It will be to my eternal shame that I never learned to play a musical instrument. It wasn’t for the want of trying. I attempted to learn the violin at the age of seven, but the neighbors mistook my furious scraping of a rosined bow on a catgut for animal cruelty and called the local police, fearing I was strangling kittens. I gave up the violin and swapped it for a guitar but without success. I was a bitter disappointment to my parents and the only instrument I ended up mastering was the keyboard. Not the musical variety but the type you use with a computer.
Perhaps my proficiency with the computer keyboard fired my enthusiasm for collecting keyboards of all types. Whether it’s a mechanical custom keyboard or one of those sexy, low-profile Apple Magic keyboards, I love the things. I’m at my happiest typing away for hours on end as I commit yet another stream of consciousness to my Mac’s hard drive as part of my job writing about technology for Forbes.
I’ve tried out many different keyboards over the years, but they have all been standard, off-the-shelf models. I’ve never commissioned a bespoke keyboard for myself in the same way that a violin virtuoso might commission a hand-built instrument. Well, now that I am approaching the autumn of my life, I thought it was about time that I found out what all the fuss was about by making myself a bespoke keyboard that my typing skills deserve.
Mode Designs is based in Massachusetts and supplies the chassis for people build custom keyboards where every aspect of the design can be bespoke to reflect the user’s personality, preferences and peculiarities. I spoke with Jason Tsay, Mode’s product marketing manager, to find out a bit more about the growing world of custom keyboards and to hear what’s important when designing and building a bespoke keyboard.
Mode makes and sells high-end custom keyboard kits and the company aims to elevate the humble keyboard from the simple commodity that many of us use each day, into something truly personal that can last a lifetime and bring the pleasure of owning such an instrument to a wider audience in much the same way that, say, owning a luxury mechanical watch might offer.
The company’s first models – the Eighty and SixtyFive – have been some of the most talked-about custom keyboards on the market, largely due to their minimalist designs and the premium typing sound and feel that they can produce. Now Mode has launched a brand-new model called the Sonnet. Tsay claims that it will take custom keyboards to a whole new level. Sonnet features a bold new design with curves made from precision-milled 6063 aluminum and paired with a choice of premium materials including finishes like polished stainless steel and brass.
As you’d expect from a true custom product, Mode can supply the Sonnet in a choice of colors to suit the person using it. The top case can be offset with a different colored base. You could, for example, select a somber black finish for the top and contrast it with a grey bottom case to provide a stylish profile. A line of brushed brass or stainless steel can add a hint of restrained luxury that gives the Sonnet a look that stands out on anyone’s desk.
Mode sells its keyboards as kits that its customers can then assemble with their own choice of extras. One of the big pleasures for custom keyboard fans is the process of putting together their bespoke keyboard at home. Part of that pleasure is the assembling of the keyboard’s switches, installation of the keycaps, and adding their own choice of stabilizers and damping materials.
I had some fun designing my custom keyboard using Mode’s configuration tool. Tsay suggested that I inspect a set of deluxe keycaps from GMK, a German manufacturer of high-end keycaps that many see as the gold standard in the industry. The Sonnet doesn’t come with keycaps because that’s another component that enthusiasts like to source themselves.
The GMK WoB (White-on-Black) keycaps that I used on my Sonnet are a double-shot ABS design. Double shot means the keys are made with two separate injections of plastic. The keycap bodies are made with one injection while the contrasting legends on the keycaps are injected separately using, in my case, white plastic. This produces an ultra-sharp legend that’s much more robust than regular screen-printed keycaps, and the double shot legends won’t wear off. The keycaps I chose had a unique sound profile that only comes with high-quality ABS plastic. Once you’ve typed with high-quality keycaps, you’re unlikely to want to go back to using a budget keyboard.
Like the keycaps, the switches I used on my Sonnet keyboard aren’t included but one of the types of switches that Mode sells is the Reflex linear switch. A linear switch doesn’t have a click or slight resistance halfway down as you press the key. For a more tactile feel, Mode sells its own Signal switches. The switches sit under the keycaps and register the key presses.
Reflex manufactures its switches with a light application of oil to make the action smooth. However, many enthusiasts like to take the extra step of hand-lubricating each switch with a special lubricant, such as Krytox 205g0. Extra lubrication enhances the feel and sound of the switches. While some people prefer a near-silent switch, other people love the clicky sound of different switch styles and enthusiasts are forever in pursuit of that perfect sound.
