Where the Journey Began:
I’ve never had particularly strong feelings about keyboards. Even at the heights of the butterfly keyboard MacBooks, it never struck me as a particularly bad typing experience (the hardware failures, stuck keys, and repeating inputs though those were bad). The default keyboard for most computers was typically fine for me. But something has caused me to change my tune a little bit.
What started this was my decision to upgrade my 2015 MacBook Pro, and I’ve been leaning toward the M1 Mac Mini. My MacBook Pro is still performing very well, and likely will for many years to come. But as I’ve started doing more video editing for YouTube, I’ve been hitting slow downs. This MacBook was not specced for heavy graphics or video creation use when I originally bought it, I can see Apple’s support window for it ending on the horizon, and with the mobile tasks being mostly handled by my iPad I don’t need as much portability from my Mac. I can save some money, spec out a Mac Mini, and get just as much (if not more) bang for my buck.
But with this decision comes the need to purchase some of the accessories that don’t come with the little desktop including a new keyboard (which Apple has chosen not to provide with the Mini). While looking through keyboards, I stumbled upon this video from Answer in Progress. It was really fun to watch, and I started looking into the world of mechanical keyboards. Even as I thought about it there was something satisfying about the sound and feel of typing on a mechanical keyboard. It reminded me of working on my parents’ old bulky Gateway desktop PC writing papers and playing games on it when I was a kid. Even the sound of typing on those computers felt more productive (whether or not it actually is is another story).
So I decided to purchase a mechanical keyboard. It needed to have a Bluetooth option, be Mac native, and I wanted to have the media function row keys like the stock Mac keyboards have. That led me to the Keychron K8-87.
Another upfront, I’m not a mechanical keyboard expert. I’m writing this from my decision process and personal preferences. If you’re OK with a newbie’s experience with mechanical keyboards, then this should be fine. But if you want deeper dives into this hobby, then I would encourage you to check out some other resources.
The Keychron K8 is a tenkeyless keyboard (meaning it doesn’t have a number pad on the right side). The base model comes in a plastic case with soldered switches for about $60. Upgrading to the aluminum case will set you back an additional $10, as will getting the hot-swappable switches. The switches are the mechanism that is actually the keys up and down when you press them. Hot-swappable means that you can pull these switches out by hand and replace them whenever you want.
Keychron provides you with 3 choices of switches: red, blue, and brown (optical if you stick with the non-swappable, Gateron if you go hot-swappable). If you don’t know what these colors means, don’t worry. I didn’t either before getting this keyboard. The Keychron website has a nice little table on the product page highlighting the important similarities and differences. In short, red switches are the smoothest typing experience and the most quiet of the three options (not Apple keyboard quiet, it’s still very mechanical sounding). Browns are a little louder and give a little more tactile pop or push feedback when you type. Blues are the loudest of the three and give even more of a tactile response when typing. There are more details than this (and more types), so I’d recommend reading something like this guide from Switch and Click to learn more (and check out their channel too).
The keyboard goes for an old school gray and beige look with the lone bit of color coming from the red escape key. It does not have a backlight, which saves on cost but also means you’ll have to use this in a well lit environment (and you won’t be able to show off your cool color changing rainbow array of keys). For the office I’m working in, that’s not really a concern, but you may need to look at a different model if you need backlight.
On the left side of the keyboard you’ve got the USB-C port for charging or using it in cable only mode. Personally I would have preferred the charging port to be on the top as coming from the side feels a little off. Next to the port are two switches. One will let you switch the K8 off or turn it on into wired or wireless mode. There’s another switch that will let you switch between Mac/iOS mode and Windows/Android mode. See the K8 comes with the Mac keyboard layout preinstalled (a plus for me), but includes the Windows key caps as well. If you want to use the K8 with a PC or Android, you can pop the key caps off and swap the Mac Command and Option keys with the Windows logo and Alt keys. But the order of those keys are different on a Windows and Mac keyboard, so the switch on the side will rearrange the inputs in the firmware to match the key caps you want to use and not mess with your keyboard shortcut muscle memory. Pretty handy.
Linux fans take note that while the keyboard should work, Keychron doesn’t have full official support. Instead they recommend you go to their Linux keyboard group on Facebook for assistance. There are about 5000 members in that group according to FB, and it looks pretty active.
Another reason you might need these switches is because the K8 has not just 1, but 3 Bluetooth connections. That means you can connect it with up to 3 different devices that support Bluetooth keyboards. I can move this keyboard around between my iMac, iPad, and another device just by hitting the “FN” and either the 1, 2, or 3 command to bind it.
As mentioned earlier, the function keys are already premapped and ordered in the same way as stock Apple keyboards, meaning you get keys for screen brightness, Mission Control and Launchpad, media control, and volume in that order (no keyboard brightness since there’s no backlight here). The function row includes 3 additional function keys that are bound to special functions on Mac and Windows. The first key is the screenshot key, which brings up each platform’s respective screenshot selection tool so you can highlight the part of the screen you want to capture. The second key is the voice assistant key to trigger Siri on Mac and Cortana on Windows. Honestly not the most useful key, and I didn’t use it in my testing since I never really use Siri on my Mac. The last key is the screen lock key, which will instantly send the keybinding command to lock the screen for your respective platform. This is a key that is platform dependent too; if you are on a Mac and have the switch set to the Windows layout, the keyboard will send “Windows + L” as a keyboard shortcut, which likely will just highlight your browsers’ address bar (or whatever other app you’re in at the moment) when in Mac mode. You can’t remap these controls as they’re bound in the firmware of the machine, but for my needs 2 out of the three buttons are still really useful.
