Keycaps are the bread and butter of a keyboard. They are what we see when we look at a keyboard and what we press when we type, making them the first thing that comes to mind when we think of a keyboard.
As a result, manufacturers are always trying to improve the keycaps they produce in terms of look and feel by changing properties such as color, shape, dimensions, and many more.
With plenty of different keyboard layouts, switches, and keycap sets on the market, a commonly asked question is whether it’s possible to buy any set of keycaps and use them on your keyboard without problems.
So, are keycaps universal between all types of keyboards?
Keycaps are not universal between keyboards. Hence, before buying a keycap set, you should ensure that the keycaps are compatible with your keyboard in factors such as stems, profile, layout, and spacing.
Contrary to popular belief, even if the dimensions of the keycap set matches the keycaps you already have, the keycaps may not be suitable for your keyboard due to differences in factors such as keycap stems.
While there are a decent amount of factors to go through before you can make sure that the keycaps you buy are compatible with your keyboard, the process is quite simple once you know the tips and tricks.
Are Keycaps Universal?
There are a lot of different things that make up a keyboard. Keycaps, keyboard switches, keyboard mounts, keyboard plates, keyboard layout, and the profile of the keyboard are all things that create the keyboard experience, with most of these things being dependant on each other.
While keycaps are the things that stand out the most when it comes to customization, they are no exception to being limited by the attributes of the keyboard itself.
Despite their simple design, there are plenty of different attributes that make up a keycap. If the attributes of the keycap don’t match the keyboard’s, the keycap won’t fit properly, meaning that keycaps are NOT universal.
Taking a look at the factors that differentiate keycaps is the best way to understand why a keycap won’t work with all keyboards, so let’s get right into it.
Key stems are the part of the keycap that locks into the keyboard switch, located at the bottom.
The stem of the keycap has an identical but hollowed-out shape to the stem of the keyboard switch, allowing them to lock into each other.
As keyboard switches manufactured by different companies have different shapes, the keycaps that are supposed to be compatible with these switches need to have a stem that matches the shape of the switch.
For instance, Cherry MX switches have a plus-shaped stem, meaning that you would need a keycap that also has a plus-shaped stem. If you try to attach an Alps keycap that has a rectangular on a Cherry MX switch, it simply won’t work.
As a result, you need to ensure that the stem of the keycap you will be buying matches the stem of the switch. Fortunately, this is one of the most effortless steps as keycap manufacturers often denote the stem type on the product page, which you can easily compare by looking at images.
Key profile refers to the profile shape of the keycap.
While some keycaps may look identical when you look at them from the top, placing a few different keycaps next to each other and looking at them from the side will allow you to see the differences in profile.
To understand key profiles better, let’s go over a few popular profile types.
- Chiclet – Chiclet keys are the low-profile flat keys that we are used to seeing mainly on laptops.
- Flat – Flat keys are the keys that have a flat surface, also commonly found in laptops. Unlike chiclet keys, flat keys don’t necessarily have to be low-profile.
- Stepped (Staircase) – Staircase keys have an angled profile where the top part of the keys is lower than the bottom part, designed to match the plate of angled keyboards.
- Sculpted – Sculpted keys are known for differences in profile between rows, designed to create a more ergonomic experience. That being said, you can’t rearrange sculpted keys as a key that belongs to a certain row can’t be placed in a different one.
As the standard (OEM) profile is sculpted (+ high profile) and is the profile that most modern keyboards use, you can see the sculpted profile type in
most mechanical keyboards.
Since the body of the keyboard is produced in a way to be compatible with a certain keycap profile, you need to choose the right keycap profile to create a smooth typing experience.
For instance, if you try to attach flat, low-profile keycaps to a keyboard produced for sculpted, high-profile keycaps, you’ll notice that the keys sink too deep into the keyboard, and the angles of the keys become awkward.
You can easily see the profile of the keycap set you’re buying by looking at the product page of the keycaps, but finding the profile of the keycaps that are already attached to your keyboard can be a bit of a challenge.
As this information is often not conveyed by the manufacturer, asking about it in keyboard communities is usually the best way to figure it out.
Key layout or keyboard layout refers to the arrangement of the keys, where different layouts can have keys of different shapes, sizes, and amounts or have them placed differently.
The most common keyboard layouts are the ANSI layout, which is the standard in the US; the ISO layout, which is the standard in Europe and the JIS layout, which is the standard in Japan.
You can recognize the ANSI layout by the rectangular Enter key and by the presence of a key between the Enter key and the Backspace key.
On the other hand, the ISO layout has an L-shaped Enter key, and the key located between the Enter key and the Backspace key in the ANSI layout is between the Left Shift and Z keys.
The JIS layout also features an identical enter key to the ISO layout, but it features four extra keys.
Alongside these layouts, it’s also possible to find keyboards with some lesser-known Asian layouts, famous for their large Enter keys.
As the keycap set won’t work with your keyboard if it’s the wrong layout due to differences in keycap sizes, shapes, locations, and amount of keys, ensuring that the layouts match is vital.
