Musings On Keycaps- Should you Favor ABS or PBT?

With my recent keyboard commentary, I thought it best to talk about keycaps…Keycaps are the covers for the mechanical switches on a mechanical keyboard. Likely the switches themselves, the keycaps are also the subject of intense debate. And I’m just experimenting with these things myself.

I remember, years ago, I bought this flat rollable keyboard, and within a few weeks, the letters started to rub off. I filed a warranty request, and spoke to the company…whose name I don’t remember at this point, but I remember was based in Texas, and they told me that some people’s natural oils tended to degrade the coating more than others. They sent me one with a newer coating they were working on and it lasted for years.

So, the tendency of letters to rub off, and keys to get shiny is certainly a concern of mine. You can clean the keyboard, but the ability to replace worn out keycaps is also a plus, and with mechanical keyboards, there are no end of options I’m still trying to figure out.

The most common discussed materials are ABS or PBT plastic. ABS is the most common keycap material on all types of keyboards. ABS is the one that tends to get shiny in a shorter period of time. But even within the two categories, there are differing levels of quality. PBT is usually more expensive, but you can get cheap and poor quality, or high quality in either material.

PBT has a bit more texture, to most opinions as well, which many enthusiasts prefer. It is generally thought to have a less jarring sound when typed on, but ABS can have the same property if you get a thicker ABS keycap as opposed to the more common ones.

This is not to mention stylistic questions like:

  • Doubleshot – two color keycaps, often used to mix a solid color on the top with transparency on the sides for backlit keys
  • Backlit keys
  • Side or top printing of the legends
  • Printing…Laser Etched, Dye Sublimation, or Pad Printing as the way to label the keys…or….do you need legens on the keys at all…some people like all blanks
  • Profiles…the shape of the key.

So many choices. In the end, I’m not buying the most expensive PBT, but I have, on the keyboards I use regularly, replaced the keys with PBT because I like the benefits. Even on the inexpensive budget keyboard I just bought, I switched out the keycaps for an inexpensive PBT set on sale. Still feels better than the originals.

My only problem is specialty keys. For example, it seems like no one makes PBT keycaps with the media markings on the function keys. I rarely use the function keys on my keyboard, having them show the traditional media options instead would be useful. I guess I’ll just have to remember which is which.

In case you are just getting started, like me, here are some brands I have experimented with, with a few examples as of publish date that were on sale.

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