When it comes to customizing mechanical keyboards, it isn’t just about swapping out switches. It is also about customizing the overall looks of your keyboard. And the easiest way to spice up the aesthetics of your keyboard is to change the keycaps.
Custom keycap sets aren’t as simple as one might think. There are tons of other variables that you should take note of, such as keycap brand, compatibility, feel, profile, material, and many more. All of these are things to take note of since they greatly impact the overall look and feel of your keyboard.
Given how many things you should consider, buying keycap sets can be a very daunting process. However, we will make things simple. In this article, we will give you some pointers for choosing the keycaps set you are going to buy for your keyboard.
The Complete Guide to Mechanical Keyboard Keycaps
Brief Introduction To Keycaps
Keycaps serve as the cherry on top of your keyboard. Some keyboards already have stock keycaps that already look great. However, most enthusiasts go the extra mile to accessorize their keyboards with fancy and eye-catching keycaps. Indeed, this begs the question: why buy keycaps when the stock ones are enough for convenience?
The reason is pretty simple. Choosing and buying a keycap set is also an opportunity to express one’s personality to their keyboard. It is a chance to scrap that boring-looking stock keycaps set and slap one that “resonates” more to you.
In buying keycaps, most do not even bother to look at the materials used or its profile. Such factors are seldom considered.
I bet that the one reading this right now is guilty of buying their first keycap set simply because of its theme. While most keycaps fit your keyboard, you should be acquainted with such factors as they will necessarily affect your typing experience.
What Are Custom Keycap Sets?
Custom Keycap sets are also known as aftermarket sets. They considerably have better quality than the stock set that comes with your keyboard. They also have unique designs and colorways that cannot be found on any stock keycap set.
Custom keycap sets may be as cheap as $10 and as expensive as $500. The price varies from each manufacturer and their brand reputation.
Additionally, the prices are also dependent on how available the set you prefer is. Some keycap manufacturers offer their product in a limited time through group buys – failure of which means that you will probably be depending on the secondhand market should you wish to continue your purchase.
Some manufacturers tend to make their sets available only on a specific period and never offer it again. In effect, these schemes taking advantage of the so-called “law on supply and demand” tend to slap high price tags on these keycap sets that will surely break your wallet.
Factors To Consider When Buying Keycaps
In choosing the kind of plastic that you want your keycaps to be made with, you must consider both its respective perks and shortcomings. Basically, they are distinct from each other on the following attributes:
ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) keycaps are more often offered cheaper than PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) keycaps, depending on the manufacturer. The reason behind this is that ABS keycaps cost significantly cheaper to produce as it is easier to mold than PBT keycaps.
Needless to say, the price would vary depending on the manufacturer. Domikey is one of those brands that produce ABS keycap sets that are not relatively cheap in comparison to the price of a typical PBT keycap set.
Generally, PBT keycaps are more prone to wear and tear than ABS keycaps. ABS keycaps are fated to appear with a “greasy shine” as time goes by. As for PBT keycaps, you can place your worry over somewhere else as they are matted.
Take into consideration that ABS Keycaps are highly reactive to chemicals and flammable. You may have problems when you expose your keyboard to high temperatures. PBT keycaps have no such issues.
Noise and comfort
Due to how different ABS and PBT keycaps are, they will naturally produce a different kind of sound. The better-sounding keycap material will highly depend on your personal preference as well as the rest of the components of your build. As for comfort, ABS keycaps tend to feel greasy over the years, while PBT ones have a textured feel.
This is highly debatable as this factor depends on the preference of the user. In essence, some people fancy the resulting shiny look and greasy feel of ABS keycaps, while others prefer PBT keycaps that are relatively resistant to wear and tear.
Like any other hobby, deciding between ABS and PBT keycaps will always depend on the preference of the user. The way I see it, you can only compare the two keycaps in terms of the availability and variety of designs to choose from and overall quality, which are dependent on the existing manufacturers of the market. Currently, PBT keycaps are now catching up to ABS keycaps in terms of availability and variety of designs.
The overall quality of the keycaps, on the other hand, is always in the hands of the manufacturer. Some brands offer ABS keycaps that are superior in quality to PBT keycaps. It has always been perceived that PBT has always been superior to ABS.
High-end Keycap Brands
Yes, some keycap sets are indeed a luxury. As mentioned above, some keycap sets are lucratively priced. Several brands like GMK, ePBT and JTK are often priced at least 200$ – other sets being sold higher in the preloved market. As wallet breaking as it is, I am confident in saying that the more expensive your keycaps are, the better their quality.
Novelties are accessory keycaps that some high-end keycap sets have. These keycaps are often designed to accent and define the theme of the keycap set.
Keycap group buys are periods wherein orders of a specific keycap set/s are collated for a given period of time. Like the concept of pre-order, placing an order in a group buy means that you are willing to wait until you receive your keycap sets.
Profiles for keycap sets are meant to design the typing experience that the keycap sets are offering. For easier understanding, keycap profiles refer to how keycaps are shaped to create an overall leaning that will either make or break your typing experience. This can be seen when you look at the side view of your keyboard.
Most of the time, you are going to be finding keycap sets on OEM or Cherry profiles. As advice to a first-time buyer, I suggest you look into the keycap profile of your stock keycaps and buy the same one. Rest assured, however that different keycap profiles will most probably fit your switches unless you are looking into keycap sets that are exclusively designed for specific switches such as Razer keycaps.
Lastly, you should consider the compatibility of the keycap set that you are looking at. Look into the layout of your keyboard as most keycap sets have a full-size, TKL, or a 60% layout.
As for high-end keycap sets, novelties also serve as a solution for the likes of those who have a keyboard with a 65% layout or those with non-standard ones. (ALICE, 40%, etc.)
Artisans also serve as a solution in case you really want to buy that keycap set. Artisan keycaps are designed in different sizes. Take note, however, artisan keycaps have limited designs to choose from. You are extremely lucky if you were able to find an artisan keycap that will match the theme of your keycap set.
In buying your first ever custom keycaps, you must consider these basic factors discussed in the preceding sections, especially if you are looking into buying expensive ones. Hobby money is scarce unless you are extremely rich. Nevertheless, having your personality expressed on your keyboard will undoubtedly have an impact on your overall typing experience.
The KBE team is dedicated to sharing our knowledge and creating useful resources about computer keyboards. This article was written as a team collaboration, combining our knowledge and years of experience using, building and modding keyboards. Meet the team here.