I bought a 4kg keyboard. Am I dumb or stupid?

Op-ed: unapologetically rambly ode to the origin of the modern custom mechanical keyboard, and its indelible mark on mainstream peripherals.

by Justin Choo

By the way, if you answered “both”, you’re exactly right.

(And yes, this is going to be one hell of a ramble–you’ve been warned. But if you’re like me and you enjoy a little bit of lesser-known trivia for a ubiquitous peripheral, read on.)

The keyboard in question has to be a custom mechanical keyboard because no one running a large-scale peripherals company responsibly will think this is ever a good idea for a mass-market keyboard.

Maybe the exception to this rule is Keychron, who offers entry-level mechanical keyboards in an insane number of configurations, with the promise that they will keep them in stock, seemingly on a whim. God knows how they managed to make that work. But they’re still alive and kicking and churning out more, so I guess they already have a formula that works.

Back to the elephant in the room: why the hell does the keyboard have to be this heavy? Well, the answer is it doesn’t. While weight has traditionally been associated with luxury, the use of heavy metals like copper, brass and steel is more pragmatic (to an extent) than you think. Adding mass to the keyboard housing improves stability (up to a point) but more importantly, it reduces the potential that the case will give off a metallic ping. That hollowness is commonplace for keyboards with thin metal bodies made to a budget (oftentimes). At the same time, keyboards don’t have to be that hefty; you can have a keyboard that sounds subjectively good by most enthusiasts without all that weight.

The Glare

The offending keyboard here is the Glare TKL, produced by a custom keyboard designer called Geon (Geonworks) and designed by an employee known publicly as Glare. The keyboard was only available through a group buy, with some extras turning up for sale recently. There are two distinct characteristics of the Glare TKL: a steep 11-degree typing angle and a massive brass or steel weight that contributes to the keyboard’s insane weight–that’s 4.1 kg for the steel weight and 4.3kg if you opted for a weight made from brass.

He’ain’t heavy, he’s my stupidly heavy keyboard.

Priced at USD645 or a jaw-dropping SGD870 (including a PCB) sans shipping, taxes, mechanical switches and keycaps, expensive is an understatement for a keyboard that looks decidedly simplistic. What it offers, aside from all that metal, is essentially the feel of a traditional top-mounted keyboard, but with refined case acoustics. Likewise, the typing angle of 11 degrees may seem a little excessive, but it’s no steeper than a regular keyboard with the kickstands engaged. It’s not as bad as it is so long as you have a proper typing form (which almost no one has, it seems).

These are traits that are associated strongly with Korean-designed custom keyboards,  sometimes affectionately referred to as Kustoms. The weight isn’t as much a defining factor as it is a consequence of what the designer is trying to achieve with its design and sound characteristics. The Korean-designed keyboards tend to lean towards a profile that’s somewhat metallic with a hint of resonance, which is sometimes mistaken for ping and hollowness–it’s definitely not and is far more pleasant. It’s a stark contrast to the deeper sounding boards that the Western communities tended to favour for a time (homogenisation is setting in), and the foam-shaped ‘mahjong tile’ sounds that are all the rage in China, perpetuated by the Owllabs Jelly Epoch that was famous for its generous use of Poron and IXPE foam (it also acts like a sound filter).

And to this end, the keyboard designer who also goes by the username Glare, went the extra mile by creating resonance chambers to further shape the sounds made by the keyboard switches. Glare TKL is essentially a simple, refined take on a distinctly Korean-flavoured keyboard and it’s one of those things that you can’t appreciate without context.

Context is everything

But because you have better things to do, you probably didn’t know that the current custom mechanical keyboard craze has its roots in Korea, with the majority of the credit due to a custom mechanical keyboard community called On The Desk (OTD). Before this, enthusiasts mostly err, enthused about vintage keyboards and ‘old-school’ mechanisms like Beamsprings and Alps switches (SKCL/SKCM). These aren’t popular today because the sounds they produce are loud enough to incite office violence.

The earliest community-driven custom keyboards were far from elegant by mainstream standards today but they are highly sought after. Many custom mechanical keyboards take their design cues from these OGs, including more esoteric preferences like the sound profile.

The modern gaming keyboard owes a lot to these original customs. While information about the subject is somewhat sketchy and somewhat tricky to verify, and a lot of publicly-known knowledge is written after the fact–not too different from the Bible to be fair–this is pretty much a fair summary with nothing too contentious.

Plain and simple, just like the ol’ stuff.

The Ddokyu Saver (aka DK Saver) is widely accepted in the community as the first known incarnation of the Tenkeyless (TKL) keyboard without the number pad, making its appearance in 2006-2008 thereabouts. It also sports a 13-key function row. Legend has it that a moderator from the KBDMANIA forums (another keyboard enthusiast forum) brought one said example to Filco in Japan, which inspired them to design their own TKL and popularise the layout.

