Keyboard Builders' Digest
5% off at KiiBOOM! Code: KBDNEWS

Issue 165 / Week 18 / 2024

This is a hand-picked selection of last week's content from a keyboard enthusiast's perspective. Posts that may teach you something, make you think and contribute to the common knowledge of the DIY builder community.

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Contents

Editorial

Behind the scenes #165

Keyboard projects, quick news, in the mailbox, meetups, new vendors and discount codes!

Hey, what's up everyone!

Welcome back for another weekly recap and behind-the-scenes write-up.

PSA: I may be unavailable / out of office in the upcoming 2-3 weeks, checking my email only occasionally. Will continue collecting newsworthy posts but can't see when I'll be able to upload stuff and release new issues and especially send out newsletters.

If you are new to kbd.news, you can read how this started out and what this is all about nowadays. If you like what you see, subscribe to the newsletter (free) and donate some bucks to keep this otherwise free and ad-free project alive.

Some posts I thought were worth sharing

Pic: Akko MOD 007 V3 HE

Akko MOD 007 V3 HE "Year of the Dragon" reviewed

  • Last week I tested and reviewed Akko's gorgeous MOD 007 V3 HE Year of the Dragon board, a "limited series" Hall-effect work of art. Check it out, discounts are now available in both the EU/DE and US stores (code: KBDNEWS).

  • Nova is a Buran variant/mod by Protieusz: an orthoish monoblock split with trackball, on-board RP2040 and roller encoder. Plus the original Buran by ScatteredDrifter.

Pic: Nova

Nova

Pic: Buran

Buran

  • Evgenii Vilkov shared a new 40-key variant of his Stront: Stront40 with more keys and more modules.

Pic: Stront MX-38 vs MX-40

Stront MX-38 vs MX-40

Pic: Tokeyo

Tokeyo

  • A nice monoblock split by tschibo00: Tokeyo.
  • Squalius-cephalus shared the split Silakka44 with reversible hotswap PCB.

Pic: Silakka44

Silakka44

Pic: kipra

kipra

  • Kipra by focusaurus – kinda pragmatic.

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  • Here is bananafishcake1's cursed keyboard with an arrow cluster below/left of the spacebar.

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Commercial(ish)

Two cool "wings": Bad Wings v2 and ScottoWings.

Pic: Bad Wings v2

Bad Wings v2

Bad Wings v2 improves upon the original by ditching the XIAO and Shift Register for an onboard STM32 microprocessor, reducing the build time significantly. The only parts that need soldered are the hotswap sockets.

Pic: ScottoWing

ScottoWing

I’m happy to announce that my second ever PCB is available now! I learned a lot from my first PCB, the Scotto34 in order to make this new one a lot more beginner friendly – Joe.

(Through-hole diodes, optional snap-off column for 3x5 (34-keys), nice!nano/RP2040 Pro Micro compatibility.)

  • And keytilt.xyz, an online app by T0X1K01 that generates key tilters (costs $20).

Easily create customizable 3D models of key tilters for your custom ergonomic keyboards. Dial in tilt angle, height, stem insert dimensions, and much more to create the perfect key tilters for YOUR hands – keytilt.

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Keyboard art

MarcelMakes wrapped his encoder knob in leather.

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In the mailbox

I'm working on a review of the K87 and K87SE, two very affordable TKLs sent to me by Kemove, along a bunch of P10 switch pullers (in all available colors). The SE variant of the K87 is available from $28!?! How on earth?! :D Wired only and not hotswap either, but it comes with decent double-shot Cherry profile caps. (Maybe it's a temporary glitch, but there's a default discount in effect plus the 30% KBDNEWS coupon is still accepted on top of that.)

Pic: Kemove K87 & K87SE

Kemove K87 & K87SE

Pic: P10

P10

And I'm really happy about these switch pullers, really great stuff and also cheap. Now I can match them to the particular keyboard/deskmat I'm working on. (As already mentioned many times: the P10 is an awesome switch puller but I wouldn't use it as a keycap puller.)

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Other than that, another tasty board is on the way from Akko EU. ;) If you are into anime from Hello Kitty to Dragon Ball, from Sailor Moon to Cinnamoroll, Akko EU has sales with discounts up to 20% and dozens of boards/keycap sets – in the upcoming few days.

