Mechanical keyboards have been a focus of the peripherals market for nearly a decade. Offering better feel and promoting a better experience over regular membrane keyboards, the mechanical keyboard market has a wide depth of enthusiasts willing to spend sometimes hundreds of dollars on a unique design. As a result, dozens of companies now compete with hundreds of products and, with the lack of any significant innovation, led to an overly saturated market, making it very difficult for any designer to differentiate from the competition.
In today’s review, however, we do have something that truly stands out amongst mechanical keyboards – the Keychron K3, a design that goes against most mechanical keyboard design norms. As a mechanical keyboard designed for mobility, it features a 75% layout, low-profile switches, and wireless connectivity, all in one. Its current listed price on Keychron’s website is $84 with brown switches, which is what we are testing today.
Founded back in 2017, Keychron is a very new company in the PC peripherals market. Still, its products have become rather popular in this short period of time on a global scale for keyboard enthusiasts. The company’s headquarters are in Hong Kong and it also holds an office in France. This is our first review of its products, so we have the chance to check out firsthand what makes its products so popular.
The packaging of the Keychron K3 is aesthetically simple but functional. It is but a black box with the keyboard’s schematic very lightly etched on its top side, yet it has very thick walls and substantial inner padding considering the low weight of the keyboard, eliminating the chance of shipping damage.
Inside the box, we find a wire keycap puller, a switch puller, the removable USB to USB-C cable, and a few extra keycaps to switch between Win and Mac layouts. Keychron also includes a quick start guide and a datasheet. Finally, Keychron also provides a thin plastic top cover for the keyboard.
The top surface of the Keychron K3 is aluminum and responsible for the high mechanical strength of the keyboard in conjunction with its relatively low weight. From a purely practical point of view, the keyboard is extremely easy to clean, as a simple blow can remove most debris from the flat surface of the keyboard. The cable of the keyboard is detachable, which does create the risk of damage at the connector but it also is very convenient for frequent transportation.
The Keychron K3 features a 75% layout with 84 keys, extremely similar to that frequently used on 13.3-15.6” laptops. The bottom row of the keyboard has a 6.0× Space Bar, three 1.5× keys on the left side of the Space Bar, and three 1× keys to the right side of the Space Bar followed by full-size arrow keys.
The strange layout might make it difficult for someone to find replacement keycaps, as those designed for standard ANSI/ISO layouts will not fit. The keycaps are made from ABS plastic and have medium-sized, sharp characters printed on them. Both the main and the secondary character is printed at the top of the keycap, so as to be equally illuminated by the LED of each switch. Keychron includes a standard grey ESC keycap for those who dislike the orange hint, as well as keycaps to switch between a Mac OS layout and a Windows layout.
The bottom of the keyboard is almost entirely plain, with only four rubber feet attached to it. The rear feet are a bit taller, offering a slight tilt. This approach was not really convenient and Keychron realized that almost immediately, with the new keyboards that ship out now having two-level adjustable feet.
At the rear of the keyboard, we find two switches. One switch manipulates the keyboard’s output to match that of a Windows/Android layout or that of a Mac OS/iOS layout. The second switch can be used to switch between wired and wireless operation or to turn off the keyboard completely. Wireless operation is entirely based on Bluetooth, with the keyboard capable of pairing with virtually any Bluetooth-capable device, including smartphones and tablets.
The backlighting is very well applied, with brilliantly sharp characters and minimal bleeding around the keycaps. Only on keys with long etched labels, such as the Caps Lock or the Command keys, the backlight does not light up the whole label evenly. That is due to the very low profile design of the keyboard, as the keycaps are very short and the LED very close to the label.
For transportation, the Keychron K3 is lightweight and feels robust. However, the floating keycap design is not ideal for taking bumps – especially lateral bumps to the sides. If there is a nice and soft bag compartment in your laptop’s/tablet’s bag for it, it will be fine, otherwise you might be searching for its keycaps every time it gets in and out of a bag. Keychron also offers a faux leather, envelope-like case, which is beautiful and protects the keyboard, but purchasing that would drain an additional $25 from your bank account.
Keychron offers the K3 with either its own low-profile switches, or Gateron switches, in either Red, Blue, or Brown types. Our review sample has the brown version of Keychron’s own switches – the Keychron variants are slightly shorter than the Gaterons, reducing the overall height by 1 mm and the travel by 0.25 mm. Their stems copy the classic Cherry MX cross style, making the keyboard compatible with any keycaps designed for Cherry MX switch stems, even full-height keycaps. A mix between low-profile and full-height keycaps seems silly but may form an interesting gaming layout. Another interesting feature of these switches is that they can be hot-swapped and mixed, with Keychron offering each pack of 84 switches for just $19. Note that you cannot hot-swap between Gateron and Keychron switches – only the Keychron-based version of the keyboard allows for the hot-swapping of switches.
Removing the plastic bottom cover reveals the keyboard’s PCB, which is secured to the top part of the keyboard. A very thin battery is attached to the plastic bottom cover, with its size hinting that the battery life of the keyboard with its LEDs powered on will be rather short. It is a common 1400 mAh battery, a replacement for which will not be hard to find if that time ever comes. A tiny blue PCB soldered onto the mainboard hosts the CYW20730 BlueTooth transceiver chip. The heart of the keyboard is a Hua Fenda Technology HFD64KG800 MCU, which also handles the RGB lighting features. We could find no information online regarding this chip but the Keychron K3 has very few advanced features and, therefore, we are not concerned about its processing power (or lack thereof).
Read on for our testing and thoughts about using the K3.
