DIY cute little Mac-compatible mechanical keyboard
September 16, 2019 3:21 PM   Subscribe

I would like to customize my own little (tenkeyless) mechanical keyboard with pastel keycaps and the usual Mac functions (need to have: basic command shortcuts, nice to have: audio player controls (skip, play/pause, volume up/down). I'm a fast touch typist planning on using the keyboard at home, and I don't intend on bringing it into the office, so it's ok if the keys are somewhat noisy as long as they can hold up to a lot of typing. How should I build such a keyboard and where should I buy the components?

- Examples of keycap colorways I'm considering: NPKC rainbow (top printed), NPKC sunset blue gradient, Tai-Hao Sunshine. Basically I want to make a keyboard that looks like something you'd want to eat. Are there any other keycap sets you'd recommend for this kind of rainbow/gradient aesthetic?

- The TKL section of the r/MechanicalKeyboards subreddit wiki lists a somewhat overwhelming amount of keyboards. I guess 80% (TKL + function row) is what I'm looking for, but I don't mind sacrificing the function row. For example, if a 65%-sized keyboard is of a better build quality than a 80%-sized board, I'd rather get the one with the better build quality. I'm also keen on a board that can be mapped/customized for Mac OS compatibility, as I've only been using Apple's keyboards for the past 10 years. The color of the board itself doesn't matter as much to me as the keycaps, but I'm guessing a light neutral, dark grey, or clear base would look neat. Which TKL boards would you recommend?

- I'm thinking about Cherry MX Red or Brown switches, and leaning more towards the Brown based on this comparison. I can't figure out if a "lack of tactile feedback" would bother me, and don't game much on the computer, so I'm mostly interested in a pleasant fast typing experience. Would red or brown (or another Cherry MX color) be better for large amounts of fast typing?

- Most of the components (keycaps or boards) I've been interested in from r/MK tend to link Drop sales that have since ended or sold through. :/ Are there sites like Drop I should check out for purchasing either the keycaps or boards, or both?

- (I'm open to pre-built pastel keyboard recs, but I like the idea of being able to change up the look by switching out the caps every once in a while, so I'd still want a keyboard I could customize to that extent.)

- I'm in the U.S. and wouldn't mind spending up to ~$150 on this new hobby, so no Topres or $200+ board recs, please. Thanks!
posted by rather be jorting to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would totally recommend WASD Keyboards. You can choose the colors for the individual keys, pick the layout (including Mac-specific keys), and switch layouts on the keyboard itself, using dip switches on the underside of the device.

I have a TKL and really like it. It‘s compact, and it enables me to have my trackball or trackpad closer to the keyboard, which is better ergonomically than a keyboard with a numeric keypad. I thought about a 60%—and WASD makes one—but I didn’t want to bother with chords. TKL strikes the perfect balance for me.

I have two WASD 87s, one at home, and one for the office. The one at the office is a WASD Code, so it has standard keys and is backlit. For the one at home, I customized the key caps so that the board looks like an Apple Extended Keyboard II (but black). You don’t have to go to that extreme, but if you, say, wanted to design each individual key to have the exact font you want, you can. These aren’t backlit, though, if that’s important to you.

One thing I recommend is ordering a switch tester from them, which Is basically a mini keyboard with all (or most) of their switch types, as well as damper rings. Yeah, it’s a few bucks extra, but it’s already an expensive device, and you want to make sure you get exactly what you want.

Browns are tactile switches; they’ve got a “bump” that you feel when you press them down, but they don’t have a click; Clears are the same, but require more force to actuate. The Blue has a click and a bump; Greens are the same, but again, require more force. The Reds are linear, meaning there’s no click or bump, it’s just straight up-and-down. To me, they barely feel like they’re mechanical at all, and I didn’t like them.

For typing, I’d recommend Blues or Browns. For the record, both my keyboards are Browns—they are the closest to the Apple mechanical keyboards I was trying to emulate.

