Mechanical keyboards have enjoyed something of a renaissance recently. Much of that revival can be attributed to Cherry’s MX mechanical key switches, which have cropped up in all manners of clicky gaming keyboards—as well as more austere offerings designed for hardcore typists.
The Cherry MX switches aren’t the only mechanical ones around, though. For many years, discerning users with ample budgets have splurged on Topre keyboards—high-priced, made-in-Japan offerings that feature a unique type of mechanical key switch made up of metal springs and rubber domes. Where most Cherry MX-based keyboards rarely venture far from the $100 mark, Topre offerings cost upward of $230.
Correction: they used to cost upward of $230.
Earlier this year, Topre introduced the Type Heaven, a keyboard that brings the firm’s unique spring-and-rubber switches to a no-frills package with a less terrifying price tag. Right now, you can find the Type Heaven on sale for $150 at Amazon—not a huge step up from, say, the Cherry MX-based Das Keyboard Model S, which sells for $139.
Topre had to cut a few corners to reach the lower price point, of course. The Type Heaven is manufactured in China rather than Japan, and it lacks some of the bells and whistles of its pricier brethren, such as distributed key switch weighting and the ability to re-map keys with hardware DIP switches. Also, the Type Heaven’s key caps are made of a different type of plastic, and they’re laser etched rather than printed using more durable dye sublimination.
Those sacrifices are small, though, and they’ve helped to make the Type Heaven an interesting—and competitive—alternative to high-end Cherry MX keyboards. The folks at EliteKeyboards.com were kind enough to send us one to test, and I’ve spent the past little while banging away on it.
Rubber domes with a twist
Before we talk more about the Type Heaven, we should first explain what makes it special: those fancy Topre switches. The proper term for them is “electrostatic capacitive switches,” and their operation is different from that of other mechanical switches like the Cherry MX series or even IBM’s buckling springs.
According to Topre’s original patent application, the electrostatic capacitive switch design combines a conical spring with a rubber dome, and it’s actuated capacitively, without requiring the physical coupling of internal parts. What this means is that, when a key is depressed, the top end of the spring is pushed toward an electrode at the bottom until the capacitance reaches a certain threshold. At that threshold, the switch is actuated, and the rubber dome generates a “snap feeling” that gives the user some tactile feedback. The switch can then be pushed farther down until it bottoms out, or it can be allowed to spring back up to its resting position.
The patent application outlines an interesting rationale behind the design. It explains that conventional key switches need to be depressed “halfway down” to reach the actuation point. As a result, users may be inclined to bottom out in order to ensure that the switch is properly actuated. Over time, the patent application goes on to say, repeated impacts from bottoming-out can result in “inflammation of the tendon sheath.” The patent calls such inflammation an “occupational disease” that provokes “social concern.”
Topre’s design purports to address this problem by putting the actuation point only 1-2 mm below the key’s resting position—and by generating that aforementioned “snap feeling” to inform the user of a successful actuation. In theory, then, the user should have less of an incentive to bottom out, since he or she will need to push down only a small part of the way to actuate the switch and trigger the tactile bump. If Topre is to be believed, this should lead to less tendon sheath inflammation (and, I suppose, less social concern). More to the point, less bottoming out should mean less fatigue.
Topre filed its patent application way back in 1984, when IBM’s buckling springs ruled the land. Big Blue’s patent application indeed shows that buckling springs must be pushed down about half-way to be actuated. What of the Cherry MX switches that populate more modern mechanical keyboards? They aren’t entirely dissimilar, as it turns out. This PDF on the Cherry website shows the pressure point ergonomic (brown) and linear (red and black) MX switches actuate at 2 mm out of a 4-mm travel distance. The pressure point click (a.k.a. blue) MX switch actuates at 2.25 mm out of 4 mm—even farther than the half-way point.
Neither the Topre patent nor the company’s website quotes the exact actuation point for Topre switches. However, according to my measurements, the Type Heaven’s keys actuate at roughly 1.5 mm, and they bottom out just after 4 mm. Actuation requires 45 g of force, which is the same as for Cherry’s MX brown switches.
The Topres have another thing in common with the Cherry MX browns: both switch types provide tactile feedback without generating an audible click upon actuation. Discounting the different internal structures and different actuation points, these two switches—the Topres and Cherry browns—seem pretty comparable on paper. As we’re about to see, though, they feel quite different.
Now, if you’ve ever used laptop-style keyboards with scissor switches or cheap desktop keyboards with rubber domes, you may be aware that those, like the Topres, require very little travel to actuate. However, because they also have a short travel distance, those switches bottom out very easily. That’s precisely what Topre switches are designed to prevent. Rubber domes aggravate the problem with muddy response and a bouncy bottom-out point, which may encourage some users to push down even harder.