My favorite character must be Gudetama because I often lack energy too… and who wouldn't want such an awesome bacon blanket?!

Donations

  • New donors after last week's call for support: kapee1 and koolkeys. In addition, Raphael Stanzani set up a recurring donation. Thank you guys!
  • And many thanks to my awesome regular supporters and everyone who helped this project thus far.

For all the donation options check out the donation page!

Meetup database

Upcoming meetups

Recently added

天下一キーボードわいわい会 Vol.6

I missed this, but as usual, Daihuku streamed the recent Tokyo event, and has another tour video as well. Lots of unique boards, I'm still trying to process what I've seen:

As always, this meetup database is both a calendar and an archive so feel free to send me upcoming events or even ones from the recent past to make this collection as comprehensive as possible.

Vendors & Discounts

Feel free to use the KBDNEWS discount code at 153 keyboard shops! And do not hesitate to report any issues.

New shops and updates to the database of keyboard vendors this week:

  • AKKO US offered you a 5% discount (code: KBDNEWS), just in time after the MOD 007 review. (FYI, Akko EU and DE have been on board for some time, with 10%.)
  • Gateron's store added. How could have I missed this? (Not too responsive though.)

AlphaSmart caps recreated

I'm so glad that the original post by E. F. Nordmed resulted in new, 3D modeled keycaps, practically resurrecting the AlphaSmart, this distraction-fee typing device loved by many writers. Many thanks to Sam and Adam Kemp.

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That's all for today. Thanks for checking by. As always: Keep learning and building!

Until next time,
Tamás


Projects

Nova

Nova is a Buran variant/mod by Protieusz: an orthoish monoblock split with trackball, on-board RP2040 and roller encoder.

This is Nova by Protieusz, a new take on the Buran which was originally designed by ScatterDrifter. This revamped angled unibody has 38 individual RGB LEDs, 25mm integrated trackball, RP2040 on board, and optional 3x EVQ roller encoders.

If you compare the two PCBs, you can see that the original was heavily modded:

  • RP2040 components rearranged and routed from scratch
  • PMW3360 sensor added
  • EVQ roller encoder option added (EC11 footprints removed)
  • 38 individual RGBs added
  • Switch plate and top case modified according to the changes

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Specs

  • orthoish unibody split
  • 38 keys (3x5+4 per half)
  • MX, soldered
  • on-board RP2040
  • trackball (PMW3360)
  • optional roller encoders

Resources


Stront40

Evgenii Vilkov shared a new 40-key variant of his Stront: Stront40 with more keys and more modules.

Evgenii Vilkov (aka zzeneg), after just releasing his Trio, shared a new 40-key variant of the Stront lineage too: more keys, more modules.

Initially I designed it for my friend who really wanted to have a more standard layout with 3 keys in the pinky column. I also took it as an opportunity to make some internal updates – zzeneg.

Changes

  • LEDs are powered by 5V, as 3.3V is out of spec. For proper data line voltage the author used this hack
  • as 5V has to be passed in the interconnect, TRRS has been removed completely. "First of all, I hate it, secondly, 5V will kill other pins for surezzeneg.
  • increased compatibility with VIK – 5V on the second side, free GPIOs now use analog pins, built-in display pinout fully matches VIK (for example these adapters)
  • added covers for 2" display and Azoteq touchpads, so now you can choose between Azoteq or Cirque

Specs

  • 40 keys
  • MX/KS switches, hotswap
  • LCD display
  • Cirque or Azoteq trackpad (via VIK)
  • roller/rotary encoders
  • 3D printed cases
  • exposed SPI/I2C contacts, so any other device can be used

Pic: Stront MX-40 vs MX-38

Stront MX-40 vs MX-38

Resources


Buran-Ortho

A monoblock split keyboard with orthoish halves: Buran by ScatteredDrifter.

Let me add here Buran, a rather old project by Evelyn S. aka ScatteredDrifter, on occasion of Protieusz updating the PCB.

I wasn't aware of this project until featuring the Nova but it definitely belongs in kbd.news.

