Keycaps for Mechanical Keyboards - What Are the Differences
5 May 2021
Keycaps for Mechanical Keyboards: What Are the Differences
If you spend a lot of time on computers, it makes sense to get a high-quality keyboard. Typing, gaming and programming can be strongly influenced by the keyboard you're using. Most standard keyboards today are inexpensive mass-produced membrane units that produce a slightly mushy feel when you hit a key. The most-used keys tend to wear out prematurely and many have a shallow activation distance and require an amount of effort that's not ideal for many keyboard users.
High-quality mechanical keyboards can be customized to deliver exactly the typing experience you want. Instead of the keys pressing on a flexible membrane to connect two current paths, the keyboard keys sit on individual mechanical switches. As your finger depresses a key, you compress a spring and close a switch to send the corresponding signal to the computer. As you release the key, the spring pushes the key back up and the switch opens.
For high-quality modern mechanical keyboards, all the components are rugged and long-lasting, even under heavy use. Because the keyboard is made up of individual mechanical components, you can choose a keyboard with switches that work the way you prefer, and you can customize the look and feel of the keyboard by selecting special keycaps. You can get the underlying keyboard with the functionality you want and get your keycaps with specific materials, colors and lighting for a vastly superior keyboarding experience.
Keycap Customization Possibilities
Before you can customize with keycaps, you must first choose the right keyboard. The keyboard determines characteristics such as how far you push the key, how much force is required and backlighting possibilities. Your choice of keycaps is also influenced by the size of the keyboard and the layout. For an extensive range of possible keyboards, see Mwave's listings for hundreds of keyboards from many different manufacturers. Once you have an idea of what kind of keyboard you want, you can start customizing the look and feel with different keycaps. If you already have a mechanical keyboard, then can likely still find compatible keycaps.
Key points to remember include the following:
- Profiles. Key profiles are the different key shapes that are available. They can range from flat across the keyboard to having the outer keys raised and shaped to facilitate rapid typing.
- Materials and Color. An important part of the keyboard aesthetic and feel, keycaps come in a variety of colors and can feel smooth, textured, rubbery or hard.
- Layout and Sizes. Some keys, such as the space bar or the Shift keys can be custom sizes but a lot depends on what sizes the keyboard can accommodate.
- Illumination. If the keyboard has lighting, you can get different effects with different keycaps.
To get an idea of what's available, visit the Mwave website to see their offering of keycap sets from many different suppliers. A keyboard chosen to match your typing and keycaps to fit in with your personal style will make working on your computer much more enjoyable.
Note that most custom keycaps are designed for use with Cherry MX style switches ( ‘ + ‘ stem design). Keycaps are also available for low-profile switch such as Gateron LP or Kailh LP switches, but these are far more limited in variety. You can learn more about different types of switches on our Mechanical Keyboard Switches guide.
Different Keycap Profiles to Match Your Typing
The two major characteristics that define keycap profiles are height and shape. The height is the distance from the bottom of the keycap to the highest point and possible shapes are uniform or sculpted. Sculpted means the keycaps for the outside keys of the keyboard are taller than those in the middle and are angled toward the center. In addition, the top surface of a keycap can have a spherical or cylindrical indentation to fit a fingertip.
Tall, sculpted keycap sets often give the keyboard a retro look while short, uniform keycaps look modern and tidy. Depending on how you type, you may find it easier to position your hands on sculpted keys or that short, flat keys let you type faster. The choice of profile is really a matter of personal preference. The most commonly used keycap profiles include the following:
- Cherry. The Cherry profile keycap set is one of the most popular. At just under 10 mm, the tallest caps are of average height and the set is slightly sculpted with cylindrical key tops that have a low center and higher edges left and right.
- OEM. Similar to Cherry, the OEM keycap set is slightly higher at almost 12 mm and slightly sculpted with center keys at about 10 mm. It is a standard profile used across many major brands of keyboard.
- DSA. At a uniform 7.6 mm height, the DSA keycaps are short and the set is not sculpted. Many people like the low-profile flat look. The tops of the keys have a spherical indentation with a low center and high edges all around the key.
- SA. One of the highest popular keycap sets, the outside keys are at 16.5 mm and the sculpted set is heavily angled toward the center of the keyboard. The keycaps have spherical tops.
- XDA. Similar to DSA but with taller uniform keycaps at just over 9 mm. The keycap sides are almost vertical, giving a spherical top with a slightly larger surface area.
- G20. Large square and rectangular keys just over 7mm high making up an unsculpted, uniform key set. Key tops are flat.
- TAI HAO. Similar to Cherry but higher keys at almost 15 mm. The key set is highly sculpted with cylindrical keycap tops.
Comparison of Popular Keycaps (source: Kah Keyboard Guide)
No matter which keycap set you choose, make sure they fit on the mechanical switches you plan to use. Most keycaps are compatible with the Cherry MX style switches but there are also low-profile switches available that may require special, low-profile keycap sets.