In short, Topre really may be on to something here, if the theory matches the reality. Let’s find out if that’s the case now.
Hands-on with the Type Heaven
I’ve used many mechanical key switches over the years—buckling spring, Cherry MX, Alps, you name it. I’ve also typed on plenty of rubber dome and scissor-switch keyboards. The Type Heaven doesn’t really feel like anything I’ve used before.
Its action has much of the rigidity and precision of conventional mechanical switches, but it also has an unusual softness and quietness, no doubt because of the rubber domes covering the springs. The feeling is hard to describe. There’s something stealthy and classy about it, though. The soft, muffled ka-chunk the keys make when they bottom out, the matte, slightly rough finish of the key caps, and the fact that this thing weighs just over three pounds—it all comes together to make the Type Heaven feel like a decidedly premium product. That’s despite the fact that the Type Heaven is Topre’s most affordable keyboard.
For a more meaningful comparison, I whipped out the version of Rosewill’s RK-9000 keyboard based on Cherry MX brown switches. That keyboard is currently available at Newegg for $84.99. As I mentioned earlier, the Cherry MX browns resemble the Topres on paper. They, too, have a 45 g actuation force, a total travel distance of around 4 mm, and a tactile bump without a corresponding click upon actuation.
In practice, that’s about as far as the similarities go. The Cherry MX browns are grittier, snappier, less cushioned, and quite a bit louder. Despite the identical actuation force, the browns feel like they need to be pushed harder to actuate than the Topres. That could be because one needs to push about a half-millimeter farther to reach the actuation point. What really bothers me most about the Cherry MX browns, though, is that gritty feeling around the tactile bump. It’s a bit like there are little grains of sand trapped inside the switch mechanism; you can feel the grittiness in your knuckles as you type, and it can get annoying.
The Topres, by contrast, are totally smooth—but their tactile bump is much less distinct, so it’s harder to know for sure if you’ve actuated a key switch properly. I suppose that’s a downside of the rubber domes. There’s also a little bit more cushioning when you bottom out. The RK-9000 has a sharp bottom-out point that’s quite loud, and so do most other mechanical keyboards I’ve tried. The Topres, by comparison, bottom out very softly and very quietly. The bottom-out point is nowhere near as soft as on cheap rubber-dome keyboards, though.
While we’re on the subject of bottoming out: despite what Topre’s patent application suggests, one does tend to bottom out on these Topre switches. It’s possible to type by skimming across the keys, but the muddiness of the tactile bump makes it difficult. What does happen, though, is that I find myself pushing down slightly less and not feeling as hard an impact when I reach the bottom-out point. That makes the Type Heaven feel more comfortable than the Rosewill with the Cherry MX browns overall.
The Type Heaven also feels like it has taller, wider keys with more travel distance than the Rosewill RK-9000. In reality, the key caps are the same height and a little narrower at the top. The feeling of width probably comes from the rougher, grippier finish of the Type Heaven’s caps, which did a better job of keeping my slightly sweaty fingertips from sliding around. As for the mistaken feeling of height, I assume that’s a combination of the higher actuation point and the fact that the frame of the keyboard sits lower in relation to the key caps.
Mistaken or not, these impressions are important. The Rosewill RK-9000 feels flatter and more precise, but also more cheaply made and, at times, annoyingly gritty. It’s loud, too. The Type Heaven is quieter, and it feels smoother, better made, and more comfortable to type on. Yet it lacks some of the precision of more conventional mechanical switches like the Cherry MX browns.
Before moving on, I should say a few words about gaming. The Type Heaven may be marketed more as a typist’s keyboard than a pro gamer accessory, but it’s perfectly capable in games. In fact, I think it feels better in games than the RK-9000 with the Cherry MX browns, because the actuation point is closer to the top, and the response curve is simpler, with a tactile bump that corresponds more closely to the actuation. As you can see in this graph, the Cherry MX browns actuate a ways after the bump, and there’s kind of a dead zone in between. The response curve graph on Topre’s website shows a much more linear curve without comparable tomfoolery. The only downside of the Topres is that the tactile feedback is very subtle, so accidental key presses may be more likely to occur. That may not be a downside depending on how you look at it, though. Some gamers seem to love Cherry’s MX red and black switches, which have a completely linear response without the faintest trace of a tactile bump.
Oh, and the Type Heaven has six-key rollover. I tested that feature on this website, and it does seem to work. Any combination of six keys can be pressed and registered simultaneously. Hardcore gamers may hold out for a keyboard with n-key rollover (where all keys can be pressed and registered simultaneously), but six keys should be plenty for the rest of us.