Buran, apparently named after the ill-fated spacecraft and meaning "blizzard" in Russian, is an angled orthogonal semi-split keyboard with support for two encoders.

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Specs

  • orthoish unibody split
  • 38-41 keys (3x5+4 per half + optional center keys)
  • MX, Alps or Choc v1 switches, soldered
  • on-board RP2040
  • encoders (optional)
  • gasket mount cases

Resources


Tokeyo

A nice monoblock split by tschibo00: Tokeyo.

Tschibo00 shared some photos of the Tokeyo, a unibody split with nice silkscreen.

Basically it's just a regular unibody 34 key layout, plus my magic macro button in the middle. I tailored the keys' positions specifically to my hands – tschibo00.

Specs

  • 34-35 keys (5x3+2)
  • MX/Alps/Choc, soldered
  • RP2040-Zero
  • QMK

Resources


Silakka44

Squalius-cephalus shared the split Silakka44 with reversible hotswap PCB.

Juho T. from Turku (aka Squalius-cephalus) published 'Silakka44, a RP2040 based column staggered split keyboard with 42 keys and encoders. The PCB uses hotswap sockets, and just like the author's previous Silli41, the design was inspired by that of the REVIUNG41 (and also the Corne keyboard this time).

The PCB supports MX style switches, 5-pin ones included.

By the way, "silakka" means Baltic herring in Finnish.

Specs

  • 42 keys (6x3+3 per half, plus rotary encoder)
  • MX, hotswap
  • reversible PCB
  • rotary encoder
  • Pi Pico (RP2040)

Resources


Kipra keyboard

Peter Lyons shared his kipra, an open-source split keyboard – kinda pragmatic.

The kipra is a much more down-to-earth split by Peter Lyons aka focusaurus, at least compared to his earlier Squeezebox iterations.

A split ergonomic mechanical keyboard built with ergogen, kicad, and freecad, and there's also a detailed blog post if you'd like to know more about this build.

I've built a new split ergonomic mechanical keyboard called the "kipra". My daily driver for most of the past year has been a sofle choc, which is overall quite good and adequate for my current needs. However, I wanted to make something even more tailored to my specific preferences in terms of features and hand shape – Peter.

Specs

  • 44 keys
  • low-pro Choc, hotswap
  • reversible PCB
  • Pro Micro/nice!nano footprint

Resources


Review

Akko MOD 007 V3 HE Year of the Dragon review

This is a review of Akko's gorgeous MOD 007 V3 HE Year of the Dragon board, a "limited series" Hall-effect work of art.

The MOD 007 has been around for some time, and it's available in various versions. In addition, Akko offers even more keyboards in the same or very similar form factor. However, the MOD 007 V3 HE "Year of the Dragon" stands out as a special "limited series" Hall-effect model – with magnetic switches and stunning appearance, and the first one by Akko offering 8KHz polling rate.

TLDR; This is a real piece of art, however, it's more for gamers than serious keymap wizards (no VIA support and no layers in the proprietary software either). But if the design language and form factor is your cup of tea, the MOD 007 YoD won't disappoint you: excellent build quality, decent typing feel out of the box, and lots of ways of fine-tuning via all the magnetic switch related features. If you prefer VIA support, there are other MOD 007 variants for you out there though.

Disclaimer

The kind folks at Akko EU sent me this "Year of the Dragon" version of the MOD 007. (Thanks a lot guys!)

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When referencing products in this article, I point to the Akko EU, but feel free to look up the same products in Akko's other localized stores, most notably the Akko US site (partially shipping from Canada btw). The KBDNEWS coupon and what I write may or may not work or be valid for other sites though, just like prices will differ.

As always: I'm not being paid to write this review, but getting a free sample may result in all kinds of bias on its own, both positive and negative in my experience. Take everything I write with a grain of salt.

First impressions, design language

I'm pretty impressed by both the weight and the intricate design – which is not self-explanatory. For some reason, e.g. even the weirdest Japanese motifs and craziest color combos may seem to work for the Western market, but often not the Chinese ones.

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This teal-turquoise-gold palette (Akko calls it cyan) with all the intricate design elements, however, definitely works – at least for me –, much-much more universal than e.g. the previous Year of the Tiger PC75B variant in the Chinese zodiac line of Akko's keyboards.