There’s so much out there, but I heard a lot of good reports about WASD, and everyone that I’ve referred to them has been happy with what they got.
posted by vitout at 4:04 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


First: Pretty much any PC-compatible keyboard can work on MacOS. When you plug your keyboard in, your Mac will do a brief configuration song-and-dance to confirm your keyboard layout, and then you can go to the Keyboard system preference pane, click on the "Modifier Keys..." button, and reassign the alt, control, and win keys to you preferred control, opt, and cmd functions.

Only you can be sure of what key switch feels best to you. The variety of switches is dizzying but to be honest, between my vintage mechs, the keyboards I've built, and the keyboards I've tried at meetups, I have to say there's a lot of attention and product variety in the service of what is usually a pretty subtle range of tactility. I would personally prefer a brown over a red because I like the tactile bump, but there's no sin in preferring switches without a bump, and I've since gotten into more esoteric switches anyway, along with building my own keyboards from scratch.

The goal of a clicky switch is to train the touchtypist to kind of decelerate their finger after getting past the bump and, ideally, not let the key bottom out at all. When you've adapted properly, it can be really nice because your fingers aren't getting shocked by the repeated impact of slamming the key cap into the keyboard case. It takes reprogramming some habits though, since this is kind of antithetical to ordinary rubber dome type keyboards, where the switch occurs at the bottom of the stroke.

O-rings or silencers under the key caps help a lot to reduce the bottoming-out noise. Keyboard nerds usually hate 'em because they can make the bottoming-out of a keystroke feel a little mushy but, again, my impression after using boards with and without O-rings is that the difference is pretty subtle. The keyboard will still make noise, especially if you use switches with a loud click (the browns have a kind of medium-ish click), but it'll still be an improvement. I've used keyboards that are so loud that it was too distracting to type on them, but none of the Cherry-style keyboards are going to be that bad.

Many boards have LED backlighting by default (the standard WASD doesn't). If it's not a thing you're into but the board otherwise sounds appealing, there should always be a way to turn the light off. Probably worth searching r/mechanicalkeyboards before you make a purchase to confirm that people aren't posting "Hey I can't turn the lights off" questions.

mechanicalkeyboards.com is a good resource for beginners. They rep a variety of reliable brands, have good customer support, and you can get good deals in the B stock/returns section.

WASD is a good, reliable brand. I'm in a nearly-all Mac household and we have a couple WASD boards here. There's a dip switch on the back that lets you toggle between PC and Mac mode, so you don't have to do the OS configuration thing. WASD boards are premium priced in part to give you the ability to customize each individual keycap and if you're not down for that (or if it's just overkill for your needs), you can save money by shopping around, or buy a board capless (starting at $105) and use your own third-party caps. WASD has occasional B-stock sales.

Glorious PC Gaming Race: I haven't dealt with them first-hand but it's one of the cheapest configurable keyboard makers. The prices and range of options are pretty good and the boards seem OK. BYO prices start at $60 for the board, plus $30-35 for a set of switches, plus $20-25 for caps.
posted by ardgedee at 4:44 PM on September 16, 2019


I forgot to mention: NPKC has Mac modifiers for some of their keycaps. Message the vendor on Amazon and ask. English is not their first language, so be kind when dealing with apparent miscommunications.

Any keyboard with Cherry-compatible switches can more or less take any Cherry-compatible keycaps. Modulo layout specifics (ANSI vs. ISO usually, but some custom keyboard designers also require idiosyncratic spacebar sizes and etc.) and, sometimes, case constraints. If your heart is set on a third party set of caps, save money and buy a capless keyboard.

Don't bother with Massdrop until you're ready to plan your second keyboard. Because you'll be waiting a loooong time for delivery of that massive sexy anodized aluminum board or bespoke keycap set. Some would say not to bother with Massdrop ever; there have been some bad blood between them and the mech keyboard community in recent years.

