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Keychron K8 review: A satisfying, sub-$100 gateway to mechanical keyboards

Keychron's K8 attempt to balance size, features, flexibility, and cost to create a single package that can entice mechanical keyboard newbies and satisfy discerning veterans. Let's see how it does.
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Written by Michael Gariffo, Staff Writer on

Mechanical keyboards can be an intimidating area of electronics. High-end models, especially small-batch releases and group buys, can skew into several hundreds of dollars, if not over $1,000. This may be shocking to those contentedly typing away on $20 keyboards for years on end. But, many users are so particular about the sound, feel, and customizability of their boards that a custom-designed mechanical keyboard is an absolute must. 

Several big-name companies have gone after this trend, especially within their respective gaming keyboard lines. Logitech, Corsair, Razer, and others offer numerous models of mechanical keyboards. These tend to be focused on pleasing gamers with fast, lightweight key switches; bright RGB lighting; low-latency, corded connectivity; and what some may consider overly-flashy aesthetics. For a time, these were your best bet for acquiring an affordable mechanical keyboard. 

However, as gamers began looking for office-friendly mechanical solutions, and more non-gamers began to understand the benefits these keyboards can provide, companies made a name for themselves by offering understated, well-made mechanical boards at affordable prices.

Today we'll be looking at Keychron's K8, one of the most popular offerings from a company that has earned a reputation for building high-quality, reasonably-priced boards that are ideal as either entry points into the hobby of mechanical keyboard modding, or as plug-and-play boards for gamers and office workers. Let's see if the K8's balance of size, functionality, and pricing can convert the remaining mechanical keyboard skeptics out there. 

Like
  • Insane battery life
  • Surprisingly solid build quality
  • Variety of available switches and configurations
  • Well-designed hot-swap sockets
Don't Like
  • Bluetooth standby delay on reconnect
  • Included keycap quality control issues
  • USB port placement

What is a mechanical keyboard?

This question could take an entire article to answer, if not a series of articles. But, we're here to review just one model, so I'll provide the briefest summary possible.

Most budget keyboards tend to use small rubber domes to help their keys compress and rebound. There are also scissor and butterfly switches, mostly found in laptops, but we'll be focusing on stand-alone keyboards.

Mechanical keyboards earned their name by way of the switches and springs they use. They've been around for over two decades. In fact, some of the first consumer-focused PC keyboards were mechanical, including IBM's iconic Model M series. People collect, refurbish, and use these tank-like, 20-year-old keyboards to this day (including yours truly). 

Today's switches still rely on a metallic spring to provide keys with rebound, but the mechanisms have been entirely revamped to include tiny metal contact leaves for greater longevity, superior accuracy, and more responsive typing than their rubber dome counterparts. 

More: Keychron Q1 QMK custom mechanical keyboard review: A premium, affordable experience built for you

In addition to these benefits, switches can also be customized in countless ways to alter their sound, the depth at which they actuate, the weight of their spring resistance, and many other variables. 

The three most common switch types today are "clicky" switches, which make an audible sound when they actuate; "tactile" switches, which are quieter, but still include an eponymous tactile bump to provide physical feedback for their actuation; and "linear" switches, which provide quiet, completely smooth key travel with no auditory or tactile indicators of actuation. 

Linear switches, in particular, may seem like a strange creation, but they are among the most popular for gamers and speed-focused typists due to the few milliseconds per keypress one can save by avoiding the obstacle of a tactile or clicky bump. 

Beyond choosing one of these mainstay switch types mechanical keyboard enthusiasts will tweak everything from the material of the keyboard's case and mounting plate, the type of plastic used in switch housings, the density and type of lube used on each individual switch, and many other factors. 

Mechanical keyboard modding is, without exaggeration, one of the deepest rabbit holes in consumer tech. 

That said, not everyone has the time, funds, or initiative to delve so deeply into what can be an expensive and complex pastime. Thankfully, companies like Keychron now offer models like the K8 designed to serve equally well as a gateway to the hobby, or as a ready-made solution.

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The Keychron K8 with its original keycaps (backlight off).

Michael gariffo

Our configuration 

This review will focus on the Keychron K8 with Gateron Red (linear) switches, RGB lighting, and a plastic case. The same model is also available with a variety of other switches, white lighting, and an aluminum case. 

Perhaps most importantly, this variant also supports "hot-swappable switches." This means that, rather than having to get out your soldering iron to replace its switches, you can simply use a small tong-like device to pop them out and plug in new ones as easily as replacing a USB plug.

More: Three fun keyboards: From kitsch to compact

This makes the K8 ideal for potential hobbyists that want an inexpensive platform to explore the variety of available switch types. Hot-swappable boards have been around for several years, but few sell for less than $100 like this configuration of the K8 does.  

Although we'll primarily focus on this specific variant, we'll cover some of the other switch, case, and lighting options throughout this review.

