james ainooson

On Mechanical Keyboards

Posted on 14th October 2021 under Thrifting

For much of 2020, my youtube feed was saturated with content about mechanical keyboards. In every other video, there was someone either reviewing a mechanical keyboard or just typing on one. When I considered why I may have been inundated with these videos, I realized I may have strongly influenced the situation by positively engaging with this content whenever it was thrown at me. Through my actions, the youtube algorithm became well fed and delivered what—it maybe felt—I wanted. Somehow, the algorithm was right. Through the continuous exposure, I had become smitten, and I kept consuming the content. With time, this near-constant content consumption had a other effects on me: I started yearning to own a mechanical keyboard.

Generally, the mechanical keyboard content I saw on youtube could be placed in about three categories. One category contained the tech review style videos, where someone shared their thoughts about a particular keyboard, or a type of switch, or even a collection of keycaps. Another category contained more technical videos, in which people built keyboards, sometimes from scratch, right from designing the schematics and PCBs through installing custom firmware. The final category, which happened to be my favourite, and may as well be considered a trope of the mechanical keyboard community, were the endemic sound test videos.

All the sound test videos I saw—and probably all such videos on youtube—followed a similar pattern. Typically, the shot was framed as close to the keyboard enough to highlight all its aesthetics, while someone typed (either randomly or on some speed test website) to show off the sounds of the keyboard's switches. It appeared sound test videos were quite popular because everyone in the custom keyboard community seemed to be on a quest for a mythical switch sound, known as the "thock". Working for this "thock" drove folk to modify their keyboards with steps like, meticulously lubricating their keyboard switches for smooth glides, firmly stabilizing their keys with all kinds of weird techniques to keep them firm, and stuffing their keyboards with ample amounts of padding material to muffle unwanted sounds. The dedication these guys had to their craft was what kept me going back for more.

Prior to binging these videos, I hadn't experienced mechanical keyboards in any significant way. I remember poking at a few in the stores whenever I came across them. As usual, they were always drenched in rapidly pulsating RGB lights that were bright enough to warrant a seisure warning. Given how these devices were presented in the stores, I knew I wasn't in the target audience of prospective buyers. Afterall, I really don't consider myself a gamer, and also I find RGB lights a little distracting. Despite the little interest I had in acquiring a mechanical keyboard—since I really didn't need one, and because they were quite expensive—I always liked how the keys felt whenever I played with them in the stores.

My first proper encounter with a mechanical keyboard, which actually succeeded in convincing me about their usefulness for everyday use, came after I spent a day working at a colleague's workstation. After a whole day of coding on this workstation, I began to understand why some people swear by the efficiency of mechanical keyboards. The tactile feedback I received, not only eased the typing effort, it also gave me re-enforcing feedback that increased my confidence when reaching for the next key. I found myself typing faster, with better accuracy, while enjoying every keystroke along the way. But, even after this pleasant experience, the high prices of mechanical keyboards still made them less attractive to me. This situation, however, was soon going to change.

Joining the Club

Earlier this year, as COVID restrictions were being raised, I started visiting local thrift stores. On one trip, the final hurdle standing in the way of me acquiring my own mechanical keyboard was cleared. Looking through the computer peripheral shelf, I noticed a unique keyboard hidden in a pile of others. This keyboard definitely stood out with its ten-keyless (having no number pad in keyboard enthusiast speak) look, solid build, and bright white color. I picked it up, pushed a few keys, received a distinct clicky feedback, and instantly fell in love. This keyboard had to be mine. At a reasonable asking price of $6.99, the specs of the keyboard didn't mater. The type of switch, the beauty of the keycaps, the quality of the build, or even the actual functionality of the keyboard were secondary concerns to me.

My keyboard in its original grimy state. Not as bad as I described it.

From the markings on the back of the keyboard I found out it was a RedDragon K552. It's a keyboard which retails for about $40 on amazon. At that price, my thrift store steal appears to be from the lowest point of the low-end mechanical keyboards. To hit such a price point, it obviously had to lack some key features. For example, the switches are soldered to the PCB and cannot be swapped, and the body is constructed in a mixture of plastic and metal. Overall, the keyboard has some good heft, and its rubber feet provide enough resistance to prevent it from just sliding over my desk. Like most mechanical keyboards, this one too is bedazzled in RGB LEDs. The good thing, though, is that these LEDs can be turned off or dimmed, and they can be put in a single color mode (which is how I use it).

All keys pried off for a deep clean

The keyboard I bought had obviously seen better days. Physically, it was just dusty and felt greasy to touch for some reason. Some of the keycaps were also scratched, leading me to think that the keyboard may have been dragged over concrete or some other rough surface. Regardless, those deficiencies were nothing a little cleaning and keycap replacement couldn't fix. Taking a cue from all the youtube videos I had been watching, I ordered replacement keycaps, doused the keyboard in isopropyl alcohol, gave everything a nice clean, and even put in some padding material. Now had a good looking keyboard that was fit for my desk.

So, how does this keyboard hold up in my daily use? Well, first I must admit there is a reason why the RedDragon K225 is cheap. Sure it has a nice tactile feel. Sure it looks good, and has all the RGB you could want. But this keyboard is simply loud. Gradually, though, I am beginning to find this sound pleasant, but when I really need to concentrate, or when I have to type over a video call, I just swap it out for something more silent. In addition to the loudness of the switches, I also found out the switches required more effort to push. I actually compared them with my colleague's mechanical keyboard and ended up feeling sorry for myself. Two other things I wish this keyboard had, were a wireless connection and a darker color (the white color is a real dirt trap).

After a deep clean and a set of new keycaps

Although this keyboard has its own setbacks, I still enjoy using it and I'm proud to say it's my daily driver. All the same, I still get the yearning to buy another mechanical keyboard (maybe something from Keychron), but I always look down at my fingertips, see the RedDragon, and console myself that I already have one. For the youtube videos, somehow they just stopped, and I'm thankful for that.

Update - 2022-04-03

I just found out this keyboard has switches that can be swapped; they are not soldered to the board as I mentioned earlier. When compared to others, however, the switches on this keyboard require a significant amount of effort to extract. As I was trying to extract some of the switches, I ended up crushing the latches on a couple because the keys don't budge even after latches are shifted. I don't know of any other fasteners that are being used to hold these keys down, but if there's any other mechanism securing these keys then its doing a mighty job.