I need your help. When I get anxious, I like to buy things. I’ve been good about it for the last few years. I buy a sofa – because I need a sofa. Or I buy a new computer case because my old one is too big for the space where I’m putting the computer. Sometimes, I’ll blow money on a much pricier and more useless item. Keycaps. I love to spend more money than I should on the caps that go on a keyboard, and right now there’s a set of keycaps I would very much like to own.
And they’re very expensive.
To understand just why any semi-rational human being would want to spend hundreds of pounds on some bits of plastic let me first explain why these bits of plastic are so prized.
Japanese software company JustSystems and keyboard maker RealForce have a series of keyboards typically only available in Japan. The keyboards are prized for their tall keycaps with a pleasant shape that guides and “cups” your fingers – and because they use Topre key switches.
Topre switches are fairly unique in the big, complex world of key switches. Most non-Topre switches look a lot like the ones made by Cherry MX, right down to the plus-sign-shaped stems on the switches themselves. They all have a spring inside and a small mechanical switch.
The plus sign at the centre is how you know that’s a Cherry MX stem. Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)
Topre switches are electrocapacitive switches made up of a mixture of a plastic stem, rubber dome, and spring. You’ve probably heard of electrocapacitive or hybrid switches in the last few years if you’ve looked at the keyboards offered up by big gaming peripheral makers like Razer and Logitech. But Topre is considered the best of the best when it comes to that type of switch and can only be found in keyboards made by a very small group of Japanese keyboard makers including PFU Limited (which makes the Happy Hacking Keyboard), Leopold and RealForce.
The problem with Topre is that Topre switches use a different kind of slider than CherryMX. There’s no little plus sign. This means Cherry MX keycaps won’t work with a Topre keyboard. Unfortunately, the huge, thriving, keycap industry almost exclusively makes Cherry MX keycaps.
Look I spent SO LONG converting this keyboard. You thought you’d escape pictures of it?! Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)
So, if you want to customize a Topre keyboard, you have two options. The first is, you can meticulously replace every Topre slider with a Cherry MX-compatible one. I did that back in 2018. It took me six hours and a lot of filing (the compatible sliders are cheaply made and often have little extra bits of plastic that need to be removed to get the switch to depress properly). It also required potentially damaging a pricy Topre keyboard, and after it was done, I noticed that the switches didn’t feel quite as smooth as they had before the mod. So it worked, but there were drawbacks.
The second option for customising a Topre keyboard is finding Topre keycaps. A few companies will sell unmarked caps (that means no print on the caps), and there will, on very rare occasions, be a full marked set of keycaps for sale. But the variety isn’t as impressive as it is in the Cherry MX space.
And I’m not just talking about the array of colours. I’m also talking about the profile of the cap. Nearly all available Topre keycaps use the keycap profile most modern keyboard users are used to. It looks like this.
Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)
But the £681 set of caps I covet use the high-profile, or SA profile, of keycaps. They’re taller, and sculpted to, in my opinion, better catch your fingers. If you used keyboards or typewriters from the ‘70s through the early ‘90s, you’re incredibly familiar with the profile because it was found on all the best typewriters and keyboards.
An example of the SA profile. Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)
That’s the profile used for the JustSystems and RealForce 108UG-HiPro keycaps I want to spend £681 on. These actual 108UG-HiPro keycaps are very rare, and that’s the only listing currently available on eBay. But they’re still £681 – and spending that much on keycaps seems like something that will exacerbate my anxiety rather than soothe it.
An actual, and less rare, RealForce Topre keyboard with similar caps (and fewer colours) can be found on Amazon for £300. Meanwhile, at least one company making custom keyboard parts appears to be working on producing similar keycaps – hopefully with a lot more colour diversity for a lot less money.
But those keycaps aren’t available yet, and keycap orders tend to take months – and sometimes years – to ship. So while I could save a lot of money by having a lot of patience, seeing the exact keycaps I want up for auction on eBay has me seriously wanting to reach for my wallet. Someone buy them first and save me from myself.
Featured screenshot: eBay