After a long hiatus, I’m back in the mechanical keyboard scene. Turns out, I was just a bit too early, hanging out on geekhack.org way back in the mid-aughts.
What’s changed in the last 15 years?
- Way more switches. Even some 100-key switch testers.
- Way more community. Geekhack, Reddit, Youtube
Jumping back in with hotswap
15 years ago, the modding scene hadn’t really developed and I wasn’t about to teach myself to solder. This mean that I had to buy fully assembled boards outright.
This meant buying and selling boards on eBay and Craigslist. It was workable if you were patient, but it still was a huge pain in the ass. You really just wanted to try a new board or a new switch for 10 minutes, but you had to commit way too much money and time just to get the chance.
Modern hotswap boards are a game changer. No more trading entire boards. Just get a hotswap board, and if you want to try new switches? just swap them out. New keycaps? swap them out. A $100-200 new keyboard purchase becomes a $30 pack of switches.
If you’re getting into mechanical keyboards for the first time, start with a hotswap board. If you end up exploring many options, the cost savings will pay for itself.
The Drop Alt High Profile
After looking at several options, I went with the Alt High Profile group buy from Drop. The things that were important to me:
- It’s a 65% layout (no F-keys, no numpad, but with arrow block)
- Solid aluminum base
- Hotswap sockets (obviously)
- Layout programmability (I tweak the standard 65% layout a bit)
- Drop itself. I’ve had several good experiences with group buys on the site.
I ordered with the Kaihua Speed Silver switch option. My goal is to get a very light touch keyboard — something lighter than the Topre silents on my Leopold FC660C.
Speed Silver’s have conflicting specs online. The manufacturer spec sheet seems to suggest actuation at 27g and bottom out at 50g, but if you feel one of these things, it seems way off. They feel heavier than Cherry blacks.
I tried swapping in Sprit 40s springs which actuate at 30cn. While I succeeded in making the switches super light, other problems emerged. Speed Silvers have a high actuation point — almost 1mm higher than a standard Cherry MX switch. This combined with a super light spring meant that simply touching or grazing the top of a key could lead to an unintentional actuation. Since the spring force increases with the compression, I’d guess the actual actuation force for this combo was somewhere in the 20g to 25g range.
The combination of super light spring and high actuation leads to a bunch of typos even if you’re being careful. Keys like Y and T are most problematic. You are reaching over other keys, and in the process of pressing those keys, you might lightly touch the tops of H or G. This means yhou end up witfh lots of extra characters when you tyhpe tghese letters.
I tried double 2mm O-rings on each keycap which help somewhat. This causes the overall key travel to shorten. Shorter travel means that you’re less likely to press down a neighboring key you had to reach over, because the key doesn’t need to go as far to bottom out. But alas, even with lots of practice I still couldn’t get rid of all the extra typos, and it became stressful to continue to type on these switches.
After re-swapping all the springs back to the original, I was back to the drawing board.
Was my 40g spring just too light? Or was this strategy doomed because of the high actuation point? I needed to test both theories.
After a bit more research, I settled on trying Gateron Clears, which are linear switches with a 35g actuation force. These would be more than 30g required by my modded Speed Silvers. The Clears also have a lower actuation point than the silvers (though higher than standard MX)
The clears arrived today, and I have been typing with them for the last 6 hours or so. I am happy to report that:
- No more typos due to grazing keys. The actuation point is low enough that the problem is avoided.
- 35g actuation is still plenty light. It feels like almost no resistance at all.
- I kept reading that Clears are very “smooth” and now I know what they mean. Cherry switches have a bit of extra friction on the downpress if you don’t hit keys exactly in the middle, directly above the stem. The Clears feel the same regardless of where your finger lands. It gives a noticeable consistency and high quality feel to the typing experience.
Ok, so I wasn’t really away from the scene
I wasn’t modding boards, but it’s a lie to say I’ve been ignoring keyboards for the last 10+ years. Some of the boards I’ve tried in the meantime:
- MS Surface wireless
- MS Surface Ergonomic
- Das Keyboard with Cherry MX Brown
- Kinesis Freestyle Edge
- Whitefox with Hako True
- Realforce RGB
- Leopold FC660C
- Logitech MX Keys
- Apple Keyboard
- Havit Low-profile TKL mechaical board (some variant of Kailh choc switches, I think)
Where to go from here?
I’m really just starting to catch up on all the developments of the modding scene in the last 10 years. Some projects I’m looking forward to:
- Trying out Holy Pandas, which I managed to get in the Drop group buy for. I’m worried that with a 67g spring, they might be too heavy for my tastes, but I’m curious how they behave with lighter springs.
- Lubing switches and stabilizers. Everyone says it makes a huge difference.
- Exploring keycaps. I really like the looks of SA profile, but we’ll see if it’s actually hard to type on.
- Rebuilding the whitefox. I got the board through the kickstarter, but hate the Hako True switches it came with. (WAY too heavy with a 100g bottom out force). Once I figure out my favorite switches, my plan is to actually learn to desolder and swap the switches out.
- Building a choc switch board. I still really like low profile switches and laptop-style scissor switches.
- I’m not done with the Leopold yet! My main annoyance with it is the lack of programmability, but I have a Hasu controller board replacement on order, and excited to give that a go.