Are keycaps universal is a question every gamer and mechanical keyboard enthusiast has and will continue to ask. Keycaps are part of the lifeline of a keyboard and that is why manufacturers invest a lot of time into making their colors, shapes, and dimensions as perfect as possible.
However, with the many different types of switches, key layouts, and keycap sets on the market, it’s only normal for one to be confused about whether or not you can just use any keycap on your keyboard with no issues. In this complete guide, our experts will be answering your questions while explaining the necessary factors to look at when getting the ideal keycaps for your keyboard.
Are Keycaps Universal?
No, keycaps are not universal, which means that you can’t use any keycap for any keyboard. You need to make sure the keycap you’re purchasing is suitable for your keyboard by looking at important factors like the layout, spacing, stems, and profile.
– Keycap Differences
Contrary to what many people believe, simply because the dimensions of a keycap set are the same as the keys that you have does not mean that the keycaps will fit the keys. The reason is that some factors, such as the keycap stems, may be different from what your keys have. There are many different factors you need to be aware of in order to purchase the right keycaps for your keys.
These factors include the keyboard switches, keyboard plates, keyboard mount, keycaps, keyboard profile, and keyboard layout. All of these factors work hand-in-hand to provide you with the optimal keyboard experience since most of them depend on each other to work effectively. While your keycaps may be what you notice the most during customization, the aforementioned attributes of your keyboard also play an important role.
If the attributes of your keycaps don’t match what you have on your keyboard, it would be impossible to use the said keycap set. This is the reason why keycaps are not universal. With that said, let’s take a look at the factors that separate one keycap from the other.
– Key Stems
The key stems of a keycap are some of the most important parts you need to consider when buying a new keycap set. Key stems lock the caps down to the keyboard switch, which is located at the bottom part of your keyboard. The stem of your keyboard switch should be identical to the stem of your keycap. The only difference is that the keycap stem will have a hollowed-out shape instead of the full and robust shape of the keyboard switch’s stem.
Since keyboard switches are manufactured by different companies, they all have different shapes and form factors. The ideal keycaps for these switches must have a stem that aligns with their shapes or else the keycaps won’t fit.
For instance, the Cherry MX keycaps switch comes with a stem that has a plus-shaped design, which means that the keycap you use must also have a plus-shaped stem. Using a keycap with a different stem, such as an Alps keycap that comes with a rectangular shape, will render the keycap useless as it won’t fit the plus-shaped stem of the Cherry switches.
Therefore, you need to make sure that your switch’s stem and keycap stem align. Fortunately, many manufacturers include stem information in their product descriptions and some even include pictures so you can compare the stem images with what you have on your keyboard switch.
– Key Profile
The next factor you want to consider when choosing your keycaps set is the key profile. Your keyboard’s key profile simply means the profile shape of its keycaps. Many keycaps look exactly the same when you compare them by their top view.
However, once you place them side by side and look at them from the side view, you’d get a new perspective showing the differences in key profiles. There are many different key profiles, but here are some of the most popular ones:
Keycaps with this profile are designed with a flat surface and are often found on laptops. They come in both high and low profiles so you need to check carefully when making a purchase.
Keys with this profile are low-profile flat keys. They’re commonly used on laptops and unlike flat keys, they only come in low profiles.
Sculpted keys are designed to provide excellent ergonomics, which is why they offer different profiles between rows. A particular number of keys are designated to be in a specific row.
Therefore, you can’t swap out the keycaps that are meant for one row for a different row. You’ll need to make sure you get the ideal keycaps for each row on your keyboard.
Stepped keycaps are also known as staircase keycaps. These keys come with an angled profile in which the top side of the keys is lower than the bottom side. They are designed to fit the plate of angled keyboards.
Key Profile Compatibility
Most manufacturers use the high sculpted profile for their mechanical keyboards. So, you’re likely to find many mechanical keyboards on the market using the sculpted profile.
What you need to keep in mind in terms of compatibility is that the body of a keyboard is often designed in a way that makes it compatible with a specific key profile. Once you identify that key profile, make sure the keycaps you choose have the same profile so you can get a smooth typing experience.
For instance, sculpted keys have both high and low profiles. If you buy a low-profile sculpted keycap and try to attach it to a keyboard designed with high-profile sculpted keys, your keys will sink to the bottom of your keyboard, making the angles look awkward.
While you’d be able to get the profile of the keycap set you’re buying on the manufacturer or product website, you may have a hard time finding the profile of the keycaps currently on your keyboard. Your best bet would be to ask around in community forums as many manufacturers do not reveal information about the keyboards they use on their PCs.
– Key Thickness
Another important factor you want to consider when choosing a keycap set is the key thickness, which simply refers to how thick the edges of your keycaps are. While this factor isn’t something many people talk about, it’s one that causes a lot of problems as it has to do with the keycap fit.
If you don’t have the right thickness, it would be difficult for you to fit your keycaps on your keys. Therefore, you need to carefully examine the thickness of your keycaps and compare them to any other keycaps you may have before making a purchase to avoid unexpected issues.
For instance, if you have standard, thin keycaps that fit snugly on your keyboard, buying thicker keycaps can cause problems like your keys not fitting your gaming keyboard or the keys touching each other, making it difficult for you to type.
