The ability to program your mechanical keyboard and assign different functions to specific keys may sound like a luxury feature, but in some cases it becomes a necessity. Anyone who’s ever used a tiny, space-saving form factor keyboard — I’m talking 60% and smaller — knows their default key layouts can be a challenge when the number of dedicated keys is limited. Having the option to customize a key to your desired function can alleviate these shortcomings, making your typing experience more intuitive. Taking the time to choose the best programmable mechanical keyboard and customize functionality according to your own personal preferences will result in a more comfortable and faster typing experience with less errors.
Not only that, but many programmable mechanical keyboards allow the user to setup macros. A macro key can initiate and perform a series of multiple recorded inputs with a single keystroke. This feature is popular among gamers, as it allows advanced combos to be successfully pulled off with 100% accuracy. They have practical purposes too. Any tasks that requires the same repetitive input can be programmed to a macro key. Even something as simple as having your email address bound to a specific key to quicken logins and the process of filling out forms.
Below are reviews for 5 of the best programmable mechanical keyboards your money can buy on the retail market. Kits/custom builds would expand your choices greatly, but I have elected not to include them due to the nature of availability (long waitlists/group buys) and the amount of experience required for assembly.
These are my personal top picks. All of the mechs listed have some level of programmability, whether it be programmable function layers, dedicated macro keys or 100% full programmability (every key can be customized). I also tried to choose keyboards with only high-quality switches, decent stock keycaps and above average build quality. You can’t go wrong with any of these 5 mechanical keyboards, so take your pick!
1. Vortex Poker 3
At this point the Poker 3 seems to have gained iconic status among mechanical keyboard enthusiasts. It’s debatably the most popular and well regarded 60% mech available on the retail market. Owners of the Poker 3 will tell you that reputation is deserved.
The Poker 3 can be found with industry standard Cherry MX switches (Blue, Red, Brown, Black and Clear) in both a backlit (RGB or single-color) and non-backlit version. The switches are housed atop a steel plate and the case is made from fairly thick cast aluminum. The result is a compact mechanical keyboard that’s extremely robust and quite heavy for its size.
The Poker 3 has a floating key design, meaning there is no top shell for the case. The sides of the outer keycaps and switches are exposed/accessible for easier routine maintenance.
The Poker 3’s ANSI layout (also available in ISO) has 61 standard sized keys, so most aftermarket keycaps sets will be compatible. Speaking of keycaps, the non-backlit model comes with laser-etched thick PBT and the backlit versions are doubleshot ABS.
The Poker 3 has hardware programmability handled by on-board memory. No additional software is required. It features 4 layers in total, 3 of which are programmable. The default layer isn’t programmable. Macros of up to 32 inputs can be recorded and assigned to a single keystroke. DIP switches installed on the bottom of the board allows the user to switch between QWERTY, Dvorak or Colemak.
2. Mistel Barocco MD600
The Barocco MD600 is a split 60% programmable mechanical keyboard for the purpose of improved ergonomics. The theory being you use the keyboard with each section spaced far enough apart and angled in such a way that the positioning relieves stress on your wrists, fingers and shoulders. It can still be used as a “normal” keyboard when needed simply by connecting the 2 pieces, which have a friction fit.
The Barocco has very similar specs to the Poker 3. It’s also available with a vast selection of Cherry MX switches and the included thick PBT keycaps look almost identical. It comes in backlit or non-backlit models as well. The non-backlit keycaps are laser-etched and the backlit models are doubleshot with translucent, shine through legends. They even use the same font, with the only noticeable difference being the color of the characters.
What intrigues me is the fact Mistel offers uncommon Cherry MX Silver switches in the Barocco. MX Silver’s — also known as MX Speed — are light (45g) linear switches that have a shorter actuation point (1.2mm) and total travel distance (3.4mm) than typical MX switches, which are 2mm and 4mm respectively.
The Barocco’s build quality does take a slight step down from the Poker 3. Instead of aluminum, the Barocco’s case consists of a plastic top and bottom shell. A steel backplate is used for switch mounting. The backplate provides enough rigidity to prevent any flexing. The structural integrity of the Barocco is solid, despite using a plastic enclosure.
Reminiscent of the Poker 3, the Barocco also has on-board hardware programmability with 3 customizable layers and support for QWERTY, Dvorak or Colemak layouts. It can also record and assign macro keys.
3. Rosewill RK-9000V2 RGB
The RK-9000 series is one of Rosewill’s flagship mechanical gaming keyboards. They’ve made a few modifications and improvements to this model over the years, now selling a “Version 2” with RGB backlighting, hardware programmability, support for up to 50 macros and Cherry’s new line of MX RGB switches with clear housings.
The RK-9000V2 RGB is a full size 104-key mechanical keyboard in ANSI layout with RGB backlit keys. The RK-9000V2 RGB is primarily targeted towards the PC gaming market, though its aesthetics are very subdued compared to products from other manufacturers in this niche. Many “gaming” focused mechs are busy and garish. Not so with the sleekly designed RK-9000V2 RGB. It wouldn’t look out of place at all in an office environment.
The RK-9000V2’s build quality isn’t in question. It’s a sturdy, rock solid keyboard. The case is made from dense, high quality plastic and it has a thick steel backplate to provide needed stiffness.
