WASD’s Code keyboard with Cherry MX clear switches reviewed

For the past little while, Cherry’s MX clear key switch has been my white whale—not because it can use echolocation to find breathing holes under sea ice, but because I keep meaning to try it out, and it’s weirdly hard to come by. Like, unreasonably so. Even when keyboards based on it show up in online listings, they have a strange propensity for being out of stock.

Thankfully, WASD Keyboards, one of the few companies to offer this switch in North America, recently sent me one of its Code keyboards with Cherry MX clears. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks testing out these exotic switches. I’ve also spent some time getting acquainted with the Code keyboard itself, which is an excellent and well thought-out piece of hardware.

The Code keyboard is available in both full-sized and tenkeyless models. Pictured above is the tenkeyless variant I tested. While I’m an Excel junkie, I like tenkeyless keyboards for one simple reason: they leave more room for right-handed mousing. The extra space makes day-to-day PC use more comfortable, and it’s less likely to aggravate my RSI-induced shoulder problems. (Turns out sitting in front of a computer all day, every day is bad for you. Who knew?) The downside is that, obviously, keying in numbers and entering special characters is a little harder.

Tenkeyless-ness aside, the most immediately obvious feature of the Code keyboard is its build quality. The Code feels dense and sturdy, with a thick frame and a smudge-proof textured finish. I’ve used plenty of Cherry MX-based keyboards over the years, and aside from Corsair’s aluminum-clad Vengeance offerings, this is easily the toughest of the bunch.

The Code keyboard also happens to be LED-backlit. There are seven brightness levels, from dim to blindingly bright. Only one color, white, is on the menu, but that’s probably okay. This thing is geared toward programmers and serious typists. Those types of folks don’t strike me as ones who would willingly let their input peripherals engage in any kind of technicolor nonsense.

(Speaking of backlighting, the Code keyboard strays from the tenkeyless norm by featuring toggle lights for Caps Lock and Num Lock. The lights are basically little pin pricks just behind the paging block, but they’re there, and their presence is oftentimes helpful.)

To use the Code keyboard’s backlighting, one must first enable the Fn key. See those DIP switches on the underside of the keyboard? Flipping DIP switch number six turns the Menu key into Fn. The other switches do things like disable the Windows key, switch Ctrl and Caps Lock around, and toggle alternative layouts, including Mac, Dvorak, and Colemak. A full listing of these settings can be found in the official user guide.

Also pictured above: the included key cap extractor, the USB to PS/2 adapter (for full n-key rollover support instead of six-key rollover via USB), and the Micro-USB to USB cable, which can be run through one of five gutters under the keyboard. Those gutters emerge behind the F1 key, behind F7, behind Print Screen, to the left of Esc, and to the right of Pause. That should cover just about any setup imaginable—although I noticed that the cable tends to pop out of those gutters a little too easily when tugged.

Once the Fn key is enabled via the requisite DIP switch, the backlight can be toggled on and off with Fn+F12, and backlight brightness levels can be cycled by hitting Fn+F11 repeatedly. The separate toggle is a nice touch. It means you can turn off the backlight when it’s not needed without losing your preferred brightness level.

The Fn key can also team up with the paging block to control media playback and audio volume. Hitting Fn+Pause mutes all audio, as well. Plenty of other keyboards offer similar shortcuts, but they often rely on the F keys, which can force some pretty unwieldy maneuvers (e.g. Fn+F5 for play/pause on Cooler Master’s NovaTouch TKL). On the Code keyboard, all of these shortcuts can be triggered comfortably with one hand. Nifty.

Anyway, that’s the Code keyboard in a nutshell. Next, let’s talk about those exotic Cherry MX clear key switches.

 

The switches

If you’re familiar with Cherry’s MX brown switches, you’ll understand how the MX clears work. They have a similar response curve, with a tactile “bump” that marks the actuation point and a small dead zone before the return point. Also, like the browns, they don’t produce an audible click upon actuation. That means you get plenty of tactile feedback but quite a bit less noise than with certain other mechanical switches, like the Cherry MX blues and IBM’s old-school buckling springs.