Keycap Materials for Keys that Feel Comfortable
Most keycaps are made of two types of plastic that have different characteristics. Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is a less expensive material that is smooth and shiny. ABS keycaps sometimes develop a greasy feel over time. Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT) keycaps usually feel textured and the plastic is more durable. Besides choosing between these basic characteristics, selecting one or other material comes down to personal preference and whether the keycap set you prefer is available in that material.
Keycaps can be rubberized to let your fingers get a good grip on the surface. This is normally only an advantage for gaming, and typical rubberized keycap sets include a limited number of gaming keys. For example, Mwave offers a Tai-Hao 18 key rubberized gaming keycap set in several colors. Rubberized keycaps feel completely different than plastic keys and can provide extra grip for intense gaming sessions.
Special Colors to Match Your Mood or Style
Some people just want a keyboard that works well and are happy with an elegant, black arrangement. If you value appearance as well as function, you may want to look at the wide range of colored keycaps that are available.
You can get keycap sets of all one color or two-tone sets such as a red-black combination. Mwave has a variety of color schemes such as this Kraken Keyboards Reverse Frosted Cherry Keycap Set. Candy colors are popular, and if you can't find a combination you like, you can always mix and match from different sets (though if you choose to do this, it's recommended to mix and match from the same series and profiles and finish may vary).
Custom Keycap Sizes for Fast Access to Special Keys
Depending on how you use your keyboard, certain keys may be especially important. For example, for typing text, the spacebar is used very frequently. For writing code, you may often use the backslash key and you may want to program special keys for gaming. For standard mechanical keyboards, the keys toward the center of the board have a fixed size but around the edges, for example the "Shift" key and the spacebar, may very in size.
A standard sized key is 1 x 1 units and larger keys are sized in a fraction of a unit. For example, you may want to increase the size of the spacebar from 6 units to 6.5 units while shrinking one of the keys beside it from 1.5 to 1 unit. On the other hand, you could program one of the keys beside the spacebar for an important gaming function and increase its size. Make sure the keyboard you plan to get can support such size changes.
Select Keycaps Compatible with Different Lighting Options
Backlighting for keys can range from purely functional to highly decorative. If you're only concerned with readability of the key legends, a subtle white backlight for keys with translucent legends will be effective. If you want color and special effects, a programmable RGB keyboard with the right keycaps will be best.
Translucent keycaps typically have translucent legends to allow RGB lighting to shine through for a distinctive aesthetic and improving usability in low-light. When choosing translucent keycaps for your backlit keyboard, it is important to note if your lighting is north or south-oriented to allow lighting to shine through effectively. As the naming implies, north-oriented lighting will have the LED at the top of the switch (away from you), whereas south-oriented lighting will have lighting at the bottom of the switch (closest to you). Along with not allowing LEDs to shine-through effectively, purchasing the incorrect keycaps may rub against switch-mounted LEDs.
Pudding keycaps are another option to make your RGB keyboard truly shine. As an example of what is available, Mwave offer an G.Skill and HyperX keycaps that have this functionality. HyperX also offer the Alloy Elite 2 RGB Mechanical Gaming Keyboard that comes with pudding keycaps pre-installed. Keyboard backlighting is especially effective for gaming enthusiasts who have an illuminated computer case and can program their keyboard lighting to match.
The Keyboard Layout Affects Your Choice of Keycaps
The two major keyboard layouts are key arrangements specified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the International Standards Organization (ISO). The ISO keyboard can be recognized by the distinctive "Enter" key that takes up two rows, with the part in the top row slightly wider to form an upside down "L". Other differences include the following:
- The ANSI "backslash" key is above the "Enter" key while the ISO "backslash key is to the left of the "Enter" key
- The ANSI right "alt" key is replaced with an ISO "alt gr" key that gives access to additional symbols on a key
- The ISO left "Shift" key is smaller, leaving room for an extra key
- The availability of keycap sets is much greater for ANSI than for ISO
ISO vs ANSI Keyboard Layout (source: Keyboard Kings)
Depending on the work you're doing or the language you're using, an ISO keyboard may work better for you. For example, multilingual keyboards may have three or four symbols on a key. The ISO "alt gr" key with the "Shift" key lets you access the third and fourth symbol. Before you get an ISO keyboard, make sure that it has the keycaps you want or that a corresponding keycap set is available. Note that most keyboards sold in Australia feature an ANSI layout.
No matter how you use your keyboard, typing on a high-quality mechanical keyboard is a different experience than using a membrane board. The mechanical switch clicking when you press a key gives a defined feedback and helps avoid double characters or typing mistakes. When you add custom keycaps to further improve or customize your typing experience, you can combine better functionality and ergonomics with a keyboard that delivers the look you want.