Budget vs. Expensive ABS Keycaps – What’s the Difference?

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Budget vs. Expensive ABS Keycaps - What's the difference?

Many newcomers to the keyboard hobby will associate ABS plastic keycaps with budget keycap sets. After all, most gaming keyboard manufacturers advertise ABS keycaps as lower-budget alternatives to their more durable and premium PBT keycaps. However, many will quickly realize that ABS plastic is also used with many high-end keycap sets such as GMK keycaps.

ABS plastic is used in both budget-priced and high-end custom keycap sets. However, that does not mean that the quality of the end product will be the same. Many factors, such as keycap thickness, texture quality, and the printing of the legends, will separate high-end keycap sets from their budget counterparts.

This article will investigate the fine details that set high-end ABS plastic custom keycaps from cheaper mass-produced ABS keycaps. We will also be weighing whether high-end keycap sets are worth purchasing over lower-priced ones, especially since they use the same plastic material.

A Brief Background to ABS Keycaps

Bm65 vs GK61 Front View Comparison

How are ABS Keycaps Made?

The majority of keycaps are created by thermoplastic injection molding. Melting plastic and inserting it under pressure into a steel mold are the steps in the process. ABS and PBT are the most popular forms of plastic. ABS printing methods include double-shot, pad printing, UV printing, lasering, engraving, and coating.

Why Do Manufacturers Use ABS Plastic?

ABS plastic, short for “acrylonitrile butadiene styrene,” is the most often used plastic, owing to its lower cost and ease of usage. ABS plastic is a popular material for keyboard shells and keys. It is a softer material than certain modern plastics, but it is robust and resistant to fracture.

Budget vs. Expensive ABS Plastic Keycap Sets

Keycap Quality (Legends Printing, Thickness, and Texture)

GK61 with Tai-Hao keycaps with puller
GK61 with Tai Hao Batman Keycaps

Let’s cut to the chase. The differences between budget ABS keycap sets and high-end ABS keycap sets can be immediately noticed when comparing a side-by-side. Most budget ABS keycap sets are thinner, which affects the durability, sound, and feel of the keycaps.

To put things into perspective, thicker keycaps will be less susceptible to the wear and tear naturally occurring when using or mounting and unmounting the keycaps. On the other hand, Budget ABS keycaps will feel flimsier and more fragile.

Most will have fairly noticeable imperfections in addition to the inferior build quality of budget ABS keycaps. These include imperfections that can be seen while using the keycaps and imperfections that are lying underneath.

The difference in the printing quality of the legends, for instance, can be easily noticed when using the keycaps. Budget ABS keycaps will often look inconsistent, and some keys can look misaligned, and others will have keys that have a thicker font than others. The sharpness and clarity of the legends will also surely be inferior with lower-end ABS keycap sets, regardless of what type of printing they use.

Aside from the printing quality, low-end ABS keycaps may also have physical imperfections, including warped/deformed spacebars or even damaged keys.

In terms of color reproduction, most budget ABS keycap sets are decent but are nothing compared to high-end keycap sets. High-end ABS keycap sets are usually more vibrant and will better match the theme you are going for or the finish of your custom keyboard.

Of course, this does not apply to every budget or high-end keycap set. High-end ABS keycaps can still break, and conversely, low-end keycaps can last for a long time. But the point remains that there is a significant difference in the build quality of budget and high-end ABS keycaps.

Texture and Sound Profile

Cannonkeys Savage65 with GMK Red Samurai Keycaps

Another area where high-end ABS keycaps excel is the texture quality. The texture of each keycap set will be different depending on the manufacturer. However, it is clear that high-end ABS keycaps will have a more distinct and satisfying feel compared to ABS keycaps.

In terms of sound profile, again, the thickness comes into play. High-end ABS keycaps will sound fuller, while lower-end ABS keycaps will sound more hollow. Of course, many other components play a much more significant role in determining the sound profile of a keyboard. However, the sound profile that thicker high-end ABS keycaps produce is easily noticeable.

Shine on ABS Keycaps

ABS plastic keycaps are known to suffer from shine. Unfortunately, both high-end and budget ABS keycaps will share the same fate. Using them several times will make the keycaps shinier.

This phenomenon occurs since the texture of the keycaps is being worn off. Lower-end ABS keycaps will certainly show signs of wear and shine faster. But again, the shine will occur regardless of the price and quality of your ABS keycaps.