You can access the information regarding the layout of the keycap set in the product page of most manufacturers, making it easy to get the layout correctly with a small amount of research.
Key spacing refers to the distance between the center points of neighboring keycaps.
This distance is measured in terms of units, where a regular letter key is considered to be very slightly smaller than 1 unit wide and 1 unit tall to account for the gaps between keys.
Even though no standard defines how long a unit is, it’s accepted to be roughly 19 millimeters (0.75 inches). That being said, this length can show slight differences between manufacturers.
To ensure that the keycaps you are planning on buying fit your keyboard, you will need to know how long a unit is for your keycaps, the sizes of your keycaps in units, how long a unit is for the keycaps you will be buying, and the size of the keycaps you will be buying in units.
These pieces of information are easy to access for the most part, as you can find the specifications of the keycap you’re buying on the product page and the specifications of your keyboard by searching on the Internet.
Key thickness refers to how thick a keycap is around the edges.
While the thickness of a keycap isn’t something that is talked about a lot as it usually doesn’t cause problems with fit, there is a chance of a keycap not fitting your keyboard due to its thickness.
To avoid yourself from having unexpected problems related to key thickness, we recommend carefully examining the thickness of the keycaps you are buying and trying to compare them to the keycaps you already own.
For instance, if the standard keycaps of your keyboard are already a tight fit despite being thin, there is a good chance that keycaps that are thicker can cause issues such as the keys touching each other or even not fitting into the keyboard at all.
Stabilizers are parts that are found under larger keys to prevent these keys from wobbling.
While standard keys sit tightly on a switch, the extra space around larger keys (usually bigger than 2u) causes them to wobble due to a large amount of empty space on the sides. Stabilizers that are added on both sides of the keycap fill these spaces, which stabilizes the key.
Nowadays, two types of stabilizers are commonly found in keyboards:
- Cherry stabilizers – These stabilizers have the shape of Cherry MX switches, which makes it quite easy to remove and attach keys.
- Costar stabilizers – These stabilizers feature a system where the stabilizer bar is directly attached to the stabilizer inserts on the keycap, often making it hard to attach and remove keys.
As a result, keycaps compatible with Cherry stabilizers have extra stems on the sides. On the other hand, keycaps compatible with Costar stabilizers feature hooks that allow the stabilizer bar to be attached to them.
Since the difference can easily be seen by looking at a picture of the bottom part of the keycap and comparing it to the keycaps you already have (or the stabilizers on your keyboard), getting the stabilizer compatibility right should be straightforward.
Lastly, let’s talk about the backlight compatibility of a keycap.
While some keycaps are produced with backlighting in mind, some aren’t. If you attach keycaps that aren’t produced with backlighting in mind to a backlit keyboard, backlighting won’t work.
Fortunately, if a keycap is backlighting compatible, it’s often denoted all over the product page.
If there is no mention of backlighting in the title or the description of the keycaps you are buying, you can assume that they aren’t backlighting compatible.
Even though this isn’t a complete dealbreaker where your keycaps won’t work with your keyboard at all like the others, it’s still an important thing to watch out for to avoid disappointment.
How to Choose Keycaps That Will Fit Your Keyboard?
Now that we have talked about the things that differentiate keycaps – let’s make a quick summary of the things you should do if you have decided on buying a new set.
- Start by taking a keycap off your keyboard, flip it, and check the key stem. Compare the stem to the keycaps you will be buying to see if they match.
- Learn the key profiles of both the keycaps you own and the keycaps you will be buying. As it may be hard to get the profile right by looking at your keycaps if you aren’t experienced, ensure that you get concrete information regarding your keyboard by researching online.
- Learn the key layout of the keycaps you will be buying, and compare it to your current keyboard. If you are unsure about the key layout of your keyboard, you can quickly learn it by comparing it to images of common layouts.
- Learn the key spacing values of all the keycaps you’re buying, and compare them to your keycaps. You can find the key spacing values of your keyboard by looking up charts.
- Pay attention to the key thicknesses. While thickness-related problems are rare, try to pick keycaps closer in thickness to the ones you have right now.
- Ensure that the stabilizer types of the keycaps match your keyboard. If you are unsure about the stabilizer type of your keyboard, pull one of the stabilized keycaps (such as Shift) out and compare it to the keycaps you will be buying.
- If your keyboard is backlit, ensure that the keycaps you will be buying mention that they are backlighting compatible.
While the simplistic design of a keycap leads most to believe that the only thing that could possibly matter is the dimensions, we have seen that this is far from reality.
That being said, even though keycaps are not universal, finding a compatible keycap set for your keyboard is no rocket science as long as you are careful and patient about it.
Thanks to the large amounts of growth in the keyboard enthusiast community lately, it’s possible to access information about every single part of a keyboard on the Internet, which makes the research process often a breeze.
Finally, it goes without saying that you can feel free to contact us if you have any questions that you think we might be able to answer!