Today a new keyboard aimed at power users crossed my desk – the KeyedUpLabs ES-87. This is a designed-in-the-US, made-in-Taiwan keyboard with mechanical keyswitches and a smaller-than-standard 364mm-wide layout, usually referred to as “Tenkeyless”.
Our office has been outfitted with mechanical keyboards since DasKeyboard came out with their IBM “Model M”-inspired board 7 years ago, and we’ve never looked back, because you can tell if people are actually working by the noise they make, and they just feel so much better to type on. If you are not up to speed on mechanical keyboards, they use spring-loaded switches for their keys instead of a rubber dome sandwich to achieve better springiness and auditory feedback.
What’s special about the ES-87, and why would you pay over AUD $150 for just a keyboard that’s not even got a full set of keys? Read on to find out.
The ES-87 comes in a plain black carton, similar to those used by Ducky, and has a clear english label identifying which switch type is in the box – it’ll fit into a 3Kg courier satchel.
This particular one has Cherry MX Brown switches, which are tactile-feeling switches 1 step-down from the noisiest Blue switches – there’s a useful primer here if you want to impress people with your knowledge of the Cherry colour-coding scheme.
It’s made in Taiwan, which the keyboard purists believe to be the preferred country of manufacturing origin. Some keyboard brands, such as Das and Razer, have moved their production to mainland China factories in recent years, to mixed reception from enthusiasts. Some just re-label another OEM’s board – not the KUL guys – they designed the whole thing around the Cherry switches. Filco is another brand that’s still made in Taiwan.
Accessories included are a clear keyboard cover, detachable 2m USB->Mini USB cable, PS/2 adapter, a keypuller and set of alternate keys (Caps, CTRL, ESC, Backspace, and Backslash), a KUL sticker, and a manual.
Spare keys – what’s up with that?
The alternative keys are there to give you some flexibility in the layout – the left CTRL installed is a medium-narrow key, the replacement is a wide one. The ESC installed has a LED light, the replacement does not. The Caps Lock installed is a wide key, the replacement is a medium-narrow one. The Backspace key installed is wide, the replacement is medium-narrow. The Backslash key installed is narrower than the replacement.
These keys can actually be removed to occupy different pre-defined positions on the board, eg: Moving switch 4 lets you swap Backspace with Backslash, moving switch 2 lets you swap Left CTRL with Caps lock, and you still get a LED to tell you CAPS are on in either location – see the pic for the full list.
This ‘board is aimed at people who might operate with a variety of O/Ses, not just Windows, so they would probably have a preference to use keys in different locations to the bog-standard Windows layout. MacOS is catered for explicitly with Dipswitch 1, so there’s a diamond-symbol-key that’s a Windows key in Windows-mode, and an Option-key in Mac mode, for example.
A handy label underneath tells you what the dipswitches do, in case you toss the manual with the box. They clearly expect customers to go on warranty-voiding journeys inside the ‘board, as they warn you that there’s no screws under the dipswitch label – there are three screws holding it together, one under the circular label above. There’s some pretty good cleaning instructions included, so you should be able to clean the cruft, animal hair, and other non-liquid spooge from this easily enough by removing the keycaps and using a vacuum or air blower.
Media key functionality:
If your O/S of choice provides built-in media-playback functions, the ES-87 will let you control them, without requiring any software installation (I have an old Logitech keyboard here that had drivers for its proprietary function keys on a floppy disk – good luck finding a PC with a floppy drive in it these days).
There’s a function key to the right of the spacebar that you hold down whilst tapping F7 to F12 to activate Previous, Play/Pause, Next, Mute/Unmute, Volume Down, and Volume Up functions in that order – the functions are printed on the front wall of the keys, so you won’t need the manual handy to use them.
The function key has another trick up it’s sleeve – when used in combination the Diamond key, it activates a “Power Mode” that combines two keypresses into one for each Diamond key – pressing left Diamond gives you Left CTRL and Left Shift, and pressing right Diamond gives you Right ALT and Right CTRL.
