Chasing the THOCC

Like with most niches, mechanical keyboards can quickly turn into an endless money-pit hobby. Thankfully, I don't really consider it a hobby, as I tend to only buy a new keyboard every few years (or so I tell myself). And oh, look! A new year just started, so how about something new, something shiny, something better?

Right now I'm rocking a GMMK Pro with Boba U4T switches, Durock V2 stabilizers (as the defaults were absolute crap) and a cheap set of PBT keycaps (OEM profile). It's fine for what it is, although I'm not sure if it's better than the Topre-based Cooler Master Novatouch that I used before it. Its default firmware isn't great, and its companion software is just awful. Replacing all of that with QMK is pretty much mandatory, but it's one step I shouldn't have to do at this premium price point.

GMMK Pro

Also, that rotary encoder you can spot in the top right... It's a recent trend you'll see on modern keyboards; yes, it looks fancy, yes, it's geeky and it feels good when you turn it. But I never used it and find it useless. There isn't much you can do with a single knob really, except maybe volume control but I already have it on my mouse. I'd rather have a full midi controller than a single knob.

So, where do we go from there?

First, I'd like to go back to a tenkeyless keyboard. I'm now fully remote so I don't need to lug it around anymore. Then, I'm looking for a better build quality and out-of-the box open-source firmware & software. ISO compatibility is also a must as I'm very bad at letting go of my muscle memory and I'm still running this (admittedly shitty) French AZERTY layout.

There were a few contenders but eventually my heart set on a Keychron Q3.

Keychron Q3 "Knob Version" box

On paper, it fits all my needs. Not cheap by any means but not outrageously expensive either. This is the knob version despite not having a use for it, because it was the only variant available with the color scheme I wanted when I put down the order.

Keychron Q3 "Knob Version" beauty shot

This is the Silver Grey variant. The knob location is a bit weird and potentially even more useless than on the GMMK Pro to be honest. We'll see.

Keychron Q3 "Knob Version" beauty shot

Stabilizers are pretty good and properly lubricated. Not on the level of Durock V2 but good enough not to have to change them right away.

Keychron Q3 "Knob Version" dismantled

It comes with a double-gasket design, with POROM foam on the plate and silicone gaskets on the bottom case. The bottom case foam itself is pretty useless as we'll see later on. On the other hand, the PCB is packed with features such as QMK/VIA support out of the box, USB-C power, hot-swappable and south-facing LEDs.

Keychron Q3 "Knob Version" windows macos switch

It also has an interesting feature: a physical switch to toggle from Windows to macOS layouts. This switch is made of metal by the way, which shows how much care was put into designing this kit.

The first thing I did to evaluate the keyboard was to strip out the switches and keycaps of my GMMK Pro and put them on, just so I could get a feel for it. By default it's pretty damn good! But its overall sound could be improved with a bunch of simple tweaks and you can hear some case-ping when keys are bottomed out.

So let's fix these.

Keychron Q3 "Knob Version" PE foam mod

The first thing we're going to do is to cut a random piece of PE foam (0.5 mm thick in this case) and put it between the PCB and the switches. This will do wonders to shift the sound towards the middle frequencies, essentially removing low & high-pitched sounds. This is the main tweak you can do to get a more "creamy" sound signature, as the cool kids say nowadays.

Keychron Q3 "Knob Version" PE foam mod

From there, we can add the top plate and (optionally) the provided sound-absorbing foam, then put our switches to hold everything in place.

Now let's deal with the case-ping issue.

Keychron Q3 "Knob Version" tape mod

This one is even easier. We're just going to grab some masking tape and cover the underside of the PCB with it. That's it.

While we're at it, remember that useless case foam I talked about earlier? We can safely remove it as it doesn't serve any purpose anymore, the masking tape being more efficient. We'll definitely want to keep the thin insulation layer right beneath it though to avoid shorting the PCB if it happens to touch the aluminum case.

Keychron Q3 "Knob Version" switches

And we're pretty much done. We can put all the pieces back together and we just need to add keycaps.

I grew tired of my previous key set so I looked online for a nice, not too extravagant offer. The problem is that finding a good AZERTY set isn't exactly easy to begin with (unless you go blanks, which I did in the past, but it's not great when other people need to use your keyboard at home), and finding one that doesn't cost $250 with a three-year waiting time (looking at you, GMK) is even harder.

I ended up finding these two sets for $30 each:

keycaps

keycaps

These are dye-sublimated PBT keycaps, in XDA profile. The difference with other profiles like OEM or Cherry is that all the keys have the same shape no matter what row they're on. So you can easily shuffle them around, which makes it easier to produce international keycaps (like AZERTY) as you have fewer variations to deal with. It takes some time to get used to, though, but after a few days it's fine.

I ended up picking the top set for now; if I ever grow tired of it I'll have another one to play with.

And now for some beauty shots.

Keychron Q3 "Knob Version"

Keychron Q3 "Knob Version"

Keychron Q3 "Knob Version"

Keychron Q3 "Knob Version"