I can come up with some very vivid prose to describe the noise of mechanical keyboards, but nothing beats actual audio recordings. Here’s a couple: one for the Type Heaven and another for Rosewill’s RK-9000BR, which features Cherry MX brown switches. You can switch between the two by clicking the buttons under the embedded YouTube video.
The recordings are of me pressing a single key three times, then typing “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” once at my usual typing speed.
I’ve said it, and the recordings confirm it: the Type Heaven’s Topre switches have a much quieter, softer sound than the Cherry MX browns. In fact, most of the Type Heaven’s noise is from key cap chatter, not the switches themselves. The Rosewill keyboard couples key cap chatter and switch noise, and there’s a sharp clacking sound at the bottom-out point. (It is possible to dampen the Cherry switches by ordering and installing o-rings, but I haven’t had a chance to try those yet.)
If you’ve been holding off on using a mechanical keyboard due to noise concerns, the Type Heaven could definitely be an option worth considering. My only gripe with it is that some of the function keys, including left and right shift, tab, and backspace, make a louder snapping sound than the other keys when they spring up. The difference isn’t huge, though, and it’s hardly a deal-breaker.
We’ll render our final verdict in a minute, but first, let’s take a quick run through the Type Heaven’s other features and peculiarities. This is, after all, more than a mere repository for exotic key switches.
You may have noticed that the USB cable comes out the right side of the keyboard. The cable actually starts in the middle and runs through a little gutter with snaps to keep it in place. The gutter goes both ways, so if you like, you can route the cable so that it comes out the left side. For what it’s worth, having the cable on the right didn’t disrupt my mouse movements.
The Type Heaven also has the requisite feet on the bottom to angle it up. I don’t think people are supposed to do that, though. Typing with your wrists at too steep an angle is a surefire way to contract some manner of RSI. Or, you know, to inflame your tendon sheath or whatever.
What else? Well, the cable measures 1.5 m, or 4.9 feet, which is plenty long. The num, caps, and scroll lock indicators have little green LEDs that won’t blind you if you look directly at them. Also, the rubber pads on the bottom of the keyboard do a good job of keeping the thing anchored. The left side actually slid around a little more than the right out of the box, but grabbing the plastic casing and twisting it slightly fixed the problem. Now, relocating the keyboard to accommodate my typing position takes a fair bit of effort—as it should.
I’ve faced a bit of a conundrum these past few years.
I used to type on one of those gray-label, made-by-IBM Model Ms. I still think it’s the finest clicky keyboard around. However, I now live in a tiny apartment with someone whose sleep schedule doesn’t always match mine. The Model M is too loud for this arrangement, and Cherry MX keyboards aren’t that much quieter. Even if they were, I still don’t think they feel nearly as good as the Model M.
So, for the past few years, I’ve been typing on a scissor-switch keyboard. I’m not crazy about it, but it feels fine, makes almost no noise, and gets the job done.
This is all a very long-winded way to say that, as of now, I’ve switched to the Type Heaven as my daily driver. This isn’t just the quietest mechanical keyboard I’ve had a chance to use; it also exudes quality and comfort. Something about those electrostatic capacitive switches is just downright satisfying—perhaps not as satisfying as the Model M’s buckling springs, but definitely more satisfying than Cherry’s MX switches. And somehow, that curved back and those rough, lighter-than-black key caps just look good, like an expensive 1970s calculator or something off an old SGI workstation.
Yeah, the Type Heaven is really growing on me.
Now, that’s not to say this thing is perfect. The high actuation point and soft tactile bump occasionally conspire to induce typos, although that’s getting better the more accustomed I am to this keyboard. Also, I sometimes miss the nimbleness of scissor switches. Still, the Type Heaven is fast and accurate when used properly. I measured my typing speed on TypingTest.com the other day, and I managed 129 words per minute with just one error. I don’t recall doing much better with the scissor switches.
The Type Heaven’s only other downside is its price. $150 might not be outlandish in the world of mechanical keyboards, but it’s pretty steep in absolute terms. Heck, even those Rosewill RK-9000s can be had for as little as $74.99. It may be hard to justify spending literally twice as much for something that’s not hugely different—and lacks common premium features like media buttons, macro keys, backlighting, and USB and audio ports.
You know what, though? If you want a serious typist’s keyboard that’s quiet, comfortable, and pleasing to the eye, then the Type Heaven is worth the money. Personal preferences always prevail in these matters, of course, and your tastes might not match mine. Even so, I think you’d do yourself a disservice not to at least consider this thing.