Upgrading to the Keychron K1 V3 Mechanical Keyboard

the Keychron K1 V3 RGB

I’ve been working from home since returning from my last business trip to the USA in Feb 2020. It’s now the first week of June 2020, and I foresee continuing this WFH motion to continue for many more months. With that, I’ve decided to update my home office set up.

One of the first updates was the addition of the Samson Satellite USB microphone, which I’ve wrote a bit about here. Now, I’m updating my keyboard from an old Logitech K200, to the Keychron K1 that is pictured above. This post is typed out with the Keychron K1.

First, why the upgrade? The Logitech K200 had served me well for many years. However as I moved from Windows Vista (yup, the last PC I owned ran Windows Vista), to Mac, the keyboard didn’t really change. While I’ve figured out the few key mappings to use a Windows keyboard on Mac OS X, it has always been a bit of an annoyance. Especially when I switch from my work MacBook Pro, with a Mac Keyboard layout, to my Mac Mini with the Windows layout, it gets somewhat annoying. Hence the inner desire to change has been lingering for a while.

Looking for a keyboard nowadays is so much more than what it used to be. The last time that a keyboard caught my attention was the Microsoft Natural keyboard from 1998. There weren’t many mainstream developments that caught my attention. In recent years gaming mechanical keyboards had gain popularity and opened up a new segment. It took some research to understand what exactly are these keyboards and what makes them click (pun intended). Terms like Cherry MX came up frequently, and there are colours like red, brown, blue, yellow, etc. If you are also new to mechanical keyboards, here is what I’ve learnt.

Mechanical Keyboards

Traditional keyboards (before mechanical) are essentially membrane keyboards. If you have ever looked in one, you will see there is like a large sheet of rubber inside the keyboard and each key will press against a location that pushes the membrane in contact to a circuit board below. These keyboard typically give a dull feel to the keystroke.

Mechanical keyboards on the other hand have individual switches for each key. The membrane no longer exists. I believe the main drivers and advantage to move to such design was driven by gamers. Having individual switches allow faster keypress, touch feedback and more keys to be pressed simultaneously. Supposedly such keyboards can give gamers improved game play and hopefully an edge, especially with competitive gaming. Overall typing experience is also meant to be better, giving a good tactile feel. I do agree with this, the feel is more solid.

What’s with the Red, Brown and Blues?

If you search around, there is a very wide selection of mechanical keyboards out there. First, there are many different manufacturers, and each has several models, and typically each model will have different “colours”. Let’s touch on the colours, and their significance. The colours are referencing to the type of switch used by the keyboard. It’s an indication of the tactile feel of the switch, and not for aesthetics purpose. You can’t really see the colour unless you remove a keycap to look below. The most popular switch manufacturer is CHERRY, a German company that has been around since 1953. If you look around CHERRY’s website, you will find the characteristics of each colour, and an animation of the internal mechanisms of each switch type. Gives you an idea on how each switch differs.

Key characteristics for each colour are in the following areas:

  • Operating Force – indicates how “stiff” the feel is for each key. The higher the number the harder you have to press.
  • Pre-Travel – indicates how deep the key needs to be pressed for the keystroke to be registered. This varies, but it is typically this is around the halfway point of the Total Travel.
  • Total Travel – that’s the total distance each key can move downwards as you press. There’s always a bit more movement allowed beyond the “clicking” point.
  • Audible Click – whether that switch type generates a “click” sound as it is depressed.

There are other manufacturers for switches and from my brief look, they tend to follow the convention that CHERRY adopts, where the Red has the lightest Operating Force, with no audible click sound, and the Blue is the opposite with heavier Operating Force and has the audible click. There are several other colours, but I find that the red, brown, blue are the most common. I found the YouTube video (embedded below) by BeatTheVBush DIY to be really useful to help me decide (audio wise) which colour I’m comfortable with.

The other aspects of the keyboard

One of the top priority area to consider when picking the keyboard is the type of switch you’d like to have. The other common things to consider are:-

  • Keyboard Language – does it have layout you prefer, e.g. most common is the US101, but there are others that are geared towards different languages, like Chinese, Japanese, French, German, etc.
  • Keyboard Size – is it a full sized 104 keys with number pad, or one size down is the 87 keys, a.k.a. TKL (Ten Key Less), without the number pad, or even smaller, the 60%, that cuts out the column with home, end, pg up/down.
  • Keyboard OS – typically whether if it has the Windows or Mac layout.
  • Connectivity – is it USB wired, wireless with bluetooth or proprietary wireless. The older PS/2 and DIN connectors should be extremely rare nowadays.

Enter the Keychron K1

There are not many mechanical keyboards out there that have the Mac layout. As I was shopping on Lazada, the only one that came up was the Keychron keyboards. Doing some research, the Keychron do have some good reviews, especially for the K1. The others, K2, K4 and K6 look good as well, but they have a common complaint that they tend to be too thick. The K1 is designed to be thin, and it is indeed among the thinnest mechanical keyboards out there.

As I intend to use the keyboard with a KVM, it is essential that it must support a USB connectivity. The K1 meets this requirement as well. The added bluetooth support is nice to have. The K1 supports pairing up to 3 unique devices, they can be Mac, IOS, Windows or Android. I tested it with my iPhone 11 Pro and it worked nicely. The phone links up quickly once BT was enabled on the K1.

Price was also in the ball park I was prepared to spend. There were several other models my friends suggested, like the Ducky keyboards, but they are beyond my preferred price range.

I am also intrigued by the RGB option available with the K1. The control of the colour pattern is locally handled on the keyboard itself. There is a dedicated light key which will cycle through the patterns. Additionally, using the hotkey combo of fn+Left or fn+Right arrow keys will allow choice of colours for that chosen pattern, e.g. only red, blue, white, rainbow, etc.