Community forum OTD, and in particular, user Eungsam, would be the source of many iconic keyboard designs that form the templates for many modern custom mechanical keyboards. The designer would design and create prototypes, get the community to buy into the project, and an order is placed. Quantities were very limited then, and as such, these OG boards command high prices today and often in the thousands.

The most recognisable example is probably the KBDfans KBD67 Lite, which was once the de facto starter board for a generation of enthusiasts. Its familiar side arches are an unabashed tip of the hat to an iconic keyboard from OTD: the Koala, designed by forum member Korellas. It’s little touches like these that live on, long after nobody remembers the original.

Community-driven innovation

It’s highly unlikely many people will take pleasure in perusing the history of metal rectangles, but they still reap the rewards of the community’s contributions, even in the smallest of ways.

The force-break was a simple mod (even tape can be used) that enthusiasts used to alleviate pinging in some keyboards. Ideas like these would be incorporated into Keychron’s Q-series (they call it a double-gasket system) and even a high-end Glare TKL includes foam gaskets as an optional modification for those who prefer less reverb.

The phrase, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ has never been more apt as subsequent keyboard designs become more sophisticated as new ideas and concepts are shared by the community at a relentless pace like a collective hive mind. Patent wars? Almost non-existent. We’re at a point where a keyboard that you ordered months ago can sometimes feel dated when it’s finally shipped. The pace of progress is surreal.

And yet, as modern custom keyboards try to innovate with outlandish designs, creative mounting systems and meticulously tuned housings, sometimes it’s the simplest things that endure. The top-mounted keyboard, which is the oldest mounting style in the custom mechanical keyboard hobby, is somewhat coming back into fashion.

For those who are starting out in the custom mechanical keyboard hobby, there is no better time to jump in. Jaw-dropping diversity aside, the budget category is chock full of very well-designed kits for very little money.

Custom goes mainstream

Much like what the DK Saver was to Filco all those years ago, the biggest beneficiaries of this community-driven cycle might be the peripherals makers who took in this knowledge and are bringing them to a mainstream audience. And now, the gaming community now has two boards that offer the kind of customizability that a ‘keyboard enjoyer’ as they say, will appreciate.

For all the technology that gaming keyboards purportedly offer, few are truly game-changing. Not the Wooting 60HE, as its Hall Effect switches offered such high levels of customisable sensitivity (essentially analogue input for every key) that high-level OSU, Fortnite and other FPS shooter players are jumping on this ultimate P2W (pay-to-win) gear.

The Wooting 60HE featuring its Hall Effect Lekker switches. | Image: Wooting

The Wooting guys went one further–they designed the 60HE such that you can pretty much replace the stock plastic case with a 60% custom keyboard tray mount case (there are several with standardised dimensions). Granted, the tray mount custom keyboard is not as ubiquitous as it once was, but the growing number of 60HE users might just change that.

And if you want to go all out to make it premium, there are case options in the form of the wilba.tech Salvation and the Mekanisk Fjell. This ‘crossover’ is significant because it gives peripheral makers an idea of how they can reach a more enthusiast-driven market, which is a segment they don’t usually appeal to. Expect more examples of this to come as gamers become more interested in custom keyboards.

Compared to the 60HE, the ASUS ROG Azoth is a more conventional gaming keyboard but it also has many characteristics that make it more akin to a custom mechanical keyboard–even its distinct 75% layout is a variation of a layout that originated from the custom keyboard community. The Azoth uses standard Cherry MX-style switches and utilises a gasket-mount system and internal foam to reduce hollowness and noise. Furthermore, it also features proprietary plate-mounted stabilisers that you can replace with PCB-mounted ones like regular custom keyboards. Of all the conventional gaming keyboards out there, the Azoth gives you the most leeway to mod the sound and feel of your keyboard–it’s a nice overlap in the market that no one has quite filled yet.

Will Asus’ ‘best of both worlds’ approach satisfy both sets of users? | Image: Asus

The future

Both keyboards showcase qualities (especially those that are cheap to implement) that will no doubt be stock features in future keyboard releases from every segment, raising the standard for pre-built keyboards. Given that even budget pre-built keyboards (a la Aliexpress and Taobao) targeting the enthusiast market are offering some of these features, e.g. dampening foam, hot swap sockets, there is less reason for future gaming keyboards to justify omitting them. And while the hobby is moving away from keyboard kits that are stacked to the nines with foam, this little bit of ‘tech’ may be the bees’ knees for mainstream consumers. The bar for mainstream affordable kits has been raised. For very little money.

We’ll probably never see the attributes of a Korean-style custom mechanical keyboard translated into a mainstream keyboard from the likes of Logitech. But little sprinkles of that DIY spirit live on innocuously in that little rectangle in front of us. And for me, a rather large and heavy one. Yes, I’m dumb that way.

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