The difference between the Cherry MX browns and clears is simply this: the clears have a more rigid spring driving the mechanism. Where the browns require 45 g of force to actuate, the clears need 65 g. That makes the clears the springiest Cherry MX switches after the Cherry MX greens, which need 80 g to actuate (and which click audibly when actuated).

The extra springiness means the clears require more effort to bottom out (that is, to push down as far as they’ll go) than the browns, which is a good thing in theory. You see, one of the advantages of mechanical keyboards is that keys don’t need to be bottomed out in order for key strokes to register. Because the actuation point is somewhere above the bottom-out point, users can calibrate their typing style to apply only as much pressure as is needed. A touch typist equipped with a good mechanical keyboard may simply skip from key to key without ever pushing down all that hard, thus warding off fatigue.

The other extreme is to bottom out with each key stroke, which is problematic because there’s no limit to the amount of pressure one can apply to reach the bottom-out point. One can therefore type much too hard and get tired very quickly.

The tougher springs in the Cherry MX clears make the aforementioned calibration process easier for the user, since they put up more resistance and make the actuation point more easily discernible. It’s sort of like how flying a plane with a joystick is easier than with a gamepad’s analog stick. The analog stick takes less effort to manipulate, but there’s a big precision tradeoff.

The downside of the tougher springs is that, if you’ve already calibrated your typing style to something with a lighter touch, Cherry’s MX clears can feel a little too tough. Even after several days of using the clears, my fingers were just not happy about the extra workload. Going back to a Cherry MX brown keyboard (or something based on Topre switches) felt like blessed relief. While I did bottom out a little more, I could type faster and with less effort.

Now, I have small, dainty hands, and I’ve been using those other, lighter switches for much longer than the clears. I can totally see how someone else—maybe a larger dude with more muscular mitts—might prefer the clears. Their response is undeniably more distinct, and they can feel more satisfying to type on, almost like old-school buckling springs. Also, they seem to be a little quieter, perhaps because they minimize bottoming out.

Conclusions

The proverbial white whale has surfaced, and it’s not quite the be-all, end-all of mechanical key switches that I expected. For my own use, I’m probably going to go back to something with either Cherry MX brown switches or Topre’s capacitive electrostatic doohickeys. And for a first-time mechanical keyboard buyer, I’d also recommend something less daunting.

That said, the Code keyboard’s appeal is undeniable. If you don’t mind being a little heavy-handed, this is a terrific purchase even at the steep $150 asking price. The build quality is awesome, the Fn key shortcuts are delightfully convenient, and the added flexibility offered by the DIP switches and the cable-routing channels are lovely touches. Even the backlight controls are well thought-out, and the backlighting itself looks surprisingly classy.

My only wish is that WASD Keyboards made one of these things with Cherry MX browns. Then again, the company’s WASD V2 keyboard, which is available with the browns, is almost identical to the Code except for its lack of LED backlighting—and as a touch typist, backlighting is something I can easily live without. Come to think of it, the WASD V2 is probably what I would buy if I had $150 to spend on a keyboard today.

Comments closed
    • MarkD
    • 5 years ago

    Thanks for the review. I ordered the sample key kit from WASD some time ago, and thought the browns were a little too light and the actuation point was still a little hard to discern. Mine arrives tomorrow. If I love it, it goes to work. If I like it, it stays on my home PC, replacing my SIIG Wintouch, which is noisy but otherwise good enough.

    • jrr
    • 5 years ago

    Well written! I particularly like the part where you strung together “they’re there, and their”.

    I have one of these boards and I regularly bottom out on it.. maybe I should go for greens!

    • badpool
    • 5 years ago

    Bought an returned one of these. I agree with the article’s conclusion – terrific build quality, Fn shortcut location, and backlighting. Great (great!) looks.
    Just not very comfortable to type on 🙁

    • Xenolith
    • 5 years ago

    Why so much hate for ESDF people? WHY!

