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Small form factor mechanical keyboards

12 Apr 2019 - by 'Maurits van der Schee'

Small form factor mechanical keyboards are popular as they are durable, portable, comfortable and exclusive. The 4 small layouts: 80% (TKL), 75%, 65% and 60% have pros and cons that I will discuss. I will also recommend affordable models, one for every layout, so you can try them out without spending a fortune.

NB: This article is based on my own experience and not sponsored in any way.

Keyboard size matters

The common keyboard sizes are: 100%, 80%, 75%, 65% and 60%. The percentage is not related to the sizes of the key: the actual (letter) keys on these keyboards all have the same size. The percentage relates to the number of keys and their different layouts that take up less space. Below you see these different layouts (as geeky ASCII arts):

100% - Regular

[E]   [_][_][_][_] [_][_][_][_] [_][_][_][_] [_][_][_]   *  *  *   

[_][1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][0][_][_][Bac] [I][h][u] [_][_][_][_]
[__][q][w][e][r][t][y][u][i][o][p][_][_][__] [D][e][d] [7][8][9]| |
[___][a][s][d][f][g][h][j][k][l][_][_][____]           [4][5][6]|_|
[Shif][z][x][c][v][b][n][m][_][_][_][Shift_]    [^]    [1][2][3]| |
[__][_][__][________________][__][F][__][__] [<][_][>] [_0__][_]|_|

This is a regular full size keyboard and it has arrow keys, above that you have the Insert (I), Delete (D), Home (h), End (e), Page Up (u) and Page Down (d). The Escape key is located on the upper left corner of the keyboard. You can conveniently enter numbers using the numpad on the right side of the keyboard.

Model: Logitech G413 Carbon
Backlit: Red
Switches: Romer-G Tactile
Color: Black
Wired: USB non-detachable
Price: 75 EUR

This keyboard is high quality and a bit expensive, but it is a safe choice as this is a regular layout from a premium brand. The keyboard also supports USB pass-through which allows you to connect your mouse to your keyboard.

80% - Tenkeyless

[E]   [_][_][_][_] [_][_][_][_] [_][_][_][_] [_][_][_]

[_][1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][0][_][_][Bac] [I][h][u]
[__][q][w][e][r][t][y][u][i][o][p][_][_][__] [D][e][d]
[___][a][s][d][f][g][h][j][k][l][_][_][____]          
[Shif][z][x][c][v][b][n][m][_][_][_][Shift_]    [^]   
[__][_][__][________________][__][F][__][__] [<][_][>]

The amongst gamers popular Tenkeyless layout is often abbreviated as "TKL". It has no numpad, but other than that the layout is standard. Notice how there is no room for Num lock, Caps lock and Scroll lock indicators (LEDs) that are normally positioned on top of the numpad. The reason gamers prefer this layout is that they can have the mouse closer to the keyboard and they tend not to use the numpad anyway.

Model: Sharkoon PureWriter TKL RGB
Backlit: RGB
Switches: Kailh Blue (low-profile)
Color: Black
Wired: micro USB detachable
Price: 50 EUR

This is my favorite keyboard. It is a low-profile (!) small, high quality, not too expensive and I don't miss the numpad at all. Being a low-profile means that it is remarkably flat (as the key caps are half height). This lack of height allows you to have an easier wrist angle, but it also means that the keys travel less.

75% - Small

[Es][_][_][_][_][_][_][_][_][_][_][_][_][F][De]
[_][1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][0][_][_][Bac][h]
[__][q][w][e][r][t][y][u][i][o][p][_][_][__][u]
[___][a][s][d][f][g][h][j][k][l][_][_][____][d]
[Shif][z][x][c][v][b][n][m][_][_][_][Shi][^][e]
[__][_][__][_________________][__][__][<][_][>]

Here we enter the geeky domain. The disadvantages of this layout are: a smaller right Shift key and non-standard placement of the Fn (F), Delete (De), Home (h), End (e), Page Up (u) and Page Down (d) keys. Notice that the Esc (Es) and Del (De) keys are a little larger than normal. The advantages of this layout are that it is very portable and still has all the most used keys. Notice that the Insert, Print Screen, Scroll lock, Pause and Menu keys are missing in this layout (compared to a TKL).

Model: Ajazz AK33
Backlit: White
Switches: Zorro Black
Color: Black
Wired: mini USB detachable
Price: 35 EUR

This is an interesting keyboard, that is also available in white (blue backlit). It is small, not too expensive, with an unusual layout that requires some getting used to.

65% - Smaller

[E][1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][0][_][_][Bac] [I][u]
[__][q][w][e][r][t][y][u][i][o][p][_][_][__] [D][d]
[___][a][s][d][f][g][h][j][k][l][_][_][____]
[Shif][z][x][c][v][b][n][m][_][_][_][Shift_] [^]
[__][_][__][________________][Fn][__][__] [<][_][>]

This minimal layout is an alternative for the 75%. It does not have function keys, but these are accessible via the numbers using the Fn key. Many people are already using the Fn key for function keys as most laptops have the function keys in "media mode" by default. This layout does have a full size right Shift key and a Delete (D) key in an almost regular position. Compared to a TKL the layout is missing the Home and End keys. You may have also noticed the missing Backtick/Tilde key as the the Escape key is typically placed on this position on a smaller keyboard. Although this is almost a TKL it can still require some getting used to.

Model: Qisan Magicforce 68
Backlit: No
Switches: Outemu Brown
Color: White
Wired: mini USB detachable
Price: 35 EUR

This layout may be easier to get used to than the 75%. Unfortunately this keyboard is not backlit. Nevertheless, it looks stylish, types great and is not too loud, which makes it very suitable for use in an office!

60% - Mini

[E][1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][0][_][_][Bac]
[__][q][w][e][r][t][y][u][i][o][p][_][_][__]
[___][a][s][d][f][g][h][j][k][l][_][_][____]
[Shif][z][x][c][v][b][n][m][_][_][_][Shift_]
[__][_][__][________________][__][_][__][Fn]

This minimal layout looks awesome and has a very high geek factor. Unfortunately for people that are used to a regular layout this keyboard requires a lot of practice before it feels comfortable. The arrow and function keys are missing and so are the Delete, Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys. The Backtick/Tilde key replaced with the Escape (E) key. Like with the other layouts, the Fn key gives you access to the missing keys. When enabled, the arrow keys are positioned in the right bottom corner, between the Space bar and the Fn key.

Model: Motospeed CK61
Backlit: RGB
Switches: Kailh Box White
Color: Black
Wired: USB-C detachable
Price: 45 EUR

This keyboard has a nice price and is packed with features, such as RGB, a USB-C braided cable and it is programmable (on Windows). Unfortunately, I can't get used to it's 60% layout, especially the switching in and out of navigational mode (to use the arrow keys).

WARNING: Do NOT buy the Motospeed CK62 as it is NOT programmable (the CK61 is) and the layer switching is working very illogical (read this).

Conclusion

I love geeky things, such as small form factor mechanical programmable RGB backlit keyboards. I've shown you a few layouts and recommended a few products. Maybe you'll also fall in love with one of these products (I certainly did). For everyday usage I prefer my Sharkoon TKL keyboard, while on special occasions I bring my even more portable and geeky 65% Qisan.

NB: The prices are including shipping and are the lowest offers I have found online at the time of writing this article.

Enjoy!