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Embarking on a custom mechanical keyboard that won't break the bank

By Mark Yeong - 21 Jun 2022

Embarking on a custom mechanical keyboard that won't break the bank

A custom mechanical keyboard. (Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@pinjasaur?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Paul Esch-Laurent</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/s/photos/mechanical-keyboard?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a>)

No longer the domain of those with deep pockets

Personalising your typing experience has never been more affordable as you can now own a bespoke custom mechanical keyboard without spending loads of cash.

Mechanical keyboards have increasingly gained the attention of keyboard enthusiasts, who have taken this hobby to a whole other level. This obsession can be from designing and fabricating their own custom keyboards, creating their own printed circuit boards (PCBs) that are programmable, and even modifying how the keyboard is assembled to create a one-of-a-kind experience that is tuned to the needs of the user. (Also, check out our beginner's guide to mechanical keyboard switches.) However, getting into the custom keyboard hobby can be quite tough both in terms of the steep learning curve to figure out what works best for you and the costs associated with acquiring the parts.

Manufacturers have noticed the increase in demand for customisation as whole new brands and companies have literally sprung up to satisfy this growing market. One such brand is KBDfans, where they produce and supply high-quality keyboard customisation parts for their customer to put together their own custom mechanical keyboard. Individual artisans have also spent great efforts to design, spec, and prototype keyboard designs for group buys that allow enthusiasts to purchase and hopefully reach their "endgame keyboard"

(Image from KBDFans)

While such enthusiast-level keyboards can cost anything from S$500 (US$375) to build, there are other options out there that can allow those who are not willing to fork out such amounts for a keyboard that you can call your own. Even my recent enthusiast custom mech keyboard recommendation for QK65 costs $US150 - without the switches and keys.

 

The rise of budget-friendly kits

With the growing demand for this hobby, there is also an increasing number of manufacturers realising the sizeable market interest that can't afford to fork out such huge sums and have focused on budget-friendly custom mechanical keyboard kits. Most can find these kits available through Taobao, or resellers in your local online marketplaces such as Shopee or Lazada. Custom mechanical keyboard kits usually come with an empty case, a printed circuit board (PCB), USB cable, and stabilisers. These kits would allow you to install your choice of keyboard switches and keycaps that would give you varying typing experiences.

While the budget-friendly options might not be as polished (e.g. finishing on the case, lacking keyboard mapping, etc.),  they can still provide a good experience after giving it some attention. There are lots of tutorials on YouTube that would help get you started in building your very own custom mechanical keyboard and applying the necessary mods to create a more polished typing and/or visual experience.

A quick tip: Once you see a keyboard kit that is of interest, search for it on YouTube. Chances are, it might have been reviewed, and this lets you get a better understanding of what the kit has to offer as well as the various pros and cons of the board.

Next Time 75, inspired by GMMK Pro. (Image from Shopee.)

A popular board that has gotten some reviews recently is the Next Time 75. This is a 75% keyboard (comes with the function keys F1 to F12) and allows users to swap the keyboard switches and keycaps. The board can do with some lubrication to the stabilisers (search YouTube for “How to Lube and Tune Stabilizers”) and Tape Mod (taping masking tape to the back of the PCB). For the RGB fans, it also comes with RGB under each key as well as RGB under the PCB, but you will need a transparent or translucent case if you want RGB lights to shine through.

In terms of budget, you would probably need to spend about S$100 - S$150 to fix up a custom mechanical keyboard that you would call your own. Below is a rough breakdown of how much you would probably need to spend if you decide to build the Next Time 75 (prices stated are averages from Taobao):-

  • Next Time 75 - S$65
  • Gateron Yellow Keyboard Switches (x90) - S$25
  • Keycaps - S$20 to S$40

All in all, you would probably spend about $110 to $130 with the above configuration to put together a custom mechanical keyboard.

(Image from Taobao)

For me, it was a fun process to learn more about custom mechanical keyboards. If you are keen, budget builds like these are definitely a good way to get started before searching for your "endgame keyboard". Here are some more ways to get started:-

  1. Find out what our readers are considering in their custom keyboard builds in the following discussion thread in the forum:- https://forums.hardwarezone.com.sg/threads/recommend-good-mechanical-keyboard.5031425/page-114).
     
  2. Alternatively, you can also search YouTube on "budget custom keyboards" to get access to various videos that have been uploaded by content creators to help you get started on this journey.

Have a happy custom keyboard journey!

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