In today’s digital era, the humble keyboard, an essential tool for interfacing with our tech, has been undergoing a remarkable transformation. Custom mechanical keyboards, a trend that started as a niche obsession, have recently seen a surge in popularity. Their devotees praise them as a game-changing upgrade to their daily typing experience. But what exactly are these customized tools? And are they worth the hype they’ve been generating? Let’s dive in and find out.

What is the difference between a prebuilt and a custom mechanical keyboard?

To understand the appeal of custom mechanical keyboards, we need to clarify the distinction between prebuilt and custom mechanical keyboards. A prebuilt mechanical keyboard, as the name suggests, is a ready-made product. It comes with a predefined set of switches, a fixed layout, and an already chosen case. You simply unpack it, plug it in, and it’s ready for use.

On the other hand, a custom mechanical keyboard is a unique creation, built to your exact specifications. The term ‘custom’ signifies your ability to handpick every detail, from the keyboard’s switches, layout, and case, to the mounting style, keycaps, and even the accessories. The allure of this customization lies in its ability to improve your keyboard’s aesthetics, ergonomics, and overall typing experience.

Switch Customisability

At the heart of a mechanical keyboard lies its switches. These are the components that register your keystrokes. Each time you press a key, the switch beneath it moves, creating the sensation of typing. In a custom mechanical keyboard, you have the freedom to choose the type of switches you want, each providing a unique feel and sound.

The world of keyboard switches is vast, with hundreds of options to choose from. For instance, there are linear switches, which offer a smooth, consistent keystroke with no tactile feedback or audible click. These are ideal for individuals who prefer a seamless, quiet typing experience. Tactile switches, on the other hand, provide a noticeable ‘bump’ midway through the keystroke, giving physical feedback when a keypress is registered. Lastly, clicky switches offer the tactile feedback of a tactile switch, coupled with a distinct ‘click’ sound when a key is pressed, reminiscent of vintage typewriters.

Layout Customisability

Another crucial aspect of custom mechanical keyboards is the layout. The layout dictates the size of the keyboard and the placement of keys. With custom mechanical keyboards, you can choose a layout that best suits your needs and typing habits.

If you’re after a minimalist setup, you might prefer a 60% or a compact 75% layout, which eliminate the number pad and sometimes even the function row, saving valuable desk space. For users who regularly rely on function keys and number pads, a full-sized layout or a tenkeyless (TKL) design might be a better fit. There are also ergonomic layouts, such as the split or ortholinear design, which can reduce strain on your hands during prolonged typing sessions.

Case options

The case of your keyboard is the structural backbone that holds all the components. But more than that, it influences the aesthetic, the feel, and the sound of your keyboard. Cases for custom mechanical keyboards come in a range of materials, each with its own unique properties.

Plastic cases are lightweight and affordable, ideal for those on a budget. Aluminum cases offer a more premium feel and are generally more durable. They also contribute to a more solid typing sound. Wood cases, while not as common, can add a unique touch to your setup, offering a warm, natural aesthetic and a muted typing sound.

Mounting options for a customised typing sound and feel

When it comes to custom mechanical keyboards, even the way your keyboard’s plate (the part that holds the switches) is attached to the case can be personalized. This aspect, known as the mounting style, may seem like a minute detail, but it can significantly affect the overall feel and sound of your keyboard.

For instance, a top-mounted design, where the plate is attached to the top of the case, tends to offer a firmer typing experience. A bottom-mounted design, conversely, usually results in a softer feel. There’s also the gasket mount, a more premium option, where the plate is sandwiched between layers of gaskets, providing a flexible and forgiving typing feel.

Add your own personal flair with custom keycaps

Keycaps are where aesthetics meet function. These are the parts of the keyboard that you physically touch when you type. With custom mechanical keyboards, you can choose your keycaps to reflect your style and enhance your typing comfort.

Keycaps are available in a variety of materials, including ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate), each offering different textures and durability. There are also countless options in terms of colors and fonts. You can opt for simple, single-color keycaps, or explore thematic designs inspired by pop culture, nature, and more. High-quality, well-chosen keycaps can elevate your typing experience and turn your keyboard into a statement piece.

Accessorise to complete the look (desk pads, wrist rests and custom cables)

Last but not least, to complete your custom keyboard setup, consider adding matching accessories. Desk pads, wrist rests, and custom cables not only enhance the visual appeal of your workspace but also provide ergonomic benefits.

Desk pads provide a unified base for your devices, protect your desk surface, and can also add a splash of color to your workspace. Wrist rests can help maintain a more natural hand position while typing, reducing the strain on your wrists. Custom cables can be color-coordinated with your keyboard and desk setup, tying everything together for a cohesive look.

So, is a custom mechanical keyboard right for you?

The appeal of custom mechanical keyboards lies not just in the enhanced typing experience they offer, but also in the journey of creating something unique. The process of choosing each component, assembling them, and finally seeing (and hearing!) your keyboard come to life is a gratifying experience in itself.

However, it’s essential to consider that building a custom mechanical keyboard requires an investment, both in terms of time and money. The cost of individual components can add up, and assembling a keyboard from scratch demands patience and a bit of technical know-how.

If you’re someone who spends a significant amount of time typing, values a unique aesthetic, enjoys the satisfaction of using something you’ve built yourself, and doesn’t mind the cost, then a custom mechanical keyboard might just be worth the hype for you. If you’re more of a casual user, looking for a functional tool without the added frills, a prebuilt mechanical keyboard, or even a standard keyboard could serve you well.

In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. The custom mechanical keyboard scene offers a wealth of options to explore and experiment with. Whether or not they’re worth the hype, is a question only you can answer, one keystroke at a time.