Topre’s Realforce R2 tenkeyless keyboard reviewed

I’m a coffee obsessive, and my passion for the roasted bean has led to a few purchases that could kindly be described as irrational. Among these, I own a Takahiro pouring kettle, widely considered to be the finest of its type by the coffee cognoscenti. Should anybody spend $100 on a kettle that merely holds water for later dispensation on ground coffee? No. Does it make brewing coffee more of a pleasure in the mornings, just by dint of the fact that it is an obsessively crafted object dedicated to one and only one purpose? Yes.

So it might go with Topre’s Realforce keyboards. Few input devices might be spoken of in the same breath as IBM’s eternal Model M, but Topre boards have a similar legendary status, perhaps thanks to the fact they’re both pricey and hard to obtain in the United States. On top of the occasional shipment available through EliteKeyboards, prospective buyers of these unique input devices now have another option. Fujitsu Computer Products of America is bringing Realforce boards and the related family of Happy Hacking products to our shores through its own storefront.

The style of the Realforce R2 board I have on hand is, in a word, understated. Topre uses a deep matte gray primary color for the board and its PBT keycaps, and the legend for each key is dye-sublimated in black. The overall presentation of this board is incredibly stealthy as a result, and the keys might even appear blank to the casual observer. If you’re not a touch typist and need to see those legends, you’ll want to get a Realforce R2 in the contrasty ivory finish, as Topre’s key caps use proprietary stems that are not Cherry MX-compatible. You won’t be able to put a different set of caps on here without getting a pricey custom set made with Topre stems, presuming such a thing exists to begin with.

The underside of the Realforce R2 has left, right, and center-exit routing channels for the permanently-affixed USB Type-A cable. This cable comes sheathed in the standard black rubber, so it’s functional but hardly luxurious. At least this wire is pliant and easy to route, and Topre puts a branded hook-and-loop tie on the cable to keep it tidy when it’s not plugged into a system. Topre also puts the usual pair of flip-out feet on the front edge of this board, although its prominent slope and variable-height key caps already provide a rather more sloped-feeling design than the usual keyboard.

The company also sticks four waffle-textured feet on the bottom of the Realforce, and for some reason, these are the grippiest rubber feet of those on any keyboard I know of. I can usually move mechanical keyboards around with a gentle push, but the Topre board has more staying power than average.

The Realforce isn’t backlit, but that doesn’t mean it lacks RGB LEDs entirely. Using Fn+Insert changes the color of the Num Lock, Caps Lock, Scroll Lock, and Key Lock indicators among seven different possible shades, and pressing Fn+Delete will vary the brightness of those indicators among three different settings.

Unlike other tenkeyless designs I’ve perused, the Topre board features a num-pad layer on some of its right-hand keys. This virtual pad won’t replace a dedicated number-entry block for the hardcore, but for the occasional entry of a price or alt-code combination, this layer is quite handy and finally saves me from having to keep a 104-key board on my desk to rescue me when I need to get deep into some Excel work.

 

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.

 

Conclusions

Topre’s Realforce R2 is the antithesis of the RGB-LED-bedecked gaming-keyboard flavor of the week (though the company will certainly sell you such a keyboard, if you like). This board reminds me of the Toyota Century, a car that needs neither flashy accents nor swoopy lines to tell you that it’s both expensive and special. The straightforward and perhaps even staid lines of the Realforce R2 tell those in the know that it is a serious keyboard for serious typists, and its unique switches back up that impression.

I’m not sure everybody will be a fan of the unique feel of Topre switches, as they are at their root a fancier form of the rubber dome that underpins so many forgettable $10 keyboards. To be sure, these are the finest rubber domes you’ll ever feel, and their action is quite different from the run-of-the-mill membrane that has given the mechanism a bad name.

What I appreciate most about the Realforce is that its variable-weight keys and rubber dome switches really do seem easier on my fingers than a uniformly-weighted board with mechanical key switches would, and I’m eager to see if that difference holds over time. Relief from wrist and finger pain would go a long way toward justifying Fujitsu’s $258 asking price for the Realforce I reviewed.

Fujitsu really needs to get its documentation in order for just what potential Realforce buyers are getting, though, as its store page for the board I received claims that the board has features only available on the “PFU Limited Edition” R2, a different and much more expensive model. That spec mix-up might be acceptable on a cheaper board, but when buyers are lining up to spend more than $250 on a keyboard, the company needs to be crystal-clear about what it’s selling.

Overall, I think the Realforce is a unique and high-quality keyboard with some unique features that aren’t available anywhere else. Whether its stealthy and high-quality build, variable key weights, capacitative switches, and unassuming appearance are worth its asking price are entirely down to how important it is to have a typing icon under your fingers.

Knowing what I now know about how the Realforce feels in operation, I don’t think it’s absurd to ask this much money for a keyboard, but it is absolutely a luxury purchase that demands a test drive to see whether its unique virtues make a difference for your typing experience. Presuming this board clicks for you, however, I think it’s absolutely worth the cost, and it comes TR Recommended.

Comments closed
    • bjm
    • 10 months ago

    As a side node, KeyTronic keyboards had variable weight keys over two decades ago. Similar to the keyboard in this review, their [url=https://keyboards.keytronic.com/home/products/Ergo%20Technology%20graphic.htm<]Ergo Technology[/url<] keys had five different weights, between 35 and 80 grams, placed around the keyboard based on the strength of the finger most likely to activate it, but sold for around $20-$40 MSRP depending on the model. After the Model F and Model M, these KeyTronic keyboards are probably my next favorite keyboard. Sadly, they are no longer produced. As is evident by their website design, their marketing simply did not keep up with the times and they slid away from the mainstream as "just another rubber dome keyboard".

    • anotherengineer
    • 10 months ago

    Both made in Japan, price is fine.

    If people are paying what they are paying for nvidia’s higher end cards, then what’s $250 on a keyboard that will more than likely get more years of use out of it?

    It’s all relative.

    • Krogoth
    • 10 months ago

    Buckling Springs are still #1.

      • CScottG
      • 10 months ago

      ..not to me, the 55 gram version of the Topre is – sort of the keyboard version of “al dente”: buttery in texture with just the right “snap”.

        • BillyBuerger
        • 10 months ago

        I concur. 55g Topre (silenced of course) is my end-game switch. As soon as I can figure out how to get them worked into my custom keyboard designs I’ll be complete.

      • bronek
      • 10 months ago

      … until you have tried Topre 😉

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