Rabbit holes Ep 1 Part 2: Getting into custom keyboards via the Keychron Q1

A premium quality keyboard with plenty of customisable options, the Q1 is a good way to scratch a first timer's mechanical keyboard itch.

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As part of our deep dive into the custom keyboard rabbit hole, we take a look at a keyboard that’s quite beginner-friendly. If you haven’t checked out our custom mechanical keyboard primer, you can do so here .

The Keychron Q1 isn’t particularly good in any department but at the same time, it is the one keyboard in the $200 price range that is at least a steady 7/10 in every department. There is no fatal flaw to speak of; no drop-off so drastic that you need to preface your recommendation with a disclaimer. In that respect, never has bang average been so good.

Strange but effective

Let’s start with the most obvious question for those who aren’t familiar with keyboards: why are the keys laid out like that? The Q1 is a 75% format keyboard, which means it’s slightly smaller than a TKL (Tenkeyless) keyboard.

Is it a downside given that it’s a smaller keyboard? Often, this means that you lose four to five navigation and control keys that you’re not likely to use anyway. Some upcoming keyboards do make it possible to squeeze in all six navigation keys, but with some compromise.

The upside of having a 75% is that you have a significantly smaller keyboard and you gain more desktop space – meaning that you have more room to move your mouse, which is inherently more comfortable, especially if you are a gamer that requires big movements with your mouse hand.

The Q1 is also what they call an exploded 75%, which means that the arrow keys and navigation keys are distanced from the rest, so that’s easier to feel them out without looking.

For most people, the 75% layout may feel somewhat unorthodox, but unless you use keys like Print Scr and Pause often, you won’t find it to be a great loss. I think this is the best way to frame it: a 75% is for those who want to step down from a TKL into a 65% layout but is having cold feet about giving up the extra function and navigation keys.

Keychron also offers a 65% layout option in the form of the Q2. It’s essentially the same keyboard, just smaller, so the points made here apply to the Q2 as well.

The allure of aluminium

Part of Q1’s charm is that it looks and feels the part of a premium keyboard. Explaining what makes a premium quality board is far more long-winded than it is useful, so the short two-word answer is: aluminium case.

At the lower end of the price spectrum, that material is a major indicator of what makes a keyboard premium. At the higher end of the spectrum, it’s less clear cut; even a polycarbonate plastic case can really expensive. In this world, a huge chunk of your hard-earned cash goes into the labour costs for work on the case finish. For example, polycarbonate cases can be moulded (cheap) or CNC-cut from a single block (expensive). Turns out I was longwinded anyway, but not to worry, we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming.

The Q1 is not the first premium-keyboard-on-a-budget – that accolade is held by the Glorious GMMK Pro , which opened the door to a new generation of keyboard enthusiasts. But between the two, the Q1 looks like it offers more.

For one, there are three case colours instead of two – carbon black, navy blue, and space grey. Despite its budget status, the finish is quite well-executed and feels nice to the touch. However, the colour does shift depending on the lighting, so you might want to look at several examples in different lighting conditions before deciding.

For example, the blue can shift from dark navy to bright purple, and you may or may not like the idea of that happening. I think it’s unfair to mark this as a negative, but at the same time, you have an idea that the more expensive boards have better finishes.

One of the biggest cliches about premium products is that weight is often a sign of quality. And for those who are new to these keyboards, the Q1 can feel fairly hefty. At its heaviest, we’re looking at close to two kilogrammes with a brass plate (it comes stock with aluminium) equipped and 1.64kg with a polycarbonate plate at its lightest. By keyboard standards, the Q1 is not particularly heavy; it’s quite comfortable, really.

More (design) is more (expensive)

Despite the simplistic design, they’ve added some beveling on the top edge and along the base, which helps add a sprinkle of flair. In an otherwise functional housing, the only other visual element is a physical switch to toggle between Mac and Windows. Boring? That’s a fair comment. But given the considerable value the Q1 already offers, you have to realise that you need to pony up the cash if looks matter to you.

Fortunately, unlike the GMMK Pro, there’s no gratuitous branding anywhere on the case, though they do offer you the option to replace the top rightmost switch with a custom badge with any graphic of choice for a princely sum of US$30. At this point in time, that option is not available due to the fact that they have changed their case specifications.

In the new version, which we will call the Q1 v2 , the Q1 has a rotary encoder in place of the top-rightmost key. Owners of the Q1 v1 will be able to buy the encoder as an accessory sometime later this year as well.

