In our first mechanical keyboard review, of the Razer BlackWidow Tournament Edition, I mentioned that mechanical switches aren’t inherently better than other types of switches, at least in terms of subjective feel. Depending on design, some mechanical switches may feel awful to the end user. A good example of this is the Cherry MX Red, which is a linear switch with very low resistance (45g). This type of switch is marketed as a ‘gaming’ switch, because it allows for quick double-taps and no dead zone between activation and reset points, and doesn’t lead to fatigue over time.
However while typing on it, or even while gaming, you may feel that the keys are too ‘soft’ and don’t offer any feedback letting you know when a key stroke has been registered. This results in having to bottom out the key for each stroke, which is actually 2mm below where the activation takes place. This is part of why Razer came up with their versions of gaming tactile switches to replace the use of Cherry MX Blue and MX Brown switches. Because having tactile feedback is important to most people while typing or gaming, but Cherry MX Blue and MX Brown switches introduce issues that may arise while gaming, but not typing.
Topre Key Switches – The Best of Both Worlds?
I also mentioned that cheap rubber dome/membrane keyboards almost always feel awful; there is little to no tactile response, and bottoming out feels squishy and uneven. Even worse; the key feel can change over time.
Good rubber dome keyboards do exist though, and can provide their own unique advantages over mechanical switches. A perfect example of this is the Topre switch, which is sort of like a hybrid of rubber dome, and mechanical switches.
Topre’s patented key switch system uses rubber domes that are specifically designed to have a consistent tactile feel, and light springs that sit under them. Each stroke has the same ‘bump’ right before key activation, and when bottomed out, the plunger hits the bottom with a sort of ‘thunk’ feel. The result is a very tactile, yet quiet operation that is different from most fully mechanical switches you’ll try. The closest Cherry MX switch may be the Brown, as it also has a tactile bump without an audible click, but it’s just not the same. Let’s take a closer look at the switches, before moving on to the keyboard itself.
Here you can see the rubber dome design. This specific keyboard uses the same 55g actuation force dome across the entire board (we’ll get to different types later). The dome features 4 channels to let air expel evenly, which is what gives it an even, consistent feel. Underneath is a conical spring, which offers some resistance, but seems like it is mostly there to activate the capacitive switch underneath. The spring itself doesn’t offer much resistance, as you can see in this gif:
Not that the spring gives zero resistance, but this shows how important the dome’s design itself is in making the Topre keyswitches work the way they do.
In this gif, you can see the rubber dome itself in action, with a spring underneath. This shows the tactile bump in effect, and how consistent the switch is.
Note the ‘snap’ it gives as soon as 55g of force is placed on the top of the switch. Also note that it doesn’t rock around or get all squishy, which is what most membrane based rubber dome switches would do.
Now that we’re acquainted with how the switch works, we can move on to the keyboard at hand for this review; the Topre Realforce 87U 55g, looking sweet in black on black, with a black printed font legend:
If you haven’t heard of Topre, they are a huge industrial OEM company based in Japan, specialising in engineering products such as air conditioners, electronic equipment, switches, etc. If you have a Japanese car, there is a good chance that there are some Topre manufactured products inside it.
Topre’s keyboard switches are used in several keyboards, both OEM and retail. The most famous is probably the PFU Happy Hacking Keyboard introduced in 1987. At CES this January, Cooler Master introduced the Novatouch, which will use Topre key switches when it comes out this year.
The RealForce is Topre’s channel keyboard introduced in 2001, and is available in many different layouts and switch weights. The most ‘basic’ is a standard 104 key design (with a numpad) that has keys with variable weights, depending on placement. This means that the keys normally hit by a pinky finger will be 30g, while the rest are 45g (and the escape key is 55g). This feels awkward to some, especially while gaming. Also available are keyboards with uniform resistance, either 45g or 55g. There are also silenced versions available.
The one we’re looking at today is the RealForce 87U with uniform 55g resistance key weights. This is for people who like a little more of that Topre ‘thock’ sound as their keys bottom out.
The RealForce 87U is available in black (more of a dark grey, really) or white, both of which have black dye-sublimation labeling. The effect gives it a very ‘stealth’ look, but in low-light conditions they might as well be unlabeled keys. So if you are a new typist, or need to type in things like passwords that require you to make no mistakes, you will probably need to turn on a light once in a while to use it.
Since the RealForce 87U is a tenkeyless design with no numpad, a ‘virtual’ numpad is available by using the Numlock key. The numpad layout is printed on the sides of the keys – again, you’ll need some lighting to be able to see these.
The keycaps on the 87U are high quality durable PBT plastic, rather than ABS which has the tendency to generate a ‘shine’ over time. Along with the dye-sublimation printing method, these will stay looking new for a very long time. The spacebar is the one exception; since PBT spacebars have the tendency to warp easily, ABS was used. This is unfortunate. because the spacebar is the one key that shows shine the most. Very rarely will you see a PBT spacebar, though.
The texture on the Topre keycaps is quite nice – I didn’t notice any slipping from sweaty gaming sessions. There’s not much more I can say though, since it is a subjective thing.
The RealForce 87U uses a contoured profile, something to keep in mind if you have a preference.
