I have always been a fan of ergonomics, a trait inherited from my father who once refused to purchase a car because he didn’t feel he could get the seat into a decent driving position. Everything we come into contact with, mugs, door handles, the knobs on your cooker, has been designed in some way and some designs are more ergonomic than others. A keyboard provides the interface between user and machine and, if ergonomics are important to you, it doesn’t matter whether that machine can run Crysis or not, if the keyboard’s junk you’re not going to have fun.
I am perhaps overstating the case here, I have had a lot of fun gaming on rubber domes for the past 20 years, but the internet reminded me of the physical connection afforded by the mechanical keyboards I grew up with.
And so through the pages of geekhack and latterly /r/mechanicalkeyboards did I travel to work out what it was I wanted. Nothing on the shelf really appealed. I had no use for multiple macros or media keys, having become fairly set in my workflow, and the ub3r l337 marketing of “gaming” keyboards has lost some of its lustre now I’m in middle management. I used the numpad so rarely outside the office, and for selfish reasons wanted my computer using experience at home to be sufficiently different from work, so I started looking at tenkeyless form factors, but quickly warmed to the 60%. Here was a size that brought your arms closer together when using the mouse and allowed a much more natural position, but also dispensed of the function row (to be replicated in another layer); its overall minimal aesthetic was very appealing to me.
The issue was that UK-ISO 60% keyboards are not that common, but I was determined not to compromise on this so I started looking at how to build my own. Sure there is now the pok3r but it would never be quite how I wanted it and I was looking for an excuse to buy a soldering iron anyway… That was over 2 years ago and I can’t recall all the options I looked at, but was so pleased earlier this year to find the good people at mechboards.co.uk in my country, offering a one-stop shop for everything I needed save for keycaps; no waiting around for some Korean dude to get to your order, no concerns over customs delays, perfecto.
I went for Gateron Red switches as these are, by all accounts, at least equal to their Cherry MX counterparts and I was looking for a light re-introduction to the mech world with a gaming oriented switch.
These would all be mounted in the Satan GH60 PCB, which offers multiple layouts and, off the top of my head, is one of very few, if not the only, readily available option for a UK-ISO 60% build. I opted for LED backlighting as well, the idea being it’s better to have it and not need it than want it and not have it. Being totally new to this it was a little embarrassing not even knowing how to assemble the stabilisers for the larger switches, but with a little trial and error I realised these had to be mounted to the PCB and not the plate that floats above it.
It also took me some time to work out the spacing on the bottom row, one mounting site on the PCB has 5 options for the legs of the switches to be soldered to, so a number of dry runs occurred before the soldering iron was even warmed up. I’m also not sure whether the soldering is particularly good, but it works, except for the LEDs in the L and 1, and the LED in the I key fell out a bit on soldering so it sticks up and the cap can’t sit all the way down on it. So it’s a bit of an amateurish job but it’s mine, and I wouldn’t blame the cheap Ebay soldering iron for any of this.
Then came flashing the thing. I honestly spent more time trying to work this out than I did building it, and there is now a useful guide at https://mechboards.co.uk/flash-guide/ which I urge anyone considering this to read, it might save them the mistake I made of uninstalling the default keyboard drivers (not a great thing to do).
I already have new key caps and a new case on order (waiting on group buys is a pain that you will come to know well) to match a custom USB cable I had from Pexon, and I think I will probably end up buying another PCB and set of switches to try and make a better board as a whole. The feeling of accomplishment that this relatively crap with his hands soldering noob got when it all worked was great, and the ergonomic experience is much more fun and makes using the thing more of a pleasant event than a chore.
Customs aren’t the way to go for everyone, they certainly aren’t the cheapest option, but if you want to take total control over how you input to your computer there really isn’t another choice, just don’t talk to me about stickering.