I ended up personally choosing the aluminum frame with the red switches. The aluminum frame is for aesthetics (it’s a Mac so all the aluminum) and for environmental factors (just less plastic when possible). I don’t care for the clicky feedback as much, but I also don’t need the loudest keys. This was going to be used first in my shared office space at my day job then later in the new apartment where I and my soon to be wife will be living. As a result I went with the Red keys. I chose the hot-swappable version as well partially for the repairability and in case I ever change my mind on the switches. I chose to use it for about a month for my day job and writing for this blog before making this review.
Setup was pretty easy and straightforward on my Mac, no differences with any other wireless keyboard. At first I had issues with key spacing. Compared to the stock Apple keyboard the K8’s keys are closer together, and for a while my fingers would slide over and hit the wrong keys or hit multiple keys due to muscle memory. After a few days of regular use this tendency mostly went away and will likely happened to anyone switching to a slightly different keyboard layout. One of the things that helped was slowing down my typing speed a bit. It took conscious effort, but doing so allowed me to get a better feel for the keys and their placement, limiting the unconscious sliding my fingers tended to do between some of the keys until I got a better feel for the keyboard.
The K8 sits significantly higher off the table than the Apple keyboard. It comes with a nested set of feet near the front to help you adjust the angle of your keyboard if you sit a bit low to the desk. I haven’t need it so far because my typing posture is pretty even and steady, and when I stopped typing my wrists are either mostly poised correctly or off the keyboard entirely. Even so it’s worth considering a good palm rest if you’re coming from a lower profile keyboard.
I chose to use the keyboard primarily in Bluetooth. I didn’t have any issues when typing on the keyboard with responsiveness or missed inputs, everything performed exactly as expected with Intel iMac. I noticed on an M1 Mac Mini that it occasionally lost connection while typing, almost like it went to sleep while typing, but turning off Bluetooth’s sleep mode seemed to solve this. Speaking of which, the most consistent issue I had was with said Bluetooth sleep mode. By default the keyboard will shut off the antenna to save on battery after its been inactive for at least 10 minutes. Tapping on any key will wake it up and let it reconnect. If you’re coming from any other other always-active keyboard, though, you’ll notice some delay in your machine waking up: you’ll have one key press to wake up the keyboard and another to subsequently wake up the Mac. You can turn sleep mode off avoid this delay, but there is no way to change the amount of time before the keyboard went to sleep. While I chose to keep the sleep feature on to preserve battery life (before having the disconnection issue on my M1), I’d like to see Keychron make dedicated app to let you control these features in the firmware. Whether that’s possible with the way the board is designed and built may put this out of reach, but that’s something that I don’t know.
Let’s talk about the battery since I mentioned it. I decided beforehand not to plug in the keyboard until it needed to charge. The one exception I made was when working with another Mac in the office, and I used the K8 in wired mode long enough to setup that machine (about 5 minutes connected). All in all the battery lasted about a month, but don’t take that too strictly. I have no way of knowing what my keyboard’s battery was at before I started using it. This lack of a battery indicator is an issue I have with the machine. There isn’t a way in software on my Mac to check the battery level. This seems to be the case on Windows too, while some Linux users say GNOME’s built-in Bluetooth menu will show the battery level. The only indicator I have is the charging light, and I don’t think it worked. The charging light is supposed to blink red when it gets to around 15% battery remaining, but I never had it happen before the battery died. The light seemed to work though because it glowed solid red when charging then turned green when it was fully charged.
Lastly, if you like mechanical keyboards, you probably want to know how it sounds and feels. As mentioned before I chose the Gateron Red switches to avoid being too noisy for the sake of those around me. I also chose to not put in any other modifications such as custom caps, switches, or even foam to get the basic experience. During that time it did not annoy my coworkers. Even when explicitly asked, they said it didn’t bother them. At most it only let them know I was in the office and active if they hadn’t heard me come in. The keys still had a satisfying click and sound to them as I typed. Some keys did have a shallower sound with the arrow keys being the best example of this. Only a few had a slightly deeper sound to them, namely the tab and spacebar. I presume this is partially due to their size, but some of the other larger keys like shift and enter didn’t have a similar effect to me. The only truly odd thing I experienced was that I felt I could hear more of the switch springs when I had my headphones on than with them off. This wasn’t really a consistent thing, but without my headphones I never noticed this effect while typing.
All of the keys felt equally responsive both in input on screen and in physical feel. I didn’t apply any lubrication out of the box (again wanted to get the stock feel), yet even so all the keys felt smooth when coming back up as well as when they were pressed. The key caps had a little wiggle to them, but nothing that I hadn’t experienced from other non-Apple keyboards, and it wasn’t anything that I felt impacted my work. That tactile feel, though not the clicky kind, felt satisfying to the touch and to the ear. If you want to hear what the keyboard sounds like, I’ll have a little video down below later demonstrating what it sounds like to type on and a sampling of some of the other keys as well.
The keycaps were not too difficult to remove, though it does feel like you’re going to break something by doing so. This feels even more so with the switches which seems to be standard across the board (pun intended) for mechanical keyboards, and Keychron includes a nice tools for helping you remove the switches.
A keyboard is still a very personal choice; whether you need the number pad, to its ergonomics and key layout, to the switches used in the design is all very personal. If you are looking for a good Bluetooth mechanical keyboard with native Mac functionality but the flexibility to be used almost anywhere else, then I would recommend the K8.
You can find the keyboard on the Keychron website starting at $59 for the plastic, non-hot-swappable model with any color switches you want. My aluminum, hot-swappable version is available for $79 from their site. You can also buy it on Amazon, though it’s goes for $10 more for all models (i.e. my model instead cost $89).