I'm pretty well overdue for this but what really pushed me to get a new keyboard was this soundbar I bought, the Sound Blaster Katana. It's a neat little piece of kit for my desk, but it goes right where my keyboard's cable needs to run, so it's fugly and annoying to move around. My desk is big but it's not big enough for all the
crap important things I keep around my workspace, so being able to shuffle things around is seriously valuable.
My criteria were:
- Wireless (RF dongle is good, bluetooth is fine too)
- Smaller than my current full-size keyboard, though simply having smaller bezels would be a win too
- Hot-swappable keyswitches, because I would like to experiment with those
- Nice to type on
- Minimal compromises in usability
"What's wrong with Bluetooth?", you might ask. "You don't need a receiver dongle, it just works", you might say. Yah well you know what doesn't work with Bluetooth? The BIOS/UEFI in your PC. The full-disk encryption password prompt for your workstation. You know what does work, because it looks just like a USB keyboard? An RF receiver dongle. I grant you I don't know how a keyboard pairs with its RF dongle, and that's a security concern. Bluetooth generally gets this right, you pair any two devices and you know you have some (hopefully) decent crypto keys for the link.
Ranting about not having enough keys
I also honestly don't understand the craze for 60% layout keyboards, they have a lack of useful keys. I know the idea is that you "just" set them up as macros/combos, but this misses the fact that I already use a lot of combos on a full-sized keyboard.
- Tilde and backtick: I'm a linux sysadmin so I use these all the time to refer to homedirs and perform shell substitution. You can Fn-combo this onto Esc I guess.
- Ins/Del: Del is always used. I frequently use Shift-Ins to paste from the clipboard. You could use Fn-Del for Ins I suppose, making it Fn-Shift-Del to paste.
- Home/End: used for navigating and editing my current commandline in the shell, you could probably make this a Fn'd pair like with Ins/Del but it's kinda annoying. I often use Ctrl with Home/End to jump to start/end of document, so it's now a longer combo. Also used for navigation in vim, though purists would say to use Ctrl-A/E and 0/$ for that. Screw those guys, Home and End work in both Normal and Editing modes.
- PgUp/PgDn: frequently used for navigating logfiles and the output of shell commands. I use them in combination with Ctrl to navigate my browser tabs all the time. I use them with Ctrl-Shift to rearrange my browser tabs as well. Some keyboards map PgUp to Fn-U or something, so now that becomes the delightful Ctrl-Shift-Fn-U.
- Function keys: you can mostly do without these, but they are really handy. Alt-F4 to close an app, F5 to reload a page, F5 and F9 to save and load your game, F3 to redo a text search, Ctrl-Alt-F1/F2/etc to change virtual terminals on a linux console. I would be mostly okay with just mapping these to the regular number line.
- Numpad: I use the calculator frequently so having a standard numpad layout is good for accurate number-typing. The mathematical operators are right next to the digits, super sensible. /* and */ are used for writing comments in some programming languages, so they're well placed for that usage.
- Media keys: yeah look just macro these things or whatever. Just don't underestimate how nice it is to have Play/Pause, VolUp, and VolDown keys.
- Print Screen: I use this a lot to grab a quick rectangle from the screen and annotate it. You can map it to a Fn-combo (or Win-Shift-S in Windows) but a dedicated key is nice.
Now you can probably get used to a lot of these as Fn-combos, that's the point of reduced-key form factors anyway. And you could make dedicated Fn-macros to replicate these more complex operations too (next/prev tab to Fn-Q/A, and rearrange tab left/right to Fn-W/S, or something. But I like the way the existing composability works, so that doesn't appeal to me.
What you can get rid of:
- Caps Lock
- Right Alt
- Right Win/Menu
- Right Ctrl
- Right Shift
If you use these, all the more power to you. For me they're ripe for remapping into macros, or use as more modifier keys.
I got a Keychron K8 Pro
So I settled on a TenKey-Less (TKL) layout. I reasoned that I can survive without convenient number-typing, but I'd be too pissed off if I lost more keys than that. I think I made the right choice and I'm happy with what I got.