Features

The Keychron K8 is what's known as a "tenkeyless" keyboard. It downsizes the full-sized layout by skipping the number pad. This format is a popular option for those with limited desk space and anyone that wants a bit more mousing room. I believe it's the best balance for anyone that does any serious text editing, due to the inclusion of keys like home/end, pg up/down, and delete, which smaller form factors like 65% and 60% keyboards lack.  

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The left-side control cluster with (left-to-right) USB-C port, Win/Android or MacOS switch, and three-way Bluetooth/Off/Wired switch.

Michael Gariffo

The keyboard's connection options include a wired mode and a Bluetooth wireless mode. You can switch between these using the three-way switch on the board's left edge. There you'll also find the unit's USB-C charging/data port, and a second switch that allows you to choose Windows/Android or MacOS. This reconfigures the bottom row of keys to produce inputs standard to the operating system chosen (Ctrl on Windows versus Cmd on MacOS, and such).

The K8 also includes an unusually large 4,000 mAh battery which, even in this plastic case, gives the unit a satisfying heft. It also provides the longest battery life of any Bluetooth-based keyboard I've ever used, which we'll discuss in more depth later. 

More: Dygma Raise keyboard review: Elevating the laws of ergonomics

The K8 includes a braided USB-C cord with a right-angle connector that makes its somewhat oddly-placed left-side port less of a hassle by directing the cable toward your screen. Of course, if you're using the keyboard in Bluetooth mode, that cable won't be present all that often.

The board's lighting can be controlled by using built-in keys, with no need to install companion software. The K8 is meant to be strictly plug-and-play. For the white backlight version, controls include on/off and brightness options. Meanwhile, the RGB version includes 18 color and pattern modes, including single-color static lighting in a brightness of your choice, animated patterns in single and multi-color variants, and reactive modes that produce light each time you press a key. 

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A zoomed-in look at the Gateron Red (linear) switches and the hot-swap sockets that supports them (centered).

Michael Gariffo

Those keys include both removable keycaps, and removable switches (in the hot-swap version shown above). Keychron produces the board with Gateron-branded Red (linear - shown), Brown (tactile), or Blue (clicky) switches. These can, however, be replaced with any one of the hundreds of available switches from Gateron, Kailh, Cherry, ZealPC, and a slew of other manufacturers, all of which have various tunings and features like those discussed above.

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A close look at the top and bottom of a mechanical keyboard switch (Gateron Red)

Michael Gariffo

On the bottom of the K8 you'll find two feet that can be left folded or adjusted to raise the board to one of two tilt levels. This works by having one shorter foot nested inside a taller foot. Folding out the smaller will provide a more modest tilt, while folding out the larger (with the smaller inside it) will provide the steepest available tilt. 

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The K8's bottom (on a stand for illustration purposes) with the left foot fully unfolded and the right full folded.

Michael Gariffo

Aside from the board itself and its USB cable, the K8 arrives with extra modifier keys for use with Windows or Mac (whichever wasn't pre-installed in your model), and a keycap puller, a tool with two U-shaped wires that are designed to slip around a keycap to pull it off without damaging it or your fingernails. 

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The included USB-A to USB-C cable with its right-angle connector.

Michael Gariffo

Build Quality

One of the main draws of mechanical keyboards is the feeling of superior quality one gets from using them, rather than a cheaply-made model. This is why manufacturers go out of their way to create heavy, solid, metal cases. While Keychron does offer an aluminum case, our model uses a plastic enclosure. 

This has the advantage of allowing for better signal penetration for the K8's built-in Bluetooth transmitter. But, I was still wary of it affecting the build quality. Plastic cases can lead to hollow-feeling boards where each keypress resonates unpleasantly, creating annoying whining sounds and unwanted vibrations that transfer distractingly to your hands. 

Thankfully, the case on the K8 performed remarkably well, easily beating any other plastic mechanical keyboard I've used and coming very close to the solidity of something like the Drop Ctrl, which includes a machined aluminum case, but retails for about twice as much. 

If aluminum is must for you, the K8's aluminum variant, which is still on the lighter end of metal-cased keyboards, only adds about $20-$30 to its price. 

The K8's surprising sturdiness continues through the rest of the board, with its side-mounted switches clicking reassuringly into place, the included USB-C port being well-aligned and stable, and the hot-swappable sockets providing secure, reliable connections for all of the switches I tested in the unit. 

I was consistently impressed with almost every aspect of the K8's physical build, and have used far more expensive boards that could learn a thing or two from it. 

The only flaw in its quality control and material use I found was in its included keycaps. The texture on the caps is somewhat slippery and has an unpleasant, plasticky feel that the rest of the unit avoids. 

