December 13, 2020

My Mechanical Machinations - A Keeb Story [Part 2]

My Mechanical Machinations - A Keeb Story [Part 2]

Ok, Den is a seasoned keyboard enthusiast now. Where do we go from here?

Back to the beginning – Store bought rubber domes

I know, I know. You are scratching your head right now. Den, you just spent 2700 words telling me how wonderful custom keyboards are. What are you doing with your life?!

If I am perfectly honest, I do not mind taking a step backwards. Life is filled with side quests that serve to enhance the journey. There is so much to explore, that sometimes you walk right by something that would have changed your life. This is not something nearly that dramatic, but you get the point.

Topre is a Japanese brand, but has come to be the term for electrostatic capacitive non-contact keyboards in the same way one calls an adhesive bandage a Band-Aid. Just as I completely ignored tactile and linear MX switches, I similarly discarded the cries of “Topre will change your life!” form hardcore enthusiast friends. I like to narrow my focus, so I made note of its existence, and carried on. With most of my MX adventures out of the way, I finally decided to take the Topre side quest.

I looked at my options. RealForce, Leopold, Happy Hacking Keyboard, and a host of other offshoots. One thing was distinctly absent. Custom built options. Custom cases, keycaps, custom “switches.” Nothing was jumping out at me. I searched for a bit and had many inquiries for the most vocal of my Topre friends. The reality was bleak. Electro capacitive keyboards use stems that are not compatible with MX keycaps—generally. The exceptions to the rule are few, but when you find boards like the Cooler Master Novatouch and the Realforce RGB, you find them discontinued. They seemed to be slightly ahead of their time and a niche within a niche, so they died off.

The Novatouch, in particular, is a highly sought-after board. Relatively unassuming at first glance, it was baffling to me that one could ask $300+ for a discontinued, used board that was a commercial failure. This is the keyboard world though. I knew it held secrets that were beyond my grasp at this stage. I did what I always do and asked someone smarter than me. I would rather you read the wiki from Deskthority rather than watching me butcher the explanation, but electro capacitive boards use sliders and housing in their design. The Novatouch housings and sliders make it easy to set yourself up with custom keycaps. There are aftermarket solutions now, but these are still the most ideal.

This seems like a headache, I am staying far, far away

So, I ordered the Leopold FC980C. Yeah. I know what I just said. But you also know by now that I have no semblance of self-control and you should never believe me when I say these things. I went this route because the FC980C has a numpad. I was excited. Too excited? Definitely too excited.

The FC980C arrived via 2-day air—remember, I have zero patience to go along with the lack of self-control—and I ummm… hated it. Visually, it was wonderful. I ordered the tan/gray variant. Something about that retro look and feel spoke to me. But when I started typing, it did not connect with me at all. I cannot tell you what the problem was specifically. Back in the box it went. The end?

ITX PC builds are fun, what about small keyboards

Parallel to the Topre quest, I also developed an obsession with tiny keyboards. I did not cover the NIU40 much in Part 1, but that is because it did not do much for me initially. One of the things I needed to do with Ortholinear was get used to it. I did this by ordering a set of DSA top print keycaps. I absolutely loved the aesthetic of blank DSA caps, but this was not doing me any favors. However brief, I needed something there when I glanced downward during an uncertain keystroke. Installed the new keycaps, got used to ortho in about a week, and all was well. Except of course wanting to find more 40% keyboards.

This is where I found the most annoying part of the mechanical keyboard community. Group buys. Everything you ever wanted in a custom keyboard exists as a group buy. That group buy always ended months ago and there are 1 of 2 outcomes. It ended, everyone loved it and it is never coming back again, or It ended, people are still waiting, the creator has gone dark, and you are not touching any future group buys with a 10-foot pole. There exists a happy medium, but the odds that you will be the person with the perfect experience are slim. You must be in every Discord server, keyboard forum, and generally have your finger constantly on the pulse of the keyboard world. I get it. It’s exciting for those who have been through it dozens of times and get a rush when that @everyone mention hits. It just does not work for me.

After seeing dozens of group buys that were never going to go my way, I finally came across the UT47.2. It is a super simple PCB, some standoffs, and a stabilizer. Most importantly, it was in stock. For $50, I found that to be more than worth it to see if I even like the form factor. Yes, I have the NIU40, but that had other things going for it that held my attention. This kit is a plain jane staggered layout. I ordered it—regular shipping this time—and it arrived in about a week.

That’s it?!  I said upon opening it. Yes. A few plates and a few screws. Sometimes simple is best. The creativity of the community can take care of the rest. 3-D printed cases are all the rage with this kit. I have seen some truly impressive builds. I might do something like that with it someday, but my main goal with 40% was usefulness validation. It would serve secondarily as a key switch tester since I put the GK64 to use recently.

