By now you should know that I’m a retro-junkie. Signature Plastics SA keycaps are the closest we can ask to a vintage looking set but I’ve always seen it as an “hack”, not to mention that it is mostly an ABS set.
Few years ago Topre released the Hi-Pro keyboard which featured a wonderful set of high profile keycaps in a retrolucious beige colorway. I knew it had to be mine!
The keyboard was indeed sexy but the keycaps seemed still wrong, too high, too sharp and anyway still limited to topre switches. That got my maker-sense tickling and it is basically how the MT3 profile idea was born.
It was June 2015. I asked the community for help in designing a high profile set that was pleasant to see and comfortable to type on. We started reverse engineering old keyboards and we soon realized that a 1:1 replica was simply not possible. Not only that but the whole idea of making “the perfect” high profile set was purely idealistic. There were no aftermarket keycaps back then, the caps were integral part of the whole board, they were designed specifically for one typewriter or terminal. The plate, the case, the switches, the keycaps were shaped in unison to create a wonderful piece of art and engineering. Good times!
Back to reality. We can’t make it perfect, but we can still make it better than what the market has to offer.
The design process
So, let this be clear: MT3 is NOT a Signature Plastic SA clone! It has been designed from scratch, we created the 3D models by hand piece by piece, we did not 3D scan an existing set. Our CAD expert, Tom “photekq” Radley, is not only incredibly talented with Solidworks but he is also a member of community. His understanding and love for mechanical keyboards were crucial in designing this set and I’m grateful he accepted to be part of this project.
The whole idea is that the angle of the (in-)famous ROW 3 should be flat or the top side parallel to the desktop. If you look at modern keyboards they usually are on a 5 to 7 degrees angle, meaning that to have a flat R3 you should actually put the keycap top on a negative angle. And that is what we did.
The picture above has been rotated by approx 6° and you can see that the keycap on row 3 (the forth from the left) is parallel to an hypothetical keyboard bottom. The closer you get to a 5-7° angle the more optimized MT3 will be for you. If you instead like dead flat keyboards, the set won’t be any worse than –say– SA anyway.
That is the reason why we can’t create a “perfect set”, each keyboard is different and we can’t foresee every scenario. What we have here is what I think is the best compromise.
Of course it is not all about row 3.
A long dispute occurred regarding the bottom row and the spacebar. The original idea was to offer an angled spacebar only, that should make the bottom ridge faster to reach but it also makes it sharper and possibly less comfortable after long typing hours. We couldn’t find an agreement so we decided to develop two versions of the bottom row and offer both a flat and an angled option. Admittedly we will be using all those who bought the first batch as beta testers to decide whether we should pick one or maybe keep both.
Below the two versions side by side.
The rest of the key set came along. All left to do was to follow the row 3 profile to create a pleasantly curved shape. Please also note that ROW 0 (the function row) has it’s own very steep angle for easy access.
Two years and five prototypes later we are finally ready for production!
Massdrop and facing reality
Up to this point was all unicorns and rainbows. We were designing something we loved with the help and input of other enthusiasts. The problem of course was to find a way to turn the dream into reality.
Initially I wanted to fund the tooling myself and maybe looking for some partners in Europe, but dealing with manufacturers, mass production and logistics is something that I couldn’t really do myself.
Fortunately the guys at Massdrop were super excited about the project and willing to help both monetarily and with their invaluable know-how in working with China. I won’t never be able to thank Yanbo (from MD) enough for his continued support and patience dealing with a perfectionist asshole such as myself.
I won’t sugar coat the pill, guys: as soon as you put money on the table you have to sell your soul to the devil. It’s excruciating to see your wonderful dream torn by the reality of production and a company that has to deal with deadlines and turnover. Yanbo, like a perfect funambulist, was able to mediate between my designer’s extravaganza and MD’s big corp logic.
Massdrop believed in me and invested in this project, but they want it all and they want it now. The drop went live too soon. For the designer is always too soon and at some point you just have to release but my work is far from finished.
I still need to greenlight the final colors and the surface texture, that is why the estimated ship date is five months from now. It should be enough to fix any problem that arises, sure is we have a very little margin of error.
Material and legends
Keycap material is another good reason for debate (oh! you oughta love the internet). MT3 is PBT material with dye-sublimated legends only. No ABS, no PC, no double-shot.
(╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻ Please before flipping the table follow the reasoning.
This set has to be manufactured from zero, meaning that we need a new mold for each key. If you are not familiar with the process a mold is a chunk of CNC milled metal where the plastic is injected into. In keycap production each mold goes in the range of $1000-4000. Just to give you an idea, MT3 so far has 31 different shapes hence 31 molds.
Double-shot needs a mold for the external keycap shape and one for each legend. To cover a standard keyboard you need the above 31 molds plus one tool for each legend, so we are in the range of 140 molds excluding the numpad, international kits, etcetera.
You understand that the investment for a double-shot set is rather important also considering that Massdrop core business is not actually keycap manufacturing.
That being said, I wouldn’t have used double-shot even if it were inexpensive to produce. The reason is PBT.
PolyButylene Terephthalate is a very durable corrosion and UV resistant polymer. PBT does not yellow over time and it takes much longer than ABS to corrode (we all hate shines on our spacebars!). A PBT keycap set will very likely outlast you and will look sharp and crisp like the day you bought it. Why should I settle for anything lower than that?
PBT also lets us use one of the best form of legend printing there is: dye sublimation. The ink is heat-and-vacuum printed inside the first few microns of plastic. The pigment fuses inside the keycap and becomes part of it.
Dye-sublimation is incredibly flexible and durable, we can print anything we want in any color we want, including icons and drawings. We can change the font at any time, we can make corrections if we find any error at no additional cost.
The only thing that we can’t do is light legends on dark background. In sublimation the legend color is added to the base color, in the same way you can’t paint with a yellow marker on black paper, you can’t sublimate a white legend on dark keycap.
That of course limits our color options, but it’s a small price we have to pay to get an otherwise sublime set. So, please, before submitting ideas for new legends consider the limit imposed by the technology.
/dev/tty is the very geeky and very hard to pronounce name of the very first keycaps set developed with the MT3 profile.
MT3 is inspired by old terminal keyboards; TTY was used to refer to “teletype” or “teletypewriter” but it has come to refer to any type of text terminal. As a linux user the temptation to call the set /dev/tty was simply too strong to resit. Just for the few Windows users out there (wink-wink), in *nix systems
/dev/tty is a special file representing the terminal for the current process.
Of course the colorway had to be beige but I wanted to give more colorful options so I added the Triumph modifiers. They are of course inspired by the Triumph Adler but the color is much lighter than the original to better serve the black dye sublimated legends. I apologize about the inconvenience, I understand that I introduced some confusion and some thought that the color was an exact replica of the original, but it’s not.
Regrettably I haven’t received the color samples yet so I can’t show you exactly how the keycaps will look like, but the above picture should be close enough.
Goes without saying that /dev/tty will be (hopefully) the first of a long list of sets designed under MT3. The profile will be available to the community to use, so if you have ideas for a high-profile set feel free to start prototyping, but please understand that it will take some time before we can actually release new sets (presumably the end of the year).
And now some old fashioned FAQ.
Where can I buy it? Are there other distributors apart from Massdrop? Where can I buy it in Europe?
Massdrop has exclusivity on the MT3 profile and also owns the molds, so it is very unlikely that you’ll be seeing it elsewhere.
What keyboards does /dev/tty support?
- Standard Tenkeyless (TKL), full size and 60% are covered by the Base kit + mods kit, add the numpad kit for full size keyboards. As a reference standard layout keyboards are: Filco Majestouch 2, Ducky One, Poker 3, KBParadise V60, WASD V2 and Code. Any keyboard with standard 6.25u spacebar and 1.25u modifiers.
- Winkeyless keyboards are supported by Base kit + mods kit + winkeyless kit.
- For 75% keyboards like the WhiteFox add the Extra Mods. Remember that some keyboards have not-standard spacebar or not standard stem position. Double check that before buying.
- If you want to swap the Caps Lock key with Control (or FN) the Extra Mods kit covers that too.
- If you need 1u modifiers again the Extra mods kit is what you need.
- Apple fans should take the Apple kit and possibly the Novelties kit. The latter is not strictly needed but nice to have.
- Cherry 1800 enthusiasts should also grab the Novelties kit.
