Back to School

Students: How to build the best mechanical keyboard

These are the keyboards you need to thrive on campus.

If you’re a college student, you do a lot of typing. That’s just a fact. Whether you’re writing code at 3 a.m., working on an essay or dissertation, or writing for a university publication (like I’ll be), your word count will likely be in the tens of thousands once the semester is over. And if you’re anything like me, you’re dreading the thought of doing any of it on your laptop’s stock keyboard.

Okay, maybe you’re not dreading using your laptop’s keyboard, but trust me, you should, and a nice mechanical keyboard would be a lot better. Sure, it seems a bit odd when there’s already a keyboard right there, but they’re two entirely different animals — one is the bare minimum, and the other is a tool purpose-built (and often personalized) for typing.

You’re going to be doing a lot of typing.

We’ve got recommendations for pre-built boards for those who just want to buy something, but a custom keyboard kit is how you really build something special. Making a custom keyboard has a few notable components: The initial kit with a case and PCB — which all of the kits listed here have — plus keycaps, stabilizers, and switches.

Switches affect how the keypress feels, stabilizers keep longer keys from feeling unpleasant to type on, and keycaps cover the switches. If you’re really dedicated, you can even modify your switches and stabilizers. While some keyboard kits require you to solder the switches onto the board, all the kits listed here have “hot-swap” sockets that allow you to simply pop the switches in like a Lego set.

There are countless benefits to a good board. I’ve been fascinated by mechanical keyboards since I was in high school, and have used at least half a dozen boards between then and now. Along with just feeling good to type on, most boards have function layers to add in more usability, more consistent key registration, they can be modified and reprogrammed to your own needs, and will likely last way longer than a regular board would.

The best tenkeyless mechanical keyboards for students

No matter what you’re doing, it’s safe to bet that a Tenkeyless (TKL) board will work. They’re versatile, familiar, and have pretty much every key you’ll need without any complex function layers for everyday keys. Keeping things simple, the Drop CTRL is a hot-swappable and programmable TKL kit, meaning you can customize it pretty much however you need. With great stock options (Like Kailh and Gateron switches and GMK keycaps) and a cheaper “barebones” kit without switches or keycaps, and a low-profile case available, this board has pretty much everything you could need in a basic TKL.

If you want something a bit fancier than the Drop CTRL, there are higher-end options. The most premium TKL-esque kit available right now (i.e. not through a group buy) is probably the ID80 Crystal — an 80%-layout gasket-mounted, brass plate board with an acrylic or polycarbonate case and hot-swap sockets. Essentially, this board has all the fancy options (except for switches and keycaps — you’ll have to bring your own). It’s a bit on the expensive side, but a great choice if you want to go all out on your board.

If you’re a particular fan of this layout but don’t love the price, the base ID80 is an option with almost all the same features, but it likely won’t have the same typing feel or sound as the Crystal model.

The best pre-built mechanical keyboards for students

Topre switches are unique. You either love them or you hate them. Personally, I love them. The FC660c has been my daily driver for two years now, and not a single other board feels quite the same. It's an added bonus that Topre has great stock silencing, too. Combine this with the FC660c’s 65% layout — which has both a delete key and dedicated arrows — and this board is a dream for working with text documents, code, spreadsheets, and Canvas (or whichever other barely-functioning “learning management system” your school uses).

And as a side note, the board can be reprogrammed if you find a replacement controller for it.

If you’re interested in a wireless 65% board using MX-style switches, Varmilo’s MIYA Pro offers both traditional mechanical switches — Cherry and Kailh Box — and their own proprietary electro-capacitive switches (as a note: Kailh Box switches are a fantastic clicky switch, but you probably shouldn’t get them if you’ll have a roommate). Along with that, the board has Bluetooth wireless connectivity, although that option is currently only available in special editions of the board.

The MIYA Pro can also be fully customized on Varmilo’s website under the 65% section of the “Premium Customization” tab, where you can choose RGB lights, Bluetooth, custom colors, and switches. Shipping will cost a lot more than buying a stock board from a U.S. retailer, though, costing around $60 to where I live in the U.S.

Some notable switch options are Varmilo’s EC switches, Kailh Box Jades, or Cherry Silent Reds if you’re worried about noise.

The best mechanical keyboard carrying cases

If you’re planning on taking your keyboard with you to a coffee shop, classes, or a study group, you’ll want a way to carry it safely. While just jamming it in your bookbag and hoping for the best is a tried-and-true strategy, it can be good to have a layer between your board and everything else rattling around in there.

The most readily available carrying case available now is from Drop. For my Leopold FC660c, I use the company’s Alt Soft Carry Case (shown above), and for the MIYA Pro (which is around 2 keys longer than the FC660c) or a TKL board, I would recommend their Large Soft Carry Case. Of course, you’ll want to check the dimensions of your specific board beforehand to make sure it will actually fit — a particularly tall board or keycaps could make things a bit awkward.

A note on loud keyboards

There are solutions if your roommate isn’t the happiest with the noise from your keyboard, assuming you don’t have clicky switches. The easiest is a desk mat. While it won’t make a huge difference, it will absorb some of the noise from your board and can bring some style to your setup. From there, a set of O-rings is a bit more invasive: They go inside of MX-style keycaps to decrease the noise made when bottoming out on a keypress, but also make the bottom-out feel a bit mushier. The most drastic option is foam insulation. Assuming you’re comfortable opening up your board and likely voiding your warranty, you can cut down a sheet of Sorbothane or noise-canceling foam (or foam you already have laying around) and place it between the PCB and case of your board. Through this, you’ll be able to reduce pretty much every sound coming from your board by decreasing the amount of empty space inside of the case.

And if none of the boards here are quite what you’re looking for, check out our list of some of the best mechanical keyboards for gaming as well.

Latest on keyboards