What do you look for when you’re shopping for a high-end, premium pre-built keyboard? Chances are, you would want features such as RGB lighting, wireless support, and for gamers, switches with “lightning fast” actuations to eliminate latency for the best response time.
The thing is, these features are not typically found on custom keyboards, even ones that cost three times as much. Although they are not quite as “feature-packed,” I would still argue custom keyboards are superior to pre-built ones – let’s break down why in this article.
RGB Doesn’t Matter With High-Quality Keycaps
While a backlit keyboard would be useful in a dark environment, you need shine-through keycaps for that, which are…well, not the best quality. Really, even the most expensive pre-built keyboard doesn’t have particularly great keycaps. At least, in comparison to “proper” keycap sets from GMK or ePBT.
Now, these keycap sets are not see-through, so it doesn’t really matter if a custom keyboard has RGB lighting or not; you won’t actually benefit from it. Granted, some custom boards do have RGB lighting – such as KBDfans’ KBD67 Lite or the NovelKeys NK65 Entry – but believe it or not, more premium custom offerings don’t even have any backlighting.
What GMK or ePBT keycaps do offer, however, is quality. Trust me, the difference in quality between a proper, premium keycap set (especially ones from GMK) and keycaps found on pre-built keyboards is huge. These include feel, sharpness of legends, and even sound profile – yes, keycaps do affect the sound profile of a keyboard.
Given that the keycap is one part of the keyboard that you touch the most, it’s worth investing in a good set. And that brings us to the next point.
Superior Typing Experience
With a high quality keycap set, the typing experience of a custom keyboard will be much, much better than that of a pre-built board. On top of that, it is also much easier to tune stabilisers on a custom keyboard – rattly, noisy stabilisers is one of the most prominent shortcomings of a pre-built keyboard.
Really, a ticking spacebar or backspace will make even the most premium keyboard (custom or not) feel bad to type on. Most custom keyboards are designed to be relatively easy to assemble and disassemble, so tuning stabilisers is a much more seamless process. You also have the option to purchase a wide variety of stabilisers, even in specific colourways.
Of course, it’s still possible to tune the stabilisers of a pre-built keyboard, but more often than not, these boards are harder to disassemble to get to the stabilisers. There are a few exceptions to this, such as Keychron keyboards with a hotswap PCB – these boards usually use plate-mounted stabilisers, which are easier to access and tune accordingly.
Aside from stabilisers, what lends to the superior typing experience of a custom keyboard is the mounting system. Take the KBD67 Lite: even though I got it for only $109 (about RM455), it is a gasket-mounted keyboard with a polycarbonate plate, which offers a softer, more comfortable typing experience.
This is an important distinction: pre-built keyboards are usually tray-mounted to the bottom of the case with screws. Not only does this make for a much stiffer typing experience, you also get inconsistent typing feel across the board. It’s especially evident near screw points.
Sound profile of a keyboard is affected by the mounting system of a keyboard too. Generally, tray-mounted keyboards – with a couple of exceptions, such as the Wilba.tech Salvation – do not sound great. In contrast, most custom keyboards are designed to sound good, which (in my opinion) contributes to a superior typing experience.
Tons of Customisation Options
The word “preference” is thrown around in the custom keyboard scene quite a bit, but that’s really one of the most defining aspects of the hobby. Almost every single part of a custom board can be customised to your liking, including the keycap, switches, stabiliser, plate material, and of course, the keyboard itself.
All of these customisation options allow you to really personalise a custom keyboard to suit your aesthetics – not something you can do with a pre-built keyboard.
But Pre-Built Keyboards Do Have Their Advantages
In the spirit of “preference,” pre-built keyboards do have their own advantages. They don’t cost as much money, they’re much more readily available – a big shortcoming of the custom keyboard hobby, if I’m being honest – and pre-built boards have certain features not commonly found in the custom scene, such as wireless support and fancy RGB lighting.
Depending on what you want out of a keyboard, a pre-built one may be the better option than a custom keyboard. But if you want the absolute best typing experience with a healthy amount of budget – and a lot of patience – consider building a custom keyboard; here’s what you need to know to get started.