At the moment, mechanical keyboards available to the general public are expensive, but within reason. You don’t have to spend much to get one, either—a basic mechanical keyboard costs well under $100, or about the same as a souped-up membrane model, and provides a better typing experience for a longer period of time.
But in early January, an offshoot of PC seller iBuyPower took the wraps off a new premium product: The Hyte keeb SR65, a 65-percent mechanical keyboard that will cost a whopping $400 for the fully loaded kit—that is, the version with all the pieces necessary for a complete keyboard. At double the MSRP of the most expensive keyboards from companies like Corsair and Razer, it’s sure to induce immediate sticker shock upon its arrival in May. It’s also sure to spark questions like “Why do you build it yourself?” and more certainly, “Why does it cost so much?!”
In a word, customization. You get a level of personalization that can transform your everyday typing experience from something you just do into a genuine pleasure.
But custom boards do run more on average than their mass-produced equivalents. (Economy of scale is a factor.) In exchange, you get total control over each of these elements when building from scratch:
Keycaps: What you physically touch when typing. These sit on top of the switches.
Switches: This element communicates key presses to the PCB. When contact is made between a switch and the PCB, the latter transmits the input to the computer.
Stabilizers: These help longer keys (like the spacebar) maintain an even feel when pressed. Also known as “stabs.”
Plate: This piece keeps the switches in place. It’s not required but often recommended for better stability. The material used influences how rigid or flexible the keyboard feels.
Printed circuit board (PCB): The circuitry needed to register inputs and send them to the computer lives on this board, as does any for features like RGB lighting.
Case: The housing for the rest of the parts. You can chose different lengths, with shorter varieties repositioning some keys and leaving out others.
Layout: You can choose between ANSI (US) or ISO (international) for the arrangement of the keys.
Many choices exist for these parts, especially switches and keycaps. For example, going custom easily quadruples the switches available to you. And there’s no limit on how extravagant you can get with the details. The Hyte keeb SR65’s $400 price tag includes swanky aluminum housing, a megaton of RGB LEDs, and dual rotary wheels, but you could still easily spend that much when pouring attention on other keyboard parts. As a result, decision making can actually be daunting for the uninitiated. When the end goal is to satisfy your personal preferences, you have to do a lot more research to determine what you’ll like.
Nailing the perfect keyboard has amazing benefits, though. Pull together the right mix of parts and you’ll understand why anyone would spend several hundred (or more) on a PC peripheral:
Supercharged comfort. Honestly, this advantage is the most compelling argument for splurging on a custom mechanical keyboard. With mass-produced keyboards, you may have to adjust how hard you press on a key, tolerate a keyboard length poorly matched to your body size, or endure tactile feedback that feels terrible. Multilingual speakers also might struggle with keyboard layouts not suited for the languages they most often use.
Not so with custom boards. You can swap anything that you don’t like—and you can even vary what type of switch and/or keycap you use for specific keys to get that just right feel. Even fans of split keyboards have options. Such freedom lets you fine-tune your choices so that typing feels natural, easy, and absolutely tailored to you.
That perfect look. Want your keyboard to be ultra minimalist and understated? Bright and cheery? A testament to your love for Star Wars? All vibes are possible—including a mash-up of them. With custom keyboards, you can pick cases and keycaps that reflect your personality and your current aesthetic. The limiting factor is compatibility with your keyboard’s switches, size, and layout…as well as your budget. This licensed set of Star Wars keycaps is $250, for example. (Sometimes love hurts.)
A tidy desk. With custom mechanical keyboards, it’s a simple matter to choose a keyboard size that fits your available desk space. You can also go with a coiled cable for a less messy look. If you prefer to have different keyboards for standard use and gaming, an aviator connector (which allows quick disconnects) simplifies your cable setup and makes switching between the boards easy.
Easy maintenance. Since you can deconstruct a custom keyboard, replacing failing elements is generally simple. (It’s just a bit more work if you chose soldered switches instead of the hot-swappable variety.) Unlike with a mass-produced mechanical keyboard, you don’t need to hunt for off-label compatible parts to save the investment.
You can also choose components that are more durable, like an aluminum case over a plastic one. Overall, the keyboard lasts longer, so despite the higher initial price, going custom can be more cost-effective—especially if you’re hard on your keyboards.
Cheaper upgrades. Needs and preferences sometimes change over time, which render a mass-produced mechanical keyboard useless. With a custom board, changing out the switches and/or keycaps is more affordable. Buying enough switches for a 104-key keyboard often runs about $27 to $54 for well-known brands like Cherry, Kalih, and Gateron, while a full set of PBT keycaps (a sturdier type of plastic than ABS) can be as little as $20.
Pay to play
Hyte’s keeb SR65 may not be the right fit for everyone—that’s the downside of having just one custom mechanical keyboard dangled in front of a broader PC gaming audience. But that doesn’t mean you’d never enjoy a decadent keyboard.
Skim through enthusiast sites like NovelKeys, KBDFans, and MechanicalKeyboards.com, and you’ll likely find yourself tempted by at least a few of the gorgeous offerings. Some are more affordable than the SR65, while some end up more expensive after you personalize them. You don’t even have to build anything (even though that is much of the fun)—pre-assembled boards are an option, and as easy to find as kits, bare-bones boards, and individual components.
If sliding down that rabbit hole is too much, you can also just hang tight. Recent conversations with PC hardware vendors indicate that we could see more keyboards like the Hyte keeb SR65—or at the very least, further bleed of custom elements into mass-produced boards. You should root for this outcome, because democratization of features like hot-swappable switches benefits everyone. Think of how much more mileage you could get out of a Corsair K95 Platinum if you could easily tinker with it.
Alaina Yee is PCWorld's resident bargain hunter—when she's not covering PC building, computer components, mini-PCs, and more, she's scouring for the best tech deals. Previously her work has appeared in PC Gamer, IGN, Maximum PC, and Official Xbox Magazine. You can find her on Twitter at @morphingball.