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.
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.
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.