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The flaws in the opaque pigment can best be seen on the Enter key and right Shift key

Michael Gariffo

The ABS plastic they're made of is partially translucent, with the shine-through legends allowing backlighting through. The top layer of pigment that gives them their gray and orange color scheme is supposed to be opaque. Unfortunately, a few of the caps that shipped with my board had slight flaws, allowing pinpricks of light from the RGB LEDs to show through in random spots. This can just barely be seen in the image reference above.

I expected a board at this price point to have a few minor drawbacks, and this is one of them. But, it's something a bit of QC tightening could have avoided. Of course, if you plan to replace the included keycaps with a new set like the NovelKeys Cherry Taro set below, or one of the thousands of other available sets, this will end up being irrelevant.

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The Keychron K8 with the NovelKeys Cherry taro keycap set (a personal favorite) installed.

Michael Gariffo

Demo video

In this short video, I demonstrate the Keychron K8's RGB lighting modes, then switch to a typing and sound test with the included keycaps, and finally a typing and sound test with the Cherry Taro set. Pay close attention to the difference in sound that can be achieved by doing something as simple as swapping out the included keycaps for a slightly thicker set made of PBT plastic instead of the original set's ABS plastic. This is a perfect example of just one of the many ways mechanical keyboard enthusiasts can tweak the sound and feel of their boards to suit their personal preferences. 

Connectivity

The K8 operates perfectly in wired mode. It has no noticeable latency, offers a full range of OS-specific shortcuts (including voice assistant access), and eliminates the need to worry about charging. 

The Bluetooth 5.1 mode connects wirelessly to any PC, Mac, tablet (including a dedicated Android mode), or even smartphone that supports Bluetooth keyboards. I found it to be 100% stable and reliable without a single dropout, stutter, or disconnect over multiple months of use across both Mac and PC. 

The only minor annoyance of using the K8 in Bluetooth mode is that it will enter a sort of standby state when no keys have been pressed for about 5 minutes. This, of course, saves battery power. It, combined with the massive included battery, regularly allowed me to push two or even three weeks of use between charges (an average of eight hours of writing and editing per weekday, with the backlight off). 

More: Best portable power banks: Zendure, Anker, and more

This power-saving feature can, however, also be a bit annoying. The Keyboard takes 3-4 seconds to wake and reestablish its connection to your system. This isn't a big deal when you're actively using it. But, I found it particularly irritating when sitting in longer Zoom meetings and going to unmute myself only to realize the K8 missed the keyboard shortcut because it had entered standby. Unfortunately, no keypresses are registered until its connection is fully reestablished, meaning you'll likely need to repeat your first few input attempts, if it was in standby mode.

To be clear, this isn't a deal-breaker. Nonetheless, it's worth a mention for anyone that might need their keyboard to be both wireless and instantly available for use at any second. 

Performance

I've already given away how well the K8 performed. Its solid construction, unwavering connectivity, and long-lasting battery life provided a typing experience that required almost no thought and offered some of the most accurate and rapid input I've achieved on any keyboard.

More: Tips to speed up your typing on a Mac

But its solidity can be a bit fatiguing at times. This is, of course, dependent on the typer. I tend to bottom out heavily, which results in slight soreness in my fingers after multiple hours of typing. 

My overly-aggressive typing style is softened somewhat on other boards by things like circuit board mounting dampers or silenced switches that have tiny rubber bumpers built inside to pad them. Of course, you can add the latter to the K8 yourself, or you could use a thick desk mat beneath it to cushion your digits a bit.  If you're a more perfect typist than I, and never bottom out very hard, you've got nothing to worry about here. 

I also found the included Gateron Red switches to be a pleasant surprise. The color-coded Gateron switch line used in the K8 is one of that company's more budget-friendly options, but it performed almost as well as far more expensive switches from high-end makers, producing very little spring/switch noise or key stem wobble. The linear switches also felt more than responsive enough for gaming, as one would expect from linear switches.

Wrap up 

As someone who owns multiple custom-built keyboards, all with hours of modifications and customizations, you might find it hard to believe that I willingly wrote this review on the K8 itself. 

It's just that good. I fully intend to keep using this board as one of my daily drivers, and to dig into it more in the future, trying other switches and adding some dampening to improve that slight fatigue I mentioned. I'll also continue using it as a showcase for the vast collection of keycaps I've amassed over the years (I know, I have a problem). 

More: ZDNet Recommends: The best products for every office

Keep in mind, all of this love is for a board that includes three different switch configurations, some of which are available for as little as $69, and even less during the right sale. If you've ever been curious about mechanical keyboards, or even if you just now found out they exist while reading this review, I cannot think of a better place to get into the hobby than the well-made, extremely versatile, and shockingly satisfying Keychron K8. 

Just don't complain to me when you fall down the mechanical keyboard rabbit hole and find yourself lubing custom-built switches with a tiny paintbrush so they have just the right sound when used with that new, hand-made artisan keycap you just spent $50 on…Either way, I'll probably be down there already doing the same thing when you land.

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