We also support Planck and other orthogonal keyboards, Dvorak and Colemak layouts and a variety of international languages.
What kits should I buy?
To make your set future proof and maintain a high resell value you should get: Base kit + Mods kit + Extra mods. Of course if you have a full size keyboard also grab the Numpad. Everything else is up to your taste.
Remember that anyone needs at least the Base kit and the mods kit. The base kit alone does not cover a full keyboard! If you are a pro-user you know what the exceptions are :P
What spacebar sizes are available?
6.25u in the base kit, 7u in the Winkeyless kit.
Why no 6u or 6.5u spacebars?
Spacebar molds are expensive. This first batch will only include 6.25u and 7u spacebars. Please double-check that your keyboard has a standard spacebar before buying. The next time we might add more spacebar options.
What kits do I need for an ISO layout?
The base kit and the mods kit already include ISO Enter. If you are okay with a region-less ISO layout, that’s all you need. Of course if your language is supported by the International kit, you should totally get it!
Is this an SA clone/replacement? Is it more like a Topre Hi-Pro?
No and No.
This set is designed from scratch, it is not mutually exchangeable with anything on the market. The look is close to an IBM beam spring, but it’s not a clone of that either.
From the picture below you can see some of the differences between SA and MT3.
The dish is slightly deeper, keys are generally shorter and –apart from R0– the angle is completely different.
Why will it take so long for shipping?
This is the first batch, we want to be sure that the manufacturer does things right, so we took some extra time to fix possible errors.
Will future drops take that long too?
Possibly not. This time around we have to pass through a very strict quality control before mass production.
Will there be a second drop?
No one can tell. The first drop has to be very successful to consider more batches in the future. If I had to guess a very optimistic estimate would be Christmas.
Is there a 100 MOQ on the kits?
If the set as a whole sells very well, I believe we should be able to include all kits (MOQ or not). Of course if a kit has just few buyers, that might be dropped.
Do I also need to buy the base kit if I get Cyrillic?
No, Cyrillic is a replacement for the base kit.
Why Cyrillic has no Latin letters?
Cyrillic is an “Otaku kit”, it’s mainly for touch-typers who don’t need to look at the legends and they could easily use blanks instead.
Why so few secondary and no tertiary legends? (Especially in the international kit).
This is a fair question.
Massdrop had to rush the drop and I don’t have yet a sublimation sample. Being the top of the keycap pretty deep the legends could stretch during printing as closer to the edges they get. To prevent possible issues I tried to keep the text in the middle of the key where the deformation is minimal.
Future drops might have more or bigger legends depending on the ability of manufacturer to deliver straight text. Being the first drop I preferred to stay on a safe spot.
Regarding the international kit, removing the tertiary legends saved us almost $20. I preferred to add more languages at the expense of the tertiary legends.
What is R4 and R5? Why the mods are offered in both R4 and R5?
R4 is an angled bottom row, R5 is flat. You have the option to try both and decide which one you prefer.
Why no Ergodox?!
Ergodox needs 1.5u modifiers for each row. We don’t have yet that many keys for MT3 but we might add them in future drops.
What will be the finish/texture on the keycaps?
The sides are smooth, the top satin/slightly grainy.
Does this come with a keyboard?
Don’t be silly.
How can you guarantee quality if this set is made in China?
Okay. First of all. 99% of production in consumer electronics happens in China. Would you say that Apple product are low quality? Well, they are made in China.
When you pick the right manufacturer, it’s quality control that matters and I assure you that I won’t be accepting anything lower than perfection.
Is the set backlight compatible?
Well, it works but it is not certainly optimized for backlighting. The light bleeds from the sides.
I feel like [a kit] misses the [xyz] key, can we add it?
At the end of the drop, if we can show very good numbers I’m sure I can squeeze in a few keys here and there.
What is the wall thickness?
I will be posting better pictures as soon as I get the final product, but it’s safe to say that they are “pretty thick” (around 1.8mm).
What are the color codes?
We don’t have a final set of colors yet. I’ll post pictures as soon as possible.
How do you pronounce /dev/tty?
/dev stands for “device”, /tty for “terminal”. So you can either call it “device terminal” or “dev-t-t-y”.
I have more keycaps than keyboards to put them on, what can I do?
Don’t we all? Buy more keyboards, or keycaps, or both!