New Keycaps for My Keyboard

About a year ago I bought a Razer Blackwidow Ultimate 2016 from BestBuy to replace my Microsoft Comfort Curve 2000 keyboard that I had used for the better part of a decade. It took me a while to get used to it and I darn near returned it, because of the growing pains I was feeling due to the difference in key spacing between the two keyboards, but eventually I ended up liking the Blackwidow Ultimate. However, as with anything there were a few things about it that bothered me.

Most importantly, I knew that eventually the rubber paint would wear off the stock keycaps, just like they did for this person, leaving me with a mess long before the key switches themselves gave up the gusto. Then there were the secondary legends on the keys that were not backlit, which made them hard to read. And finally, with the other two cool looking Commodore keyboards I have at my desk (a VIC20 with PET keycaps and a C64c with white keycaps), my Razer looked boring and uninspired in plain black. I wanted something for my main PC that looked as interesting as those old machines, but I didn’t want to go crazy and spend hundreds of dollars on a custom mechanical keyboard, so I did the next best thing: I bought some aftermarket double shot PBT keycaps for my existing keyboard.

My Choice
There were several options and I came close to getting the all grey version, but in the end I went with the white/green combination, because it matches the green backlight of the keyboard and it’s semi-retro looking. Grey and green would have been ideal, but the white is nice too. I would have preferred spherical (SA) key tops, but I wasn’t able to find a set that has the correct sized keys for this model of keyboard. Too bad, because that shape is really what makes keycaps look retro and feel awesome, but these are nice too.

Packaging / Purchasing
This was my first time buying anything on Ali Express and it proved to be painless and simple. Shipping to Canada was waaaay faster than I had imagined it would be; I ordered on Nov 8th and the package arrived in Canada on Nov 15th. Unfortunately it took Canada Post two weeks to move the package from BC to my PO Box in Ontario. The packaging is excellent: A simple card board box with two layers of plastic sheets full of sockets for each keycap, plus lids for each of the sheets. This is enough to protect against normal shipping abuse and it was also a handy place to store my original keycaps.

Build Quality
When compared to the Commodore 64C and the PET keycaps on my VIC20, these new PBT keycaps are kind of crap. That’s just how good they used to make keycaps! However, when compared to the stock Razer keycaps, these thicker, more durable plastic PBT keycaps make the ones provided by Razer feel like cheap junk. That said, they must not be tested for consistency when transmitting light through the legends, as some can only be described as unacceptable. Flat out “bad” in the case of the Print Screen button, though I suppose it doesn’t help that the LED is at the top of the switch and the light needs to travel through the translucent key post to reach the bottom row of letters on the key. Overall, they are very good for the price (I paid $29 CAD).

Pros
– Clean, clear traditional font and legends on the letter keys. The secondary characters are backlit, unlike the original Razer keycaps.
– Matte finish and texture looks and feels nice (especially compared to the slimy texture of the stock Razer keycaps).
– Looks fantastic!
– Doubleshot legends made from PBT plastic mean that the legends will not wear off. This is a big plus, given that the paint wears off the stock caps, leaving blobs of color where the legends used to be.

Cons
– Thicker plastic catches on the front of the metal stablizer of the backspace key, making it bind/jam and not trigger a key press. Update: I fixed this by using a sharp carpet knife to shave a very small amount of plastic off the inside-front of the key (hold the blade perpendicular to the surface and scrape back and forth gently).
– Legend on some keys do not shine through properply, most notably on the green keys (CapsLock, Shift, Enter, Windows Right Click, Alt, B, F6, F8, Prnt Sc, Scr Lk, Pau BK, Num Lk, Numpad /, Numpad *, Numpad -).
– No Media Key legends (this is a key set that is specific to the Razer keyboards, so it would have been nice if they were there).
– Second Windows key rather than a FN key.
– Macro keys have a smiley face *-* legend. Not an issue for me, as my Blackwidow doesn’t have them, but I’d venture a guess that many folks would prefer a blank cap or an M1, M2, etc legend.

Rubber O-Rings
– They successfully remove the “clack” sound of the keycap hitting the the switch when “bottoming out” the key.
– Easy, yet time consuming to install.
– Does not appear to effect the back lighting.
– Kit was good for $11 CAD, but the packaging seems a little overboard/wasteful.

Unboxing and Typing Comparison Video

Wave form comparison between the original keycaps without o-rings and the new keycaps with o-rings.

Picture Slideshow Video

Upgrade Process
All together, it took me about three hours to complete the process (breaks and documentation included). I used the wire style keycap puller that came with the keycaps to remove the caps, rather than the circle style puller that came with the o-rings, because it was a bit easier to put around the keys and it felt more stable. The most difficult part of the process was putting the stabilized keys back on the board, especially the plus sign on the numpad – that bugger just did NOT want to fit on the switch stem! The other difficult aspect of the stabilized keys came from having to remove and re-seat the two guide do-dads on each keycap.

The black part in the middle and on the top left, along with the wire are used to stabilize the longer keys.

To get those pieces out, I slowly and carefully slid a thin flat head screw driver between the top of the key post and the bottom of the black piece and turned the screw driver slowly. This popped the part loose enough to pull it out by putting my finger nails under the circular bottom plate of the black do-dad. I had to remove the glue residue (with my finger nails) from the black do-dads before they would fit into the key posts of the new keycaps, but they popped in with a bit of force placed on both sides of the round plate using my thumb nails. Tricky and slow…

Apart from the stabilized keys, cleaning out a Sasquatch worth of hair and putting 105 o-rings on key posts was the majority of the time spent doing “actual work”. Take a look at this,

Hair… so that’s where it went!

I tell ya, it makes me wonder if balding middle aged men should come with a hairnet as a matter of public safety lol… Seriously, that’s a lot of hair and misc gross for only a year of service on my desk. Ah well, it brushed out well enough using a 4″ paint brush and the tiny brush that was included with the o-rings.

While I was under the keycaps, I noticed that my T key had some white junk on it in such a way that it could only have come like that from the factory. Sure enough, when I paid attention to the way that key feels and sounds when being pressed, its “clicker” is indeed not functioning properly. It still clicks a bit, but it feels more like a linear switch than a clicky switch. I’m thinking that this board must have been a factory refurb, even though BestBuy sold it as new stock (which may explain why it has real Cherry MX Blue switches rather than the Razer Green switches found in other 2016 models of this keyboard). Ah well, it works and if ends up bothering me too much I can take the keyboard apart and replace the switch.

Pardon the hairs… The obviously “repaired” switch for my T key.

Final Words
I’m still getting used to the new feeling of the keys. They feel pretty weird with the o-rings after a year of using them without and I am not 100% sure I like it. I can feel myself bottoming out harder than I need to, especially now that the travel distance is shorter. Hopefully I will get used to pressing the keys down only to the actuation point, rather than all the way down – something I definitely did not master after moving from the rubber dome Comfort Curve to this mechanical Blackwidow Ultimate. All in good time, I guess! One thing that I really like about these new keycaps is how their texture makes the keys feel slightly on the rough side of normal, which feels neat (and matches the texture of the chassis). Overall, I think I made a good choice. Here’s hoping the whole unit lasts a long time!

Yes, I did put the O and the P in the wrong order at first. Hey man, I was just going row by row based on what was in the package (see the slideshow video for proof!) Someone in China messed that one up for me! 🙂