More than the sum of its parts

Despite the budget status, earlier batches of the Q1 shipped with a matching coiled USB-C to USB-C cable featuring an aviator-style connector. This means you can detach the cable midpoint and attach another cable with an aviator connector. Essentially, it lets you switch between boards with, for example, a mini USB connector – you just need to swap out the ends. Hmm… okay.

Alright, the truth is that it’s purely an aesthetic thing. But it’s nice that Keychron understands the audience and decided to include it in the box. Even though this is clearly a cheaply-made cable, it is certainly not a cheap item – these cables start can run into the hundreds for a fine specimen of the breed.

That said, please do manage expectations – my cable lasted a mere day before something went wrong. Fortunately, I managed to get a replacement from their customer support. That one died on me eventually as well. The Q1 v2 ships with a simpler, braided cable and I much prefer this option. It certainly feels more robust and as such, a more practical option.

Keychron offers the choice of a barebones kit and a fully assembled one, which costs just US$20 (about $26) more. This is where the Q1 offers tremendous value. A mere $26 buys you a set of mechanical key switches and double-shot (twice moulded, therefore legends are durable) ABS plastic keycaps. Most of the time, you’re looking at around $30-$40 just for keycaps alone and another $25 for switches.

If this is your first-ever custom keyboard, my recommendation is to pay the extra $26 as you can practice cleaning and ’lubing’ (lubricating) those switches without fear of screwing up. The Gateron Phantom Red switches are surprisingly good value for the money and come pre-lubed. The only downside to them is that they give your LEDs a reddish tint – or brown if you get the Phantom Browns, and blue if you get the Phantom, err Blues.

However, if you already have an idea of what you want to do with this kit and have already sourced your own switches and keycaps, then feel free to skip the fully assembled option and choose the Barebones kit.

Software Compatibility

As previously mentioned, the Q1 has a switch that allows you to switch between Windows and OS X. It’s essentially four layers of keymaps and the switch toggles between two groups of two. In each group, you hold a designated function key to access the second layer.

If you work with both Mac and PCs, you’d appreciate this convenience. The fully assembled kit is fitted with keys that feature legends for both platforms, although you will need to swap the Option/Windows and Command/Alt keys physically.

This convenience partly stems from the fact that the Q1 support QMK (open source) and VIA (closed source), which let you program your keyboards and remap the keys.

QMK requires some degree of programming knowledge – or hours of Googling and YouTube videos – but it’s very easy to look for information online. VIA is essentially a UI layer for QMK, which makes it easy for those without programming knowledge to customise their keyboard controls. Other cool things you can do include tweaking the firmware to taste; some intrepid v1 users wasted no time in altering the polling rate to 1000 Hz, which the keyboard supports, and lowered the debounce time so that the latency approaches 3ms. Voila, you now have a veritable gaming keyboard (on paper). For v2 users, Keychron has enabled the 1000 Hz polling rate by default.

However, VIA is kind of ‘janky’ on the Q1. About 90 per cent of it works, while the other 10 per cent is just plain wonky. To be fair, the essentials work, but it just doesn’t feel polished. Part of the reason is that VIA is closed-source, and it takes a while (a long time in tech) before updates are patched. Case in point, at point of writing, it’s very likely the v2 users have to load a JSON file in order to remap keys as the VIA database has not been updated yet.

Options aplenty

One unique feature of the Q1 is the key on the extreme top-right corner. You can either place a switch to add a key, install a rotary encoder, or fill the space with a custom badge.

While not everyone will appreciate having this option, I think the fact that you have options sells the idea of customisability. If you’re into aesthetics you can fashion a design that you can call your own; if you find an encoder rather useful you can buy a standard EC11 rotary encoder and solder it in yourself as Keychron does provide the appropriate firmware. If none of this appeals to you, can always pop in a switch and add another key.

But the thing that gives me cause to recommend the Q1 is its extensive tweaking options. The Keychron site offers a variety of switches , in-house keycaps and mounting plates – brass, clear polycarbonate or FR4 , which is what a printed circuit board (PCB) is made of.

They also offer a size-matched palm rest in wood or resin , matching colour coiled cables (please don’t buy these) and a form-fitting carrying case . Admittedly, Keychron’s accessories can get pretty expensive, and that’s even before factoring in shipping.

