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How to choose the right size and layout mechanical keyboard

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The multitude of options available in the mechanical keyboard world can be extremely daunting for a newcomer to the hobby. This article (and subsequent posts) will explore the various aspects to consider, along with a brief analysis of those key factors.  Topics include: 
Size and Layout
General Size and Layout considerations If you’re new to mechanical keyboards, chances are your current or old keyboard is a standard full-size membrane keyboard. This layout and form factor has probably worked well enough for you until now, so you might be wondering - why should I need a smaller keyboard or a different layout at all? For most people there are two main reasons to deviate from the tried-and-true full-size keyboard layout; ergonomics and aesthetics (primarily minimalism).  40% and Smaller
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Image credit: @davephoto If you’re particularly hardcore about minimizing desk space usage and maximizing ergonomics (without venturing into split ergo designs), a 40% or smaller keyboard might be right for you. These layouts remove as many keys from the keyboard as physically possible, leaving only the main alpha cluster and the necessary modifier keys to retain functionality.  The magic of 40% keyboards lies in their use of Function Layers - allowing the user to hold one of a few Function keys to unlock a hidden layer of keys below the visible alpha layer. This is where number keys, F-keys, and the Insert/Delete, PgUp/PgDn, Home/End cluster live, on a variety of user-defined layers tailored to their specific application and typing style.  While the use of function layers may seem daunting at first, many 40% users become so accustomed to the quick layer access that they can’t imagine going back to a larger keyboard. With every possible action contained in such a small footprint, there is very little hand movement to reach each key, and function layers become second nature.  The earliest 40% keyboard example that I’m aware of is the JD40 project from jdcarpe, with many designers and community members iterating on the design in the years since. One recent example which includes an integrated numpad is the Candybar from thekey.company. 60% and HHKB
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Image credit: @Sleepybeats For those feeling a little intimidated by the 40% layout and potential learning curve, the 60% layout might be the ideal middle ground. Expanding outward in size from the smaller 40%, 60% keyboards add back in the number row above the main alpha cluster. This provides users with the core functionality that most would need for day to day use, with the only major omission being the arrow cluster (some 60% keyboards do feature a squished arrow cluster, but this is less common).  Since this layout design is missing the F-row and Ins/Del cluster, at least one function layer is required to accomplish the full bevy of tasks expected from a keyboard. However, the larger base footprint and closer key positioning to the standard full-size keyboard that most users are coming from means that the friction to learn the new layout and function layer system is a bit easier when compared to the 40%.  Much like the 40% layout, all smaller layouts, including 60%, offer some amount of ergonomic benefits as a result of their reduced footprint. Minimizing reach and hand distortion as well as allowing the mouse to be placed closer to the keyboard allow for a more natural overall use of the keyboard. Again much like the 40% layout described above, the generally small layout of a 60% keyboard also reduces desk space utilization and can improve overall aesthetics as a result.  One of the first mainstream 60% keyboards was the Poker II from KBC, and the layout has seen countless iterations in the years since (and before, to lesser notoriety).  A very close relative to the standard 60% layout is the HHKB layout, popularized by the Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB) manufactured by PFU, and adapted by a handful of MX-compatible keyboards over the years. One such custom keyboard to use the HHKB layout is the Tokyo60 Keyboard Kit, designed in collaboration with Tokyo65%
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Image credit: @OldCat The difference between 65% and 60% is small, but significant. The 65% layout is ever-so-slightly wider, in order to incorporate a standard arrow cluster in the lower right corner (as well as a small Delete, PgUp, and/or PgDn cluster in some cases). The ergonomic and desk space benefits of a 65% keyboard are almost identical to those of a 60% keyboard, and the main key omissions are the same (no F-row, Ins/Del cluster, or numpad).  In recent years, the 65% layout has taken over the small keyboard landscape, becoming the favorite for many users over the 60% layout. Dedicated arrow keys are non-negotiable to many users, it would seem. Some popular offerings include the Keychron K6, Ducky One SF, and our own Drop ALT75%
