The custom keyboard hobby has seen quite a bit of change over the past couple of years. After all, bigger brands like Keychron and Glorious are getting into the scene, which blurs the line between a “custom” keyboard and a “regular,” pre-built keyboard.
So that brings up the question: what exactly is a “custom keyboard?” At what point does a pre-built keyboard is also considered to be a custom build? Well, we’re going to break it down in this article.
“True” Custom Keyboards
A true, “traditional” custom keyboard is usually sold as a kit. That is, only the case, PCB, and plate are bundled together, so you still need to purchase switches, keycaps, and stabilisers – though some kits do include this particular component – to complete the build.
More often than not, custom keyboards are sold in group buys too, which is essentially a pre-order. Shipping times vary from one manufacturer to another, but it’s not uncommon to take several months (or up to a year, even) for a custom keyboard to be delivered to customers.
Some good examples of a true-blue custom keyboard include the Mode SixtyFive, Ginkgo65, Wilba.tech Salvation, and of course, the Jelly Epoch. These keyboards usually require assembly as well, and depending on the particular keyboard, soldering may be necessary as well if there’s no option for a hotswap PCB.
As custom keyboards usually need to be assembled, it is also far easier to tune and modify different aspects of the keyboards to a user’s liking. This is a big part of the custom keyboard hobby: whether you want to get the best sound profile or typing feel, a custom keyboard makes it easier to accomplish these goals.
And…that’s pretty much a summary of custom keyboards. Now, let’s move on to more affordable (and accessible) off-the-shelf keyboards.
This is the most common type of keyboard in the market. As its name suggests, a pre-built keyboard is ready to go out of the box; no assembly required. The only bit of customisation with a pre-built keyboard is the type of switch that you can get, which is usually limited to linear (red), tactile (brown), or clicky (blue) switches.
And that really is the defining characteristic of a pre-built keyboard: it is not designed to be taken apart or customised to a user’s liking. Something as simple as tuning the stabilisers to eliminate rattling can be a real challenge with a pre-built keyboard, though it does depend on how the particular keyboard is designed.
Even though the customisability of a pre-built keyboard is not on the same level as a proper custom keyboard, they are far easier to purchase due to their prevalence in the market. Plus, some folks may not have the patience to wait for months on end to get a custom keyboard.
Recently, more and more pre-built keyboards are implementing features that are typically found on custom keyboards. The Keychron Q1 is a prime example of this: even though it’s a pre-built keyboard, its feature set is akin to that of a custom keyboard.
Not only does it uses a gasket-mounting system – a mounting style that you only find on custom keyboards – it also uses screw-in stabilisers and a hotswap PCB with support for VIA for easy key mapping. These features are very, very rarely found on pre-built keyboards.
Of course, it’s not difficult to tune and modify the sound profile or typing feel of the Q1 either, given its similarity to a custom keyboard. Essentially, if a keyboard is designed to be customisable – pre-built or not – it can technically be considered to be a “custom keyboard.”
That being said, if you want the best typing experience and sound profile, there’s still no beating a proper custom keyboard. Yes, the Q1 does offer some benefits of a custom keyboard, but it doesn’t exactly have the same level of polish or refinement as, say, a high-end custom keyboard like the Jelly Epoch.
But I digress; that’s a topic for a different subject. The point is, although some pre-built keyboards can be considered to be a custom keyboard now, a “true” custom keyboard is still superior in many aspects, though you are paying more for such a keyboard with much, much longer waiting times to boot.
However, given time, it’s entirely possible “pre-built custom keyboards” can match (or even exceed) the standards set by true-blue custom keyboards. But in order for this to be a reality, we’ll need more players to get into the custom keyboard scene – imagine if Razer is willing to experiment in this space.