In Search of a Mechanical Keyboard Endgame: Part 1

Posted on Jul 24, 2020

It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with mechanical keyboards. Ever since I bought my first mechanical keyboard in 2009, I’ve been hooked. This (not so) short post is a stream a stream of consciousness recount of my years of ‘keebing’.

Naive Beginnings

Back in the stone age of 2009, I bought my first honest-to-goodness ‘mech: a Razer Blackwidow, with Cherry MX Blues. It was plasticky, loud, clicky, and I loved it. Back then I wasn’t so in tune with how my hands feel after a long typing or programming session (as I did neither back then), so I have little to say about how it really performed. I held onto it for about a year and a half before selling it to a friend, who used it for years after.

Razer has since stopped using genuine Cherry switches, opting for their own in-house clone. Probably for the best, as Cherry isn’t what it used to be.

Backtracking

Unbeknownst to me, the Blackwidow wasn’t my first mechanical keyboard. Circa 2008 I “acquired” some old Apple keyboards from my elementary school’s dusty old equipment closet. In all I picked up an Apple Extended Keyboard, a Tactile Pro, and some others that I don’t quite remember. Sadly, my mom threw them out at some point without asking, which I am still a bit upset about til this day, even if I didn’t know what they were at the time.

Before there were custom boards

…there were Cooler Master boards. Before I sold my Blackwidow I picked up a Cooler Master QuickFire Rapid TKL, again with Cherry MX Blue switches. These were quite rigid and tight for plastic case keyboards, and I look upon them pretty fondly, despite their thin stock keycaps. Soon after that, I picked up one with Cherry MX Brown switches, and sold the MX Blue one to another friend. This intro to so-called “tactile” switches (a term I would never use for a switch as crappy as MX Browns today) would prove to be important. At some point I picked up a red and white Taihao PBT set for this board for way more than I care to admit. I still have those keycaps lying around in a ziplock somewhere.

Misguided Matias

While I still had my QFR with browns, I also picked up a Matias Tactile Pro—misnamed, as it is a clicky switch keyboard. I bought it in search of a “better than MX Blue” clicky board, still thinking that I preferred clicky switches to tactile. Despite picking it up, I still used my QFR more. Matias clicky switches are indeed better than blues, in my opinion. I still have this keyboard and it has seen very little use.

Matias was one of only a handful of companies that has tried (and failed) to revive the Alps key switch. They didn’t get it quite right. The switches are extremely scratchy, and cannot be lubed. I still have hope a Chinese company like Kailh or Durock can pull it off as they did for the MX switch.

Happy Hacking, not much hacking

Finally around 2012 I worked up the courage to spend more than $150 on a keyboard and bought something way out of left field: a PFU HHKB—Happy Hacking Keyboard from EliteKeyboards. This little wonder was my come to Jesus moment for tactile keyboards. Ever so subtle in its stock tactility, my fingers happily thocked away on its strange condensed layout. The HHKB is so small that it doesn’t have arrow keys. Backspace is where backslash is, control is where caps lock is, caps lock is gone, and tilde is way over on the right. It is truly an incredible layout that makes for very little hand movement. 8 years on, I still have this keyboard, and it was my main board for about 3 years suffering through my rage gaming life phase. Dishwashing money well spent, I’d say.

Ergo-ish

While I was still in love with my lovely light little Topre keyboard, my eyes were wandering back to Cherry-land. My next Cherry board was a first generation Ergo Dox (a split ortholinear keyboard with an acrylic case). This board had a lot of special and weird things about it. It had the rare (at the time) Cherry MX Clear switches, Signature Plastics blank DSA keycaps, and a fancy programmable firmware. I taught myself how to solder, and built the Massdrop kit myself. A few switches didn’t work right away, but I managed to fix them. Sadly I never got used to typing on blanks and on a weird new split layout, so it sat in a closet for most of its time with me. A few years ago I sold it in a broken state on eBay for a profit. Not sure what was wrong with it, but one side stopped working.

I think what’s important to note about the ErgoDox is that it is way easier to get keycaps for today, and there are much better tactiles than MX Clears today, that’s for sure. I might build another one someday, but it would have to have a nicer case than the sharp edged, fingerprint magnet acrylic that mine had.

A fun fact about the ErgoDox is that when I ordered my keycaps from Signature Plastics, I got a bright red PBT color swatch. I still carry that little tag on my keychain to this day. It’s held up amazingly. I should reach out to them to show them how much abuse their stuff can take.

But wait, there’s a lot more

I’ll cut this off here, as this more or less marks the end of the “old” keeb era, and before my current addiction really got started.