.

Hmm. I wondered if I could bridge the gap. Not being willing to be held away from my goals by a simple matter of incompatibility, I reared back my head and yelled, “To the Internet!”

After having taken a look around, I found that it wasn’t difficult to find an adapter that went from PS/2 to USB. At the same time, I also found a few adapaters from DIN to PS/2 (which, actually, was also called “mini DIN”). The big question in my mind was whether or not one adapter running into another adapter would work. I’d seen stuff like that fail. A lot.

Well, the good news is that everything went along swimmingly. The bad news is that it cost about $20 to get the two adapters. Thus, making it possible to use this ancient keyboard cost as much or more than a whole keyboard of no pedigree.

But…but…it was worth it. Oh, great shivering paroxysms of joy. It was worth it. (Er, spoiler alert.)

All the Feels:

So, let’s talk about where this thing ranks in terms of keyboards. Well, let me be frank. It’s pretty much the best thing I’ve ever had my grubby hands on. The sound, the feel, the almost unheralded sense of solidity you get with this mighty beast? Yeah. It’s amazing. Maybe ten or twelve percent better than a really good Model M. If you like buckling spring keyboards, or enjoy the higher-effort switches in the modern market, this thing is going to give you dreams of longing if you ever get to try it.

However, it isn’t perfect. The layout is odd in the current era. It lacks buttons. Other buttons are in odd-ball places. The Shift key on the left side has some binding issues. It has the Big Ass Enter Key and tiny backspace. The space bar is absurdly high effort. It’s even louder than a Model M. (For me, this is not a negative, unless I had to use it around other biological organisms. Not kidding, this would drive house pets to another room.) For a lot, some part of the typing experience may be a bit too high effort.

All that said, this is an amazing device. I think of it like a Vincent Black Lightning or something. It requires some things of the user. It has some drawbacks. It is also legendary and totally amazing at the thing that it does.

Final Thoughts:

The Model F is not going to be for everyone. They are harder to find and more difficult to employ in a modern world than the Model M, which can be had new from Unicomp, with USB interface. If you’ve tried an M and didn’t like it, the F won’t necessarily change your mind. On the other hand, if you are already a fan, this one will serve as kind of the epitome of that idea.

I’m sure that, when I was a young man, I had a chance to used these keyboards. I probably didn’t notice, because I didn’t touch type. That, and whatever IBM did was sort of just the expected business norm at that time. The world hadn’t moved on and become a sadder, cheaper place yet.

Could I use this ‘board as my daily driver? Yes. With caveats. At home, sure, and especially if I did a limited amount of typing on it per day. I can’t tell you for sure, but the higher effort nature of of the ‘board might begin to cause fatigue after hours of typing. All in all, the great things about the Model F far outweigh the shortfalls. It may be the ultimate clicky keyboard. Ever. If it isn’t, it’s certainly on the podium.

Cheers, and Happy Typing!

As I’ve already reviewed the basics of the Magicforce 68 in an earlier article, I won’t go into great detail about the basic design. It’s a minimalist ‘board without going too far outside the realm of sanity. Light but solid, it is suited to taking along with you.

The big draw here is the switch, to be honest. Unless, of course, the backlight looms large in terms of your requirements.

The Magicforce line is one of the few that come in multiple different switch types, but the same chassis. The least expensive of the Magicforce ‘boards feature Outemu switches. These are in the $40 range (Spring 2017 for all prices quoted here). I found that the brown-switch equipped board of this type performed well. It felt just a little rough, and had a few squeaky keys, but was otherwise fine. It didn’t feature backlighting, but this didn’t prove to be a large concern for me.

For just a hair over $60, the same ‘board is available with Gateron backlit switches. For something like seven or eight dollars more than that, you can get the actual Cherry MX switches.

I had plenty of Cherry-switch ‘boards, but had not used any Gateron switches. Thus, I purchased the keyboard being reviewed today. The feeling around the ‘Net is that Gateron may well have outdone Cherry with their duplicates of said switch type. Some maintain that the Gaterons are smoother than the Cherry equivalent.