Plan your keycap set and keyboard simultaneously. There are a lot of variations in spacebar width, modifier widths, shift key widths, and so on. Don't get stuck with a set of caps that merely almost-but-not-quite totally fit.

$150 is going to be tight for buying a custom board from one vendor and keycaps from another, but it's doable without having to bottom-feed. Good luck!
posted by ardgedee at 4:53 PM on September 16, 2019


I agree that WASD is a solid suggestion. I picked up a keyboard with Cherry Browns from them six years ago, and I use it primarily for typing, not gaming. I've been quite happy with it, both in terms of build quality and the feel while typing. I was also recently pleased to learn that they do a good job of supporting their older keyboards - the micro-USB port on mine was getting loose, but they were able to send me the components needed to replace it with a USB-C port (which I did last weekend).
posted by ubersturm at 5:35 PM on September 16, 2019


A switch tester might be worth it, if you know you aren't willing to get a couple of different sets of switches/keyboards. For instance, I really like Clears, but other people in this thread have other preferences. Finding out what you like is probably worth a bit of spend.

Another vote here for WASD. I have a Code, which is a WASD board + white switch plate and white LEDs, but it sounds like you'd probably prefer the non-backlit option? I just looked and they do indeed have white case options (I was afraid they might not).

Drop is neat because they do specialty things, but, yeah, it takes forever unless you get amazingly lucky. I'd get something you like well enough on Amazon and then, if you still want something even better, wait for it to come around on Drop?
posted by Alterscape at 9:52 PM on September 16, 2019


if a 65%-sized keyboard is of a better build quality than a 80%-sized board, I'd rather get the one with the better build quality

You can find as good build quality in TKL keyboards as in 60% keyboards, so don't switch for that reason.

I'm well-placed to compare the three layouts because I split my time between an RK61 (cheap knock-off 60% keyboard with off-brand switches), a Thinkpad x61 keyboard (effectively TKL with some keys moved around), and an IBM model M (full size).

Full-size is just a waste of space unless you type numbers all the time.

60% is great if you value portability or if you mostly type letters. E.g., English prose.

If you type a lot of punctuation, you should think carefully about which characters you type frequently before buying a 60% keyboard. If, for example, you program in one of these languages that uses ~ as part of its syntax, you're probably going to end up doing some remapping so that you don't have to mash out a three-key chord all the time.

Would red or brown (or another Cherry MX color) be better for large amounts of fast typing?

This is a super personal question. Partly, this means nobody can answer it for you. Partly, this means that the difference is minute for most people and you'll probably be fine no matter what you choose. (Except for clicky switches: your room-mates may have opinions about your clicky switches.)

One option, more expensive than a key tester but less expensive than committing to a real keyboard, is to try out a cheap keyboard with knock-off switches. That way, you can do real typing on a switch with roughly the characteristics you want. I did this, intending to upgrade to real Cherry switches later, and ended up just staying with my knock-offs.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:54 PM on September 16, 2019


Thanks everyone for the detailed responses so far!

Ha, I think I'll bump up the budget a bit to ~$200. It's a flexible budget, I just don't want to go too ham on my first mechanical keeb out the gate.

Getting a switch tester first is a great idea - I'll start there. Most of the sets I've been liking use some form of Cherry MX switch, so a MX tester sounds good. I'm most keen on customizing the appearance to achieve the specific kind of cuteness I want, but I also do type enough that I'll probably be pickier about differences in key travel and clickiness than I initially thought. (Not a programmer, but I write a lot at work & outside of work, to the point where I'm usually wearing out Apple/Macbook stock keys within 2-3 years. Also, my latest work Macbook has ludicrously shallow travel, which partially prompted this Ask.)

Reliability and the likelihood the keyboard company will still be around in a few years are factors I do like, so WASD is shaping up to be a strong contender!