The Keychron K1 looks to be really popular and as of this writing, V4 is about to be released in a few days. The one I have is the V3, ordered from Mecha.Store on Lazada.sg.

First Day Experience

Keychron K1 in the box with plastic wrappers removed

The K1 arrived a few days after the order was placed. Not bad during the COVID-19 period where there are significant logistics overheads.

The keyboard came out of the box with the Mac layout. 5 additional key caps are included to convert the keys to the Windows layout. A keycap puller is also included to aid the conversion process. USB-A to USB-C cable is also included and is reasonably thick. The included quick start guide and manual are pretty well written.

Sliding switches on the K1

The keyboard is pretty much plug and play, nothing less one would expect from a keyboard. There are two switches on the side, above the esc key to switch between Mac/iOS vs Windows/Android, and another with Cable/Off/Bluetooth settings. Functions are pretty much self explanatory.

The bluetooth labelling on 1, 2 & 3 keys

The bluetooth function is also rather simple to use. Pressing the fn+Numeric key 1, 2 or 3, will switch the connection profile to one of the 3. To pair, simply press and hold the key combo for a few seconds, and the bluetooth light will being to flash slowly, indicating it is in pairing mode. The usual motion to search and pair available devices from your Computer/mobile device applies.

I tested the bluetooth connection with my iPhone and encountered an interesting bit where shift+3 gave me a £ instead of #. I realised it’s because of the keyboard type I had set up on the iPhone to English(UK). That got resolved as I swapped the keyboard with English(SG). I’m sure English(US) would resolve that as well, but as Singapore follows the UK spelling style, the autocorrect with the US dictionary isn’t as appropriate.

One of the feature updates with the K1 V4 is that caps lock key will have an added indicator for the 87-keys model. Fret not though for the earlier models, recent firmware for the K1 allows enabling the LED on the caps lock key to operate independently from the keyboard light pattern. Meaning, instead of participating in the flashy light show with the other keys, the LED for the caps lock key will only be used to indicate whether caps lock is enable or not. This can be toggled using the hot key combo fn+caps lock+P. Holding the combo for about 6 seconds will toggle the function. You’ll know it has taken effect when all the keys flash red, neat!

Firmware Update

An occupational hazard I have is to always look at updating to the latest (and stable) firmware. That’s was what I did for the K1 as well. It is nice that Keychron provides updates, and I took advantage of it. There are update utilities available for both Windows and Mac, which is the least I would expect for a device that is designed to work across both Operating Systems.

The process worked exactly as how it was instructed on the website. With the last step to perform a factory restore of the keyboard. I was expecting the bluetooth pairing with my phone to be gone, but to my surprise, that remained. What got reset were like the setting for the independent caps lock light.

There is an important thing to watch out for, that is warned on the website, is to ensure no other keyboards are connected to the same computer performing the firmware update. I decided to be extremely careful and disconnect my Trendnet KVM from my Mac Mini, and have the keyboard wired directly. Also, I removed the Logitech Unify adapter I use with the mouse, as that same adapter can also work with Logitech Keyboards. Meanwhile, I used my old wired mouse to during the firmware update process.

What I like about the K1

I ordered the K1 with blue switches. Do note that Keychron uses the Gateron switches. I don’t have any personal experience with other switches to offer a comparison, but I’m quite pleased with these blue switches. Having typed through this blog, I’m pleased with my choice.

The low profile nature of the keyboard also fits well with my preference. I’ve been working off my MacBook Pro for several years now and this allows a comfortable switch. I would guess the other models like the K2 could be too tiring for me.

The light show on the keyboard has many patterns to choose from. Although I don’t always look at the keyboard while typing, it just adds to a cool factor. The fact that I don’t need additional software on the computer to drive the LED is a bonus.

The print screen key works for both on OS X and iOS. On the Mac Mini, pressing the key is equivalent to a cmd+shift+4.

I really like that the Keychron team is continually innovating and improving the products based on feedback. Evidently from the new firmware which look to stem from customer feedback, and also the newer varieties of the K1.

Areas I feel can be improved

So far, the keyboard itself has been great and I have zero issues with it. What I feel that can be improved are the following areas.

Product labeling: since the K1 has had a few updates, it will be useful to also label that on the keyboard. E.g. at the bottom of the keyboard there is a print that says “K1 Bluetooth Mechanical Keyboard”; if it has a “V3” some where, it would have been perfect. Although I had ordered the V3, there was no easy way for me to determine that I have indeed received the V3. I had to do some detective work to search for images to compare. And with that, I could only tell that I definitely don’t have the V1 as the light key have moved since V2.

Firmware Checking: there doesn’t seem to be a way for me to check what is the running version of the firmware on the K1. Pretty much so I can easily tell if I should take the trouble to update my unit. The FW update tool is rather basic with just a “start” button. I had to read the FW releases and compare the features with what my K1 could do. At best my unit would have version 2.72. So it was worth attempting to update to the latest 3.7.

Website: the downloaded file for 3.7 firmware, interestingly unzipped with 3.6 in the file name. Doing a checksum comparison with the zip file for 3.6, they are actually identical. I’ve submitted a ticket for this. So meanwhile, I’ve seemingly have updated my unit to 3.6.

Wrapping up…

I’m pretty much very happy with the Keychron K1 V3. The feel is great, and I just switched to finish this post on my iPad paired with the K1. It’s working flawlessly over Bluetooth, with no apparent latency. The “clickiness” of the blue switch is to my liking. So far my family doesn’t find it disturbing at all. I enjoy the feel of the keys.

If you are looking out for a low profile mechanical keyboard. I certainly do recommend the Keychron K1. It is of reasonable value, and with V4 around the corner, the improvements are nice.

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