Keychron’s new mechanical keyboard, the Q1, has achieved something very impressive. It’s taken the kinds of features and level of quality normally reserved for expensive, assembly-required custom keyboards sold in limited runs, and made it available in a single, beginner-friendly package.
Those high-quality features include support for open-source firmware that allows the keyboard’s layout and functionality to be endlessly customized, hot-swappable switches that let you change its typing feel without having to do any soldering, and a level of construction that’s miles ahead of most mainstream keyboards at this $169 price point.
It’s this focus on a more premium construction that’s new territory for Keychron, a company that’s made a name for itself offering relatively affordable mechanical keyboards packed with user-friendly features like wireless Bluetooth connectivity and convenient support for both Mac and Windows.
The Q1 sits halfway between Keychron’s mainstream roots and these more premium custom keyboards. It’s not wireless, and it’s also not as affordable as Keychron’s previous keyboards. But it’s also a package that you should eventually be able to buy without the kind of hassle and lead times that can come with many niche keyboard purchases. Keychron might not be a household name in the same way as Corsair or Logitech, but browse its site and you’ll find that most of its keyboards are currently in stock and ready to ship.
It all makes the Keychron Q1 a very easy mechanical keyboard to recommend.
The Keychron Q1 is a 75-percent aluminum keyboard, which means it has about as many keys as a typical laptop keyboard, including a function row. It’s available as a complete package for $169 in black, gray, or blue, with matching ABS double-shot keycaps. Otherwise, you can opt for a $149 bare-bones model that doesn’t come with switches or keycaps, but that only saves you $20 which doesn’t seem worthwhile to me. Unless you’ve already got switches and keycaps lying around, I’d personally just go for a fully assembled version. You can easily swap out both the caps and switches later, and hardware to easily remove both is included in the box, no soldering required. One exception is if you’re in Europe and want an ISO version of the keyboard — this version is only available as a bare-bones kit.
The Q1’s design will look instantly familiar to anyone who’s laid eyes on a GMMK Pro, a popular keyboard released earlier this year. One notable difference is that at the moment the Q1 doesn’t have the option to install a rotary knob on its top right, which the GMMK Pro includes to act as a volume control, but which can also be remapped to fill a variety of other functions. Keychron says it will eventually sell a version of the Q1 with a similar rotary knob in October for $179, but it’s not available at launch and won’t be available as an aftermarket upgrade for existing Q1s.
Instead, on the top right you have the option of including an extra key or swapping it out for a small square plate with a design of your choice printed on it. I’d prefer the extra key, personally.
Rounding out the physical tour, on the top left you’ll find a physical switch to put the keyboard in its Mac and Windows modes (keycaps for both come in the box, as is standard with Keychron’s keyboards). On the bottom there are four feet to stop the board sliding around on a desk, but there are no height adjustable feet. Their absence didn’t bother me.
The Q1’s design and construction is a pretty big departure from Keychron’s previous keyboards, which have been made out of cheaper, lighter materials but have also included user-friendly extras like Bluetooth support and height-adjustable feet. The Q1 might not be as feature rich, but its overall build quality is on another level from Keychron’s other boards. I generally think it’s a mistake to equate “heavy” tech with “high-quality” tech, but in this case the Q1’s heavy-duty construction absolutely makes it feel more premium.
Spend any time on mechanical keyboard forums and you’ll quickly discover that there are a host of mods people like to make to their keyboards, either to make them feel nicer to type on, sound better, or just look plain cool. What’s special about the Keychron Q1 isn’t that it’s doing anything particularly new, but that it comes with a number of the most common mods applied.
Its USB cable is the most obvious example. One of the easiest modifications most people make for their keyboards is to replace the boring USB cable that comes in the box with something more interesting, maybe covered in a nice braided fabric, curled into a coil, or with a completely excessive aviator connector halfway down the line. Well, that’s exactly the cable that comes as standard with the Q1. I’ve never personally been a fan of over-engineered cables like these, but judging by users on Reddit, I’m in the minority. At least it doesn’t affect the way the cable works.
Elsewhere, there are more examples of typically aftermarket mods being included as standard. Look at the Q1’s Gateron-manufactured screw-in PCB stabilizers (the mechanisms under longer keys like the spacebar that stop them from wobbling), and you’ll see that lube has been applied to reduce their rattling, which is another tweak people recommend for your keyboard. I imagine most enthusiasts will want to tweak the amount of lubricant to get exactly the sound they prefer, but for me the amount that came applied did a great job at reducing the clatter they can otherwise produce.
The Gateron “Phantom” switches that come with the board also have lubricant applied, in the hope of making them feel smoother to type on. The switches are available in a typical selection of linear red, tactile brown, and clicky blue varieties, and I used the brown versions for the majority of my time with the board. Despite the Phantom branding, it was hard to tell the switches apart from regular Cherry MX Browns, with that ever-so-slight tactile bump that you either love or absolutely hate. I’m a proud member of the former group.
