Linux PC company System76 has been selling laptop and desktop computers with Linux software for over a decade. But until a few years ago the company did that by installing custom software on OEM hardware.
In 2018 System76 began manufacturing some of its own desktop computers in-house. And now the company is launching a new first-party hardware product: the Launch keyboard.
It’s a configurable mechanical keyboard with open source firmware and an open hardware design (if you have the necessary hardware and know-how, you can find everything you need to build or modify your own in a GitHub repository).
System76 has been talking about the keyboard for a few months, but it’s now available for pre-order for $285 and up, with orders expected to begin shipping in June, 2021.
That’s a lot of money to spend on a keyboard, but the Launch keyboard is a premium device that’s manufactured at a System76 facility in Colorado and which is available with a set of Kailh Box Jade or Royal mechanical switches, a compact tenkeyless backlit design, and a software utility that lets you remap keys so that, for example, you can make the Caps Lock key work like an Esc key, or set a custom function for the left or right space bar keys (since it’s split into two keys).
Changes are saved to the keyboard’s firmware, allowing you to plug the keyboard into any Linux, Mac, or Windows computer and keep typing even if you used a different device or operating system to configure your keyboard.
The physical keys themselves can also be swapped or moved. This lets you swap out keys for versions with different colors. Or you can change the keys to match your custom mapping. Since since there are only a couple of different key sizes, you could, for example, replace one of the space bar keys with a shift, backspace, or Fn key.
For advanced users, you can also add keyboard “layers” allowing you to use the same keys for multiple purposes.
The keyboard is made from aluminum features rubber feet, and can be positioned to lay flat or at a 15-percent incline. Keys are made from PBT plastic and the keyboard is backlit with support for per-key RGB LED lighting.
And the keyboard also functions as a USB hub thanks to two USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C ports and two USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-A ports, all of which support up to 10 Gbps data transfer speeds.
The Launch keyboard measures 12.2″ x 5.4″ x 1.3″ and weighs 2.1 pounds.
“pre-order for $285 and up”
Exactly what I expected when I saw System76. I’ll pass.
I’d much rather buy a typical “75% keyboard” kit. This System 76 keyboard chooses to use an incredibly unusual layout, with very non-standard key sizes. A normal 75% keyboard has the exact same physical dimensions as this keyboard, but has the benefit of using a standard set of keycaps.
It’s obvious they did this to make it possible to swap keys around the keyboard. Notice how most of the “modifier” keys are 1.5 key-widths wide. It looks like they did this so you could swap those keys around.
I have 2 complains about this compromise. First, it requires you to use flat-profile keycaps. Typical keycaps (sculpted keycaps) have a differently pitched angle for each row. Flat (unsculpted) keycaps are considerably less ergonomic. Secondly, this design compromise makes it very hard to find replacement keycaps if you wanted to replace them.
Why not just use a standard layout, and give me extra keycaps for the ones that I might want to swap around? This is what nearly every other configurable keyboard does. In the end it looks like it has a silly inconvenient layout, with keycaps that aren’t very ergonomic, simply to save a few bucks (or for the appearance of innovation).
No Windows key. I like it.
But is it worth $285+?
If you type a fair amount for your job, a good mechanical keyboard is definitely worth it. In my opinion it is similar to the argument that a good mattress is a worthwhile investment for your back, posture, and sleep health.
However, $285 isn’t a necessary amount to spend. There’s some decent options for non-configurable mechanical keyboards for Around or under $100.
My personal recommendation for a really good keyboard is the Niz Plum Atom 68 (they also make a larger 84 and 87 size too). It’s a Chinese knockoff of a key-switch technology called Topre. Topre keyboards are really popular in Japan, and they retail for like $250-500. These Niz keyboards are built with several included modifications that Topre fans typically perform as aftermarket modifications. They are absolutely delightful to type on, and they’re unlike any mechanical keyboard.
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