When it comes to custom mechanical keyboards, switches and keycaps are universal parts but the rest typically are not. The good thing about Q1 is that Aliexpress and Taobao do offer many cheaper third party alternatives . You can even find third party rotary encoder knob housings (knob and mounting plate), mounting plates of various materials including frosted polycarbonate and polyoxyethylene (POM), and even differently-sized gaskets so you can lower or raise the position of the plate assembly within the case.

If the Q1 was able to offer multiple mounting options, that would make it the perfect learning platform, but I guess this is good enough for now – as it stands, there are already many variables that we can experiment with to see how they contribute to a keyboard’s sound and feel.

Easy to mod

Keychron provides you with all the tools you need in the package so you can jump straight into the fray after the unboxing ceremony: a keycap puller, a switch puller, a hex key and a Philips-head screwdriver. They are all hidden at the bottom of the box though, so don’t panic if you can’t seem to find them.

The keyboard can be taken apart fairly easily and Keychron has thoughtfully opted to use hex screws for the case. This makes perfect sense for screws that will be removed quite often, as you’re less likely to strip the heads and ruin them.

From here, there are a few things you can do. You can easily adjust how flexible or stiff you want the typing experience to be simply by adding or removing the case foam. To stiffen it up, add the case foam. To get the full range of vertical movement, remove the case foam. In addition, Keychron provides additional gaskets (Poron mounting strips) that you can attach to the plate to stiffen the plate movement further. I don’t recommend that you put the foam strips on the sides though.

You can also change the mounting plate to not only change the feel of the typing, but also the sound. With so many options and possibilities, you are only limited by the tedium of having to constantly taking apart your keyboard and putting it back together again. Mind that you don’t strip the screw threads!

Hotswap sockets make it easy to change out switches, but they will wear out over time as well.
Hotswap sockets make it easy to change out switches, but they will wear out over time as well.

The best quality of life feature for any beginner’s board is the hot-swap PCB. Traditionally, you need to solder your switches onto the circuit board, and you need to desolder them if you want to replace switches. It’s extremely tedious. With a hotswap PCB, simply use the keycap puller provided to pull out the switches and install new ones.

However, there is one shortcoming – Keychron’s method of connecting the PCB to the daughterboard leaves much to be desired. On the v1, Keychron employed a ribbon cable connector, which isn’t exactly the easiest to work with. The cable doesn’t stand up to rough handling and it’s quite easy to break the cable lock while trying to remove the ribbon cable. The key is to go gentle and to go slow – beginners usually find out about this AFTER they break something and decide to RTFM (read the f***ing manual). While the v2 uses a JST-style connector, the housing is mounted vertically on the PCB, so you have to be mindful as well. I’ve broken both, so I have first-hand experience of how fragile they can be. This is probably the biggest bugbear that I have with the Q1 design. Fortunately, I’ve been able to secure free replacements for the parts I’ve damaged thus far. But I understand not everyone will have the same experience.

Keychron has also installed a thin piece of foam on the bottom case to prevent a short circuit in the unlikely event that the PCB touches the case. It’s primarily there as cheap insurance, so it’s your call whether to remove it or not. I removed mine.

No skimping

One thing that we appreciate about the Q1 is that Keychron doesn’t skimp on the things that matter. While the PCB is relatively austere looking (the PCBs on high-end keyboards can be rather schmancy), its aesthetics is not something we honestly care about beyond the first few minutes of unboxing. But everything else is on point. It has a physical reset button below where the spacebar is located for ease of access and per-key RGB lighting. While RGBs aren’t something that keyboard enthusiasts are particularly enthusiastic about, it’s good that Keychron has added them anyway; you can always turn them off if you have no use for them. The diodes are south-facing, which means it’s less likely to face interference issues with third-party keycaps on R3 (the row with the enter key). The trade-off is that it’s not a good match for keycaps with shine-through legends (keycaps that allow RGB light to shine through the letters). But this is a fair compromise in the interests of compatibility. You can still get a decent backlit effect by using clear or translucent switches like Everglide Aqua Kings or Gateron Full Milky Yellows .

One of the first mods that you do for budget keyboards is to install better stabilisers. Cheap keyboards often use cheaply-made stabilisers (usually installed on the mounting plate as opposed to being mounted on the PCB) and often need more work to make right. The Gateron stabilisers on the Q1 v1 work very well and there is no pressing need to change them out. Mine needed a little more lubricant (a lot more, actually) and that was that. Your mileage may vary. The newer v2 features in-house stabilisers but they’re roughly the same quality and need little to no intervention to get them working properly.