Cyan is a lucky color in Chinese culture, which represents hope and honor. In Chinese mythology, Cyan Dragon is in charge of the east section of the heaven, the department of spring, nature and vital wood.

While testing the keyboard, I asked around a bit if people find the design too much, but I'd say it's like a real piece of art: your eyes keep moving from one pattern to the next, discovering all the small details. I like it for sure.

Specs

  • wired, Hall-effect (magnetic), prebuilt, 75% keyboard
  • case: CNC aluminum, three-tone anodization
  • keycaps: Dye-sub PBT Cherry, some of them 5-side printed
  • switches: 50gf Akko Cream Yellow magnetic (not MX!) switch
  • stabilizer: Blue & White TPU stabilizers
  • hotswap: well, yes
  • plate: FR4 (pre-installed) and copper (extra) - both with flex cuts
  • gasket mount
  • South-facing RGB
  • Magnetic features: Rapid Trigger (RT), Dynamic Keystrokes (DKS), etc.
  • 8000Hz polling rate
  • typing angle: 5 degrees
  • dimensions: 333x141x33mm
  • weight: 1.93kg

Limited series

This may need some explanation because, well, the YoD is of course mass produced. That said, it will be manufactured this year only, obviously, as you'd expect from a design paying tribute to a specific year of the Chinese zodiac. ;)

After this, there should be new products every year. For example, the design for the 8th-anniversary edition is already in progress – Akko EU.

Due to the relatively complex production process though (especially the three-tone anodization I guess), the production volume is not very high, and I was informed that it will likely be discontinued in a few months.

Main features

Hall-effect switches, three-tone anodizing, 8KHz polling, custom weight, roar mode?! :D

Related to the design language, what makes the "Year of the Dragon" version stand out not just from other MOD 007 releases but also from aluminum keyboards in general, is the three-tone anodization.

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The case undergoes a three tone anodization process, enabling the keyboard to have enhanced tactile sensation, be more durable, and scratch-resistant.

The Hall-effect sensors and switches suggest this board was designed with gamers in mind, just like the 8KHz polling rate and many related features.

Unboxing & Contents

In the cardboard box, guarded by a matching dragon on the front, you have the prebuilt Akko MOD 007 HE with switches and caps mounted, along with a black coiled (but not braided) cable, tools, extra caps, quickstart guide – and a transparent dust cover. (Well done!)

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Calibration

According to the product description, the Hall sensors of the board are suspectible to temperature fluctuations, which can lead to significant alterations in the magnetic field of the keyboard during transportation.

That's why, for an optimal typing experience, Akko suggests updating the keyboard firmware as soon as you receive it. In the software you can manually calibrate the keyboard by gently pressing every key ('About - Maximum Key Travel Calibration - Start Calibration').

I haven't experienced any issues with the factory settings so skipped this process out of sheer laziness.

Layout

The layout can be classified as 75%, 82 keys plus a rotary encoder (clickable). Not just full F-row but also a 13rd function key (Delete by default).

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What's more important: offset arrow cluster, which is useful when positioning your right hand, and four additional keys in an extra, slightly offset column on the right. Either for navigation keys as default, or depending on your workflow: macros.

The 75% board, compared to the standard layout, is narrower by about 107mm, leaving you with considerably more desk space, e.g. for your mouse. Even smaller than a TKL. However, to prevent the encoder from interfering with the F-row, the knob and right column have been placed a bit further away, at least compared to the silimar IROK ND75 I had laying around:

Pic: 1800 vs TKL/80% vs 65% vs 75% - it seems I don't have a fullsize board :)

1800 vs TKL/80% vs 65% vs 75% - it seems I don't have a fullsize board :)

The smaller than usual right shift key may cause compatibility issues with smaller keysets.

Historical overview

Akko seems to do these limited series models each year: Year of Tiger, 7th Anniversary MOD 007, etc.

We launched the MOD 007 PC in February 2023 and released AKKO's first magnetic switch keyboard Akko 7th Anniversary MOD 007 HE PC in August. The Year of the Dragon is our first 8K polling rate magnetic switch keyboard – Akko EU.

