Generally speaking, the stock keycaps found on low to medium budget mechanical keyboards are lacking in quality. That’s because keysets are one of the easiest areas where manufacturers can cut corners to reach a lower manufacturing cost so they can obtain higher profits. The reality is average consumers aren’t even aware of the quality difference between thin ABS keycaps and thick PBT.
Keyboard enthusiasts know better. For most of us, replacing and upgrading stock keycaps to something more substantial with premium materials and high wear resistance is a priority.
Cost of PBT
The downside is this can quickly get expensive. It’s not uncommon for a full set of high-quality PBT keycaps to be priced at $80 and up. That’s fine for a new Filco, but if you own a $40 mech would you really want to spend double on keycaps than the cost of the entire keyboard? Probably not. That’s why cheap, generic PBT keycaps from China like the set I’m reviewing today are a more practical upgrade choice for all those value oriented mechanical keyboards with subpar stock keycaps.
Affordable Side-printed PBT Keycaps
I purchased these no-name Cherry MX compatible PBT keycaps from Banggood.com (Edit: They are now listed at Amazon under the NPKC brand). They’re OEM profile in ANSI layout with a Dolch type color scheme (black and gray), red Escape key, and side-printed legends. The picture below shows them installed on my Magicforce 68, a very popular low-budget 65% mechanical keyboard.
The legends are side-printed on the front of the keycap using the pad-printing method. Side-printed legends have a couple advantages over keycaps with characters printed on the top. First, you’ll have no worries about the legends fading from wear over time from use, even with cheap methods such as pad-printing.
Second, they make good transition keycaps for users who like the aesthetics of blank key tops but aren’t able or are still learning to touch type and require visual aids while typing.
The surface of these PBT keycaps have a medium matte texture, which I personally prefer over extremely rough or smooth finishes. Right in that Goldilocks Zone. They’re not slick, so your fingers won’t easily slide, but the texture is subdued enough so as to not have that “sandpaper-like” quality of more aggressively textured keysets. The F and J keys also have homing bumps that make it easy to position your fingers on the home row by feel.
The keycap thickness is listed in the specs as 1.5mm. Measuring with my trusty caliper I found that 1.5mm claim to be fairly accurate. There’s some variance, meaning the keycaps can be slightly thicker or thinner depending on where you measure, but they generally average out to be 1.5mm thick.
In comparison, the stock Magicforce 68 keycaps are much thinner. They tallied in at just under 1mm. That’s about as thin as they come. The extra thickness and density difference of the upgraded PBT vs stock ABS results in a lower-pitched, less harsh sound when bottoming out.
I find the typing sounds of these PBT replacements on the Magicforce mechanical keyboard are subjectively more pleasant and satisfying than the stock ABS keyset. The photo below compares one of the stock ABS keycaps (left) with a replacement PBT keycap (right).
Conclusion On Cheap PBT Keycaps
The specific side-printed PBT set I purchased contains 87 keys in total (enough for a TKL or smaller keyboard), but they also come in sets with the correct amount of keycaps for full size or 60% layouts. They are surprisingly cheap for a decent set of real PBT keycaps. The keycaps look attractive and fit perfectly over MX-type switch stems with a snug, but not overly tight fit. They generally just look good and feel well made.
The overall quality was much better than I expected for the price and I’m more than happy with the final result. Highly recommended if you’re looking to upgrade your keyboard’s subpar stock keycaps without spending a lot of green.