There are lots of good reasons to build a keyboard—custom layout, choice of switches, high-quality components. But there’s one big reason not to: soldering sucks. What if you could have the best of both worlds?
Drop (formerly Massdrop) aims to do just that with its ALT keyboard. Its minimal layout, full RGB lighting, aluminum case, and multiple USB-C ports are things you usually only find if you build a keyboard yourself. But thanks to a modular switch design, you don’t have to! You can load up the keyboard with whatever mechanical switches you prefer and swap them out any time.
The ALT is among the most expensive keyboards on the retail market at $180—a price that might make some people flinch. (However, the CTRL, which has a more conventional, tenkeyless layout, is $200.) But considering the high quality of the hardware and the flexible design, the ALT is worth the price for mechanical keyboard fanatics, who don’t want to build their own from scratch.
As Shiny as It Is Clicky
The first time I plugged in the ALT, I was shocked at how freakin’ shiny this thing is. As a mechanical keyboard enthusiast, I’m no stranger to LEDs, but these are incredibly bright and smooth, thanks to fast polling. Oh, and there are even more of them than usual—a strip runs around the edge of the board and illuminates my desktop (when it’s not in full sunlight).
The lighting modes are a bit basic—there’s no access to a dedicated lighting program like you might see in a Razer or Corsair board. Once you figure out the function commands (the Function key replaces the right Windows key) to adjust the lighting modes, you can find a pattern and brightness you like. Or, you can turn them off. It would have been nice if a mapping of the default function controls came in the box.
The body is aluminum, with the aforementioned light strip sandwiched between two reasonably heavy plates, and rubber feet on the bottom. If you’re not a fan of the flat profile, you can attach the included magnetic feet. In a rare display of ergonomic options, you can place the feet at either a forward or backward angle. This tilts up either the top or bottom of the keyboard about five degrees. These pieces are heavy and satisfying to put into place.
The keyboard is wired, which is standard for mechanical boards, and it includes two USB-C ports, which is not. They’re on the left and right of the board’s front, which allows you to use the side that works best for your desk. If you use the right port, the left can be a pass-through for USB-C data and charging—another option you don’t often see these days. (Thanks, Massdrop—we’re glad to see USB-C over cheaper alternatives.)
You also get two tools: one for removing the keycaps and another for the switches underneath.
A Fascination with Customization
You could keep the keyboard as it is and be entirely satisfied. Our review unit came with Cherry MX Brown switches; they’re default “typist” switches with a tactile bump, but no audible click. You can also choose Kalh BOX White (stiff and clicky), speed silver (linear, no click or bump with a light spring), Halo True (super smooth), or Halo Clear (slightly stiffer). If you have your own, you can choose no switches at all and save $40.
All the keys are covered with some genuinely excellent PBT keycaps that show the LEDs underneath. They are fantastic caps, nice and grainy, with a sharpness that cheaper, more common ABS plastic just can’t match. Keycaps aren’t usually a huge selling point on a board meant to be “customized.” However, they’re worth noting here, as the right Shift key is a non-standard size, and you might not be able to find a full set to replace them.
But enough beating around the bush: what about those hot-swappable switches? I’m pleased to report that they work just as advertised. Using the included grabber tool, you can remove the keycap, and then pull the full switch right out of the housing—even while the keyboard is plugged in and working. You can replace them with any switch compatible with the Cherry MX profile, and they’ll work fine. You’ll want to get some with a clear plastic housing, though, to take advantage of the fancy lighting. You can buy just about any switch from any major supplier, but they have to be plate, not PCB, mounted (there are no little plastic studs on the bottom of the switch housing).
This feature is a huge boon if you plan to dig into the nitty-gritty of the mechanical keyboard world. You can swap out some (or all) of the switches for something better for gaming or typing, something quieter or more clicky, and so on. You can even have a combination of switches—tactile MX Browns on the alphanumerics with clicky BOX whites on the modifiers, or Speed Silver switches on the left side just for gaming. It’s a wonderful bit of freedom, but you might want to invest in a cheap switch tester before you buy a few dozen switches.
Do be careful if you’re putting in and taking out switches, as the electrical contacts are easily bent.
If you want something with nigh-infinite adjustability, the ALT delivers without a soldering iron in sight.
Onions Have Layers, Keyboards Have Layers
It would have been nice if Drop had laser-etched the secondary functions of this small layout onto the relevant keys, like FN-Delete for the Mute control. But it’s easy to see why they didn’t: those controls and any others are fully customizable by the user. This has its pros and cons.
The ALT and CTRL keyboards use the popular, open-source QMK platform for keyboard software. Creating a custom layout and LED lighting pattern on Drop’s dedicated website is easy enough, but actually using QMK is not for beginners. The QMK program only works on Windows (you’ll have to dig into the command line elsewhere—it has no local help file, so be prepared to Google). And unlike some more polished options, you have to flip the keyboard over and insert a pin into the “Reset” hole to get it ready to program.
It’s not an impossible task, but it’s unnecessarily clunky—even some of my cheapest keyboards have had more straightforward programming processes. For a keyboard that’s intended to bring some functions of elaborate custom builds to the layperson, it’s a big blot in an otherwise excellent package. Old hands at QMK will, no doubt, be thrilled, but the target audience, not so much.
The Best You Can Do Without DIY
Frustrating software aside, the ALT is a fantastic keyboard—particularly for those looking to investigate the deep and wide mechanical niche. It features excellent build and lighting. And it comes with all the bells and whistles you could want—and it’d better, considering the price.
The ALT and larger CTRL aren’t the only keyboards on the market with hot-swappable keycaps, and you could build one yourself. You can find one from suppliers like GMMK at a significant discount. However, it won’t have that wonderful aluminum case, magnetic feet, RGB lighting, programming via QMK, pass-through USB-C data, and so on.
If you want the “ultimate” mechanical keyboard in a standard layout—and you don’t want to build it yourself—the ALT is worth the admission price. And best of all, it’ll be compatible with hundreds of switch variants—old and new—for years to come.
If you want to invest in a flexible, premium board, the ALT is an excellent choice.
Here’s What We Like
- Fantastic build quality
- Easy cap and switch swapping
- Dual USB-C ports
- Magnetic feet
And What We Don't
- Software flashing is clunky
- Lighting modes are limited