That said, the MOD 007 is available in a lot of different variants: aluminum or PC case, ANSI or ISO, Hall effect or classic MX PCB, wired-only or tree-mode wireless, and, on top of that, some design variants of these with various keycap sets, or paying tribute to the actual year or anniversaries as we can see.

The point is: you should be able to find the best MOD 007 for your taste and budget.

Rotary encoder

The encoder adjusts volume and brightness by default, you can change between the two modes by pressing it.

The knob received a (surprise!) dragon motif too.

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In the software, you can select the knob to customize its behavior, but I couldn't really figure out how exactly. Without QMK support the options are probably quite limited if any.

Keycaps

Dye-sublimated PBT keycaps in Cherry profile. The legends of the the alpha caps mimic brushstrokes and Chinese calligraphy.

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The combination of blue/teal base colors and the light turquoise accents is mesmerizing.

Cyan color scheme featuring elements inspired by the 'Year of the Dragon'.

Some keycaps received 5-sided dye sub (Esc, Tab/Caps/Shift, Spacebar), which I personally find particularly cool.

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And the bundle comes with 13 extra keycaps: replacements/alternatives for the spacebar, right Shift and Enter, different accented F-keys, and a variation for the right navigation/macro cluster. I found these latter even more appealing.

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Given the relatively rare 75% form factor, the smaller than usual right shift key may cause compatibility issues with smaller keysets, and keys of the right column possible sculpt incompatibilities.

One more thing: I read a comment about lose and wobbly caps which I'm not able to confirm. Stem wobble? Yes. Lose caps? Not at all.

Switches

Attention! Being a Hall effect magnetic board, the Year of the Dragon keyboard does NOT support e.g. MX switches per se. However, if you'd like to use such mechanical switches, you can purchase this MOD 007 Flex-cut PCB, which btw can be added to your order for free (as of writing this, but I'm not sure if this is a glitch or intentional).

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Akko Cream Yellow magnetic switch specs

  • Type: Linear
  • Operating Force: 50gf ± 10gf
  • Total Travel: 4.0mm
  • Pre-Travel: 2.0 ± 0.5mm

Ultra-accurate typing experience adjustable in 0.1mm.

Stabilizers

The stabs are Akko's TPU stabilizers: clip-in, plate-mounted ones. The PCB does have the holes for screw-in stabs, but I haven't tried if they would fit the plate. (The PCB is apparently repurposed from another models.)

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Magnetic features

The AKKO MOD 007 V3 HE combines 8000Hz ultra-high polling rate (near-zero latency 0.125ms) with the Rapid Trigger (RT) of the magnetic switches. We've seen similar solutions, e.g. the IROK ND75, and I'm pretty sure that it's only a matter of time for these features to become widespread in the gaming scene – regardless of the practical significance.

Theoretically, compared to 1KHz sampling's 1ms, 8KHz polling rate results in a "near-zero" 0.125ms sampling. Probably useful for competitive gamers, definitely not essential for the casual typer or even a fairly decent one (100 WPM means 100ms between keystrokes if I'm right).

Effectively reducing the input delay, this keyboard brings you faster trigger response performance, making it the best choice for gaming – Akko.

With magnetic switches, users can customize the actuation distance, finetuning and setting up rapid actions particularly in FPS games. There are a bunch of related features: Rapid Trigger, Dynamic Keystrokes, Toggle Key, and even Mod-Tap means something different in this context than many of you may be used to.

Build quality, structure

The MOD 007 is a massive chunk of aluminum, beautifully crafted. Unique caps with crisp legends, the three-tone anodized case is impressive, and Akko didn't skimp on foams either.

Case

Typing angle: fixed 5 degrees (no adjustable feet).

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The hallmark three-tone anodization is closer to green than cyan/teal in my optinion, which is clearly visible when mounting green caps like these Harry Potter themed set by Aihey Studio:

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The custom aluminum weight features Chinese characters allegedly meaning: "Year of the Dragon Limited Edition". There's no way I can confirm this but probably not "chicken noodle soup" or something similar from the failed tattoo cookbook. :D

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PCB

The default PCB is of course for magnetic switches, so not MX compatible. However, as already mentioned, you can add an extra PCB to your YoD order for free (at least as of writing this) if you'd like to try it with MX switches.