      • anotherengineer
      • 5 years ago

      Would WASD=ESDF on this??
      [url<]https://www.trulyergonomic.com/store/index.php[/url<] edit - after careful review nope, S,F are further down, or a bit more symetrical on ESDF than WASD, which may be an even better arrangement for gaming than WASD hmmmmmmmmmmm

    • anotherengineer
    • 5 years ago

    Finally cherry clear review!!! Thanks.

    Would I be correct in assuming there were no o-rings on your test keyboard Cyril? Cyril, you should let Geoff ‘Iron Man’ Gasior try it out, get a second opinion on the stiffness of those keys.

    Apparently the clear has a bigger bump making the actuation more pronounced than the brown, in addition to the stiffer spring.
    [url<]http://deskthority.net/wiki/Cherry_MX_Clear[/url<] [url<]http://deskthority.net/wiki/Cherry_MX_Brown[/url<] I wish we had a PC store here that had some/any mech keyboard so I could actually feel the force and get a tangible feel for it. My MS sidewinder X4 I find too mushy for me. I'm thinking I should have grabbed one of those clear codes back when the CND $ was on par with the US $ keyboard - $150 Shipping ~ $40 Duty - ??? Exchange - 1.13 ~$215 Tax 13% ~ $28 Be looking at min. $243 here, at that price I wonder if it's worth it?? I can get a Filco w/browns for $140, +10 shipping and no duty or exchange rate, but no backlight or dips either. hhhmmm.

      • Cyril
      • 5 years ago

      [quote<]Would I be correct in assuming there were no o-rings on your test keyboard Cyril?[/quote<] Yep. Considering how seldom I bottomed out, not sure o-rings would be called for.

    • just brew it!
    • 5 years ago

    Took one of my RK-9000 (Cherry blue) ‘boards to the new job last week. Nobody has complained (so far…) about the noise. The o-rings do help quite a bit, since you do still bottom out some of the keys even with the tactile feedback, and it is the bottoming out that generates most of the noise (if you don’t have o-rings).

    I suppose if anyone complains I’ll need to get something with browns (and put o-rings on it).

    • MarkG509
    • 5 years ago

    I think I’ve come full-circle on keyboards. Achy wrists, forearms and even finger-joints now have me splitting my keyboard-time between Cherry MX Browns (Filco, Rosewill and a CM) and light-pressure short-stroke scissor-switches like on a Logitech Illuminated K740. In my closet, I have several real-honest-to-God IBM Model M’s that I just can’t use anymore.

    For me, shorter-stroke and lighter-pressure keyboards cause the least trouble, though I really don’t like them, and find myself switching back to the Browns for as long as I can stand it.

    • UberGerbil
    • 5 years ago

    Props for the Beluga reference.

    • AssBall
    • 5 years ago

    Does WASD have any plans to market basically the same board but with 10 key? That would be something I could get interested in.

      • Cyril
      • 5 years ago

      They sell the Code in both 104- and 87-key variants:

      [url<]http://www.wasdkeyboards.com/index.php/products/code-keyboard.html[/url<]

    • Machupo
    • 5 years ago

    Shame there is no otaku option (without buying a second complete keyset)

      • MadManOriginal
      • 5 years ago

      Otaku with backlights…yeah, it would be kind of cool I guess. WASD is a smallish company who does make custom key caps including blanks. You could try emailing them to see.

    • Ninjitsu
    • 5 years ago

    How do these Cherry switches compare to old buckling springs? I’ve been using the same keyboard since 1998. :/

      • bhtooefr
      • 5 years ago

      The closest you can get to buckling spring in the Cherry line is probably the green switches, but they’re not at all close.

