I’ve had my eye on a clickier keyboard for some time. But I put it off because it was hard to find a place where you could try out the different key types to see what they feel and sound like. I don’t know about you, but my fingers don’t come calibrated in “grams of peak force applied”.
The other day while shopping for a replacement iPhone charger I saw a keyboard which had clear keys and containing dozen of styles of keys installed so you could try them all out and decide which ones you liked best. Of course, the store was out of stock on both wireless keyboards with customizable keys and the particular kinds of keys I liked. No matter, I ordered them online.
The keyboard, a Keychon K10 Pro (with cool RGB lighting effects :)) was actually pretty nice right out of the box. But I was determined to try the specific keys I’d decided I liked. The installation of which was billed as straightforward, with all necessary tools provided in the keyboard box.
It’s a good thing when you order a complete set of replacement keys they give you a few extra. Because if your experience is anything like mine, you’re going to burn through all of the replacements and then some.
Replacing the keys is not at all straightforward. It’s quite tedious and error prone. There were many imprecations of the gods uttered during the process (it’ll be interesting to see if Keychron goes up in flames; if so I may need to reconsider my rationalist philosophy in favor of something more traditional :)).
In the interest of trying to help other poor bastards who succumb to the temptation of wanting a customized keyboard here are a few things I learned:
- Allocate two or three hours to the job. Yes, replacing an individual key is reasonably quick…but you absolutely must test each and every replacement to be sure the little pins on the bottom of the switch didn’t get bent, and so didn’t connect to the underlying PCB. Also, your fingers will get really tired and sore, so you’ll need time for rest breaks. Or, better yet, spread the job over several days.
- Don’t replace all the keys at once and then test…because, if my experience is any guide, something around a quarter to a third of the replacements fail.
- Find a website or program to test the keys as you replace them. Keychron offers a pretty nice online one, although to use it you have to access it from your particular model’s page.
- Have a pair of needle-nose plyers available to fix the bent/deformed pins. And enough of a fingernail to pry the really bent ones up enough so the plyers can grab hold of them.
- Don’t repair bent/deformed pins too often. While I didn’t run into it, I could imagine weakening or annealing a pin enough so it snapped off when you tried to insert it. In the worst of all possible worlds it might snap off inside the keyboard connector…which might make the keyboard permanently inoperable.
The reason for the high failure rate appears to be due to two conflicting engineering requirements.
To keep the keys from moving in use they have to be held in place fairly tightly. Which means they must be snapped into place with a fair bit of force…which is enough force to bend/deform the metal pins that create the required electrical connection between the switch and the keyboard.
If the pins aren’t properly lined up, you’ll hear a satisfying snap sound and think you’ve been successful…only to find one of the pins bent/deformed, resulting in failure.
I suspect this issue is also related to the market for key switches. The vast majority of those are sold to keyboard manufacturers, who no doubt use machines to assemble them. I can’t imagine they have a bunch of people sitting around struggling to insert the switches!.
Positioning a key before inserting it via an automated process is no doubt far more accurate than clumsy human fingers could ever be. Making the switches cheaper by building them with thinner, easily bendable tabs (rather than, say, small metallic posts) — and relying on the assembly machine to avoid bending them — no doubt works out fine.
The real problem in that case is selling something that was intended to be assembled by machine as something suitable for human hands. Is it lying or is it marketing? You be the judge :).
I found no learning curve to balance these two competing requirements. It was always hit or miss. Which is why I recommend doing one key at a time and testing the replacement immediately so you can correct the failures.
Interestingly, for me, the upper left pin (as you look at the bottom of the switch) was always the one that failed. The lower right pin never did.
Overall, while I like my newly-enhanced keyboard I don’t recommend customizing keyboards if it’s at all possible to buy one already built around the keys you like. Or at least look for a brand, unlike Keychron, which has figured out a way around those two competing force requirements (for all I know that may not be possible).