Oh right, I ordered that thing from Massdrop—

Yeah, I know it changed to Drop now, but I hate the change. There are a lot of compelling audiophile things there, so I have been a member for quite a while. It is one giant group buy, but you have a teensy bit more assurance that you will get something. Massdrop puts a lot of pressure in their terms when you sign on as a maker/supplier.

Early in the game, I came across the Planck V6. Ordered it, then promptly forgot about it. It showed up in the mail randomly. Well… I tend to ignore Massdrop emails these days, so I did not see the tracking notice. Actually, I ignored the Planck altogether. It came long after I built the NIU40, so it was no longer new and exciting. One of my super cute friends—and coincidentally a writer for anothersupersite.com—started experimenting with her GMMK and it gave me the itch to build a keyboard. I was just about to browse KDB for something new, then I realized I already had an unbuilt Planck V6 kit.

This was a soothing Saturday build. The Planck case was well machined, and everything lined up perfectly. A few screws later, all that was left was seating the switches and testing. For switches I chose the Gateron Ink Blacks from my switch box. I could kick myself for waiting so long to build this one. It is such a joy to use. Not something I will use every day, but a keeper for sure.

But what about the FC980C?! You kind of glossed over that…

I did. I did gloss over it. I was not ready to talk about it. It was expensive and I was feeling all kinds of regret for a while. I knew better than to judge something with such limited interaction though. I brought the Leo with me to work and set it up at my desk about a month later. If anything was going to get me to like it, it’s the place where the largest volume of keystrokes occur. It was a busy week and I plodded away. I was not home much, so the FC980C was my only interaction with a keyboard for about a week. I took the weekend off. It was a lazy one. Not much done on a computer, but I typed a few things. That Monday, I get back to my office and start responding to emails.

Hold on. What is this? I love this. Why do I love this? Why now? I went about my day, but the whole time, I kept thinking about how great this was. It was tactility. Not Zealio tactility, a different kind of tactility. My fingers did not feel like they were doing the work alone. Instead, there was this kinetic energy that responded to each keypress with equal and opposite energy. Each downstroke was met with a supportive upstroke. It was firm, it was fast, and it was immediate. I was not typing on this keyboard. I was typing with this keyboard.

Why didn’t I feel this before? I think it was carelessness. Expectations and reality were not seeing eye to eye. I was under a lot of pressure and I just did not stop to pay attention. It happens. Someone turns the volume knob way up on life, and you forget to take a moment to turn it back down. Everything is drowned out and subtle nuances are no longer heard. That is the conclusion I drew, because nothing else can explain how I let this slip by me.

This is my keyboard, but not my keyboard – The custom bug bites again

Alight, I love it. It is connecting with me like an extension of my own body. Everything is good, but it is not great. Why is it not the best thing ever? Oh! I like to customize my things. You cannot really customize this keyboard… can you?

Ryan Norbauer thought otherwise. I looked for quite some time for the home office keyboard. I did not just want to pick up another FC980C and replace something custom with something mundane. Could not do it. That is not me. There had to be something, and I found that something. The Heavy-6 is a custom housing for the—not FC980C. It is for the Leopold FC660C, but I noticed something. I can get by without a numpad at home. I have two separate desks. Part of my stress relief recently was creating two physically separate spaces for my computing. One, a creative space, and the other for bringing work home. It was clear that the two were not mixing well. I did not need the numpad at the desk I now spend most of my time typing. The FC660C was a great fit. I ordered an FC660C and a Norbauer Heavy-6 in the Aperture finish. Fitting. I am a texture person through and through and this was quite a texture.

I was going to leave well enough alone and just go for the housing, but was that really me? No. Of course it was not enough. I looked for a good deal on Novatouch housings and sliders, but they were still sky high for even a broken board to harvest from. I ordered the KBD Fans sliders since they were a distant second in terms of choice. Maxkey was still my go to for keycaps. I found a gray and black set that was the perfect complement to the Aperture finish of the Heavy-6. The spacebar was still an issue, but I had seen someone simply flip the stock spacebar, and it looked nice. Great. Everything is ordered. Surely, I will sit idly and patiently while everything arrives.

Wait, what is this and why must I own it?!

Hi, my name is Den. I lack patience, self-control, am my own worst influence, and enjoy long walks on the beach. I was browsing Amazon one day and came across the ABKO K935P V2 45g. It claimed to be electro capacitive, was pre-silence, pre-damped, and was $125. Non-sense. I will not fall for such—oh, free next day Prime shipping. It arrived in a very non-assuming box, but so did the Leopold. I was not going to be fooled by that. The cord is attached. Bummer. Okay, maybe this was going to be too good to be true.