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Well, I guess we can call this hotswap since/despite the switches being magnetic, there's no electric contact between the switch and PCB.

By the way, the PCB is apparently repurposed and has remnants of wireless: pads for the battery and antenna too. Which means more tech-savvy users may attempt to turn this into a wireless board – not encouraged by Akko though. :)

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Plate(s)

There are some flex cuts in the default FR4 plate so it's pleasantly flexible. However, if you prefer a more stiffer feel, the bundle comes with an extra copper plate. It has the same flex cuts but is still much stiffer.

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Gaskets

Yep, gasket mounting. As you probably know, this design allows for even more flex and cushioning, which can result in a softer typing experience.

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Sound dampening

Plenty of foam: 3mm poron plate foam, 0.5mm IXPE switch pad, 1mm poron bottom/case foam according to the specs on the product page (the latter looks thicker), but I found another thin layer directly under the PCB too, and there's also a piece of foam in the battery tray of the case – nope, the keyboard is still not wireless but the case is obviously an universal one for all MOD 007 variants.

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RGB

The MOD 007 V3 HE comes with per-key RGB backlighting of course, and over 20 preset animation modes. In addition, you can create and tailor your own lighting effects with the Akko Cloud Driver.

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I'm still not the target audience for this so skipped playing with these features in the software, but I understand that this is a major selling point for many.

The default caps don't really allow any light through, you can see it only between the caps. Nevertheless, the switches/LEDs being south-facing, lights are best visible from the normal typing perspective.

Software

While some MOD 007s are VIA compatible, e.g. this MOD 007 V3 VIA DIY kit, the MOD 007 HE YoD IS NOT (yet?)! For advanced features there is the Akko Cloud Driver, however, it lacks layer support. That said, there are signs of layers in the app so implementation of this may be only a matter of time.

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By the way, the keyboard works out of the box, and some useful magnetic presets are available as hotkeys too (FN layer), so you don't even have to install the Akko software if you are content with the factory settings and keymap.

That said, because of the Hall effect sensors and the many additional functions related to the magnetic switches, you'd need the additional software anyway, even if the board supported QMK/VIA/Vial. The Akko Cloud Diver software provided is moderately intuitive but particularly feature-rich – pretty much the most we can expect from a proprietary software. It could be a bit more streamlined with regards to workflow: simply swapping two alpha characters takes 4 clicks in VIA/Vial but 8 clicks here. In addition, some features are a bit hidden in the menu structure: e.g. mod-tap under the DKS settings. All in all, it's usable but could be improved.

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Reproducing my custom layout worked only on the base layer, setting up SpaceFN is impossible at this time, so I have to revert to third-party software.

To sum up: the target audience being probably gamers and casual keyboard smashers, the average user will find the software sufficient. Serious typers with elaborated custom keymaps who fall in love with the MOD 007 will have to choose the VIA-compatible version with the plain case – or wait for a firmware update.

Portability

Weighing 1.93kg, the MOD 007 feels a bit heavier than e.g. the 2kg MoeeTech Glitter65 I reviewed recently, and this is clearly the result of the overall shape. As I wrote earlier, the depressions in the Glitter case made it easier to grab and toss around by just one hand. The MOD 007 is pretty much two-handed when it comes to repositioning it (but still much easier to grab than e.g. the Whitefox Eclipse).

Dropping it in your bag is not impossible of course, that's exactly what I did, but I personally consider it a less portable model compared to lighter alternatives. In my opinion it excels as a stationary device (and also as an ornament) on your desk.

Conclusion

Akko's MOD 007 V3 HE "Year of the Dragon" is a beautiful and very well built 75% keyboard with magnetic switches and features, coming in a nice milled aluminum case with intricate design. Wired, prebuilt, more for the gamer and casual typer than keymap wizards – due to the lack of VIA support. In any case, if the switches, design or price is not for you, there are plenty of other MOD 007s to choose from, coming in the same form factor.