We shall see if that can be determined. We shall use Great Science to do so. Gird up thy loins, readers. Just sayin’.

Packaging:

The Gateron version of the Magicforce comes in the same box as the less expensive version. Two differences:

1) There is a key puller included.
2) There is a USB – B to Micro USB adapter, so you can plug your ‘board into stuff like tablets and phones. That is, in all actuality, a pretty cool value-added feature.

Other than that, it’s a solid, no frills box. No extra cash went into making it wrap-around printed or otherwise blinged out. That’s fine.

Unboxing:

Everything arrived in good condition. The keyboard is in good shape and all the keys work. I don’t seen any difference, qualitatively, with regard to the chassis. Same format, same feel. That is what I expected, but sometimes, a higher member of the “line” will have some subtle things going on. More chamfered edges. Something. It appears that we’re just paying for the more expensive switches in this case.

First Impressions:

The key caps on this keyboard may be just a hair thicker than the ones on the less expensive version. They are double-shot ABS, such that the legend on each key is illuminated by the backlight. This type of key tends to be more expensive. The double-shot process ensures that you’ll never wear the letters off the keytops, no matter how much you use them. It’s another piece of plastic, used to fill in the void in the white ABS of the primary component.

The font of the legend is that somewhat gamer-style block lettering that you’ll see all around. My suspicion is that there are only a handful of companies making the key caps, and that most of these Chinese-made ‘boards are using the same subcontractor. That’s okay. Economies of scale. I get it.

With the LED off, the legend is a sort of gray-on-white affair. It is legible enough and has decent contrast. There is but one color of LED here. That’s white. In this case, the white is fairly true to that spectru, with perhaps just a hint of blue. There are nine brightness values, from subtle to somewhat dazzling. I prefer two clicks up from “off” myself.

The typing dynamics, in a general way, are similar to the other Magicforce 68 that I have. All the keys are in the same location. The general force required to activate them is the same. I can’t directly compare them in certain ways, since one has a brown switch, while the other has red. Brown switches are tactile, whereas reds are linear.

That said, what does the early tale say? The red switches feel smoother. Smoother by a good bit. This is not surprising, as even Cherry MX Brown switches tend to have just a bit of friction to their movement. It appears to be a component of the switch design.

The noise the ‘board makes? Quite quiet, as you might expect a red switch ‘board to be. The chassis of this ‘board isn’t resonant, so it’s just the low clack of the keys as they hit the top plate. About the same sound as the brown switch model. Perhaps just slightly quieter. Certianly quieter than the red-switch model from Drevo. Actually, a whole different sound.

Unlike the less expensive version of this keyboard, I’m not sensing any “ping” or resonance when striking any of the keys. While that was not particularly loud in the other version, it was noticable with some of the keys around the right-center of the ‘board. I don’t have any real clues as to what that means. It could be that the sound is an element of that particular ‘board, because I don’t notice any structural differences from the outside. It could be a slight inconsisntency in the the bottom tray…something else. Without buying up a whole bunch of them, there’s no way to know. I can tell you that the brown-switch version did need a bit of lubrication on the stabilized keys to quiet down, and the Gateron-equipped version did not.

I find that I’m able to type well enough with this keyboard, without any real acclimation time. I don’t believe it’s any faster than the brown-equipped version. Time will tell. Does it feel like a red-switch ‘board? Yes. Does it work? Yes. More than that, I will only be able to determine after further study.

More on key feel:

The Gateron red switches are right on the verge of being too light. I have to really alter my typing a good bit to work with them. I find that I’m more likely to make a whole string of random key presses if I have some kind of technique breakdown. They are very smooth and buttery, but boy, you have to ease up in order for them to really work to their best effect.

After a bit of research, I realized why there is a significant differnce in the way this ‘board feels, when compared with the Drevo, also a red switch mechanical. Here’s the skinny: Outemu switches, like in the Drevo, are all heavier in resistance than Cherry MX switches, right across the board. Red switches from Outemu operate at 55 grams of force, which is significantly more than what I’m seeing here. With the combination of a super-smooth switch and one that is very light, I have to really take it easy with the Gaterons.