The keycaps are bog standard for this type of board; thin ABS with laser removed characters to achieve shine through legends. Nothing special and pretty much inline with the average keycaps found on typical backlit mechanical gaming keyboards in this price range. Doubleshots would have been preferred for more durable, longer lasting key characters. At least every key is standard sized, bottom row included, so upgrading with your own custom keyset would be easy.
For the switches Rosewill has chosen Cherry MX RGB’s. These switches are a fairly new product from Cherry. They’re basically the same as regular MX switches, but the housings are transparent. This allows the LED backlighting to be diffused more evenly over a wider area with higher brightness.
4. Vortex Core
Now we get to the dream mechanical keyboard of every traveler that spends countless nights working out of a motel room. The Vortex Core is a 40% mechanical keyboard designed to be ultra-compact for maximum portability and space savings. It has a tiny rectangular footprint, measuring only 9.75″ by 3″. I’m actually typing this post on the Core right now while testing it for the full review to come later.
Vortex apparently wasn’t satisfied with just having the best 60% mechanical keyboard on the retail market with the Poker 3. They have even higher ambitions for this new 40% mech, and in some ways have topped themselves.
The Vortex Core has an ANSI layout with only 47 dedicated keys, but manages to provide nearly the full capabilities of a full sized board thanks to multiple programmable layers, macros and function modifier keys.
Vortex has once again gone with Cherry MX switches in either tactile (Brown and Clear), linear (Red) or clicky (Blue) variants. That seems to be a theme with this list and mechanical keyboards in general. At the moment only a non-backlit version has hit the market, though prototype RGB backlit models with Cherry MX RGB switches have surfaced, so that’s a future possibility.
The Core’s keycaps are thick PBT in DSA profile with dye-sublimated legends. PBT is much more durable and shine resistant compared to ABS and the dye-sublimation process creates a high-contrast legend that doesn’t alter the feel of the keycap and won’t fade from wear, even after years of heavy typing. Absolutely fantastic stock keycaps, especially considering the relatively cheap price point. The Core has a split spacebar. Also, many of the keycaps aren’t standard sized, simply because that’s impossible with boards in this layout. All the more reason to include good stock keycaps.
Mechanical keyboards manufactured by Vortex always feature great build quality. The Core is no exception. Its bottom shell/case is aluminum and the backplate is steel. Just like the Poker 3, the Core feels heavy relative to its meager physical dimensions. That weight mainly comes from the steel plate, as the aluminum case is actually quite thin, but due to its small size a thin case is all that’s needed to make it completely rigid and free from flex.
5. Corsair K95
Like macros? The feature-rich K95 line from Corsair has you covered. This full sized (and then some), fully programmable mechanical gaming keyboard has a massive bank of 18 dedicated macro keys on the left side. Corsair calls them “G-keys” and they can support up to 108 recorded macros spread over 3 profiles. The k95 also sports dedicated media keys and a volume wheel.
Yet again we see Cherry switches in the form of MX RGB Reds. I like Cherry switches, but a little variety would be nice. Someone should introduce these mainstream keyboard manufacturers to Gateron or Zealios. Anyway, Cherry MX Red is a light (45g) linear switch with properties that are generally considered optimal for fast-paced gaming and the transparent housings of MX RGB switches help accentuate the per-key RGB backlighting.
Build quality is adequate. The K95’s case is a mixture of plastic (bottom shell) and anodized aluminum (top plate) with a brushed metal finished for pleasing aesthetics. The switches are mounted directly to the case, which acts as the backplate. It’s not the most premium of build qualities, but its overall construction is firm and reliable.
The biggest strength of the Corsair K95 mechanical keyboard is its plethora of features, with the most interesting aspect being the ridiculous amount of dedicated macro keys and full programmability. Let’s take a detailed look at the specs Corsair boasts for the K95 RGB:
- N-Key rollover
- USB passthrough
- Per-key RGB backlighting
- Cherry MX RGB Red switches
- Detachable wrist rest
- Black anodized brushed aluminum finish
- Dedicated media keys with volume wheel
- Corsair Utility Engine software for recording macros and creating custom backlight profiles
- Floating-key design
There’s one caveat I must mention about the Corsair K95’s programmability. It’s software based. This means to benefit from full programmability you must have Corsair’s software installed, configured and running on your device at all times. Moving the keyboard to a different device will not transfer your settings along with it, as it has no built-in memory for programming. Any device that doesn’t support the software means no customizations are possible. The Platinum model does have on-board memory for storing macros and backlight profiles, but it has much fewer dedicated macro keys.
Conclusion On Programmable Keyboards
The programmable keyboards I chose for this list are retail options that should be fairly simple/cheap to acquire and good enough for the average user; but the truth is many of the actual fully programmable mechanical keyboards that belong on this list are kits/custom jobs. I didn’t include those for many reasons. The biggest factor being availability. It can be nearly impossible to obtain a specific build on any given week. The majority are only sold in group buys in limited quantities that can take months, even years to complete and ship. Not to mention the keyboard still has to be assembled by the user or a third-party once parts are received.
Affordable prebuilts available from retail outlets will likely satisfy the needs of most users looking for a programmable keyboard. That being said, if you have the cash and building your own custom/kit keyboard sounds like a venture you would like to undertake then your options for full programmability will be vast. For a great starter kit I recommend looking into the TADA68, which you can now buy completely assembled. Though catching it in stock is a different matter entirely.
Those were my recommendations for a good programmable mech. Do you have a different opinion? If so, please share your pick for best programmable mechanical keyboard in the comments below.