Well a nice Christmas present during this Pandemic season is a nice mechanical keyboard. Here are some of the things to think about when you are buying a keyboard that I put in order of importance to me 🙂
- Arrows keys yet compact. These are normally the 78-key or 68-key designs, but while the number pad doesn't matter (so I don't need the full 104 key keyboards), the arrow keys are a must which knows out many 60% keyboards that cut these.
- Backlighting. For me, this is pretty much mandatory, there is too much typing in the dark, and having a backlight really helps. The RGB lighting is kind of cool, but not really necessary.
- High-quality mechanical switches ideally Cherry MX from Germany are the best. I like the Blue (click style the best), the fancy keyboard comes with travel dampeners which is like (Code has 0.2mm dampers that reduce the sound and the travel).
- PBT Doubleshot keys. More technical, but these are textured keys and durable. Doubleshot means the illumination comes out of the top, so gives a nice effect that's easy to read.
- Bluetooth LE with long-lasting battery. There isn't a premium on these days, so Bluetooth 5 with multiple connections is great.
- Mac keys. While it doesn't bother me that much, if the keyboard comes with a puller so you can put the Command and Option keys in and there is a hardware switch so that you can have mac mode that is awesome.
- USB C connection. Let's get on to the new world of USB C. Most modern keyboards have them now mainly for recharging.
I've gotten a few and here are some notes about how well they work:
- WASD Code V3 87-Key Mechanical Keyboard with Cherry MX Blue. I've had these keyboards for the last five years and I have to say I love them more every day (I actually have the V2B, so a generation earlier, but they are about the same). The big decision is what type of Cherry MX key you want. They have a great decoder ring at the top of their website. But I've really liked the Cherry MX Blue, it is click, yes it's loud, but it is just so satisfying to hear it. The other variety I have is the Cherry Brown which is a quiet key with a small bump. Overall, I really like the Cherry MX Blue. But the one that would be great to get is the Cherry MX Green which is apparently really rare and has that sort of buckling spring of the original IBM PC Keyboard (the so called Model M). Make no mistake these cost serious money with the MX Blue at $170 or the MX Green at $185. As an aside, I think the 87-key is probably the best compromise for the Mac. Most of the time, you don't need the dedicated number pad unless you an accountant, and having the arrow keys gives you way more flexibility for control keys and shortcuts. The one thing about using this with the Mac is that it does mean you have unplugged the keyboard, to go to the back of the keyboard and flip the DIP switches so that SW1 is On and SW2 is Off, or go to System Preferences > Keyboard > Modifier Keys and flip the Command and Control keys as this is a Windows keyboard. If you switch on SW6, then the Mac Function keys work. To actually manage things, you hit the Menu key which acts as the Function key for the Mac, so turn off the Backlight with Menu-F12 and Menu-F11 to change the backlight brightness. What is not intuitive is that they do not map the other function keys to the usual media control, instead these are mapped to the special keys on the left. So, FN+Ins is Play, FN+Home is Pause, FN+Delete is last track, FN+End is Next, FN+Page Up is volume up and Page Down is volume down. And there of course firmware updates now for the V3 keyboards, so you made need to update them. The only real disadvantage is that they do use the lower quality ABS key caps, but otherwise they are very nice.
- Varmilo VA87M Mac Keyboard with Cherry MX Brown for $129. The Wirecutter mentioned this keyboard and it is much cheaper and pretty decent at $129. The main problem I had with it is that you have to know the special keyboard shortcuts to get it right. The good news is that, from the manual, this has a Mac mode, so you have to hit FN+A and get into Apple mode and FN+W to get to Windows mode. The nice thing is that the function keys work exactly like the Mac, so F5 and F6 are lower and raise brightness of the keyboard backlight. My keyboard got into a strange mode where the Windows and Function keys were swapped. You can figure this out by holding Function and Escape and seeing if the caps lock lights, if not then hold down the Windows/Option key and Escape to reset it. Basically, you can get into a mode the Capslock is swapped and then nothing works, so remember the reset it this all goes wrong. I got the keyboard with Cherry MX Brown keys and I have to say 55nm actuation force vs the greater 60nm for the Cherry MX Blue, I don't like it as much. It is a wired keyboard like the WASD Code V3, but I would say that if you have the extra $50, the actual keycaps of the WASD are nicer, and definitely get it in Cherry MX Blue. These do use PBT (and not ABS keys). PBT is of higher quality and has a texture and is more durable which is nice. For nerds, ABS stands for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene which is a type of plastic that is cheap, has a smooth texture, and does wear over time whereas Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT) are more expensive and more right, but don't deteriorate over time.
