One of the promises of mechanical keyboards is that, with enough tinkering, you can theoretically create your perfect typing device.
Of course, many enthusiasts will tell you there’s no such thing as the “perfect board,” and that knowing that the quest to create one will be interminable is actually a large part of the charm. Swapping out stabilizers, mixing up switches, trying different dampening devices, and getting the occasional solder burn is what mechanical keyboards are all about, they’ll say.
But there are also plenty of people who want to enjoy the numerous advantages of a mechanical keyboard without all of that fuss. People who might want to change their switches or keycaps down the road, but definitely don’t want to wrangle a soldering iron. For those people, the selection of keyboards with hot-swappable switches has absolutely exploded in recent years, and Keychron is one of the companies leading the charge with a OnePlus-like credo: high-quality offerings at reasonable price points.
The latest addition to Keychron’s now expansive (and ever-growing) lineup is its first QMK-compatible board, the fittingly named, Q1. It’s a 75 percenter, so you lose the numpad of a full-sized keyboard, but unlike many 75s where all the keys are right next to one another, the arrow keys are offset a little on the Q1, which I prefer. It’s built like a tank, can be shipped fully assembled or not, is designed to be taken apart (but needn’t be ever if that’s not your thing), and can be heavily customized on the software front thanks to support for remapping software QMK and VIA.
At its $169.99 price point (or $149.99 if you forgo the switches and caps with a “barebone” version), the Q1 is one of the best mechanical keyboards I’ve ever used. Usually, this sort of typing experience and depth of customization options cost a whole lot more. And perhaps most tellingly, the Q1 has made me seek out excuses to type more because that’s how enjoyable it is to use.
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Switch it up
The Q1 comes fully assembled (ANSI layout), or in two barebone iterations (one ANSI, one ISO layout). If you’ve got a ton of compatible switches (the Q1’s PCB supports both 3- and 5-pin MX mechanical switches) and heaps of keycaps you may want to save the $20, but that’s a bargain for a full set of each.
Assembled boards come in black, blue, or gray aluminum, with Gateron Phantom red (linear), blue (clicky), or brown (tactile) switches and double-shot ABS keycaps installed (though I received PBT keycaps with my pre-production tester unit). I tested a fully assembled board with brown switches installed, but tried the blue and reds, too.
The standard keycaps are majority white, with modifier keys and F5 through F8 keys matched to the color of the keyboard (black on the black, blue on the blue, etc.). Keychron also sells more than a dozen other keycap sets (all dye-sublimated and PBT) for $40 each, along with three kinds of plate (brass, polycarbonate, and FR4). Any accessories you buy with a board can be shipped with it at no additional expense, and considering the height of the Q1, I’d suggest getting one of Keychron’s resin or wooden wrist rests to go with it.
Gateron made the Phantom switches for the Q1 especially, and each has an LED built-in, so if you’re the sort who likes your keyboard to mimic a disco, it’s going to have an overarching hue that matches the color of the switches you’re using. The red switches glowed red, the brown were more coffee-hued, and the blue took on a gorgeous ocean-like palette. The LEDs are also “south-facing,” which is to say, they face the user. You can toggle lighting on or off with Fn + Tab, cycle through the patterns with Fn + Q or A, and adjust the brightness or speed of animations with other key combos.
Which color switch you choose will depend on what sort of feel and sound you like. This is the sort of thing you need to try before you buy, so find a keyboard enthusiast (or store) near you where you can work out your allegiance. I enjoyed the tactile browns the most because I like a little physical feedback but want a quieter experience than the clicky blues offer. The linear action of the reds left me cold, but hey, you do you, keyboard boo.
That play from the plate feels great under the fingers and adds to the Q1’s decidedly high-end feel.
The Phantom switches are also pre-lubricated (which saves you from doing it yourself), as are the screw-in stabilizers (which can be swapped out for Cherry or Durock ones, if you so wish), and whichever switches you favor, you can look forward to consistent sound across the Q1 thanks to the gasket-mount design that sees the plate float and offer give of up to 2.5mm (though you really have to be pounding the keys to see the movement).
That play from the plate feels great under the fingers and adds to the Q1’s decidedly high-end feel. Plus, thanks to the space in the case, there’s a resonance to the typing sound that I love (check out the video from Keychron below). However, if the Q1’s too noisy for you, there’s additional foam in the box you can use to dampen things even further.