– Key Spacing
Key spacing is defined as the distance or space between the midpoint of two neighboring keycaps. The space between them is measured in units; for instance, a regular letter key can be considered to be one unit tall and one unit wide to make up for the space between the keys.
While there’s no specific standard to measure how long or wide a unit is, many manufacturers use about 0.75 inches or 19mm as the standard. However, you can expect the length to be a little different between manufacturers.
If you plan to get the ideal keycaps for your keyboard, you’ll need to know the right measurement for your keycaps in units, including the length and size of your current mechanical keyboard keycaps and the length and size of the keycaps you intend to buy.
This information is somewhat easy to obtain as you can find the dimensions and specifications of the keycap you want to buy on the manufacturer or product page. As for the specifications of the keycaps you already own, you may want to consult your manufacturer’s website or check community pages if you can’t get enough information.
– Key Layout
The key layout of your keyboard simply means how the keys are arranged. This factor is an important one to consider as different layouts tend to have different placements, numbers of keys, sizes, and shapes. The most common layouts you can find on keyboards are the Japanese standard layout known as JIS, US standard layout known as ANSI, and the Europe standard layout known as the ISO.
The ANSI layout has a key between the backspace and enter key, and it often comes with a rectangular enter key. On the other hand, an L-shaped enter key defines the ISO layout and the key that separates the backspace and enter key on the ANSI layout is between the Z and left shift keys on the ISO layout.
While the JIS layout looks like the ISO layout, its uniqueness lies in the fact that it comes with four extra keys. Besides these layouts, there are many less popular Asian layouts that come with large enter keys.
– Key Stabilizers
Stabilizers are components that are located under large keys to keep them stable and prevent them from wobbling. Many standard keys sit pretty well on their switch, however, larger keys that are bigger than 2u tend to have extra spaces around them, which causes them to wobble around. Stabilizers are used to fill these spaces as they’re plugged at both sides of the wobbly keycaps.
There are two main types of stabilizers, including cherry stabilizers and costar stabilizers. Cherry stabilizers are shaped like Cherry MX switches, and thanks to how they’re shaped, these stabilizers are easy to utilize, attach, and remove. On the other hand, costar stabilizers come in a design where the stabilizer bar is fixed directly on the keycap stabilizer inserts, making it difficult to remove or attach the keys.
Due to this difference, Cherry profile keycaps that are compatible with Cherry stabilizers come with extra stems on their sides while those compatible with Costar stabilizers are designed with hooks that make it easy to add the stabilizer bar to them. Since you can tell the difference between both stabilizers just by looking at the bottom part of your keycap, you’d be able to get the right one easily.
– Backlight Compatibility
Backlight compatibility is another factor you need to consider, especially if you plan to buy the keycaps for a gaming rig. The reason is that not all keycaps are backlight compatible. If you add keycaps that aren’t designed for backlighting to your keyboard, you’ll be unable to use any backlight on your keys.
Fortunately, many manufacturers mention whether or not their keycaps are backlight compatible. If you’re unable to find anything related to backlight compatibility on a product page, then it’s safe to assume that the keycaps aren’t backlighted compatible. While it may not seem like a deal breaker, it’ll be best to avoid unexpected disappointment, especially if you plan to use the keycaps for a gaming rig.
– Choosing the Right Keycaps
Now, that you understand the necessary factors to consider when trying to determine the right keycaps, here are the necessary steps to follow when you’ve decided to make a purchase:
- The first thing you want to do is take off one of the keycaps on your keyboard, flip it over, and take a look at the key stem. Get a picture of the keycap you want to purchase and compare the stems of both keycaps.
- Find out the key profiles of the current keycaps on your keyboard and the one you intend to purchase. If you’re a novice or inexperienced, you may find it difficult to identify your keycap profile. So we recommend that you find detailed information about your key profile online.
- Compare the key layout of the keycaps you have on your keyboard and those you intend to buy. If you’re unsure about the one you have, you can make a quick Google image search to compare what you have with other common layouts.
- Take a look at the key spacing value of your keycaps and the ones you intend to buy. If you don’t know what key spacing values you have, you can find charts online that indicate the value for your keyboard.
- While key thickness issues aren’t as common, you still need to pay attention to them. Make sure the keycaps you buy have the same or similar thickness to the ones on your keyboard.
- If you have a big key on your keyboard or keys that use stabilizers, pull one of them out and check the type of stabilizer they’re fitted with. Make sure the stabilizer of the new keycaps matches those on your keyboard.
- If your current keycaps are backlit, then it’ll only make sense to purchase keycaps that are backlight compatible. Carefully go through the product page or manufacturer website to determine whether or not the keycaps have backlight compatibility.
With our guide above, you can see that buying keycaps is more than just checking out the dimensions. Here’s a quick summary to make sure you have all you need to make a good buying decision:
- You can only change keycaps on mechanical keyboards, not membrane keyboards.
- Keycaps are not universal so don’t just purchase any keycap for your keyboard.
- Cherry stabilizers are easier to attach and remove than Costar stabilizers.
- Make sure you check for the right profile when purchasing your keycaps.
- There’s no specific standard for keycap spacing so you may need to measure the space between two keys yourself.
While keycaps may not be universal, finding the right keycaps for your keyboard shouldn’t be difficult. Just make sure that you carefully and patiently follow the steps we’ve outlined above and you’ll be able to get the ideal keycap set for your keyboard.