Mechanical keyboards are the go-to keyboard for gamers and enthusiasts and offer almost endless possibilities when it comes to customizations. One of the popular customizations of mechanical gaming keyboard and mechanical keyboard enthusiasts is replacing the keycaps. In this guide, we will go into the various types of keycaps and explain the difference between the most popular choices: ABS and PBT keycaps.
Types of Keycaps
There are many types of keycaps, and we will only go through the most used keycaps in this guide.
Plastic is the material that is most often used in keycaps, but plastic comes in many variants.
Here are some of the most used plastic materials in mechanical keyboards:
- ABS – Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene
- PBT – Polybutylene Terephthalate
- POM – Polyoxymethyleneor or “Delrin”
- PC – PolyCarbonate
Besides this, the keycaps can be rubber coated or made of other materials like resin or metal keycaps.
In this guide, we will focus on the most popular keycaps for gaming; ABS, PBT, and rubber keycaps.
Most modern types are cylindrical, but older keyboards can have spherical key shapes.
Vendors have different profiles, but a popular profile is a sculptured profile where the keys vary from the bottom row to the top row.
When talking about key profiles, you will often hear these two mentioned:
- OEM profile (Filco height keys)
- Cherry profile (lower in profile)
The stem is the plastic part that connects the switch to the keycap.
The key stems will vary by switch type, so make sure you choose keycaps that are compatible with the switches you want to use.
The most popular key stems are probably the ones used by Cherry MX switches (Cheery MX compatible stems).
Popular stems by switch type:
- Cherry MX switches
- Topre switches
- Alps switches
- Rubber Dome switches
Comparison of ABS, PBT, and Rubber Keycaps
This is the overall comparison between ABS, PBT, and rubber keycaps. Later in the article, we will go into more detail of each type of keycaps.
Please note that this is a generalization of the keycaps, and there might be options that do not fit the descriptions.
|ABS keycaps||PBT keycaps||Rubber keycaps|
|Strength and durability||Very durable (40 MPa). Paint can fade over time and create a glossy look.||The strongest and most durable keycaps (50 MPa). Due to not being painted, the keycaps do not fade.||Due to the rubber surface, the keycaps need more care.|
|Feel||Usually smooth, can over time feel “moist” (becomes greasy faster than PBT keycaps).||More texturized/rough surface compared to most ABS keycaps, which gives a slightly better grip. Feels dryer than ABS (doesn’t get greasy).||Vary a lot, very different from ABS and PBT. Texturized rubber surface gives the best grip.|
|Look||ABS keycaps have the most noticeable font and RGB capability due to being easier to engrave. Gets glossy over time with wear, especially the keycaps that are used the most (WASD).||Poor font (compared to ABS) and less RGB shine through (and more leak through). Does not wear and get glossy like ABS keycaps.||Stands out / “aggressive” look. Mainly used for gaming. RGB can make it hard to see the font.|
|Cost||The cheapest keycaps to manufacture||In general, double shot PBT keycaps are the most expensive keycaps in this comparison||Varies a lot, you can get super cheap and more expensive rubber keycaps. Overall more expensive than ABS keycaps.|
Plastic keycaps with paint. Font engraved with laser.
ABS: 40 MPa (megapascal)
PBT: 50 MPa (megapascal)
The strength of ABS and PBT keycaps are very similar. However, due to paint, there is a durability issue with ABS keycaps; with use, the paint becomes shinier.
The feel of ABS keycaps varies a lot depending on the paint. Usually, the feel is very smooth. With use, the feel becomes “moisty”, and sometimes even greasy which can be annoying. Harder to clean than PBT.
ABS keycaps are painted and the font is then made with a laser. This makes it easy to make very bold and clear fonts, which is good for RGB lightning.
ABS keycaps can also be double shot, which will have the same advantages and disadvantages as for PBT keycaps. More specifically, this will not be as good for RGB lightning.
ABS keycaps are overall the cheapest keycaps to manufacturer and buy.
Another type of plastic keycaps. They are not painted and thus will not become shiny.
A little stronger than ABS (10 MPa), but has a lower fractal resistance (more prone to shattering compared to ABS keycaps, however, this will only happen if you hit them with a hammer).
Great durability and there is no paint that will begin to wear off. Therefore, they keep their color longer.
The feel depends on the manufacturer. Overall, PBT has a rougher/more texturized surface compared to most ABS keycaps. Feels rougher and “dryer” and doesn’t get greasy the same way as painted ABS keycaps.
Feels great when typing and gaming (arguable this will depend on personal preference).
The look can be a little different, as there are different PBT keycaps. Also, RGB capabilities vary:
- Pudding (good RGB)
- Shine through (decent RGB)
- Top print (minimal RGB)
It is more difficult to make fonts with PBT keycaps due to the double shot process.
The double shot process is how the keycaps are molded, which is done with double injection.
Quality of this process varies; HyperX has some pretty good keycaps for RGB lightning (less leak through).
Double shot PBT keycaps are overall the most expensive keycaps in this comparison. This is mostly due to the double shot process that requires double injection molding, whereas ABS keycaps are just painted and then laser engraved.
Plastic keycaps with a rubber coating.
Usually, rubber keycaps do not come as full sets, but as a set of 8 or 18. Rubber keycaps can have a texturized surface and are often used for gaming.
In general, the keycaps are made of plastic like the two others, so they are very durable. However, the rubber coating will require more care compared to the other keycaps and might wear down quicker.
Due to the surface texture and rubber, the feel varies a lot. Overall, they feel is very different from ABS and PBT keycaps.
You can get surfaces with patterns, which will make your grip better than the other keycaps (ABS and PBT).
Stands out more compared to ABS and PBT. Usually have very texturized surfaces.
RGB: Can have heavy RGB leak through, making it hard to distinguish the font.
Rubber keycaps are generally more expensive than ABS keycaps, but the price can vary a lot.
Best Keycaps Overall
Now that we have gone through some of the most popular keycaps, what are the best keycaps then? This question is hard to answer, and in many cases, it will depend on personal preference.
However, in our opinion, one type of keycap stands out; the double shot PBT keycaps.
Reasons the double shot PBT keycaps are the best:
- They are more durable and does not wear like the ABS painted keycaps
- They do not get glossy over time
- The rough/minimally texturized surface makes them less greasy
- The rough surface gives them a slightly better grip, at the same time the grip is not too hard like on rubber keycaps
Best Keycaps for Gaming
Like with the best overall keycaps, the best keycap for gaming also depends on personal preference. Some people prefer a smoother surface.
In our opinion, the double shot PBT keycaps also win in this category.
The reasons are mainly the same as mentioned previously. The keycaps do not get as smooth as the ABS keycaps and the grip is slightly better, without being grippy like rubber keycaps.
In our opinion, this makes the best keycaps.
Do you agree with our choice, feel free to leave a comment, and join the discussion.
Also, make sure to read our reviews of mechanical keyboards.