As a lover of all things mechanical keyboard, I was impressed when Glorious unveiled its new GMMK Pro. This keyboard hits all the high points of the latest most luxurious custom designs—75% layout, rotary dial, switch-switching modular build, a super-satisfying gasket mount case, and compatibility with open-source GMK programming—and delivers them at a super-low price. It’s the new must-have keyboard.
But what fascinated me most was the design process for this board: Glorious did some serious research into the very active and enthusiastic mechanical keyboard community and laser-targeted the GMMK Pro to appeal to this niche. The keyboard takes a lot of inspiration from small-batch, super-premium designs, like the Satisfaction 75 or Paragon, and shrinks the entry price by about 50%.
It’s kind of like the Subaru WRX-STI, except a keyboard instead of a car: all of the features and performance of a dream build, with the accessibility that makes it attainable (if a bit of a splurge) for the average buyer. Throw in the fact that this design doesn’t need any soldering or programming skills, and it will be available as a general purchase instead of a small batch group buy, and it’s an incredibly ambitious product.
I sat down (virtually) with Glorious CEO Shazim Mohommad, to find out more about the development process of this niche-designed, mass-market keyboard.
Michael Crider: Hello, Shazim. Why did you decide to go for a super-premium design, something that would cost three or four hundred dollars for a small batch, when your previous keyboard products have competed in the mid-range or budget feature space?
Shazim Mohommad: Our current line of GMMK has been the entry point into the enthusiast line of mechanical keyboards. Razer, Logitech, they all have their own set of mechanical keyboards and that’s fine. But we made the GMMK modular so you can swap out the switches. It’s a really good board for someone who wants to take advantage of mechanical keyboards, without needing all of the technical experience of soldering and all that. For most people, that’s it, that’s all you really need from a keyboard.
But there is this upper tier of keyboards that the “hardcore” enthusiasts are heavily involved in. These are the premium boards you’re more familiar with. And these keyboards have always been very limited, you have to be at the right place and the right time if you want to get them. They’re much more expensive, you often have to compete for spots to order one. If you’re there, you get it, but if you miss it, tough. You have to go buy it from the aftermarket.
After using mechanical keyboards for several years, I got into my first premium keyboard about a year ago, and the experience of using one was mind-blowing. I thought, “Dude, this is amazing! We use our keyboards for 8 hours a day, and this is unlike anything I’ve used before. It sucks that there’s such a huge gap in the market, for people that want this premium keyboard.” So what we’ve done with the GMMK Pro is try to bridge that gap to create an accessible and affordable product, and give people who want it a way to buy this without all the nuances of a group buy. We wanted to give people the opportunity to buy a high-end board relatively affordably.
MC: Did you research any specific web communities when you were developing the GMMK Pro? Did you talk to any specific designers or builders?
SM: About a year ago we went on the mechanical keyboard subreddit, and said, “We made the GMMK a couple of years back. What are you looking for, what do you want, in a more premium keyboard?” We got hundreds of replies, and everyone asked for something different. But you could see the common, underlying thread of what people were really asking for.
During our research time, we saw a lot of group buys. And group buys are wonderful, but we saw a lot of them that were extremely mismanaged, a lot of people were complaining when they weren’t able to get in. So we saw the need for what people were asking for, and then on the other side, this process of group buys for keyboards that a lot of people were missing out on. That was the inception for the GMMK Pro.
Aside from Reddit, we also leverage years of existing experience from developing the GMMK. We also have a very knowledgeable team within the company, and we constantly look at keyboard forums, discord channels, YouTube videos, and publications to gather information and ideas. The GMMK Pro is really an amalgamation of everything people in the enthusiast community have been asking for.
MC: Did you go to any keyboard meetups? Obviously that’s been very difficult for most of the last year, but I’ve been to several before that and had a great time.
SM: We were planning to. I think Keycon was one of them that we had planned to go to, obviously we ended up having to cancel that. Earlier this year we came out with our Glorious Panda switch, which is a premium tactile switch that we introduced into the community. From that we met a lot of really cool content creators, people that we pitched this idea to beforehand, and it was something that definitely piqued their interest.
Honestly, I don’t think any larger company has come into this space to innovate in it. Most companies would target that mass market, the kind of buyer who goes into Best Buy—there’s not much focus within this premium space. Because it is very niche and very focused. For us, we’re gamers, and we’re really passionate about this kind of stuff. It was really a passion project for us to make something that we really liked, that we wanted everyone else to experience and enjoy.
MC: How did you lower the prices of these expensive components, versus the small batch designs that people are used to seeing on Reddit and Geekhack?
SM: You have to understand that a lot of people doing the group buys, it’s like one or two people. For them, it’s hobby-focused, something they enjoy doing. They have this really cool idea, and they get a couple of people together and see if they can make this happen. Of course, when you go to suppliers with something like that, they ask you how much you want. If you want a one-and-done thing, they’re going to charge you a lot.
For us, it’s the economies of scale. This is something that we’re planning on keeping consistently in stock. When you’re able to forecast consistent orders for these guys, it’s easier to keep the price down and make us competitive.
MC: So this is a product you’re planning on selling for at least several years, not just a few batches?