Pros

  • Build quality: feels very solid
  • Overall design
  • Lots of magnetic switch related features gamers will appreciate

Cons

  • Software (no VIA support and no layers either)
  • Price

Availability

There's a 10% discount in effect with the KBDNEWS coupon code (EU/DE), so this particular limited MOD007 can be yours for 193 EUR at Akko EU or $180 (US, coupon in progress!):

However, there are a LOT of MOD 007 variants and other 75% models in the Akko stores (PC frame, wireless, VIA-compatible DIY kit, etc.), starting at below 100 EUR/USD (or even 57 because of the current Europe Day sales at Akko EU):

Yep. One last thing for those who'd like the extra MX PCB. It seems you can use only one coupon at a time, and the free extra MX PCB is handled by an auto-apply coupon, so… Well, I'd still use the KBDNEWS coupon because the 10% discount means it's the better option when adding the extra PCB for about 13 eur. However, this is because of the (temporarily?) reduced price of the PCB. Once it's back at 35 eur, the free PCB will be the better choice.

Other products in the photos


Tips & Tricks

Recreating keycaps for the AlphaSmart Neo

A father and son team designed replacement keycaps for the AlphaSmart Neo, bringing an old keyboard back to life with some low-cost modern tech.

My dad and I have always enjoyed collecting and repairing old tech and when we saw the request for E. F. Nordmed to design new keycaps for the AlphaSmart, a personal word processor from the late 1990s, we were intrigued. This is not the first time we’ve done something like this and have even worked on multiple projects requiring 3D-modeling and keycap design. For example, a few years ago we picked up a broken Commodore 64 with a few missing keys. With some quick modeling and 3D printing, we ended up with some pretty neat looking semi-clear black keycaps and a functional Commodore.

CAD and reverse engineering

Projects like this require measuring tools with more precision than your standard ruler and calibrated eyes. Fortunately, an inexpensive digital caliper is just about the only measurement tool you will need to start designing your own caps. A basic $25 one will get the job done as long as it can measure to the hundredth of a millimeter (0.01 mm).

Pic: AlphaSmart Neo, photo by E.F. Nordmed

AlphaSmart Neo, photo by E.F. Nordmed

While there are a number of methods for reverse engineering a design, for example, taking a photo of each side of the keycap, and importing each into 3D CAD to serve as a guide, we prefer the simplicity of directly measuring each feature. This method usually works well, although the original designers don’t necessarily adhere to a specific unit system or decimal precision and we, as human people, like nice round numbers. In our experience, keeping all measurements within 5 hundredths of a millimeter will usually suffice. This is especially important as keycaps tend to rely on tight tolerances in order to achieve a secure, yet removable, fit.

Pic: Sam taking measurements

Sam taking measurements

The keycaps of the AlphaSmart Neo have a pretty complex design, but by using CAD (specifically Onshape), a few extruded circles, and some magic, we were able to produce a design that looks pretty similar to the original. A lot of small changes were made to our modeled keycaps in order to make them look and feel just right.

Tolerances can vary, but you want them to be relatively small so they look like the original and not just a generic keycap. Another helpful measurement tip is to carefully position the keycap you are trying to replicate over your computer screen and zoom your model until it is full scale. This will highlight glaring errors in your measurement and will hopefully help you catch problems before you print. When you’re modeling these semi-intricate shapes, it requires a LOT of dimensions. What we did was first take a few general dimensions and then adjusted them to make it look more close to the original key.

Pic: Sam working in 3D CAD

Sam working in 3D CAD

After we determined just how many key types there were, 7 to be exact, designing each began in exactly the same way, with the base footprint. We carefully examined each cap we wanted to create under a magnifying glass, then started with a basic rectangular base. Don’t worry, it quickly became more complex. The key to successfully recreating a full set of caps with multiple variations is to leverage repeating design features.

Fortunately, all of the keys on the Neo utilize the same scissor mechanism, which means the dimensions for the clasp and slot that interfaces with the scissor is generally the same for every key. Additionally, each repeating design element is a perfect candidate as a variable in parametric design, which basically means the design is driven by variables and calculations, rather than just dimensioning or sculpting. It’s actually quite clever designing this way, as changing a simple variable will update the entire shape of the design. It really speeds things up by reducing the need for repeatedly CAD’ing the same thing.

