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Burning rubber

The lion's share of the Topre mystique comes from the company's proprietary electrostatic key switches. Instead of using a physical contact like the vast majority of mechanical key switches (and even rubber-dome switches) on the market today, Topre switches rely on capacitance to register a key press. Since no physical contact is necessary to register a key press, Topre switches are in theory more durable and longer-lived than average. Aside from the use of rubber domes underneath each key to serve as the tactile medium, the Topre mechanism actually has little in common with the cheap keyboards available at any office supply store.

In the beginning of my time with Topre's switches, I didn't honestly get the sense that they were anything special. The Realforce R2's switches definitely feel more weighty and tactile than the average membrane switch, but their action still doesn't feel as crisp as the average mechanical clicker. The overall feel is something like a Cherry MX Brown: tactile, but quiet. If you can get that feel for far less money with Cherry switches, however, what's the point of paying for the Topre board?

The special sauce of Realforce boards seem to lie in the variable weights for key blocks that will be pressed by weaker fingers. From what I can gather, the Realforce uses feathery 30-gram switches for the keys the pinky finger is most likely to press, 45-gram switches for those the ring finger is responsible for, and 55-gram switches for those that are most likely to be pressed by the index finger.

That variable weighting really does seem to make a difference to the fatigue of my RSI-ravaged hands. You won't notice any difference from finger to finger during regular typing, and that seems to be the entire point of the Realforce name. Each key just feels "right" under its corresponding finger in the standard touch-typing regime. Topre sells uniformly weighted keyboards, too, for what it's worth, but I think buyers of these boards would be missing out on one of Topre's most unique features if they went for one of those models.

We joked a bit about the claims Topre made regarding the RSI-reducing potential of its rubber mechanism when we reviewed the Type Heaven some time ago, but after typing on the Realforce board for a while, I really do believe there might be something to that claim. Bottoming out the Topre switches feels a little soft and rubbery, but again, that might be the entire point of this switch design. Imagine falling on a trampoline rather than hitting the ground with nothing to slow your fall.

When you're producing tens of thousands of keystrokes in a day, the minor impacts of bottoming out a key might add up to pain and strain. I'm an inveterate bottom-the-key-out typist, so I might be more vulnerable to these kinds of impacts than most. Still, my hands seem to be thanking me for typing on the Realforce more often than not, and that relief might make this board worth its lofty asking price.

Another benefit of the capacitative nature of Topre switches is that they can register a key stroke at different points in a key's travel without any physical change to the underlying switch. Topre calls this feature the Actuation Point Changer, and on boards that have it, the APC feature lets the user select any of three separate actuation points without any physical changes to the keyboard at all.

When I received the Realforce board I'm typing this review on, I was excited to try out that feature, but it turns out there's a wide range of Realforce boards available, and not every one of them has the same set of features that Fujitsu is advertising on its website. I found the Topre official site essential in figuring out just what board I was using to commit characters to the virtual page.

The R2TL-USV-BK model of Realforce R2 I received didn't have the Actuation Point Changer feature, and it also lacks the useful volume-up and volume-down function keys that its fancier counterparts offer. If you want those features in the USA right now,  they only appear to be available on the "PFU Limited Edition" of the Realforce, a fact Fujitsu notes in an easily-overlooked footnote on the dedicated site for these boards but not at all on its own store pages.

It's one thing to be surprised by missing features on a review sample, but I would be much more disappointed had I ordered this board from Fujitsu expecting to get what the company was advertising on its store pages. The Realforce boards are by far some of the most expensive input devices you can buy today, and I think Fujitsu ought to get its story straight about just what models it's selling in the USA rather than copying and pasting the same description across each of its models and expecting its customers to figure out the difference.

To be fair, the company's Amazon store page is much more forthright about these differences, but that forthrightness needs to extend to all of Fujitsu's marketing materials about the Realforce R2 when the company is trying to sell $250-plus keyboards.