SM: That is correct.
MC. You said you’re individually milling each case. Where are you sourcing your parts and assembling the final keyboards?
SM: Our keyboards are assembled in our factories in China.
MC: Personally, I haven’t had the chance to check out any keyboards with gasket mounting. Can you describe why that’s important, and how it’s different from a standard plate mount?
SM: So a tray mount is kind of like a motherboard is mounted into a computer case, with the typical standup screws that screw down into place. That’s fine for most people. But there’s always the question of, “what can I push this to, how can I make it better?” So, the first thing there is the construction of the case.
The GMMK Pro features a full aluminum case, we individually mill every single unit. That gives us a very dense heavy material. So instead of being supported by standoffs, the circuit board is actually suspended within the case with what’s called the gasket mount. The switch plate is the one that attaches to the case, that enables the PCB to kind of “float,” only attached to the switch plate.
Anywhere where you would see metal contact, like where the switch plate is secured to the case or the layers between the PCB and the switch plate, we put shock absorbing damping materials. It’s basically absorbing the keystroke and the sound. So when you type on a lower-end keyboard, you’d feel the vibration through the entire case. But on the GMMK Pro, it feels very grounded. When you press a button, it’s almost like there’s no vibration. It feels like it just melts into your desk, it’s amazing. It’s a very unique feel that a lot of people don’t get to experience.
And obviously the acoustics of that benefit greatly. You get this beautiful, almost musical sound when you start typing. That’s one of the benefits of going down the gasket mounting road.
MC: Was it difficult to implement QMK and VIA firmware for the GMMK Pro?
SM: It wasn’t difficult necessarily. We’ve had a lot of experience with the original GMMK, so we understood the caveat with developing software for keyboards. It was as simple as sourcing compatible parts for it. Once we were able to do that, it wasn’t much of an issue. Of course, there have been global shortages because of COVID, so that was a struggle, but overall it wasn’t too challenging to get that.
MC: You’re going to have your own programming tool for the keyboard, like you had for the GMMK. Is there anything you can do with the Glorious software that users won’t be able to do with QMK?
SM: So, Glorious Core is our new software that was implemented for people who don’t want to mess with QMK or VIA. Those are very powerful, they’re open source. I’d say the open-source aspect trumps any proprietary software because you have this worldwide community that’s developing for it.
But we’ve always wanted to make our products easy to jump in. It’s a learning curve: You can use it as a normal keyboard, swap out the switches, change up the keycaps, and use the software. And then when you want to start exploring and see what the limits of this keyboard are, we want you to be able to do that. So at a certain point, after a year or so, you’re using this and you’re starting to fall in love with the keyboard, then you can start dabbling around, install QMK, and see where that takes you.
I’d say it’s similar to the custom firmware you see on a lot of routers. A lot of them have this custom firmware. You can take a $50 router and turn it into a $1000 router, just by installing this custom firmware. I’d say the GMMK Pro has the same kind of consumer relationship.
MC: Are you planning on working with any open-source software in the future?
SM: Yeah, we’re always open to it. A lot of people have asked us about RGB implementation between all of our products, which is something we’re exploring. So, we’re always open to opportunities.
MC: Specifically for RGB, there are several options for that. Would you be interested in working with the SDKs available for these RGB products?
SM: Definitely. We’ve had tons of requests for that already.
MC: You said you’ve worked on the Glorious Panda switches, and you recently introduced your first ultralight gaming mouse, the Model O, which is also a fairly niche PC gamer market. Are there any other PC hardware niches that you’re looking into for future products?
SM: Yeah. Right now our focus is primarily on keyboards. There are a lot of other aspects of the keyboard market we haven’t explored yet. I’d say that the keycap market is just as big if not bigger. We’re seeing a lot of people who love decorating their keycaps, consistently buying and sourcing unique, beautiful keycap sets. That’s something we’re really trying to get done for customers. And that in and of itself is also a very difficult process.
MC: Yeah, I’d love a way to buy keycaps without either a month for it to come from China or paying a hundred or hundred and fifty for one from Pimp My Keyboard.
SM: Yeah, they’re pretty expensive!
MC: This one’s just for my own satisfaction because I love wireless keyboards. You said you were looking into more aspects of the mechanical keyboard community—are you looking into any wireless options?
SM: We’ve considered it. We actually did look into doing wireless for the GMMK Pro. I’d say it might be more suited for the original GMMK, if we were to refresh that in the future. But from what we’ve seen, people that have a wireless keyboard love to travel with it. And the GMMK Pro weighs about four pounds! I just don’t see many people traveling with that.
MC: Do you build or customize your own keyboard? I think I probably already know the answer to this, but what switches do you use with it?
SM: I use my Glorious Panda switches. That was a passion project that I have had during this year. It started with the Holy Panda craze. That’s what really brought me into keyboards, when I started exploring some of these high-end switches. I’m using them with the GMMK Pro on my desk. That’s my ideal setup that I think a lot of people will love.
The GMMK Pro is up for preorder now, with the first units expected to ship in the first quarter of 2021. It costs $170 for the “barebones” package, which does not include switches in its modular PCB or keycaps.