The most common modification people tend to make to their keyboards is with the keycaps, and unfortunately I don’t have an answer for you about whether Keychron’s stock keycaps can live up to the quality of aftermarket alternatives. I didn’t get a review sample of the ABS caps that Keychron provides with fully assembled versions of the Q1. Instead, I’ve been using one of Keychron’s $40 sets made out of a more durable PBT plastic. They’re not perfect, but for this price, I think you could do a lot worse. I have no problems with the durability of the keycaps, but look closely and you’ll see that the printing of their legends isn’t great, and there’s a kind of haziness to them that almost looks like the ink is bleeding out into the area around each letter.
In contrast, ABS (which is what the keycaps that actually come with the keyboard are made out of) generally has a reputation for being less durable than PBT, thanks to the way it can develop a shine over time with use. But considering they only come in at a $20 premium alongside a set of switches, I think it makes sense to grab a set.
No compact keyboard layout is going to be perfect for everyone, so it’s great that the Keychron Q1’s layout is completely customizable. Better yet, it’s customizable thanks to its support for QMK, a powerful open-source firmware standard that’s compatible with a plethora of different configuration software. Keychron recommends using the software Via to configure the Q1’s layout, which is generally a well-designed and user-friendly piece of software to use.
The one criticism I have about the customization process is that it’s a little unintuitive how it works when you’re using the keyboard in its Windows mode. If you want to alter the layout used when the keyboard’s in its “Windows” mode (there’s a small switch labeled Mac / Windows on the top left of the board), you’ll need to adjust “Layer 2” in Via or your QMK software of choice, which isn’t obvious at first glance.
The Q1 also technically has an RGB LED built into each one of its switches, but this is not the keyboard to get if you want an obnoxious glowing object on your desk. None of Keychron’s keycap options have any transparency to allow light to shine through them, and the case itself doesn’t leave much room for light to shine through. You’re left with what small amount of light is able to bleed through the thin gaps between the keycaps, which suits me just fine as someone who turns off the lighting on every keyboard he uses anyway.
There’s a lot going into the typing experience of the Keychron Q1. There are the aforementioned pre-lubed switches, as well as the fact that its circuit board is mounted on a gasket rather than being screwed into the case, giving it a slight amount of flex as you type. And then there’s the keyboard’s heavy 3.5Ib (1.6kg) construction, which keeps it firmly planted on your desk as you type.
I’m not going to pretend to know which of these deserves most of the credit for the overall feel of the Keychron Q1. All I know is that this keyboard offers the best out-of-the-box typing experience of any keyboard I’ve ever used, and it’s in a different league from most mainstream keyboards at this price point.
Typing has a wonderfully crisp and clean feel to it, accentuated by the lack of rattle coming from the space bar. I think it sounds great to type on with the tactile brown switches I’ve been using. It’s the kind of keyboard that’s a joy to use every single day, regardless of whether you’re writing thousands of words of copy, gaming, or anything in between.
I think a lot of people are going to be very happy with the way the Keychron Q1 feels as stock, but it’s also a pretty easy keyboard to mod yourself. Keychron provides a small Allen wrench in the box, which grants easy access to the internals of the keyboard via the eight screws on its underside, and there are extra gaskets and foam if you want to experiment to get a different sound and feel from the board. It’s a fairly painless process to disassemble the keyboard, though you’ll need to be careful about the small ribbon cable that connects the main circuit board to the smaller board that houses the USB-C connector. Ultimately, this feels like a keyboard that’s designed to be taken apart, unlike many other keyboards which have scary-looking warranty stickers that you have to break to access key screws.
Halfway through writing this review, a colleague sent me a message asking for a keyboard recommendation, and without hesitating I recommended the Keychron Q1. Short of being wireless, it basically does everything you could want from a compact mechanical keyboard. It’s easy to swap out its switches, it’s easy to customize its layout, and it’s a dream to type on.
The Q1 has been compared to the kinds of custom keyboards that can cost multiple hundreds of dollars, and nearly all of which require some assembly by the end user. But obviously it’s never going to be better than these boards, not out of the box. Not because of any lack of build quality, but because it’s that little bit of self assembly that truly tailors a custom keyboard to your exact needs.
With a little work, a little bit of lube here, or some switch upgrades there, I’m sure the Q1 could approach the level of quality of some of these custom boards, and Keychron’s design is happy to accommodate tinkerers. But I think what’s most impressive is how close the Q1 gets as standard. It’s an amazing keyboard for someone who just wants to buy something fully assembled and without a lengthy waiting period. Unless you’re dead-set on a wireless keyboard or you need the extra keys afforded by a larger model, the Keychron Q1 is an easy choice to make.
Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge