The Price Difference: ABS and PBT Keycaps

April 30, 2024

When you're customizing your keyboard, replacing or customizing keycaps is usually included in your plan. Of course, that involves a bit of expenditure.

There's a price difference between ABS and PBT keycaps. ABS keycaps, which are simpler and less expensive to produce, are often easier on the budget. On the other hand, PBT keycaps, with their exceptional durability and better texture, are more expensive. 

Understanding the why's of this price difference is important to ensure you're buying keycaps that offer you the best value for your money. 

ABS vs. PBT: Understanding the Differences

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) are two common materials used in manufacturing keycaps for mechanical keyboards. To understand the factors that affect the prices of ABS and PBT keycap materials, we need to understand their unique properties and how they are manufactured.

  1. ABS Keycaps
    • Texture: ABS keycaps often have a smoother texture compared to PBT keycaps.
    • Shine: ABS keycaps tend to develop a slick surface over time due to the oils from fingers and the protective coating wearing off.
    • Durability: While ABS is durable, it is generally considered less durable than PBT.
    • Customization: ABS keycaps are easier and cheaper to produce, making them more commonly available in stock keycap sets and easier to find in various colors and designs.
    • Sound: ABS keycaps can produce a slightly higher-pitched typing sound.
  2. PBT Keycaps
    • Texture: PBT keycaps have a more textured and matte finish, providing a satisfying tactile feel when you type.
    • Durability: PBT has superior durability. It is resistant to wear and yellowing over time, making PBT keycaps a popular choice for enthusiasts looking for long-lasting keycaps.
    • Heat Resistance: PBT has better heat resistance than ABS.
    • Thickness: PBT keycaps are thicker and denser than ABS keycaps.
    • Price: PBT keycaps are often more expensive than ABS keycaps due to their superior durability.

Pros and Cons of ABS and PBT Keycaps

Both ABS and PBT keycaps have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Your ultimate choice will depend on your specific requirements and preferences.

ABS Keycaps

Pros

  1. Affordability: ABS keycaps are cheaper than PBT keycaps, making them accessible to a wider range of users.
  2. Customization: They are available in a wide variety of colors and designs, which makes customization easy and fun.
  3. Smooth Texture: ABS keycaps have a smoother texture. Many fast typists like this as the slick surface makes their fingers glide over the keycaps. 
  4. Availability: ABS keycaps are commonly available in sets. They can be found in many online/brick-and-mortar computer accessories stores.

Cons

  1. Durability: ABS is not as durable as PBT. The keycaps tend to wear out, develop a slick surface, and yellow after a while. Legends may also fade after prolonged use.
  2. Shine: They can develop a shiny, slippery surface over time.
  3. Sound: ABS keycaps produce a high-pitched typing sound, which may sound unpleasant to some users.
  4. Heat Sensitivity: ABS can warp or deform if exposed to high temperatures.

PBT Keycaps

Pros

  1. Durability: PBT keycaps are more durable and more resistant to wear and tear than ABS keycaps. 
  2. Texture: They have a slightly rough, matte finish for a better finger grip during typing.
  3. Heat Resistance: PBT keycaps are less prone to warping or deformation in high temperatures.
  4. Thickness: PBT keycaps are thicker and denser than ABS keycaps.

Cons

  1. Cost: PBT keycaps are more expensive than ABS keycaps.
  2. Limited Customization: The variety of colors and designs for PBT keycaps is more limited compared to ABS keycaps.
  3. Less Common: PBT keycaps may be less common in stock keycap sets. Users may have to exert extra time and effort to find specific designs or colors.
  4. Texture Preference: The textured surface of PBT keycaps may feel unpleasant for some users.

How Much Do They Cost?

an image of a mechanical keyboard

The price of ABS and PBT keycaps vary widely. Prices can fluctuate depending on factors such as the manufacturer, quality, design, and whether they are sold as part of a complete keyboard or as standalone keycap sets. However, we have a rough estimate for you: 

  • ABS Keycaps: A basic set of ABS keycaps might cost anywhere from $15 to $50. Higher-end sets with custom designs could range from $50 to $150 or more.
  • PBT Keycaps: PBT keycaps come at a higher price. Basic sets might start around $30 to $60 while premium sets with thicker keycaps, unique designs, or special features could range from $60 to $200 or more.

Note that these estimates are based on current market trends. They fluctuate depending on the specific product, where the products are purchased, supply and demand, and other factors.

Getting the Best Value Keycaps

When selecting keycaps, you would want to savor every cent of your hard-earned money. Here are some tips for getting the best value when purchasing keycaps:

  1. What aspects of keycaps are most important to you? Is it durability, aesthetics, texture, or customization options? This will help you make informed decisions and prioritize where to allocate your budget.
  2. Look into reputable brands and manufacturers known for producing high-quality keycaps. Reading reviews, checking forums, and asking for recommendations from fellow enthusiasts can help you identify reliable options.
  3. Compare prices from different retailers and platforms. Keep an eye out for sales, discounts, and promotions that could offer significant savings on keycap sets.
  4. Participating in group buys can be a cost-effective way to get unique or custom-designed keycap sets at a lower price. 
  5. Pay attention to the material and construction of the keycaps. While PBT keycaps generally offer better durability, there are high-quality ABS keycaps available as well. Assessing the thickness, texture, and overall quality of the keycaps can help you make the right choice.
  6. Some brand-new mechanical keyboards include keycap sets, offering better value compared to purchasing keycaps separately. Consider bundled deals when shopping for a new keyboard.
  7. Check out used keycap sets as they're often sold at a lower price. You can find them through online marketplaces, forums, or community group buys. Just make sure to check the condition of the keycaps before making a purchase.
  8. While higher-quality keycaps may come with a higher upfront cost, they often offer better durability and longevity, saving you money in the long run by reducing the need for frequent replacements.

Conclusion

Your choice between ABS and PBT keycaps primarily hinges on your financial plan and individual tastes. If you're budget-conscious, ABS keycaps provide a more affordable choice. PBT keycaps are more expensive but have better quality. Considering the advantages and disadvantages as well as your financial capacity can guide you to the best keycaps for your needs.

Chris Greiner, a Mechanical Keyboard specialist, boasts a solid educational background with dual bachelor's degrees in Computer Science and Business Management from Lewis University. His additional certification in Mechanical Keyboard Design showcases his dedication to staying on the forefront of keyboard technology. Chris primarily writes for keyboard enthusiasts and has been featured on platforms like Jestik, solidifying his reputation as a thought leader in the mechanical keyboard community.
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