Currently I'm enjoying the size of my Apple Magic Keyboard at home (11" width), so I'm leaning a little more towards the 60-65% option. I use tildes just enough in causal conversation that I'll want to avoid the 3-key-shortcut route, but I think I can map the Esc. key to a tilde key. Backlit keys are a fun extra but not as essential to the cuteness goal as the keycaps - I'm ok without any backlight. Though I'll have to think more about how much I want that function row...
posted by rather be jorting at 1:20 AM on September 17, 2019


Check out the Ducky one 2 mini. It's a 60% keyboard with a bunch of fun color palettes. The lilac and frozen llama colorways come pretty close to the sort of pastel palette you show, and if you really want a smooth rainbow the $99 price point leaves room in your budget to replace the keycaps.

Ducky does a neat trick with the RGB backlighting: there's a palette mode where they light every key in a different shade and then you can press that key to pick that color. I discovered this recently in the process of turning off the LEDs on a Ducky Shine. It takes a manual and about fifteen minutes because there are three axes of adjustment and each axis has like 17 values to cycle through.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 5:58 AM on September 17, 2019


If you’re really interested in options for switches, attend a mech keyboard meetup. They’re usually pretty free floating affairs; in my area they often happen at bars or cafes, bringing a keyboard is not necessary as long as you introduce yourself beforehand, and passers-by are allowed to join in and play with the keyboards too (when they ask nicely). It’s the best way to survey a lot of keyboard layouts and switch types in a single afternoon.
posted by ardgedee at 7:34 AM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


I have a Logitech keyboard with Cherry MX Brown switches, and find it very easy to press an extra, adjacent key accidentally. It's taken a while to get used to it and reduce my error rate. If I get another mechanical keyboard it would have heavier switches (higher actuation force, I think)?
posted by serathen at 9:49 AM on September 17, 2019


- Oh man, meetups! I spent a good hour or so looking at people's meetup recaps and galleries the other day and saw some great configurations. As much as I would love to attend a meetup and touch all the keebs, I have way too many intersecting anxieties related to even just thinking about attending the nearest one, so it's not a tenable option for me at this time - but testing out as many variables in person as possible does sound like the ideal research move.

- I ended up getting the WASD 9-switch MX tester and am feeling more confident about getting Brown switches! That tactile bump ended up being something I did like after all. Blue and Green were too loud and the others all felt sliiiightly off to me (Red & Silent Red: missed the tactile response; Clear, Silver, and Black: felt what I think is "mushy" - just enough resistance w/ the higher actual force to feel too slow to type on, Zealio 67g: wildcard! but also, too much resistance). I also tested out the blue and red o-rings and did not like the shortened travel on any of the switches, but will keep them in mind in case the clicks do end up feeling too loud for my liking.

- I also ended up getting the NPKC rainbow keycap set, in blanks, as I reckon I can still look at my laptop's keyboard if needed to remember less frequently used symbols and the blank keycaps ended up being the ones I liked the most on the boards that inspired me to get on this pastel project in the first place, ha.

- Leaning more towards that 60-65% size now, as most of the custom boards I've been admiring are around that size, and I don't use the media keys that often at home, really.

- Not to get too mushy or high actuation force on y'all, but this has been a pretty sweet metafilter experience :D
posted by rather be jorting at 12:00 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Cool! Browns and clears are pretty much the same switch except the clears have heavier springs.

The mech community tends to fetishize heavier springs. I think it's partly a macho thing and partly because a lot of guys (it doesn't have to be just guys, it's that it is usually just guys, iykwim) type like hammers falling -- especially when gaming -- and any common keyswitch is going to feel too light for them. Personally I don't like switches that are crazy stiff but do generally prefer 'em heavier than average. Then again there was a time I used a mechanical typewriter because portable computers didn't really exist as such, so I've just got certain habits now though my typing is gentler through deliberate practice.

