Topre of the pops: How I achieved mechanical keyboard ‘end-game’ after a year of searching

Before we begin, a note: This isn’t a sponsored article. The Keyboard Company are an excellent bunch, but they’ve never given me anything for free.

Spend enough time browsing forums frequented by mechanical keyboard enthusiasts, such as /r/mechanicalkeyboards, and somebody will inevitably declare that they’ve achieved “end-game” with their latest clackety love interest.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that mech owners are rarely satisfied — there’s always a smoother switch, a shinier Gem Artisan keycap set or a more comfortable wrist rest out there yet to be discovered.

Essentially, to achieve end-game is to discover a keyboard that ticks nine of 10 boxes; it’s as good as things are going to get at that moment in time.

After bashing out articles on a MacBook Air since 2011, I decided last summer that something had to change. Apple’s demotion of its classic laptop in 2016, combined with my own growing interest in mechanical keyboards, led me to pursue my own end-game nirvana.

Ten keyboards, a few thousand pounds later and more hours pulling off keycaps than I care to admit, my search ended. The Realforce 87UW, a Japanese-made keyboard designed for touch-typists that uses variable weight Topre switches, emerged as the victor one year later. But the interesting part to this story is not so much where I ended up, but how I got there.

The journey wouldn’t have been possible without help from The Keyboard Company, which lent me numerous boards in the past 12 months and sold me the 87UW in the end. When I was working as computing editor for TechRadar last year, we spent one glorious summer day visiting the company’s Stroud HQ, interviewing its eloquent MD Bruce Whiting, aka @FilcoUK, for a video on the psychology of mechanical keyboard users. We also heard a particularly interesting tale about the time Terry Pratchett bought several keyboards from the company in the 90s.
The journey

Here’s a run through of the various keyboards I bought or sampled, and why each one leading up to the 87UW didn’t scratch my proverbial keyboard itch:

  • Cherry MX Board 6.0: A gaming keyboard, one that formed my love of low-profile keyboards. It featured excellent build quality, ideal height keycaps and a wrist rest that’s so luxurious I use it to this day. Its linear Cherry Red switches actuated under too little pressure, however, forcing me to make frequent typos. Their lack of tactility meant they weren’t very satisfying to type on, either.
  • Razer BlackWidow X Chroma: Failing to learn my lesson about opting for gaming keyboards, I picked up a BlackWidow with Cherry Blues. I spent an entire evening inserting three rubber ‘O’ rings on the stems of each keycap to prevent the keys from bottoming-out (depressing all the way down), which resulted in a curiously satisfying clicky typing feel. The whole setup was a bit too daft to use as a permanent solution though and, shortly after, I discovered…
  • Cooler Master NovaTouch TKL: This was more like it. The board that introduced me to the world of Topre switches changed things forever. Using it felt like composing on weighted piano keys and made Cherry’s switches feel cheap and crude in comparison, but its plastic chassis failed to inspire and the mech suffered from excessive key rattle. I wondered what other keyboards out there used the same switch, and so I stumbled across the Japanese company Topre.
  • Topre Realforce 87U 45g: My first Realforce was bought from The Keyboard Company via Amazon, and it felt like a game-changer. Sporting uniform 45-gram Topre keyswitches, a minimal design and an alluring stealthy grey-on-black color scheme, the 87U resembled a more luxurious (and solidly built) version of the NovaTouch. Hammering away on it produced a deeper “thock” sound than the CoolerMaster too.
  • Topre Realforce 87U 55g: This is where I can pinpoint the time that my psychological state began to shift (and my wallet began to empty). I was fairly content with the 45G 87U, but many Topre enthusiasts online swore that weightier 55-gram switches were the real deal — and I couldn’t ignore them. However, I was less impressed. For slower typists who don’t have to drum out thousands of words per day, I could see the appeal: each key press felt pinpoint and purposeful — like keyboard whack-a-mole. They were simply too heavy for me, however, and led to finger fatigue over longer sessions. Still, it was worth a punt.
  • Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2: Anybody worth their Topre salt has at least given the legendary HHKB a go, and I was no exception. While its bag-friendly portability was a real plus point, I never took to its cheap-and-cheerful typing feel. Extremely lightweight, it lacked the reassuring heft of the Realforce and gave off a curiously hollow sensation. Like the NovaTouch, it also suffered from key rattle, and its unusual layout often had me reaching for keys that weren’t there. Finally, its chassis design was too tall for my tastest after coming from the Realforce. In other words: I wasn’t a fan.
  • Leopold FC660C: For a good few months, I’d convinced myself that I’d achieved end-game with the FC660C. Combing the Happy Hacking Keyboard’s portability with switches that felt somewhere in-between Topre’s 45g and 55g switches, the FC660C genuinely stood out from the pack. For a while I regretted letting it go, and only did so because deep down I knew that I preferred the comparatively low-profile design of the Realforce. Realforce boards were the only option from here on in.
  • Topre Realforce 104US: I didn’t realise that this keyboard existed until Keyboard Company sent me it out of the blue, and it made an impact. It possessed two features that I’d never come across in a mech: silencing, and variable-weighted keys. Combined, the 104US was both lightning fast to type on and quiet to boot. On the negative side, it was a big old traditional-sized keyboard with a numberpad, which I didn’t much care for. Did a smaller model exist?=
  • Topre Realforce 87U “Silenced”: Of course it did; and, to nobody’s surprise, I ordered one. Once again, I thought that this time would be the end of the road after enjoying using it for a few weeks. Over time, however, I began to miss the deeper and more pronounced “thock” of the non-silenced Realforce, which is a trade off when using the quieter model. Looking at the positives, this latest mech only reinforced my view that Topre’s variable switches are superior for typing than uniform ones. My pinkie fingers in particular felt less stressed after hammering away at keys for hours on end. That left one more keyboard to try…
  • Topre Realforce 87UW: Here we are: the culmination of nine previous keyboards. I sought a low-profile keyboard, so a Realforce was the only way to go; it needed to possess a tenkeyless layout and non-silenced, variable-weighted keys. In theory, the 87UW had everything — and thankfully it delivered. I’ve been putting this mech through its paces for around a month now, and for the first time I can’t think of how its typing feel could be drastically improved.

So, there you have it. Compared to (actual, proper) keyboard enthusiasts who spend all day long lubing their Massdrop-purchased Zealios and learning Dvorak, I’m something of a novice. But I do type many words for my job from one month to the next, and as such owning a comfortable keyboard that enables me to enjoy my work is paramount. After a long search, the 87UW is finally making that happen.

This post was originally published on Medium.