- Qisan Gaming Mechanical 68-Key Cherry MX Blue Keyboard. Well, I got this keyboard because Wirecutter recommends it for a small-budget keyboard, and seemed like a good choice for being on the road as (unlike the Anne Pro 2 below, they have arrow keys). In actuality, having a Bluetooth keyboard actually makes more sense, so I use this keyboard for occasional use. The good news is that it comes with real Cherry MX Blue keys and it is just $58. Also, it is quite a bit smaller. Normally keyboards are 104 keys full-sized, then the next step is 78 keys, but this is actually 68 keys which is not a bad compromise. The key thing is that the arrow keys are still there but it is a little hard to access them (see the manual). I actually don't know if they are really Cherry MX Blue, but they are clicky. Not a bad choice if you don't have the juice for a wireless keyboard (see below). This keyboard is not Mac aware, so you do need to go to System Preferences/Keyboard and swap the modifier keys. It has ABS keys, but at this price that's quite a good deal.
These are wired keyboards, but with Bluetooth everywhere, it makes sense to look at Bluetooth Mechanical keyboards. Here I would say that I have not found the perfect keyboard yet. Here is what I've tried:
- Keychron K2 V2 for a reasonable $75. This is a 75% keyboard so has those pesky arrow keys and was one of the top-rated Kickstart projects. I have not gotten it yet, but have high hopes that at last there will be a nice Gateron Blue keyboard that also has Bluetooth LE support. It also let's you replace the Control and Alt keys with real Mac keys which is nice.
- Obins Anne Pro 2 60% Wireless Keyboard. The wired version is recommended by Wirecutter for $94, but they have a wireless version that has gotten good reviews and is $99 at Amazon. There are two main issues with the keyboard. The first is that as a 60% keyboard it lacks the arrow keys, which makes it not super useful if you need them, but ok for typing. I got them with Gateron Blue which is a little cheaper than the real Cherry Mx but feel about the same. The second problem is the programming of them. They have a few unique features. The first is the backlight doesn't just come on so you really need a manual so you can remember how this works. The first thing is that to enable the Bluetooth, you need to hit the switch on the back, it is not automatic when you plug in the USB C plug. Then if you want the true F1-F9 keys, you get them by pressing FN1 and then 1 since it is 60%. And there are no direction keys, so you hit FN1 + W, A, S, and D to get arrow keys. Kind of inconvenient. The hardest thing is to get the lighting on the keyboard to work. To do that, you use the FN2 key (next to FN1), and then FN2+9 is Light on/off, FN2 is the backlight, FN2 and - is lower brightness, and FN2 and + increases it. Finally, it can pair with up to four devices, so to specify the devices, you hold down for five seconds FN2 and then 1, 2, 3, or 4 to start pairing and then a quick FN2 + 1, 2, 3, or 4 to switch hosts. This keyboard is not Mac aware, so you do need to go to System Preferences/Keyboard and swap the modifier keys. There are lots of compromises with a 60% key, but you can just override things like FN1 and FN2 to get back arrow keys or give up the Caps lock to be a FN key, all in all not a great coders keyboard. This does have nice PBT double shot keycaps though with versions A or B and runs Gateron switches, we got the Blue. (As an aside, there are three different lighting styles, just pure underglow, doubleshot is more expensive and means that the illumination comes through the top so the letters are lit and then pudding means that there is a layer and the light comes out the sides of the keys rather than just the bottom.