No modding? No problem*

The fully assembled Q1 is basically a pre-built, custom-mechanical keyboard. Not many manufacturers or vendors offer this. One highly regarded option is the IQUNIX L80 Cosmic Traveller , but the case is made of plastic.

The gentle five-degree typing angle is very comfortable if you have good typing habits.
The gentle five-degree typing angle is very comfortable if you have good typing habits.

While you might need to apply some modifications to tweak the Q1 v1, the Q1 v2 works perfectly out of the box. The switches provided have been lubricated in the factory so you can choose not to do it yourself. I purchased one with the Gateron Phantom Red switch (for the v1) and I was surprised at how decent they were for a budget offering.

I can only speak for the red switches, but general feedback from the community is that the other switches gave no problems. You can improve the sound and the feel yourself by applying lubricant to improve smoothness and placing a film in between the housings to reduce wobble and ‘improve’ the overall sound – remember it’s a preference thing. But if you like what you hear and feel, you don’t even have to do that.

If you get the knob version (v2), you’re given a choice of Gateron Pro switches. They’re cheaper switches but they do come pre-lubed. One upside is that they are clear switches so your backlighting won’t be tinted.

The stock ABS Keycaps weren’t bad either – the legends were pretty sharp for the price. Looks-wise, there’s nothing to shout home about here. But they were really cheap, so you won’t hear me complaining. However, do note that Keychron doesn’t provide many extra keys, which may be disappointing if you want to map a specific key in a particular spot.

Likewise, the PBT plastic keycap sets that they offer have more or less the minimum keys for the Q1 and no more. The dye sublimation printing isn’t very good either, though the upside of these caps is that they offer Mac legends; you don’t get many third-party options with those.

In my opinion, you’re better off buying keysets on your own. But you need to be extra careful because the key profile of the navigation keys (Page Up, Page Down, etc) can be rather specific, and 75% is not often supported by basic keycap kits. You might need ‘child’ kits in addition to the base kit for the extra keys. Pay attention to the R1, R2, R3 rows – number row, QWERTY row, ASDF row respectively – for the navigation keys provided in the kit. Note that Chinese retailers online typically flip the orientation (R1 is the bottom row).

All about the sound

Many enthusiasts are obsessed with building keyboards without foam, citing the natural tones to be the yardstick of whether a keyboard is well-designed or not. To be frank, the Q1 v1 doesn’t sound great out of the box, though the updated v2 spec does improve the sound significantly. None of the hype keyboards will be quaking in their rubber feet but for the price, the Q1 shouldn’t disappoint.

For alternatives, there’s the Bakeneko (60 , 65 , and related variants) is an open-source design based on an ’endgame’ keyboard called the Singa Unikorn (joke’s on you, there’s no ’endgame’, only ‘andgame’) and sounds very good for the price. However, the trade-off is that the finish is cursory – it looks like someone spray-painted it on their void deck. Checking out options only serve to reinforce the fact that not many can match the Q1 in all departments.

But first things first. Structurally, the Q1 v1 has a fundamental issue: out of the box, both top and bottom halves tend to resonate with a high-pitched ping without the two included sheets of case foam. I know of people who don’t mind that slight ping, but if you buy the Q1 with the intention of modding the keyboard, then chances are, at some point the pinging will start to annoy you.

Fortunately, the fix is rather simple. Add two layers of painter’s tape near all screw holes in between the two halves of the case and most of the ping goes away unless you really want to make it happen. The downside of this mod is that some RGB lighting might leak through the micro gap in between the two halves of the case but it’s not something you’d easily notice.

The silicon pads dampen vibration and reduce ping. One pad has painter’s tape applied on top.
The silicon pads dampen vibration and reduce ping. One pad has painter's tape applied on top.

With the v2, the fix is baked in, and more elegantly executed – the RGB light doesn’t leak through the case. In addition, the case housing is thicker and thus, both halves resonate at a lower frequency, which significantly reduces the chances of a high-pitched ping happening.

Sometimes, the case can still ping because the pre-installed Poron strips have over-compressed. I’ve been told you can simply open the case up and let the strips settle, but I simply added a layer of painter’s tape on top of each strip just to be sure.

You might think that this sounds silly especially when you paid $199 for a keyboard (v1 barebones kit). But even the expensive keyboard kits are not exempt from the same issues. In fact this method – christened the Force Break by YouTuber Keybored , who first presented this solution – has been catching on and many have tried this on more expensive keyboards with some degree of success. Trying to get an aluminium cutout to resonate in an appropriate frequency range is harder than it looks, it seems.