Another important component in a bespoke keyboard is the stabilizers used on the larger and longer keycaps, such as the left shift, backspace, enter and spacebar. Like the keycaps and switches, most enthusiasts like to source their own choice of stabilizers. I had Durock V2 stabilizers which were lubricated with Krytox 205g0. Unlubricated stock stabilizers can produce a rattle that’s caused by the dry metal wire hitting the plastic housings. The absence of the rattle is certainly something you notice when typing on a premium custom keyboard with lubed stabilizers. The difference must be a bit like moving from a cheap Chinese violin to a Stradivarius.
The keyboard switches in the Sonnet are installed by the user on an aluminum plate and then soldered directly onto the printed circuit board inside the keyboard. This will vary depending on the keyboard layout. Mode also offers a hot-swappable circuit board option so users can build their keyboard with one type of switch and then change out for another type, without needing to wield a soldering iron.
The Sonnet keyboard can also accept an optional sheet of foam that goes under the switches alongside an optional silicone dampener that’s can cover the keyboard’s bottom case. These components can make all the difference to a great custom keyboard and produce a beautifully dampened sound profile that makes it possible to use a mechanical keyboard in an open office environment without driving everyone else crazy. It’s also so much less fatiguing to type on for long periods.
I was able to try out my custom Sonnet to see how a bespoke keyboard feels like to type on for a long period. At this point, it’s worth noting that bespoke keyboards can look, feel and sound completely different from each other depending on the components used. Some people prefer less insulation and noisier switches because they love the sound of a louder mechanical keyboard. Others prefer the feedback of mechanical switches but dislike the noisier types. A simple swap out to a near-silent linear red switch can cure that problem and yet still provide that gorgeous feel that increasing numbers of people love when using a mechanical keyboard.
The great advantage of building a custom keyboard is how it can reflect the user’s preferences down to the tiniest of details. A well-dampened custom keyboard feels incredibly solid and their heft means they won’t slip or slide around on the desk. A well-specced keyboard will ooze quality and they are incredibly satisfying to use. The keycaps can be almost any color you desire and because the industry has adopted the Cherry MX standard, the switches and keycaps are largely interchangeable. The GMO keycaps I chose featured sculpted J and F keys so touch typists can locate the home keys easily. The razor-sharp legends made it much easier for non-touch typists like me to locate those occasional characters that we can’t place.
In my opinion, a well-built mechanical keyboard can boost your typing speeds considerably because, unlike the cheaper membrane models, mechanical switches aren’t spongey and they speed up typing while being more accurate thanks to their tactile feedback. This results in far fewer typos and can speed things up considerably because you spend less time backspacing to correct typos.
Many of us use a range of operating systems and although most of these keyboards are laid out for Windows users, it’s possible to switch the keycaps to reflect any language, layout or operating system. What’s more, the Sonnet can have its keys remapped across four layers and that enables access to extended keys or specific media functions.
Verdict: The Sonnet keyboard I tried is a beautiful piece of engineering. The construction and materials are second to none. Anyone who wants to build their own keyboard will have an instrument that can last a lifetime, providing a satisfying typing experience that improves something many of us do for hours on end every working day. When you consider how much time we spend typing, it’s remarkable how little attention many people pay to their main working tool. If you’re a coder, a writer, a gamer or a creative, a bespoke keyboard like Mode’s Sonnet is a no-brainer. I like the fact that the Mode Sonnet doesn’t have any flashy and multicolored LEDs or other unnecessary gimmicks. The Sonnet is a rock-solid keyboard that can be as bespoke as you. Custom keyboard fans will love building a Sonnet, but those of us who write for a living each day will love typing on a bespoke keyboard that reflects their personality and working preferences.
Pricing & Availability: The Sonnet is available for pre-order from modedesigns.com now. Pricing starts at $299 and fulfillment is expected to begin in October 2022.
More info: modedesigns.com
- Precision-milled metal chassis with bead-blasted surfaces.
- Premium materials and finishes.
- Bespoke color and material combinations.
- Engineered sound signature and typing feel.
- Choice of seven switch plate materials, two mounting styles, plus optional
- internal dampening.
- Compact 75% form factor with function row and arrow keys.
- Hot-swap and solder PCB options.
- Compatible with all MX-style switches and keycaps.
- Native macOS, Windows, Linux support.
- Ergonomic 5.5-degree typing angle and low 19mm front height.
- Weight: 3 – 7.5lbs.