Windows users can use Power Mode-combined keys to change keyboard input languages, bring up the Task Manager, run a program as Administrator, create new folders in combination with other keys, and so on – there’s an exhaustive list here. This mode stays in play until you do the Function key combo to deactivate it, so if you find yourself pressing these two key sets together frequently, it’ll save you some finger work to combine them to the Diamond key. For example, bringing up the Task Manager requires two hands by default (CTRL and Shift on the left hand, ESC with the right hand. You can do this with just the thumb and index finger of your left hand using Power Mode, as it’ll be similar to Alt-Tabbing.
The ES-87 has a detachable 2m cable with USB Male-A on one end, and Mini-USB on the other – these days that’s a pretty-old-school plug, but I guess they used it as the board only needs USB1.1 speed, the plug is less likely to fall out, and the Mini-USB plug’s hat-shape makes it much easier to tell which way is the right-way-up as you plug it in, compared to Micro-USB’s almost-but-not-quite-symmetrical appearance. You could replace it with a longer or shorter cable easily enough. There’s cable-routing channels in the back of the board to allow the cable to exit to either side of the board, as well as from the centre.
A PS/2 adapter is also provided, in case you’ve got a PC that’s from the pre-Y2K era – keep in mind that unlike USB, you can’t expect a PS/2 ‘board to work if you plug it in whilst the PC is running. PS/2 by design accepts an unlimited amount of simultaneous keypresses (often referred to as “N-Key Rollover”), whereas PCs with old USB BIOSes might not – the ES-87 caters to this by allowing you to switch between 6-key and unlimited-key rollover via Dipswitch 7 to ensure compatability with old PCs. You can fiddle further with the interface by changing the polling rate from 125hz to 1000hz with Dipswitch 6, although flame-wars amongst the keyboard warriors mostly suggest this is not likely to make a difference you will see.
Lastly, underneath there’s a pair of rubber-shod foot stands that pop out with a very firm click action – there’s no chance they will be flipping back in by accident. Combined with the rest of the solid rubber pads that support it when the stands are retracted, this ‘board is not moving unless you want it to.
What does it feel like:
If you’d been typing on non-mechanical keyboards, it’s a revelation to type on one of these. The additional clicky noise they make for each keypress makes it clear when you have hit the key, and you can type with a much higher impact without causing your fingers to go numb from bottoming-out on the non-springy rubber domes. This particular ES-87 with it’s Cherry MX Brown switches is not as noisy as my regular Filco Blue-switched board, but still feels much nicer than the rubber-domed boards that we have on our packing-bench PCs. ES-87 is available with other colours of switch, such as clear and red, but shortage of stock of the switches themselves from Cherry limits their production.
The ES-87 is narrower than the average ‘board, as people who write code a lot don’t tend to use the number pad as much, and it lets you keep your mouse closer to the main typing action.
The keycaps are ABS plastic, and the letters on them have been laser-etched, so unlike cheap ‘boards, there’s no chance of printed letters being completely worn off, although the keycaps may still wear a little and become shiny over time – my Filco’s keycaps have. You can just feel the letter raised above the plastic. The casing has an understated textured finish that resists fingerprints well – unlike the Das with it’s mirrored shine. It’s also quite rigid and weighty, has no visible gaps in the casing joints, and achieves a premium feel. The four LEDs (ESC, Scroll Lock, Left CTRL, and Caps Lock) are a bright blue colour that you may get to hate if you like to touch-type in the dark.
The current Renaissance for mechanical keyboards has resulted in dozens of brands entering the market with them in the last few years – even memory, case, and mice manufacturers do them now, so what’s good about the ES-87? Simple uncluttered design, no extravagant lighting, basic multimedia control, configurability for people who need to get work done, premium feel, and quality manufacturing are what they are about. If you are a coder who hasn’t yet abandoned rubber-dome keyboards, this one would be a great place to start. If I didn’t already have Filcos and DasKeyboards on my desks here at work, I’d grab one.