I've long been curious about linear keyswitches so I got the variant with Gateron Reds. They're nice to type on and it's really quiet. The build quality is fantastic and tight, stuff doesn't wobble. This is an amazing improvement from my mainstream Brown (Logitech G710+) and Blue (Asus TUF Gaming K7) mechanical keyboards, which are fine but just... wow, not that good. It's really eye-opening.
The K8 Pro is a hefty unit, about the same weight as my full-size Logitech, but smaller and thus denser. Stock keycaps are great, setup and usage is great. The programmability is the reason I got the Pro version, because I knew I'd want to remap things. That uses the Via app, and it works pretty well.
I find my typing accuracy with the Gateron Reds is a little worse, I think I just feel a little uncertain about my keypresses because there's no feedback from the switch. It's hard to describe or quantify, I just end up second-guessing myself, and sometimes the letter don't come out. Maybe I should've gotten the tactile Brown switches after all, but it's good to just try it and find out. Besides, the keyswitches are hot-swappable so the fix is simple.
I'm trying some Akko keyswitches
The Keychron is so good that the missus wants one as well. Perfect time to make an order from PCCG and tack on a few things. I think I want something more tactile so I'm getting those, but I also suspect that some lighter linear switches would solve my uncertainty issues. Akko's switches sound like they're the business, and they're pretty cheap, which I think is a fair compromise. I'm not expecting the world from them but they should be decent.
Akko has too many damn different switches, but I settled on:
- Akko CS Lavender Purple Switches (tactile, very early bump)
- Akko CS Vintage White Switches (linear with lighter 35g actuation force instead of 45g)
The lavender switches are honestly a bit weird. The tactility is excellent, but the weight of the bump is too much for me. It's about 50 grams before you get past it, making me feel like I had to hammer the keys to get a keypress. Similar problem as before but for a different reason.
The vintage whites are much better. I'd probably still like a bit of tactility, but so far these are a good improvement.
Just for testing, I've put the vintage white switches under all my alphabet keys. They need it the most, and it's what I can get away with seeing as there's only 45 of them in the box. I've left the lavender switches under the a few choice keys that might appreciate the tactility, such as Esc, Tilde, arrow keys, and number keys. I've also left the original Gateron Reds under the Function keys, modifiers, Tab/Shift/Enter/Backspace/etc, and the Ins/Home/Pg block.
One thing the Gateron switches can't be beat for is quietness. With a bare switch (no keycap) the actuation is ridiculously quiet, barely any sound as the stem hits the bottom of the case, nor as it returns to the top under spring pressure. The Akko switches make a racket in comparison, despite being the fancy lubed versions as well.
Maybe I'll end up on Gateron Browns after all, I don't know yet. But this is not bad so far.
Some Akko keycaps to finish it off
The last thing I needed is some nice keycaps. I've determined that I'm a fan of the SA family of keycaps, it's just a pleasing shape and can be a little bit retro with the right legends on them. The K8 Pro ships with OSA-profile keys which feel great, and the colour palette feels a little reminiscent of IBM branding, but the legends aren't quite doing it for me.
Akko has a fantastic Carbon Retro set in orange/grey/offwhite that I think would look fabulous, but... it's sold out and there's no indication it'll be remade. Technically you can still get it in Cherry profile, but the legends are disgusting and not retro at all, which completely defeats the purpose. If it's going to be retro it needs big, well-proportioned legends. It's not a matter of readability at this point – Cherry legends are fine at that – it's a matter of aesthetics.
The black and bronze set has a similar sort of vibe, but I'd prefer the retro orange and higher contrast of the off-white keys, so it's a pass from me. In the end I settled on their Bred set because I love red and this is a good colour match. ASA profile keycaps, nice big retro legends, and a lovely colour pairing.
The only downside of Bred is that the contrast is a little low if you're working in a dark environment. There's no shine-through at all, which means you really need external lighting to make use of the legends. Doubleshot PBT with shine-through exists so I don't know why you don't see it more often, I'd be okay with translucent red legends. It doesn't need to be super bright, just leaking a bit of light through would make them visible and shouldn't compromise the normal aesthetic of the keycaps. Maybe they figure it'd look bad shining different RGB colours through a tinted legend.