      MX Blue: [url<]http://cdn.overclock.net/8/88/8846736e_785448034edc7cebb9ea660c5f11e288.jpeg[/url<] (for green, move the whole graph up by 20 cN) MX Brown: [url<]http://cdn.overclock.net/f/f6/f63f362e_cde2fb0a2dd06fefcc47ce1ed987f6a8.jpeg[/url<] MX Clear: [url<]http://i.stack.imgur.com/EGBU7.png[/url<] Capacitive buckling spring: [url<]http://geekhack.org/index.php?action=dlattach;topic=63305.0;attach=78250;image[/url<] (you probably use membrane buckling spring, which has a different force curve, but IBM's patent doesn't properly reflect that... but it's still the same basic idea)

    • Tumbleweed
    • 5 years ago

    I’m still digging my CM Storm Quickfire TK (Cherry MX blues), but I like a lot of the features this keyboard has. A version of this keyboard with Cherry MX blues would get my attention, though probably not enough to switch.

    • aspect
    • 5 years ago

    Ergo clears are the way to go. The lighter spring of a brown (45-55g) but significantly more noticeable tactile bump.

    • nicolbolas
    • 5 years ago

    quite funny, I just got my CODE V2 about an hour ago and was just starting to visits sites, and, this pops up =]

    Way better than the Not-Quite-Cherry-Blue-clone that Razer has in their green switches (their 87 key board on sale for $40 was to good to pass up at the time). Far better. Also, find it quite sad that looking through shops local (before ordering the CODE) that not a single ‘gaming keyboard’ (the only mechanical keyboards most of them had TT) that was 87 key was backlit. What do they have against backlighting on 87 key keyboards????

    Been quite fun to mess around with =] I do wish the lowest backlight setting was a bit lighter, but, I find I like far lower levels of brightness than the vast majority of people I know (a long way of saying it is probably just me with this problem)

    • MadManOriginal
    • 5 years ago

    You didn’t mention one thing that is unique afaik to this keyboard, and notable for backlighting fans: the metal key mounting plate is white (painted maybe? I’m too lazy to look it up), although it can be seen in the pictures. This makes for a nice ‘underglow’ effect with the white backlighting. A few pictures in low lighting would be nice to see this effect. Pretty please? 😀

    Also, other than the keypress force, what about the feel of the actuation point? Everything I’ve read indicates that it is not *just* a harder-to-press Brown, but also that the actuation bump is more noticeable. That may partly be a function of the force, if it’s not as easy to smash through the actuation point as easily as Browns, but diagrams of the keyswitch internals make it clear (haha) that the tactile bump is larger. Any thoughts on this?

      • nicolbolas
      • 5 years ago

      taking some keys off of mine, it appears to be painted. (or colored some way that is not technically painting but effectively gets the same result)

        • MadManOriginal
        • 5 years ago

        Powder coating maybe?

      • Cyril
      • 5 years ago

      [quote<]Also, other than the keypress force, what about the feel of the actuation point? Everything I've read indicates that it is not *just* a harder-to-press Brown, but also that the actuation bump is more noticeable.[/quote<] I actually did mention this in the review, though I chalked it up to the tougher springs. Yes, the actuation point is easier to discern.

    • DancinJack
    • 5 years ago

    I’ve been debating getting a Code keyboard with greens. Either that or a WASD v2 with blues.

    I know you guys like them, but I really like blues a lot more than browns. They just don’t have the satisfaction of blues. I also think the bump is much less pronounced in browns, but that may just be in my head because of the click. Either way, I’m a blue dude.

      • nicolbolas
      • 5 years ago

      well I have no experience using browns on a KB I own, this the CODE clear I just got a few hours ago feels a lot better than the like-blue “custom” green swiches razer made that I had before.

      Granted, I like noise to be as low as possible.

      • just brew it!
      • 5 years ago

      You’re not imagining things, the tactile feedback is definitely more pronounced on the blues versus the browns. This is likely because of the extra slider on the stem (inside the switch mechanism). The slider snaps up and down as the key is pressed and released, giving that trademark Cherry blue click *and* a bit of extra tactile feedback.

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