The bottom of the realforce is really the only area where I have come across anything more than minor gripes or personal preference. The rubber pads are fairly small, and on my desk at least, the one on the left doesn’t really make good contact with the surface. Combining this with having no rubber at all on the top portion of the keyboard including the stands, it is fairly easy to slide it around on my desk.
The USB cable isn’t detachable, but has several channels along the top of the keyboard, allowing it to be routed to the center or either side. Beside the USB cable is a set of dip switches, which allow the following settings to be made:
- Swap left CTRL with Caps-Lock (for folks who yearn for the days of the early 80’s IBM PC/XT layout with the CTRL key where the Caps-Lock now resides)
- Disable Windows key (if it’s too much trouble to simply not press it)
- Something to do with Numlock? It’s unclear what this does.
- Update Firmware Mode
Extra keycaps are included to accommodate the old school CTRL layout, along with a keypuller.
Topre keycaps are on pretty tight, so a keypuller is definitely needed:
Custom keycaps are a hugely popular item with mechanical keyboards, but unfortunately because Topre keyboards use a different design than the far more common Cherry MX keys, custom keycaps are fairly rare. This is one thing Cooler Master plans to address with the Novatouch; they are using Topre key switches with Cherry MX keycaps, so will be compatible with the huge number of custom sets that are available.
RealForce 87U Key Stroke Sound
Below is a video showing the distinctive ‘thock’ of the Topre 55g switches. Feel free to compare this with the Cherry MX Blue switches in our Razer BlackWidow Tournament review. We have some more keyboards coming, using MX Brown and MX Red, so we may be able to do a full rundown of all the sounds within one video or post.[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKvYKEjOEAQ&w=672&rel=0]
Compare Typing Sound:
As you can tell, it’s not “silent” but it is very “quiet” especially compared to clicky keys like the MX Blue or old IBM buckling spring. More importantly to me at least, is that it is a much more pleasant sound than any other non-silent keyboard I’ve used. To me, this is the absolutely perfect balance of tactile feel and clicky (or ‘thocky’) sound, without driving your family or coworkers crazy in the process.
Gaming on Topre Key Switches
Make no mistake, the RealForce was designed solely with typing in mind. You can tell just by looking at it that it is not a “Gamer Keyboard”. It is limited to 6 key rollover on USB, and there are no gaming specific features, like macros, extra keys, headphone ports, or anything like that.
The question is, is it still suitable for gaming? After all, the MX Blue and Brown key switches were also designed with typing in mind, and many people find them suitable, despite the inherent flaw of hysteresis. I ran into this exact problem with MX Blues, as I was finding that I was often not letting the A and D keys lift up enough to reset when playing FPS games. This happened often while making small diagonal adjustments during character movement. This is something that Razer specifically addressed in their custom key switch designs announced this week. It is possible that the design of the Topre switches don’t have this issue to begin with.
I am happy to report that because of the way the switch works, the activation and reset points are pretty much in the same spot – right at 2mm. Unlike some tactile or clicky keys, you will almost always have to bottom out the switches. However, once it comes back to that 2mm point, the springiness of the rubber dome sends it all the way back up. In fact, it’s almost impossible to find a ‘dead spot’ between activation and reset. In my mind, this makes it very suitable for gaming.
I played through several games using the RealForce 87U, including many hours in the Titanfall beta, along with some Thief, and a lot of Don’t Starve. At no time did I feel the keys holding me back. The same couldn’t be said when I was gaming on MX Blues.
We usually don’t mention retailers specifically, but in this case, the review sample was provided by EliteKeyboards.com. Based in Orange County, they are a top tier partner with Topre, with their own SKU labeling, and even have their own “EK Edition” RealForce. These come equipped with red LEDs instead of blue, and come with an extra red Esc keycap. So we thank them for that.
This is where we bring up price. Topre RealForce is a premium product. Not just that, but a Japanese premium product. So it’s not cheap. The RealForce 87U tenkeyless in particular sells for up to $235, depending on colour and key weight. In fact, this very same 55g model is the cheapest RealForce you can get right now, at $199 due to a sale at EK.
If you can deal with a premium price, I can promise that you’re getting a premium product. As for whether it’s “worth it” to spend over $200 on a keyboard with basically no extra features, that is up to you to decide. If you spend many hours typing at a fast pace, you are probably going to want to treat yourself to the best. Whether this particular keyboard is the best for you though, is entirely subjective. Being expensive is not what makes the Topre RealForce a great keyboard. For me, it’s all in the design of the switch. And if you prefer clicky keys, or the ability to have your own custom look with special keycaps, that isn’t going to mean much for you.
If $200 is a bit steep for a keyboard, there are other Topre options to consider, such as the Type Heaven. These are $150 right now, and are made in China rather than Japan. They use the same Topre switches (45g uniform) and come with cheaper ABS plastic keycaps and.. that’s about it…. They are only available in 104 key layout right now.
I will say that most of the ‘hype’ you may have heard of Topre switches is well deserved, in terms of what a fascinating and practical design it is, and how it feels to type on. That may not mean much if you need macro settings, face-key-rollover, or clicky keys though, so consider everything, and choose wisely.