If I have been typing on a higher-effort ‘board, this one takes more than a little mental recalibration. Even after I’ve typed hundreds of words on the ‘board, I find that I’m more likely to make accidental key presses or the like.

For me, the resistance with the Outemu reds is dead-on for me, while these are so light that I have to be pretty careful. If you’re a fan of very light resistance, or you’re concerned that the volume of typing you do on a given day puts you into a spiral of fatigue and pain, this might be just the thing.

One final thing is that the repeats on the keys is set very fast by default. If left at this setting, using the backspace or delete key to make larger scale corrections is going to be challenging at best. As a gaming ‘board, I suppose this high cyclic rate could provide great advantages, but not so much for typists. The stock setting is up at 60 characters per second, which is very, very fast. There is a 40 and 20 character per second setting, which is instituted with the FN key, plus W, E, or R. (R being the highest setting). 20 characters per second appears to be what a normal keyboard would call for. Turning it down eliminated the confounding problem that I initially felt was a major drawback of this ‘board. What did I learn? Read the instructions, or at least try and intuit the feature set before belly aching.

Is it worth it?

That is more than a little debatable. A gaming usage case may find that tings like the adjustable repeat rate on keys would serve them well. The light keys may also help you in WASD games and the like. In the realm of gaming keyboards, this is still very inexpensive, and the form factor is really very cool.

The version of this keyboard that features Outemu keys and no backlight is a significant amount cheaper. A little more than $20. Again, that’s not a lot in the scheme of things, but the percentages between a $40 and $62 keyboard are fairly big.

 

I wrote the bulk of this review months ago, and my initial conclusion was that I wasn’t sure that the Gateron Red version of this ‘board was worth it. I had reservations, primarily about the typing feel. With the stock caps, I still have vague concerns in this regard, but there’s a second story here.

The Rest of the Story: 

I recapped this keyboard with Kannanic (also called Bossi) PBT key caps. They made a world of difference. Likely the largest difference I’ve ever experienced. Far better sound, far better feel. Yes, we’re now looking at a keyboard of significant cost, nearly a hundred bucks (I used two sets for a purple and gray color scheme). Even with this additional cost, totally worth it.

Recommendation: 

This, when capped with a nice set of PBT key caps, is my go-to, primo travel/small form factor keyboard. It’s the jam. If you need something small that will slip right into a backpack to take along, this here is your E-ticket ride.

Cheers, and Happy Typing.

In my first trip into the land of inexpensive mechanical keyboards, I found that the new generation of Cherry-clone ‘boards provide a lot of bang for the buck. They work well. They are sometimes hampered by a few strange design choices, but they can give you all or most of what you’d get from a “premium” keyboard. Never content to simply go with the majority answer, I needed to dig deeper. I needed to do more SCIENCE. I…ah…needed to spend more money.

Design Choices:

One of the most popular keyboards in the value-price sphere is the Velocifire. The tenkey-less goes for about $30, while the full size goes for around $40. They are somewhat less outlandish in design than their competitors. Unlike the bulk of these ‘boards, they do not use a “floating” key style atop an aluminum top plate.

This choice has some significant effects upon the way the ‘board presents and performs. It could be seen as a negative economy, doing away with the metal top plate and the floating key set. From a materials perspective, that may well be true. The metal plate will add some rigidity to the device. The floating keyset, however, may actually put the key caps and switches in a more vulnerable position. My sense is that the origins of having a bezel around the keys was to protect them.

The downside of having a metal top plate is often an increase in noise. Not just the specific noise that the switch of the keyboard makes, but the odd mechanical sounds and the sound of bottoming out. Metal tends to be a resonant material, allowing vibrations to ring out more than something like plastic would do. Thus, putting it into a structural spot where it’ll have something impact directly upon it or impart some vibration into it can cause the mechanical nature of the keyboard to be louder.

