I jumped on the mechanical keyboard bandwagon the way a lot of people do, with a discounted Razer Blackwidow. That was six years ago. I honestly can’t tell you how many keyboards I’ve bought and built since then, because a lot of them have been deconstructed, “cannibalized” for parts to put into other keyboards. Because I am on a hunt.
I’m pretty much finished with my “main” keyboard, the ridiculous custom project I use for work (sitting on top of my other ridiculous custom project). If you’re wondering, it’s a wireless Varmilo VB87M, with the hard-to-find aluminum add-on case, switches swapped out for BOX Navy, and the Galaxy Class DSA keycap set. No, what I’m hunting for is the “perfect” portable mechanical keyboard, or at least the perfect one for me. It’s an item that, so far as I can tell, does not exist yet.
I’ve spent that part of lockdown not building extravagant knock-off LEGO sets, but buying, tweaking, testing, and returning tiny keyboards. I’m hunting for something that will let me type in (relative) quiet in public, so I can go out to Starbucks with a tablet and thump away to my heart’s content without bothering those around me.
The irony that I’ve been doing this during the COVID pandemic (and can’t really leave my house anyway), and wouldn’t be close enough to others to bother them if I could, is not lost on me.
A Very Particular Set of
Anyway, here are the features I’m searching for:
- 60% or 65% form factor for portability
- Bluetooth (and internal battery) for wireless connections
- Hotswap sockets for trying out different “silent” switches
- Premium materials (preferably a metal case)
- Full programmability for my weird-ass custom layout
I don’t need the switches themselves, or the keycaps—I can supply those from my growing collection. Small keyboards aren’t hard to find, and neither are ones with hotswap sockets—you can find dozens of both on Amazon, no need to hunt around for custom suppliers. There are even a few with nice metal cases. Bluetooth keyboards were surprisingly thin on the ground in mechanical form for several years, but now you can spot several from Chinese manufacturers.
The surprisingly difficult aspect of this treasure hunt has been the programmability. I’ve harped on this before, but I think it’s absolutely essential for a small keyboard to offer full programming options, including moving around the FN modifier button. This is because a keyboard smaller than “TKL” size is already asking the user to learn a new layout, possibly including different spots for the arrow keys. Being able to customize the location of different nontyping functions is important for making everyday use comfortable.
For my own workflow, I need always-on arrow keys, and relatively easy access (meaning one layer down) to volume, mute, and the Print Screen button. Getting access to play/pause, and having an option for a dedicated Delete key would be a bonus. The dedicated arrow keys are the real killer on the 60% size. I want to be able to use the right-side Alt, Windows, Menu, and Ctrl keys for the four arrow buttons if the cluster isn’t available. I use Caps Lock as a function key in this case.
Close, But No Cigar
I’ve seen several keyboards come close to this platonic portable ideal in the last year or so. The Drop (Massdrop) ALT is far and away the nicest keyboard I’ve tried in this form factor. Its programming is excellent, it uses a full metal construction with lovely magnetic feet, and it has hotswap switches. Alas, it’s not wireless. Not a candidate for my needs.
I tried out the Keychron K6. It’s got a great layout, multi-device Bluetooth, and an option for a sort-of metal case (metal over plastic) and hotwap switches. Too bad that there’s no way to change the key assignments, and its awful “light” button where the Delete key should be makes it a pain to use for writing. Keychron promised a way to reprogram its keyboards in 2020, and did not deliver. (Y’all thought I’d forget that, huh?) It’s still directing users to programs like SharpKeys for programming, which is useless if you use different keyboards for a Windows machine, or indeed, if you want to use your Keychron for a laptop or Chrome machine. Do better, Keychron.
I bought the Epomaker SK61S from Amazon. On paper it has everything I need: hotswap switches, Bluetooth, 60% layout, key programming. When I got it in, I found that the switches were pretty difficult to get out and back in, but that’s not a dealbreaker. Once I had the switches I wanted, I wouldn’t need to do that on a regular basis. Then I booted up the Windows tool necessary to program the custom layout and layers … and my heart broke. There was no way to move the FN key around, meaning it was impossible for me to get that bottom-left arrow cluster. Defeated once more, I returned it to Amazon.
