The keyboard is one of two parts of a computer setup where flesh and blood meets plastic and metal. (The other is the mouse or trackpad.) Using a keyboard effectively means moving your fingers with the precision a computer can understand, often faster than the speed of conscious thought. So while many people don’t mind a cheap or standard keyboard – as long as it records keystrokes reliably – others don’t mind spending a little more on something better.
And then the real experts spend hundreds of dollars ordering parts from around the world to build their own custom dreamy keyboard – a mechanical keyboard, of course, with each key having its own mechanical switch.
I didn’t want to go too far overboard when I finally took the plunge to the custom keyboard recently. So I decided to get the pre-built but highly customizable Drop CTRL instead. The Drop CTRL is a tenkeyless with 100Hz individual RGB LEDs that support hot-swappable Cherry MX style switches (plate mount only) with the QMK firmware. It comes with OEM profile doubleshot PBT translucent keycaps and a choice of switches. Relief. But no, that’s all meaningless marketing talk.
I paid $225 for a high-profile black model with Cherry MX Brown switches installed (plus $15 shipping from the US to Europe; surprisingly cheap). And after 33 agonizing days of waiting, I finally began my journey down the custom keyboard rabbit hole.
The first indication that the Drop CTRL is not an IBM Model M that has survived since the PC AT era by sheer build-quality power is the fact that the CTRL connects to a computer via USB-C. And what could be better than a small, bidirectional and forward-looking USB-C port? Two USB-C ports. There is a left back and a right back on the keyboard. You can use both to connect to a computer; the keyboard then acts as a USB hub with one port, allowing you to connect an additional accessory through the other port.
Although the connector is the latest and greatest, the protocol is USB 1.1 at full speed. That means only 12 Mbps and the keyboard consumes only 500 mA. The second port charges my iPhone at about 2W, and it continues to charge while the computer and keyboard are asleep.
The included cable is a USB 3.0 type A to USB type C. I’ve tried some cables with USB-C on both ends, but that often didn’t work. In particular, Thunderbolt-compatible cables connected to a Thunderbolt-compatible port did not work. Some charging/USB 2.0 cables connected to a Thunderbolt port on the computer did work, and connecting to the USB-C port on my monitor also worked with different cables.
Once the cable is connected, the LEDs under each key and around the sides of the keyboard light up in a wavy rainbow pattern. That colored lighting certainly adds flair, but it’s also functional: with the LED lighting turned off, it’s very hard to make out the legends on the keys.
Each key has its own set of RGB LEDs that can create 16 million color combinations. On cheaper keyboards with this feature, the LEDs may flicker to some degree, but the CTRL’s LEDs refresh at a rate of 100Hz, meaning no perceptible flicker. You can switch between a handful of animations and different solid colors, and you can change other settings for the LEDs with key combinations. I found that I didn’t mind the RGB animations happening in my peripheral vision, especially with the speed a bit slower.