Mechanical keyboards: KÛL ES-87 TKL review

There is a world that most people know nothing about. It is home to a motley assortment of obsessives. Welcome to the dark and sometimes noisy domain of mechanical keyboard enthusiasts.

I had no idea this subculture existed until my painfully progressing arthritis spurred me to seek out alternatives to the standard Apple keyboard that came with my iMac.

More than a year ago I bought a Code keyboard with Cherry MX blue switches and a Das Keyboard with brown switches. At first I was quite taken with the Das, but it was the Code, retro-fitted with O-rings, that became my main board.

Since then my arthritis has progressed and my knowledge of keyboards advanced – the latter partly because I got sucked into the bizarre rabbit hole that is the mechanical keyboards sub-Reddit. The people there are crazy – I know because I’m one of them.

I haven’t yet got to the point of building my own board, or ordering a custom job. But you know it’s in my future. What it has done is spur me to buy one or two more boards and I thought I’d share my experiences. Today, we’ll look at my most recent purchase.

KÛL ES-87

I saw a lot of recommendations for this keyboard and I haven’t been disappointed. It’s a so-called ‘tenkeyless’ (TKL) design, which means it’s like a full-size board minus the number pad. This is my preferred layout. I’ve never used the number pad much and its presence pushes the mouse further away, which is bad for ergonomics. But I do like having cursor (arrow) keys (an issue we’ll revisit in a later post when I talk about 60% boards). And I also make extensive use of Delete, Page Up and Page Down. The Print Screen, Scroll Lock and Pause keys are just for decoration, but I’m thinking I should install some software that could assign macros to these keys. But that’s for another day.

My Code keyboard, by the way, is also a TKL design, which is how I know I like the form factor so much.

The KÛL ES-87 exudes an air of quality even before you’ve opened the packaging. While the outer case is all plastic, it’s a heavy, sturdy board.

It’s Mac OS X (oh, alright then, macOS) compatible right out of the box (just flip a DIP switch). In fact, I unplugged my beloved Code keyboard, plugged in this one and off I went.

I had to change a few habits. The media keys are enabled by default, which meant that to get to the function keys I had to press FN. I use the function keys a lot and the media keys only occasionally. The solution was a quick trip to macOS System Preferences -> Keyboard in order to enable ‘Use all F1, F2 etc. keys as standard function keys’. Problem sorted.

The standard media keys – back, play/pause, forward, mute, decrease volume and increase volume – are provided on keys F7 to F12. F1 and F2 reduce and increase the screen brightness. This is, to me, a better and more logical arrangement than I had with the Code keyboard, but it’s a small point.

I opted for Cherry MX Brown switches for this board. I already have a Das Keyboard 4C with brown switches. But those are the Greetech clones and they feel cheaper than the genuine MX article.

KÛL has used standard Cherry stabilisers for the larger keys (Enter, Backspace etc), rather than the wire-type Costar mechanisms. Many people complain about Cherry stabilisers feeling ‘mushy’, and some even go to the length of cutting off bits of the stabiliser and adding lube. For my arthritic hands, though, the mushiness is actually a benefit. And having a slightly different feel to these keys, as opposed to the main alphanumeric keys, is useful feedback. I don’t see me wanting to change them.

I bought the KÛL keyboard with the optional red case top. I’m very bored with all-black keyboards. I look at this thing all day and I want some colour dammit. So while the keycaps on the KÛL are okay, they’re a tad thin and the legends are raised, which I’m not sure about. In fact, the text has already started to wear off the left Shift key. These are not keys that are going to stand up to a lot of typing.

The black keys with the red case do, somehow, look quite retro. But they’re hard to read in low light and I’m not a touch typist – I need a lot of handholding from my keycap legends. I plan to replace these keycaps with something spectacular. More on that as soon as the Massdrop group buy I’ve joined finally delivers.

On the positive side, the keycaps have a pleasant surface – somehow silky but also slightly textured. And the Windows keys are marked with an OS-agnostic diamond motif, rather than the Windows logo. As a macOS and Linux user that’s something I appreciate. If you’re happy with black keys you’d probably get along with this just fine.

I’m also planning to add O-rings to the keys – not to reduce noise, as the Brown switches are already reasonably quiet (compared to blues, anyway), but to soften the bottoming-out a little. But that will have to wait until the new keycaps arrive.

Spare keys supplied with the board in case you decide to switch things around.

One nice touch with this board is that you can swap some of the keys around. You can make the Escape and backtick/tilde keys swap functions and the same deal for the left Ctrl and Caps Lock keys as well as the Backspace and backslash/pipe keys. As these pairings involve keys of different sizes – eg, the Backspace is larger than the backslash – KÛL includes spare keycaps in the package to ensure the legends always show the correct functions.

Overall, then, this is a very fine keyboard and quickly replaced the Code as my daily driver. It’s not the cheapest board out there, but it does feel built to last.

BTW, once I’ve reviewed all my current keyboards, I plan to do a round-up looking particularly at how I feel they’ve helped, or not, with my arthritis pain. Stay tuned…

 

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