I even tried to make my own keyboard several years ago. I succeeded, after a fashion—I had to track down one of the only Bluetooth-capable PCBs made for custom keyboard builders (which, sadly, isn’t made anymore) and permanently solder the switches in place. It even let me use five buttons on that lower-right cluster—four arrow keys and a FN button out of the way. I got a custom plate printed for my layout, and even tracked down a secondhand Poker 3 case, because that’s a beautiful, easily-available, minimal case. All I had to do was Dremel out a larger hole for the USB-C port, and carefully position a 3.7-volt battery so it wouldn’t be punctured.
But the PCB for that keyboard was … iffy. It frequently disconnected from Bluetooth and gave repeated keystrokes over the wireless connection. When multiple Bluetooth connections were active, specifically a mouse and headphones, it would interfere with the other devices. I tried really hard to make my lovingly custom job work, but it just couldn’t be relied upon for an hour of problem-free typing. This labor of many hours (and dollars) is now sitting unused in my closet.
A Fragile Compromise
At the moment I’ve settled on a candidate for my portable keyboard that I’m not thrilled with, but which technically fulfills all of those points above. It’s the GK68XS, a slightly larger variant of the Epomaker keyboard I bought previously. It has all the same features, plus an extra six keys that enable it to have a full arrow cluster (with an unfortunately “squished” right shift key). That little modification allows me to use the arrow keys without needing to move the FN key around.
The programming is just as bad as it was on the smaller keyboard, but I can add in dedicated volume keys and bind Print Screen to something easy to remember. Its Bluetooth is much more reliable than my custom job, the hot-swap switches seem to be improved, and it has a more comfy shorter profile than the Keychron. I’m using it with Kailh’s BOX Silent Brown switches, which have the wonderful feel of hall effect stems and a small tactile bump, but dampen the sound of the keys with internal foam, so as not to disturb imaginary Starbucks patrons (or my girlfriend when I’m typing in the living room).
But of course, there has to be a downside. For the GK68XS, it’s the Backspace/Delete key. Most 65% keyboards keep Backspace right where it usually is, and put Delete next to it on the right. For some reason this keyboard transposes Backspace one key over, puts Delete down (where it would be on a TKL board, but which is awkward here), and moves the tilde key from the left side to the right. What?
This is annoying. But it’s workable. That effectively shortened Backspace is something I can adapt my muscle memory to, and the rest of the keyboard’s features are pretty great. I’ve ordered a metal case for this one, with the intention of making it my semi-permanent portable board. Hopefully, I’ll even be able to use it in public sometime this year, after the long wait for vaccination ends.
No Such Thing as Endgame
I’ll use this keyboard. I’ll enjoy this keyboard. But I’ll buy (or build) another one. Possibly even before the year is out. Because I’m striving for perfection, even though I know I can’t achieve it.
In the high-end mechanical keyboard community, there’s a psychological goal—the “endgame.” The idea is that you can spend enough time and money, researching, buying, building, programming, tweaking, to get the perfect keyboard … or at least, the perfect keyboard for you. Glorious is trying to make this for a lot of people with the upcoming GMMK Pro, for example.
This kind of thinking goes into almost any hobby. I’ve seen the same thing happen to people who love tweaking their home office setup, or building and customizing bicycles, or guitars, or home theaters, or kitchens, or even something so seemingly simple as a fountain pen. My significant other does this with cactuses and succulents. Wherever there’s disposable income to be spent on something you enjoy, the idea that you can do so in such a way as to “perfect” it seems to be a common goal.
There’s a directly related saying among keyboard nerds: “There’s no such thing as endgame.” This article explores the basic idea that no matter how much time and money you spend trying to get to perfect, something keeps you coming back. It’s possible that it’s that nagging feeling that, however “perfect” you think your current setup might be, you know it could be a tiny bit better.
But I think there’s a less cynical answer to this conundrum. And it’s that the love of the hobby itself makes you go back, time and time again, to find your new “perfect” keyboard. Not because you need it to be better, or even really want it to be better. But because the search itself is what you enjoyed, and sharing that search with the people who are on the same journey.
At the risk of sounding saccharine, the real “endgame” was the friends (and keyboards) I met along the way.