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Image credit: Drop.com Working up in size leads us to the 75% layout, the latest to explode in popularity and growth of the platform. This layout builds on the 65% layout mentioned above, adding back the Function row to give a great sweet spot of functionality while remaining relatively small on the desk. If you absolutely must have a full function row of keys and want the smallest layout which achieves that, this layout might be ideal for you.  Most common 75% keyboards will also feature some small gaps between clusters of keys, which helps to avoid mis-presses when reaching beyond the main alpha cluster. In addition, thanks to the slightly larger size, many 75% layouts include a rotary encoder knob which can be programmed for a variety of functions (volume control, scrolling, skipping tracks, etc).  Notable 75% keyboards include the GMMK Pro, Keychron K2 and Q1, and our newly-released Drop SENSE75TKL (Tenkeyless)
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Image credit: @J_Willi One step up from the 75% layout takes us to the Tenkeyless size (sometimes referred to as 80%) - arguably the most common keyboard size in the world of mechanical keyboards. It doesn’t take much explanation to understand why, either.  As the name suggests, a Tenkeyless layout is the same as a standard full-size keyboard, minus the “tenkey” or numpad section. Since many regular computer users have no use for the dedicated number cluster, it has been the easiest section of the keyboard to remove and retain near-full functionality for a majority of users.  Most manufacturers of mechanical keyboards will offer at least one TKL option - Ducky One 2 TKL, Logitech G Pro X, and our own Drop CTRL, to name a few.  1800
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Image credit: @HoffmanMyster For those of us who do a lot of data entry or number-crunching, having a full numpad/tenkey on a keyboard is an absolute must. A standard full-size keyboard that you’re surely used to seeing (any of those rubber membrane keyboards that came with your computer) would fit the bill for that need, but we can do just a little bit better in terms of desk space utilization.   The 1800 layout, first introduced in the form of Cherry’s G80-1800 keyboards, squishes the entire full-size keyboard layout into a footprint just larger than a standard TKL keyboard. If data entry and other numpad tasks are a regular occurrence for you, the 1800 layout should be at the top of your list.  Unfortunately for fans of the 1800 layout, there are not nearly as many off-the-shelf offerings available in this size. Some available options include the classic Cherry G80-1800, Keychron Q5, and of course our own Drop SHIFTFull-Size
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Image credit: @MightyJabba Full-size keyboards are the “default” layout option that most people will be very familiar with. These keyboards include the full option of keys, including F-row, Ins/Del cluster, and Numpad. If you are used to this layout and don’t want to change, consider picking up a mechanical keyboard in the full-size layout.  Like the TKL above, full-size keyboards are available from most manufacturers - options include the WASD V3, Ducky One 2, and GMMK Full-Size122-Key (“Battleship”)
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Image credit: @Data Is the full-size layout just not big enough for your needs? If so, it might be time to up-size to the “Battleship” layout - a nod to the classic 122-key IBM Model M keyboards of a few decades ago. While not widely available commercially these days (it is a far more niche layout), you can still find these keyboards with buckling spring switches at Unicomp, Twin Data, or on eBay and other auction sites. Cherry MX-compatible keyboards in this layout are few and far between, typically relegated to group buys or other small-scale production runs. Edit: Formatting
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kwinz
3
Nov 3, 2022
Not gonna buy an ANSI keyboard. ISO layout FTW. Not even mentioned in the article 👎
filefish
1607
Nov 3, 2022
kwinzFor me, it's no ISO, no buy-O. Life's too short to type on ANSI.
sugarkats
3
Oct 10, 2022
Great article, but another 75% you could include is the Keydous NJ80, considered by some as the best budget option. (Plus it's sold right here on Drop lol)
Maple38
3
Oct 4, 2022
Nice article, would have been cool to have the 96% included too though. I feel like those are the perfect sweet spot between numpad and no numpad, because they are so compact. Having desk space usage measurements would be cool too.
Maple38Oh I like the desk space utilization idea... Average sq inches or cm of each size, along with rough width and height to expect would be nice to include. And the 96% compared to 1800 is so similar that I didn't give it its own category. But absolutely worth at the very least calling out 96% by name - thank you for the feedback!
ViXoZuDo
123
Oct 3, 2022
Those are not layouts, those are sizes... the layout is only ANSI, ISO and their variations (azerty, qwerty, etc)...
ViXoZuDoPeople commonly refer to keyboards as "60% layout", "full-size layout", etc. While you are probably historically/technically correct, this is in-line with colloquial usage of the term.
ViXoZuDo
123
Oct 3, 2022
HoffmanMyster You're writing an article... the technical aspect should be right one to not generate more misinformation.
WandersFar
82
Sep 28, 2022
I appreciate that you started small and worked your way up. Usually layout posts go the other way, starting with the full-size and rationalizing why each element could be removed. But I think the way you presented the information is more logical, starting with what’s absolutely essential, and then the optional keys that are added with each size up. The only thing I might mention are the Gherkin / Dilly and Butterstick, and perhaps a nod to steno boards. But other than that, I’d say your post is pretty comprehensive.
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