It’s possible that the increase in volume will not be a positive change. For some of us, we really like the loud ‘boards. Others are distracted or confounded by them. If we’re working in a noise-sensitive enviornment, we don’t want the keyboard to be officious. (Or do we? Evil laugh inserted here.)

The other choice that the Velocifire ‘board makes is to use the Zorro switchs. To be honest, this was the primary reason that I grabbed this ‘board. I hadn’t had experience with this switch, and science dictates that I must continue to explore until I have a broad understanding of the topic at hand. That’s the answer I’m going with, anyway.

In Practice:

The Velocifire is the quietest mechanical keyboard I have. I can’t point to a particular element of its design that brings this about, but it is no louder than a membrane keyboard. That will be a great boon to the noise-sensitive among us. Even typing hard, it really doesn’t have much of an acoustic signature.

The look and feel of the ‘board are fairly nice. The backlight has only off, medium, and full in terms of settings, but the teal blue is an interesting color, and it doesn’t look too funhouse-mirrors on the desk. With the backlight off, key legend visibility is about normal for this type of keyboard. That is to say that it is fine in normal light, but cryptic when the room around you is dim. The appearance of the ‘board is innocent enough when the backlight is turned off. The backlights aren’t particularly bright, even on full blast.

The typing feel is quite light. About as light as would be practical for most typing implementations. Brown-style switches are typically low effort, and the Zorros carry though with this. I would venture that they may be slightly lighter than the other switches of this type, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Typing action is smooth and quick, with low effort. The tactile feel is not very strong. The key presses are smooth, but going side-by-side with real Cherry MX Browns reveals their lack of sophistication. They are a little mushy, to be honest. This still allows for decent and comfortable typing, but if you prefer a more pronounced typing feel, the Zorro switches will dissapoint, as they are fairly vague.

The packaging was typical for this type of product. The device arrived at my location without issue and with no damage. It is not as minimalist as some competitors. I make no value judgement about that one way or another. In the end, we throw away the box as soon as we know the darned thing is going to work.

In Summary:

Again, this is a lot of value for the money. The Velocifier is perhaps the least “gearhead” of the cheap mechanicals. It’s quiet, looks normal, and has smooth, soft key feel. It’s possible that you could put this in front of the average keyboardist and their only question would be, “Where’s the number pad?”

There’s not much to adapt to, no loud sounds or heavy key resistance. The advantages of a mechanical switch keyboard are there, without many of the perceived disadvantages (cost, noise, effort, oddities of function or style).

The Zorro switches appear altogether servicable over the length of this test. I will hold this review for a few weeks to make sure no reliability concerns marr the early performance of this device. (Nothing untoward happened. I use the keyboard at work. It’s fine, and functional, just not terribly inspiring.)

In terms of feel, I do feel that the Zorro switches fall below the level of the Cherry and Outemu switches I’ve tried in the brown variant. That said, you may prefer the lighter and softer feel, as every typist has their own proclivities.

Usage Case:

This keyboard would serve as a great first mechanical, and should have broad appeal across different user preferences. It is mild mannered, functional, inexpensive, and quiet. Although it may not have quite the “thing” that a louder or higher effort ‘board might have, it more than makes up for any perceived lack of character in that it doesn’t have any real counter-indications.

If you are a typing snob, but don’t want to bring your expensive ‘board into danger, this one might be great for you. If you need a work keyboard for an office environment, this would do fine there. If you prefer to type lightly or have issues with hand fatigue, this keyboard will allow you to type with the minimum of effort.

The groups who would not like this keyboard include those who really must have a fairly stiff key feel to type accurately. Also, if typing simply isn’t typing for you if you aren’t making a hellish racket, this thing is going to be underwhelming for you. Finally, those who need really strong tactility are going to be a little disappointed with the brown switches (in any form or application), as they are not as tactile as some other switch types.

It’s a great time to be a keyboard afficionado. For barely more than a quality rubber dome keyboard, you can get something like the Velocifire, and be typing like a boss. Recommended.

Cheers, and happy typing!

 

61-RgkiopEL._SY355_There are a lot of great mechanical keyboards available in the market today. Many of them come with backlighting as a feature. This means that, in order to take advantage of said feature, the letters on the keys need to allow light to pass through.

There are a few ways to do this. The first is to paint the surface of an otherwise translucent key cap material, then ablate the paint with a laser. This is the easiest method, but the paint can, over the course of time, begin to wear away or become damaged.

The second is the “double shot” techinque. This takes the “solid” or opaque key cap, then injects additional material of a translucent quality to fill the voids that the legends require. This is the best and sturdiest way to build a key cap. The legend cannot wear off, because it is a structural element of the key.

Even inexpensive keyboards often use this technology now, which is great. Their keys are made of ABS plastic, which is perfectly useful, but not the absolute best material available. More than the material, the character of the legends, the font/style of it, tends to be a little underwhelming. For some reason or another, the companies feel that a “gamer” font is the best to use for all backlit keyboards.

Many of us who like mechanical keyboards beg to differ. Like me.

No worries. There are a lot of aftermarket key caps available for any Cherry MX key stem-equipped ‘board.

However…there is a value issue. If you get a very inexpensive keyboard for, say, $40 or so, do you want to spend more than the whole ‘board cost on getting a nice set of PBT key caps? Hmm. That seems like a possibly bad way to do things. If you had an expensive ‘board that just needed a sprucing up, spending $50 or more on a new set of caps might seem okay, but on a cheap ‘board? Maybe not.

Luckily, the same market that brings us the inexpensive keyboards also yields some inexpensive keycaps of good quality.

That’s what we’re here to talk about. (I know. You’re saying, “Finally, dude. Crap.”)

I found a bunch of double-shot, backlight-capable PBT key caps on Amazon. They were markted as “Bossi” key caps, but they appear to have been made by Kannanic. Not that either company is familiar to me. Bossi does sound cooler, I guess. Like an Italian who takes charge of the situation and makes you type harder. Shrug.

The great thing is that, if you were willing to wait for possibly a long, long time, you could have them for well less than $20 for a set. Yes. Double-shot PBT caps for less than a twenty. Awesome. Sign me up. I ordered a crap ton of them, because reasons.

The first “project” ‘board was a Quisan Magicforce 68, nearly new. It certainly didn’t “need” new caps. The ABS caps that come with the ‘board are perfectly serviceable and legible, though they are a bit flashy and weird. Still, not too bad.

The Magicforce features a white backlght, so any key cap color would work fine with it. This, of course, is not always the case. If you want to use key caps with multi-color or RGB keyboards, I’d recommend using white, gray, or black keys, as these will not create unaccountable and negative issues with some of your color choices.

I chose to mix two key sets, a gray and purple, with the alpha block being purple. In order to replicate such a feat, you’d need to purchase two sets, of course. Since I can re-mix the two sets using an opposite color saturation or otherwise sub in those remaining keys, I don’t see that as an issue.

Let’s go through my experience, as well as some thoughts about the product and the way it was delivered.

Shipping and Packaging:

It did take some time to get the key cap sets. I had free shipping from China, which was nice. I ordered them at the outset of the month, and by the last week of said month, they were at my door, unharmed and in good shape. They arrived ahead of schedule, so I have no room to complain.

These key sets come in a two-piece plastic grid that holds them in the 104 key format, so that, if you’re careful, you can pick them out one by one and put them on without any hunting around in a pile.

Of the various ways to package key sets, this is far better than just throwing them into a bag. Yes, it makes the package a little more bulky, but I think it’s worthwhile. It took me a fairly short amount of time to do the full change as a result of this packaging methodology.

The two halves of the exterior shell are stapled together, so you’ll need to gently pry the staples out to get to the keys. This is easily done, I think, at least for me. I just stapled the halves back together with the remaining keys when I was finished. Presto, all ready to sit around awaiting my next adventure.

Initial Impressions:

I compared these keys to the ABS keys coming off the ‘board, finding that they were significantly thicker than the stock keys. They aren’t as thick as the massive keys from the days of yore, or even, perhaps, as thick as something from the modern day, like the premium Vortex brand. I didn’t have one of those to compare. They are sturdier in mass than a standard key cap, however. I can say that with certainty.

I didn’t notice anything sloppy about the key caps, though some of them had the faintest impression of a sprue line at their base. This would not be visible in a ‘board with a top bezel, and I find it to be essentially invisible to me, even in a floating key setting. I may not be the final definition of OCD, however. Your level of detail-orientation may vary.

The legend on the keys is fairly business-like, though some small elements of the gamer aesthetic bleed through on a few keys and choices. Still, worlds less intrusive than most. I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find a key cap of this type that cleaves any closer than this to the older aesthetic.

Compared to the standard key caps, the difference in material and thickness result in a different sound upon typing. This ‘board features Gateron red switches, so the switches don’t have any sound of their own. This makes it clear that, yes, the sound of the ‘board is fairly significantly impacted by the caps. The sound of the PBT replacement caps is deeper and more robust. Just better in all the metrics.

Being PBT, the key caps feature greater tactile feel. PBT is a more robust plastic, and it resists abrasion or ablation in use. Thus, the makers can design in a bit of a rough texture. On ABS, this texture would wear smooth, but PBT allows the texture to last for a great long time.

If you’re concerned that these inexpensive caps will not have that “PBT goodness”, you needn’t be. It’s there. You’re golden.

In Use:

I found that, during my initial test of this version of the Magicforce, I had some issues really connecting with the keyboard. I would make a lot of mistakes. I felt like the red switches were just a bit too light for me. Insert excuses and rationalizations here. Not bad, but not my favorite.

After re-capping, this is a totally different machine. To begin with, it looks cool now. Not just cool, bue classy. The purple and gray go together like peanut butter and jam, and they look right at home on the brushed aluminum top plate of the Magicforce. Instantly, it looks like one of those boards you’d pay upwards of $130 to get. Not only that, it is how I want it to be, rather than however I can get it. Total cost, even with both key sets? $100. And remember, I still have enough keys in both the sets I culled to cap another ‘board and a half. Thus, I could “dress up” one keyboard with some alternate keys, and I could still cap a whole ‘board. Not cheap, yes, but not nearly as expensive as a custom job could be.

The typing feel. Oh, it is different my fine friends. I didn’t know if it would be, but it really is. Almost all the reservations I had about this keyboard are now gone. I don’t know how this could be, but the texture on the key caps, and the feel of the increased reciprocating mass on the caps makes a huge difference. Yeah. I don’t know. It’s not my imagination. I’m typing way, way better with this thing. I don’t get it, but that’s what is happening. I’m really trying to make sure it’s not confirmation bias, but I can’t see how such a bias could allow me to type more accurately and faster. I don’t know, maybe that is possible, but damn, I’ll take it.

Final Thoughts:

For most, a single color would suffice in this case. I just find that I like the contrast between the modifier keys and the alpha block. The look, to me, is worth another $20. Functionally, I can say that you should expect a somewhat significant upgrade in key feel and the quality of the sound on your inexpensive keyboard if you employ keys made by this manufacturer. As to their availibilty, I can’t tell you. They were all unavailable when I went back to them after my order. I would suppose that they only make production runs at intervals, and you sometimes find yourself out of luck or waiting a long time. That was one of the reasons why I bought up a stock of them when I could.

I now have a keyboard that isn’t quite as cheap as it was, but it’s pretty darned rad. All for less than $40 more than list price. If you got the least expensive of the decent mechanicals that use the Cherry MX key caps, you’d be out around $35 or $40. With one set of these, you’re up to around $55 to $60, and have a great typing tool that looks sounds, and feels a lot more expensive than it is. This, then, is the reason we got into keyboard hot-rodding in the first place.

Cheers, and happy typing!

 

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.