Anyone who follows my blog (hi mom!) knows that I have been on a multi-year quest to find the perfect keyboard and I talked about it here and here before. Well, the next stage of my quest is upon me and the choice I have made is the Topre Realforce 103UB Black keyboard. This is the model SE02B0 from Elite Keyboards.
I have had the Realforce board for a little over a month and I have been waiting to write this review until I had used it for a while and had the time to form an opinion about it. Then I read a post by Jeff Atwood on Coding Horror and I was inspired to write my review now.
Topre Realforce 103UB
The Topre Realforce 103UB is a solidly constructed board. The 103UB part of the official board name indicates that it has 103 black keys. This is somewhat different than most keyboards used in the U.S. today which have 104 or 105 keys. You will notice right away that the right side Windows key is missing on the Topre Realforce 103UB.
There are many different ways to apply letter/symbol markings to key caps and Topre uses a method that produces a really high-quality marking that never disappears. It uses a dye-sublimation process, which means that the dye (ink) goes from a solid to a gas state without becoming a liquid first in the process. The result is a marking on the key cap that has a molecular bond with the plastic. Even if you scrape off a layer of plastic from the top of a key cap, your will still be able to see the marking of the letter or symbol. One of the first things I did when I got the board was to apply the shake test. There were no loose parts inside and the whole thing felt pretty solid. But after about a week or so I noticed that the rubber grips on the bottom of the board were not as effective as they were when new. That's one area that they need to improve.
The Key Switches
Essentially, the Topre Realforce 103UB uses rubber dome keys. However, that statement needs some qualifications: This is not your rubber dome board that comes free with the latest Dell computer. They are a little better than that. Topre claims that the key switch life cycle is rated to at least 30 million key presses. This is the standard for mechanical boards and it looks pretty good when compared to a meager 1 million key press rating of the cheap rubber dome boards. Some people went as far as putting this claim to the test.
The technical term for the type of switch used on the Topre boards is electrostatic capacitive switch which means that the switch is basically a sensor that can tell the proximity (the capacitive piece) of an electrical charge (the electrostatic piece) to an object. The object in question is the electrode that sits on the printed circuit board. A second electrode, which takes the form of a conical spring, sits on top of the initial electrode on the PCB. Once the key is pressed by the user, the spring is flattened down and this changes the capacitance between the spring and the PCB, therefore registering a key press. Below are a couple of illustrations that help you better understand what is going on:
Topre Realforce key switch
Regular rubber dome key switch
Capacitive sensing such as explained above is normally used in touch screen applications, but Topre is able to make use of it in their keyswitches by changing the mechanics of it a little bit. Another board using these Topre key switches is the Happy Hacking Pro 2 board.
I think that the spring inside the rubber dome makes the key press feel very uniform and smooth. And this is something that the clicky keyboard fanatics will notice: there is no clicky feel to these key switches. Or at least none that I can sense.
The other aspect of the switches that is worth mentioning is that different keys
on the board require different weight pressures in order to register a key
press. This is determined by the position of the keys on the board, where the
keys positioned for the strong fingers (index and middle fingers) need 45
grams of force, while the keys positioned for the weak fingers (ring and pinky
fingers) require 35 grams of force. The
ESC key needs 55 grams of force. I
think that this feature allows the user to keep a light touch accross all keys
on the board.
The price of the Realforce board is a big determining factor as to whether you should get this board or not. But I think that you should not base your purchasing decision on price alone. Here are some facts about this board that you should think about:
- This is not a clicky, tactile board - This is, for all intents and purposes, a rubber dome board. It feels much better than those rubber dome boards that come free with new machines. The key caps of the Realforce feel better than anything I tried to date. But it's not clicky. If you need clicky, this is not the board for you.
- If you are not a touch typist, you will struggle with this board, at least initially. If you look at the keyboard while typing, you will find that it's really hard to see the black symbols on the black keys. If you are trying to improve your touch typing, then this board has the potential of helping you tremendously.
I don't recommend this board to those who are looking for a first mechanical keyboard. You should have at least one or two mechanical boards under your belt before you make the Realforce your main typing tool. At the end of the day, the Realforce is a really solid board that feels great on your fingers (even thought it's not clicky) and I highly recommend it to those who know what they are getting into. To me it was worth every penny of the $245 that I paid for it.