That sense of luxury conferred by the feature set is only reinforced by the fact that the board weighs a hefty 3.5 pounds (nearly four times the 0.9-pound Keychron K3 I reviewed previously, which, granted is low-profile and meant to be portable). That’s largely thanks to the CNC machined aluminum body of the Q1. It’s heavy. It’s hardy. It feels like it could survive explosions, implosions, collisions, or any other calamities you can throw at it. But more importantly, that means it stays put wherever you put it, and no matter how viciously you type while telling a stranger on Twitter why they’re a misguided moron.
Make it yours
Keychron includes a USB-C to USB-C cable (with a USB-A adaptor) with a coiled portion and an aviator-style metal connection midway that’s totally superfluous, but elegant in its retro-ness. It plugs into a port next to the switch that lets you toggle between Windows and Mac modes. There’s also a switch puller, keycap puller, screwdriver, and hex key in the box, so if this is your first mechanical keyboard you have everything you need to get tinkering and make the board yours.
[The Q1] feels like it could survive explosions, implosions, collisions, or any other calamities you can throw at it.
Personalization is a huge part of what Keychron’s selling with the Q1, so for $30 it’ll also let you make a custom badge that can replace the top right key. When Keychron announced the Q1 it also teased the option to put a rotary knob in that position, but that plan’s been put on ice for now and will follow eventually (you’ll also need to change the PCB for that to work, though).
I preferred having an additional key (or, eventually, a dial), but offering the ability to put a logo or other image of your choice on the keyboard does make it feel even more personal.
So too does the ability to remap keys with ease. The Q1 supports Windows or Mac layouts out of the box (and comes with the necessary keycaps), but it's the support for open source keyboard firmware services QMK and VIA that really lets you take control.
QMK is the more complex of the pair, but lets you get right down to the level of customizing how LEDs in individual switches behave (if that’s your bag). It also requires you to flash the board’s firmware to push changes to it. VIA, meanwhile, has a relatively intuitive interface and lets you make changes on the fly.
Using VIA, I was able to change the right-hand-side control key to an Alt key (essential for one-handed em-dashes), and change Page Down to Home, and Home to End. But even more usefully, I was able to create macros.
That made it possible to set the top-right key to perform the Mac keyboard combo for capturing a pre-determined portion of the screen (CMD+Shift+5) — a godsend for screengrabbing Apple events and the like.
Similarly, I created macros for my email address, physical address, image captions, and other words and phrases I have to type often, each of which is triggered by pressing Fn and a number row key. It’s delightful, and I’m especially tickled by the way long phrases appear rapidly, but letter by letter, as though typed by a very speedy, utterly infallible secretary or stenographer.
A labor of love
With the Q1, Keychron unmistakably spent heaps of time and energy thinking about what keyboard enthusiasts value, and what aspirant ones may come to should they fall further down the rabbit hole. Then it built the Q1.
Newcomers might not realize how much a gasket-mounted plate changes the sound and feel, or how helpful it is that the stabilizers can be unscrewed and replaced. They may never go further than swapping out keycaps or switches. Heck, they might not even do that. And perhaps they’ll be happy with the key layout as it is, and never bother to install VIA. But even then, they’re guaranteed a vastly superior typing or gaming experience than they’ll get an Apple Magic Keyboard, or whatever poor excuse for a keyboard their laptop includes.
Keychron’s made an outstanding keyboard that’s one-size-fits-most.
In the work-from-home era, getting a better keyboard is an act of self-care, whether you intend to use it for typing, gaming, or a bit of both. Getting one as pleasing to use as the Q1 is an act of self-love. But maybe avoid the blue switches if you share your home office with a partner. Or at least buy your office mate some noise-canceling headphones.
Despite what Apple’s limited range of input peripherals might suggest, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all keyboard. But with the Q1, Keychron’s made an outstanding keyboard that’s one-size-fits-most. If you don’t need a full-sized board, want one you can customize extensively (now, or perhaps one day), or simply want to see what all the mechanical fuss is about, the Q1 is an ideal purchase you’ll still be getting pleasure from years down the road. And, if you’re like me, it may even have you firing off lengthy (and long overdue) missives to family members just for the pure joy of getting to use it some more. If that isn’t the mark of a great piece of tech, I don’t know what is.
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