When you start looking at sizes smaller than TKL, that's when keycap widths, particularly the spacebar and modifier keys, tend to get idiosyncratic. This is because the keyboard has to add at least one extra mode/layer key to provide access to the F keys, arrow keys, and so on. (Similar to the layer controls for the onscreen keyboards on iOS and Android devices). WASD's 65% board uses the same keycaps as their other boards because the mode keys (marked Fn and Pn) are uniform across their products, so it should fit NPKC's standard caps set.

Here's hoping you're so happy with your new keyboard that you don't fall down the mech rabbit hole :) Feel free to memail w/questions.
posted by ardgedee at 5:30 AM on September 25, 2019


And here are the results!
  • Caps: NPKC rainbow blanks
  • Board: Ducky One 2 Mini RGB in white
  • Switches: MX Silent Reds
--

I ended up getting two Ducky One 2 Mini keyboards:

1) The Frozen Llama version that meaty shoe puppet suggested, with Cherry MX brown switches. (Pics: 1, 2, 3!)

It's a different aesthetic than the forbidden candy pastel I had in mind, but after checking out a bunch of Youtube reviews, Instagram posts, and reddit posts, I saw that the main keys were bluer than they appeared in the marketing images, and just ended up liking the whole colorway overall. After getting the board, I swapped out some of the modifiers & the IJKL keys with the included alternative purple caps, and now I'm super pleased with the look. The build quality's great, too - good stabilizers, smooth matte default PBT keycaps, and a pleasant typing experience all around. I haven't gotten to the level of individually programming RGB backlighting per key yet, but I've been having fun with the RGB options (sooo many!) when I have to switch to indoor lighting at night.

Unfortunately for my project, the rainbow keycaps clashed with the Frozen Llama case's bright city pop cyan. Also, once I got used to typing on a mechanical keyboard at home, I ended up wishing I had one at work as well, but the Frozen Llama would've been too loud (in color and sound) for the office.

2) So, I got another one! White, with white stock caps, and Cherry MX silent reds for the office (but really for my self-consciousness at the office). The silent reds still feel a little squishy to type on, but I vastly prefer typing on them to a) the butterfly membrane built-in Macbook keyboard on my work laptop, and b) the chiclet Apple keyboard I had been using for the past few years. And they're noticeably quieter!

Another nice thing about this keyboard's stock caps: the see-through legends look clean and sharp with the RGB backlighting. The matte white legends on the Frozen Llama's caps weren't see-through, so I hadn't realized how nice the backlit see-through letters could look in person. It's a minor thing, but it's also a really fun thing. I also like the Year of the Pig alternative spacebar that came with the keyboard - cute nod to the Chinese zodiac. My shipment came with bright tangerine orange alternative modifier keycaps, so I currently have one of the RGB profiles set to cyan backlighting for a Portal-ish colorway. It's not too wild for the office but just customized enough to bring me a little extra joy when I'm staring down some complex redlines. :D

And for both of the above, reconfiguring the cmd/alt/modifier keys in Mac OS settings was a cinch. Thanks to ardgedee for that tip!

--

As for the project that started this AskMe in the first place:

I took my office keyboard home this weekend and swapped out the keycaps for the NPKC set. Pics: 1, 2, 3!

They look super cute against the white case, imo, and the squishiness of the silent reds further adds to the forbidden candy aesthetic while typing. The keycaps' build quality is pretty good, too! Not quite as smooth as the Ducky stock caps, but still pleasant to type on, and the colors are even more saturated irl than they are in the pics. I'll miss these when I'm back in the office...

> Here's hoping you're so happy with your new keyboard that you don't fall down the mech rabbit hole :)

So far so good - but man, there sure are some beautiful custom builds out there, and I'm pretty tempted to spring for a custom coiled USB cable with aviator connectors someday. For now, though, I'm happy with what I've got, and will wait a while before doing the research for yet another keyboard.

Thanks to all for all your input!
posted by rather be jorting at 7:44 PM on November 10, 2019 [3 favorites]


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