Keycap Availability and Price

BM65-mechanical-keyboard red
KPRepublic BM65 with GMK Red Samurai Keycaps

The only area where budget ABS keycaps have the edge is availability and pricing. Budget ABS keycaps are mass-produced and can be easily acquired. They are very accessible, especially to newcomers in the hobby.

On the other hand, high-end keycap sets will be harder to acquire. GMK keycaps, the most sought-after keycap brand in the keyboard community, are incredibly hard to acquire. Users can only buy most of their keycap sets in limited-time group buys. For those unaware, group buys are similar to pre-orders. 

However, unlike pre-orders, the fulfillment for GMK group buys can take up to a year. There are in-stock options such as the GMK Red Samurai and GMK Laser bought from Drop. However, most GMK’s highly sought out designs and colorways can only be bought from group buys or the aftermarket.

Since GMK keycaps are hard to acquire, their value in the aftermarket significantly skyrockets. Most users can expect double or even triple their original price in the aftermarket.

In other words, high-end ABS keycaps are sort of like limited edition items. You can’t find the colorway and design of their keycaps anywhere else, which gives them a higher resale value. On the other hand, easily available budget ABS keycaps will never have this kind of resale value.

Keycap Compatibility

Lastly, we are going to be talking about keycap compatibility. Custom mechanical keyboards come in many sizes. Some custom keyboards come in a smaller form factor (60% and 65%), while others are slightly bigger (75% and TKL). However, most custom keyboards share in common that certain keys, such as the right shift key, have a different size than the one found in a standard 104 key full-size keyboard.

Since different keyboards will have different kinds of requirements for keycap sets, keycap manufacturers will have to produce extra keys to support different keyboards. This is an area where budget ABS keycap sets cut costs, and most budget ABS keycaps will only support 104 key full-size keyboards.

So if you are using anything outside of a full-size, TKL, or 60% keyboards, then you will certainly be missing certain keys. Some manufacturers, such as Tai Hao, sell extra kits to support different keyboard layouts. But most budget ABS keycap manufacturers do not have a solid solution for compatibility issues.

Is it Worth Investing in High-End ABS Custom Keycap Sets?

Drop GMK Kaiju Custom Keycap Set

The value proposition of high-end ABS keycaps is a bit tricky to analyze. On one side, their superior build quality and better color reproduction easily justify their higher asking price. If there were no other factors, we would instantly recommend going with high-end ABS keycaps.

But with the current state of the custom keycap market, this is simply not the case. Higher-end keycaps are very hard to acquire, given their limited availability. Furthermore, their extremely long production time is simply not something that a lot of users are not interested in.

While there are many in-stock sets from brands such as GMK and Domikey, the designs and colorways are still going to be limited. Also, these in-stock keycap sets can go out of stock, forcing you to buy them from the aftermarket.

But at the end of the day, it all depends on your preferences. If you want a specific colorway and are willing to wait for it to be manufactured and shipped, high-end custom keycaps are worth it. They also retain their value, meaning you can eventually sell them if you don’t need them anymore.

However, if you cannot justify the cost of high-end ABS keycap sets, then there’s nothing wrong with entry-level and midrange ABS keycap sets. There are many good brands that sell in-stock ABS keycaps.

Alternative: PBT Plastic Keycaps

Savage 65 with boba linear thocks switch
Cannonkeys Savage65 with ePBT Grand Tour PBT Keycaps

For those who are looking for premium ABS keycap sets but are thrown off by the expensive price and limited availability of high-end sets, PBT keycaps are a good option. ABS will shine and appear greasy, whereas PBT will often not shine and will not become slippery.

They will have a different feel and sound profile from ABS keycaps. However, they are still perfectly useable and can potentially even make your keyboard sound better. 

The only drawback that most PBT keycaps have is the limited colorway options and less sharp printing in the legends. However, this is slowly changing since PBT keycap manufacturers are quickly improving. Novelkeys, for instance, are starting to produce high-quality PBT versions of popular GMK keycap sets.

The Novelkeys Taro was made in collaboration with the original GMK Taro artist. The keyboard community predicts this trend to continue, meaning we will eventually get high-quality PBT keycap sets that rival GMK sets in the future.