But why do this when just having the case foam inside somewhat solves the problem? Well, having the second sheet of foam partially negates one of Q1’s key features – its gasket mount system. It’s not a true gasket; more like Poron strips, but this is how it’s done on many keyboards because trying to finagle Viton gaskets into place is hardly fun. When the gaskets (or ‘gaskets’) are in place, the PCB and supporting plate array are essentially suspended in mid-air. The gasket mount gives the keyboard plenty of flexibility (it’s one of the most flexible out there, with roughly 2.5mm of travel), which makes long hours of typing more comfortable. To be frank, it’s a tad unnecessary, but a budget board or not, this certainly is a nice typing experience. When you swap out the metal plate (aluminium on the v1, steel on the v2) for a polycarbonate plate, the experience is even better.

In terms of optional modifications, I think it’s necessary to apply the Tempest tape mod and the PE foam mod for the best possible sound. The tape mod is essentially applying three or four layers of painter’s tape across the back of the PCB, taking care to cut away the tape over the three IC chips. The PE foam mod is taking a 0.5mm sheet of PE or IXPE foam and placing it in between the switches and the PCB. You’ll have to make holes to accommodate the switches, but otherwise, it’s a straightforward installation process. Sure, it does kick the keyboard into the generic-sounding territory, but the Q1 takes very well to these mods, to the point that it doesn’t make sense NOT to do them.

Is it a worthwhile way to start?

If it’s just the question of mechanical keyboard kits, the Q1 is not an automatic recommendation as there are far too many affordable options like the KBD67 lite, which is an excellent place to start. But if you want an aluminium case, it’s largely between the Q1 and the Glorious GMMK Pro.

The GMMK Pro is still a viable option and it comes with four navigation keys as opposed to the three on the Q1, and like the Q1 v2, it has a rotary encoder built-in as well. However, the GMMK Pro is not without its flaws and it is objectively easier to mod the Q1 than the GMMK Pro. Certain mods on a GMMK Pro are irreversible.

Compared to higher-end boards like the GOK 7V and the Owlabs Jelly Epoch , you’re mostly you’re paying for the more esoteric stuff – better-designed acoustics (yes, it’s a thing), more exotic materials and coatings, and a finer finish, a la luxury items. Most of the time the keyboards are essentially limited run group buys, which means that it’s not always a given that you can buy something you like and have it on your lap in a timely manner. Keyboards can sell out in seconds, while keycap wait times can stretch to almost two years. It’s ridiculous. Keychron ran into issues delivering sufficient quantities of the Q1, but it’s going to be far more readily available than most custom keyboard kits.

So is this the best value all-aluminium case keyboard for beginners? Let’s look at other alternatives. KBDfans is a popular site for affordable keyboards and they do have cheaper alternatives in different layouts. Oftentimes, the more affordable boards require you to solder the switches in place. Funnily enough, it’s often the same for high-end boards as well.

Akko, which is a company known for its value for money keycaps and switches, has just released a similar keyboard – the MOD 007 – that costs US$150 for the barebones kit. It actually resembles a GMMK Pro more than a Keychron Q1, so it does come with a rotary encoder. However, a downside is that it doesn’t support VIA nor QMK – i.e. you need to use Akko’s proprietary software to map your keys.

If sound and feel is your primary concern, then the Bakeneko is the automatic choice. But those benefits come at the expense of a polished-looking product. Keebsforall released a TKL that gives you the best of both worlds, but it’s priced around the $350 mark, which is about $100 more.

Or you can start off with the KBDfans KBD67 Lite R3, which is a plastic keyboard but you can eventually upgrade it to an aluminium case, which gives the ensemble an entirely different sound profile. It gets rather expensive if you do it this way, but some people may be more comfortable with this pace ox experimenting.

So for now at least, it looks like the answer is a rather firm yes. Its only major flaw is easy to fix – even for someone who knows nothing about keyboards – and teaches you something about keyboard cases as well. But such is the pace of the keyboard community that the Q1’s position as top dog of the budget premium keyboards may not last long. But it doesn’t matter – the Q1 is a capable workhorse that has a place even amongst pricier, more luxurious keyboards. And that can only be a good thing for everyone, regardless of whether you are a keyboard weeb, or not.

What makes the Q1 great is that the essentials are decent, while the stuff that isn’t as important, isn’t. As it turns out, striking this balance is surprisingly harder than it sounds.

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