In order to test the quality and consistency of a keyboard, we are using a texture analyser that is programmed to measure and display the actuation force of the standard keyboard keys. By measuring the actuation force of every key, the quality and consistency of the keyboard can be quantified. It can also reveal design issues, such as the larger keys being far softer to press than the main keys of the keyboard. The actuation force is measured in Centinewton (cN). Some companies use another figure, gram-force (gf). The conversion formula is 1 cN = 1.02 gf (i.e. they are about the same). A high-quality keyboard should be as consistent as possible, with an average actuation force as near to the manufacturer’s specs as possible and a disparity of less than ±10%. Greater differences are likely to be perceptible by users. It is worth noting that there is typically variance among keyboards, although most keyboard companies will try and maintain consistency – as with other reviews, we’re testing our sample only.
Keychron lists the following specifications for its switches. Our unit has the brown versions.
The machine we use for our testing is accurate enough to provide readings with a resolution of 0.1 cN. For wider keys (e.g. Enter, Space Bar, etc.), the measurement is taking place at the center of the key, right above the switch. Note that large keys generally have a lower actuation force even if the actuation point is at the dead center of the key. This is natural, as the size and weight of the keycap reduce the required actuation force. For this reason, we do display the force required to actuate every key but we only use the results of the typically sized keys for our consistency calculations. Still, very low figures on medium-sized keys, such as the Shift and Enter keys reveal design issues and can easily be perceptible by the user.
At first glance, the Keychron K3 appears to be somewhat inconsistent. This is due to the minor tolerances of the optical sensors that the switches are using. As the travel distance is very short, even small actuation point differences translate to large differences in force. The average actuation force is 53 cN, which seems high for Brown-type switches, but it actually is not (as with the table above, Keychron quotes 50 +/- 10). Again, due to the very short travel distance, the resistance of the springs must be higher, or the keys will feel extremely spongy and easily bottom down.
I always try to use every keyboard that we review as my personal keyboard for at least a week. My typical weekly usage includes a lot of typing (about 100-150 pages), a few hours of gaming, and some casual usage, such as internet browsing and messaging. I personally prefer Cherry MX Brown or similar (tactile) switches for such tasks. As I frequently use a laptop, the 75% layout of the Keychron K3 was not an issue for me. Users who only or mainly use 100% keyboards will definitely have to take a short learning curve.
Not only the size but also the extremely low height and travel make the Keychron K3 feeling more like a laptop keyboard than a mechanical keyboard. Regardless, the typing experience is exceptional. The keyboard is very responsive and the feeling of each keypress is fantastic, with very little fatigue even after using it for several hours straight. Its stock Brown switches feel fantastic and are relatively quiet, making the Keychron K3 ideal for productivity in public places. Only in very quiet places, such as small libraries, the use of this keyboard would be annoying to other people in the immediate area.
For gaming, the Keychron K3 does not offer any advanced features other than its very low-profile and short travel switches. Theoretically, the shorter travel distance would cut a few milliseconds off someone’s reaction time. However, any difference is minuscule and has zero real-world meaning. If anything, the lag of the Bluetooth transmitter is much greater than any advantage the shorter travel could ever offer. The zero gap between the top rows also is not ideal for FPS/Action games. It is not a bad keyboard for gaming though, as it is very responsive and exceptionally comfortable. As long as the user is content with the 75% layout and doesn’t seek advanced features, the Keychron K3 will not disappoint.
The battery life of the Keychron K3, with the keyboard used solely for productivity, was roughly 80 hours with the backlighting turned off. That is not bad at all but was lower than the advertised 99 hours. In the manufacturer’s defense, my typical workday can be brutal for any keyboard. Turning the backlighting on and maxed out, the battery life dropped down to about 30 hours, close to the manufacturer’s 34-hour specification.
At first sight, the Keychron K3 feels as if it is more of a fashion item rather than a proper mechanical keyboard, with our initial thoughts being that the company is trying to put too many eggs into one basket. However, the K3 actually is a surprisingly good mechanical keyboard for those that need to combine mobility and productivity with a tiny bit of fanciness for under $100.
The quality of the Keychron K3 is very good, especially considering the price range and the features of the keyboard. Although the design is relatively simple, the materials are great and the assembly job is exceptional. Furthermore, even if a switch gets damaged, a whole pack of switches is just $19 and they are easily replaceable, which bodes great for those who like keeping their devices around for as long as possible. It is also worthwhile to mention that the company was very quick to listen to feedback, redesigned the rear cover and added rear feet to the retail version of the keyboard. This is a very rare choice for any company to make, as the vast majority of designs are never altered up to their end-of-life, signifying that Keychron actually cares about having the best possible version of a product in circulation.
In terms of aesthetics, the Keychron K3 is a little bit all over the place. It is designed to be very thin and elegant, matching a clean, modern desktop. The orange keycaps stand out too much in such an environment but, fortunately, the company includes normal grey keycap replacements for these. The RGB backlighting also is a little extravagant for visually calm and quiet environments but could work under certain circumstances.
The hands-on performance of the Keychron K3 is unexpectedly good, especially for a keyboard with such a short key travel. It is amazingly comfortable and feels great, even after hours of typing. However, it has few advanced features and virtually zero programmability, which will dishearten advanced gamers and coders alike. The 75% layout greatly reduces the footprint of the keyboard and makes it ideal for 14” or larger laptop bags but also requires a learning curve if one is not used to working with such layouts.
Keychron designed the K3 mainly with mobility in mind, for users who need a high-quality keyboard that fits in their bag. Although its battery life cannot compete with electronic keyboards designed for maximum mobility, it is long enough to get most users through a regular business trip or short vacation, especially when the backlighting is turned off. If there is no compartment in your bag just for the keyboard though, it would be wise to purchase the travel pouch offered by Keychron, or another similar pouch, as the keycaps will easily come off if the keyboard is not secured well.
The Keychron K3 is listed on the company website for $84 with the RGB backlights, or $74 with the white backlight.