Before you get new keycaps, you have to educate yourself a bit on what the differences are. After all, not all keycaps fit all keyboards.
This guide will help you make a choice without going into too many details. It’s divided into 5 parts:
- Keycap material
- Keycap legends
- Key stems
- Keycap profile
- Keycap layout
1. Keycap Material
Keycaps are often made out of either ABS or PBT. PBT is generally preferred over ABS keycaps for its feel and quality. This doesn’t mean that PBT by default is better. It’s rather a combination of preference and rarity.
a. Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)
ABS is the most common used plastic for not only keycaps but also a lot of other plastic components. It’s tough and resistant to breakage. During the manufacturing process, it doesn’t shrink or deform and is more predictable. That’s why it’s often also cheaper and used on all stock keyboard keycaps.
b. Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT)
PBT is harder material that doesn’t wear or yellow as ABS might do over time. It has a bit of a sandier feel, giving it the distinct grippier feel. During the manufacturing process, it is more prone to shrinkage and is less predictable. That’s why it’s not common and more expensive.
2. Keycap Legends
The markings on a keycap or better known as legends are often made by either dye sublimation, laser printing or double-shot.
a. Dye Sublimation
Dye sublimation infuses a shallow layer of ink with the plastic through a heat press process. It’s often used with PBT keycaps because they wear slower than ABS, keeping the ink pristine for a longer time.
b. Laser Printing
A laser burns the legends on the keycap. When it’s used on single-shot ABS or PBT keycaps, it leaves a black charcoal legend.
When it’s used on a single-shot translucent ABS keycap with a black coating, it burns away the black paint. Resulting in backlight shining through the legends. These are the most common keycaps found on gaming keyboards. These type of keycaps tend to be the cheapest.
c. Double-shot injection molding
This is by far the most durable and crisp type of keycaps there are. Double-shot means the keycaps gone through 2 injections. One for the keycap, one for the legend. This also means that the keycaps can only have 2 contrasting colors. These type of keycaps tend to be expensive.
3. Key Stems
When you’re buying keycaps, you have to make sure they can fit your keyboard switch. The part you install a keycap on is a stem. The most common stem is an MX stem. It’s derived from the popular CherryMX switches. Many other (clone) switch manufacturers also use this same MX stem. Such as Kaihl, Greetech and Gateron to name a few.
Other stem types are Alps, Topre and Rubber dome. Latter being something you’d generally want to avoid ;). There’s more of them out there, but you’ll rarely find any keycaps for them.
Keycap stems (Original picture from Ripster55)
4. Keycap Profile
The keycap profile refers to the shape and height of a keycap per row. You might have never noticed before but take a look at the side of your keyboard. It’s not all flat and goes up in steps. There’s a lot of variations on the market but by far the most common is the OEM/Filco profile.
For the OEM/Filco profile, there are 4 different row shapes you can refer to. Each row has a slightly different height and shape. Nearly all the keycaps you find online and keyboards on the market follow these guidelines. It’s useful to know the differences if you have to deal with different languages or want to swap around keycaps. For example, a novalty keycaps for the ESC (a R1 row) will not look great/be very inconsistent if you install it anywhere else than the R1 rows.
Rows & non-standard layout
there is also something referred to as “standard layout”. The standard layout referred to the bottom row (R4). The easiest way you can spot a non-standard layout is by the smaller Meta (windows) key. A standard layout has all these keys equally divided but on a non-standard it varies.
For whatever reason, gaming keyboards often have a non-standard layout. So be sure to double check yours.
5. Keycap layout
There are two layouts, ISO and ANSI. You can recognize an ISO layout by its big flipped L shape Enter key and small shift key on the left. An ANSI layout has a horizontal enter and large shift key on the left. There are some other variations but ISO and ANSI are by the most common.
ISO vs ANSI
I hope this helps you find the right keycaps for you. If you have any doubt or questions, you’re always welcome to contact us.