I brought it home since it was a busy day. For better or worse, I did not want to be distracted when I tried this keyboard. I attached the annoying fixed cable to the back of my PC, took a seat, and prepared for the meh. The meh never came. Instead, I was greeted by a quiet, methodical, earthy thock. What?! Ok. I needed to know more. I had a few things I was going to put off until tomorrow, but I was deeply compelled to type all the words ever. About an hour passed before I realized just how much I was blazing through. Stopping to process, I looked down to make sure no one switched out the keyboard. This relatively no-name ABKO keyboard had me in a trance.

I dare say I enjoyed this more than the Leopold FC980C non-silenced board stock. There was a shipping delay with my FC660C and the MX sliders, and I simply did not care. I had a red, white, and blue side profile keycap set and a stock ABKO that I wanted to make my own. I popped the keycaps off—oh did I mention it uses Niz MX sliders—and installed them with the quickness. I used this board for weeks as my main board until my FC660C arrived. This was great. I could take my time building the Heavy-6 since there was no reason to rush.

She’s so heavyyyyyyyyyy-heavvvvvvvvvvvyyyyyy…

It arrived. The presentation was immaculate. Ryan Norbauer is an artist. One that knows every piece of the product is part of the artwork, including the first impression. The box is wrapped in a form fitting air cushion. The first sign that the content was something worth protecting. Next, a satisfying cellophane unwrapping, and finally the beautiful salmon pink box, elegantly inscribed with the Norbauer moniker. Christmas was still 2 months away, but for me, it was today.

The finish of this case must be seen in person. You can almost feel it from a photo, but it is so satisfying an experience in hand. The Heavy-6 is weighty, substantial, ice-cold aluminum. The steel backplate adds heft, but it was not at all lacking without it. The hammertone aperture finish was flawless. Seriously, there was not a single flaw to be seen anywhere on this case. I looked. The finish is endless. The texture remains unbroken all the way to the steel backplate. The only interruptions are for the keyboard and the Norbauer logo. It is such a prestigious logo that you could remove it from the case, tell me it was a form of currency, and I would believe you. I knew the rest of my modifications were going to take a long time, but I just had to use the Heavy-6 right away. Installation was an absolute breeze. Once installed, every keystroke felt immediately more meaningful. Placebo or not, I loved it.

In the midst of getting everything ready for my masterpiece of a build, I made two more choices. I wanted to silence and dampen the board like the ABKO, and I wanted BKE rubber domes. I heard great things about the sharp tactility they offered and wanted something slightly more substantial than the 45g of the stock board.

A lesson in patience – The epitome of tedium

I watched many videos to prepare for installing the domes and silencing rings. Removing the stock domes was a matter of disassembling the board, then removing the sheet of domes from the PCB. Installing them was not as simple. The domes were individual since they are universal. Lining them up requires patience. If you are off slightly, then it will not make contact, meaning no keypress for you. Re-installing the springs took an equally steady hand. I reassembled it enough so that I could check each key. I was slightly off and had to re-check everything. This went on a few more times until everything was working. It was… stressful, but not the most tedious thing.

Unlike MX O-rings, silencing rings for Topre style boards are very thin. So much so that I needed to handle them with tweezers. The variety I chose were Deskeys DES Topre Silencing Rings. These stick to the housing with adhesive. This meant getting each one lined up, installed, then trying to pull away without the adhesive getting stuck to the tweezers. I purposely did not keep track of time. I did not want to know. Fast forward an incalculable amount of time later and done! I Installed the keycaps and plugged the keyboard in.

I knew it! I knew every single second spent was going to be worth it. This was not a new experience; it was a better experience. It is important to note because I did not want a lot to change. I wanted to maintain everything I loved about the first time I discovered Topre was amazing. I simply wished to fill the minor gaps in the experience. The ABKO was an invaluable lesson. It taught me that the keys on the stock Leopold are slightly chattery. This is solved by silencing rings and new keycaps. It also taught me that damping the board would deepen the signature thock. Done, and aided by the sheer mass of the Heavy-6. The best part? This is my board. There is no other. It is sharper, better, I type faster, and it most assuredly stronger—AH! I got that song stuck in my head! Never a bad time with Daft Punk though. Such an energetic song, much like this board.

The End? Happily, ever after?

Surely, you jest. I have learned that part of being an enthusiast is the chase of the endgame. Along with seeking an endgame comes the realization that you will never find the end because… you are an enthusiast. It is truly never over.  I am okay with this. I love custom things. So long as there is an artist out there able to turn their vision into something tangible, I am on board.