3D printing intricate designs

A design as detailed and delicate as this type of keycap requires printing technology that can accurately capture each detail, while retaining similar strength properties to the original. This means that your run-of-the-mill filament stacking 3D printer isn’t going to cut it. Instead, you will need to leverage its resin-fueled counterpart, the SLA (technically MSLA, unless you are cool and own a Formlabs printer).

MSLA technology utilizes a vat of photo-sensitive resin that solidifies into an acrylic-like plastic when exposed to UV light. Your design is constructed layer by layer as a high-resolution LCD creates a photo mask, similar to how a stencil is used to paint a design. Over the course of an hour or so, your part will emerge from the resin vat and can be cleaned and cured to yield the final product.

As you can tell, the printing process is a bit more involved than filament printing, but man, the results are incredible and entry-level resin printers are not very expensive. Placing our keycaps side by side yields a pleasant contrast to the original, while creating a feel that is indistinguishable.

Real-world testing

The real work begins once your parts come out of the printer. Since the printing process creates a partially cured, or “green” part, you want to be careful when removing it from the build plate and preparing it for curing. Regardless of the type of resin you choose, make sure you wear safety glasses and rubber gloves whenever you handle uncured resin. This is critically important and you should pay attention to the safe handling practices required by each resin manufacturer. Make sure you thoroughly wash and dry your part before you curing. This will reduce the chances of uncured resin filling the clasps and other intricate details.

We chose to use water-washable semi-translucent black resin for this project, mainly because we had it on hand. In hindsight, an abs-like resin would have been better as the small clasps would regularly break when installing and removing the keycaps while we prototyped. A more forgiving resin would have likely solved this issue, but in the end we were happy with the result and successfully created a fully functional set.

Sharing and a request for more!

As we mentioned during the prototyping process, we broke a LOT of keycaps coming up with this design. Manufacturers use plastic types that are both semi-rigid and forgiving, but unfortunately the resin we chose is only semi-rigid. This means that the claps that grab the scissor mechanism need to flex to snap into place, but not too much.

Our latest revision takes this into consideration and should work with most resins, but YMMV. If you find that they are too delicate and break every time you install them, try under-curing the part by a few minutes or switch resins.

Pic: Testing the keyboard

Testing the keyboard

We hope you enjoyed this build process and feel confident enough to tackle creating your own caps. It was a lot of fun getting to play with some old tech and hopefully helping the community keep their AlphaSmarts up and running for years to come. If you would like to download our designs or request a model for your own vintage keyboard, stop by Sam’s Thingiverse page.

Pic:

Resources


Quick news

A WIP but neat keyboard sketcher by hadybaal.


A handwired split ergo by joe_milkshake. Case files on Printables.


Here is bananafishcake1's cursed keyboard with an arrow cluster below/left of the spacebar.


Blob macropad by mmill/sparisti/protoplancton. 7 keys + encoder. Case file on onshape.



ScottoWing (PCB Edition) is available.


keytilt.xyz is an online app by T0X1K01 that generates key tilters (costs $20).


MarcelMakes wrapped his encoder knob in leather.


That was Issue #165. Thanks for stopping by.

This issue was made possible by the donations of:
Ashkeebs, splitkb.com, MoErgo Glove80, ZSA Technology Labs, Aiksplace, @keebio, Upgrade Keyboards, Cyboard, Jason Hazel, Sean Grady, Jacob Mikesell, kiyejoco, @kaleid1990, KEEBD, littlemer-the-second, ghsear.ch, u/motfalcon, Bob Cotton, FFKeebs, @therick0996, Richard Sutherland, Christian Mladenov, Joel Simpson, Lev Popov, Daniel Nikolov, u/eighty58five, Schnoor Typography, Skyler Thuss, Caleb Rand, Yuan Liu, James McCleese, Benjamin Bell, TALPKEYBOARD, Ben M, zzeneg, Spencer Dabell, Anatolii Smolianinov, Penk Chen, Matthias Goffette, Felicitas R., Clacky, Vitali Haravy, Hating TheFruit, anonymous, Davidjohn Gerena, Brendan P., Stefan S., Alex Miller, Trey Causey, Shnobble, Mario S., Dylan Ingham, Gordon Diggs, Cloyce, kapee1, Raphael Stanzani, koolkeys, s_p_l_o_d_e

Your support is crucial to help this project to survive.

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