The Keyboard

Purely for the fun and enjoyment of another project, I recently put together a keyboard from kbdfans, specifically the kbd75 model. For those that don’t know, kbdfans is a fairly new shop in China that specializes in mechanical keyboard parts, kits, and pre-made keyboards, and is very accessible due to their high-quality stock and fast shipping time. The kbd75 is a model with an all-aluminum case, RGB lighting, and a slightly larger form factor that allows for more keys than a 60% layout, including arrow keys. I would like to detail some of my experience with building and programming this keyboard, as well as give a little overview of the Hako switches that I elected to use with it.

The keycaps in this build are a blank SA set (high profile) that I ordered previously, and the colors are pretty striking. But not long after getting these keycaps, I faced an issue. I’m a Colemak user, and for those that are an active part of that community, you know that there is a trend toward modifying the keyboard further to make it more ergonomic. And the mod that I really wanted to try is known as the Wide mod, since it shifts the alphanumerics on the right hand over a little bit. I also wanted the “Curl” mod, which introduces some greater symmetry between hands by moving some bottom left-hand letters to the left. There is precious little space to do all of this on an ANSI layout, so compromises have to be made, and most keycap sets are not geared toward anyone but the ANSI crowd. So, I could either attempt an ISO layout, or accept the trade-offs. I opted for the former for a few reasons. I like the ISO Enter key (gasp!), the ISO layout is wide enough that there are no real compromises for the aforementioned modifications, and it seemed like a fun way to do something completely different from anything I have done previously. With all this in mind, I bought an ISO Enter key from Signature Plastics and was off to the races.

My eventual “first draft” layout looked like this:

First Draft

You’ll notice that this tries to preserve the visual symmetry of ANSI while remaining an ISO layout. I think that was the best route for my preferences. While waiting for the keyboard, I prepared my layout in QMK firmware, which thankfully already had an ISO version for this keyboard model. And the result is something that I can truly say is a joy to type on. Rock solid, attractive, and the price is much lower than I would expect for something of this quality. Oh, and my daughter loves the RGB lighting. ;)

I wanted something I had never tried before for the keyfeel itself, and for that I looked to the somewhat controversial Hako line. These are the brainchildren of Input Club and manufactured by Kaihua/Kailh, also an up-and-coming company in the mechanical keyboard world. These switches are described as being something of a unity of Topre and Cherry MX Clear, which of course piques the interest of those that know and use either one. Having tasted Zealios in the past, I was one of “those” people who thought I could find familiar quality in the Hako line. Let me say this much about their similarity: if you were after yet another clone that behaves in a way that you expect, you won’t find it here. The Hako switches are a complete departure from the usual tactile switch. Whether or not that is a good thing for you is a matter of taste and experience, but I have my own thoughts on the matter that make up the rest of this post.

Hako Switches

Hako Switches Image courtesy of Input Club, used with permission.

How does one make analogies about something so different? It’s a little bit of a mental strain to try. But attempt it I must.

For science! (Or something interesting like that.)

Hako Trues:

These may be among the most interesting switches ever conceived of by mortal man. If I were to describe the keyfeel of these, it’s a bit like pressing against a balloon - there is a firmness that you instantly perceive, which increases with more pressure and makes it very easy to sense how far down you’ve gone. What is most interesting is that there is tactility, but it’s a subtle, back-of-your-mind variety of tactility, where the switch doesn’t loudly proclaim itself and doesn’t need a pronounced bump to inform your hands. The sound is quite mellow and deep, and bottoming out is a non-issue, especially if you’re a typist who tries to avoid it anyway. No matter what the actuation curves might show you, it is smooth as butter and quite comfortable with proper use. That said, for those keys which you normally hit without much regard for force (modifiers, for one), it is easy to see how these could be quite tiring. For maximal flow from a very capable little switch, you could do far, far worse. I’ve used these on the arrow keys and plan to use them for alphas in the future.

Hako Clears:

I confess a bit of a soft spot for these. Before I attempted a full build, I had my sights set on using Violets because they had the lowest actuation force and struck me as the most comfortable.

Boy, was I mistaken.

The Clears offer a sensation and sound like no other, and they have ended up as the alphanumeric switches on this build. What’s so special about them? The first part is the glorious “thock” that you get upon releasing the key. I have only heard anything remotely like it on Topre keyboards. Past the auditory stimulation (heh), there is an irresistible sensation from the rolls that the Colemak layout uses. It’s almost like the feeling of shuffling a deck of cards, with a little “pop” at the end to let you know you’ve finished the roll. The actuation force is surprisingly accessible at 55g, and if you should happen to press a little too far, you won’t regret it very much. They do succeed in preventing bottoming out, though not quite as aggressively as their True counterparts. The kind of typing style promoted by Trues is necessary; the Clears are only strongly suggesting you type their way. Now that I have nearly a full keyboard of these, I’m wishing that every keyboard that I owned could have these qualities. It really is a switch that changes your expectations, and it really is something that must be felt to be understood.

Hako Violets:

The Violet is, in many ways, a demure beauty in this line-up. It is light and responsive, with a snap that one wouldn’t expect from the low-weight spring, and tactility that is a bit closer to what I think many of us who were interested in this switch were expecting. The sound is a bit more empty upon bottom-out and it makes a clinking sound when it hits a switch plate, but it is also quiet as a whisper when used as intended. Bear in mind that these are not switches which enforce much of anything on you. If you are a heavy-handed typist, a Violet cannot stop that particular mistake habit. But it does offer comfort and a feather’s touch for actuation, and for some typists, this may be the switch they are looking for in achieving a smooth, seamless interaction with their text. The modifiers for this build have benefited greatly for having Violets at their center.

So, do I have a verdict for you? I won’t speak for your preferences and needs, but I can tell you that every Hako switch is worth buying, if only so that you can say you have experimented and tried all the options. I have a feeling that the world will adjust its preferences in time to include more switches like the Hako line.

And I’m dying to see what Input Club will cook up for us next.