Which is Better: ABS vs PBT Keycaps for Mechanical Gaming Keyboards?

March 14, 2024

Do you know that ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) keycaps are used in more than 60% of gaming keyboards? Do you know that a lot of gamers also prefer PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) keycaps due to their ruggedness?

So, as a passionate gamer, which one should you choose? Let's try to solve this keyboard puzzle together.

What Are ABS Keycaps

an image of a mechanical keyboard with ABS keycaps

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) is a type of plastic commonly used in the manufacturing of mechanical keyboard keycaps. ABS keycaps are smooth and shiny, giving your keyboard a glossy appearance. The legends on ABS keycaps are usually printed using laser etching and printing. ABS keycaps are an affordable choice in the mechanical keyboard market.

Pros and Cons of ABS Keycaps

ABS keycaps are a common choice for their affordability and smooth texture, but their lower durability and susceptibility to wear and shine can be drawbacks for some users.  

Pros

  1. Cost-Effective: ABS keycaps are generally more affordable, which is perfect for those who are keeping an eye on their budget.
  2. Smooth Texture: ABS keycaps have a smooth and softer texture, providing a comfortable feel for those who prefer a smoother surface.
  3. Versatile Printing: ABS plastic is suitable for various printing techniques, allowing for detailed and visually appealing legends on the keycaps.
  4. Availability of Customization: ABS keycaps are widely available. Users can easily find a variety of aftermarket keycap sets for customization.

Cons

  1. Durability: ABS keycaps are less durable than some materials like PBT.
  2. Prone to Shine: ABS keycaps can become shiny with extended use due to the oils from users' fingers and friction, leading to a less appealing appearance. This also makes the surface slippery and feeling greasy.  
  3. Thinness: ABS keycaps are often thinner compared to keycaps made from thicker materials such as PBT plastic. 
  4. Yellowing: ABS is more prone to yellowing over time, especially when exposed to sunlight.
  5. Less Resistance to Chemicals: ABS keycaps may be more sensitive to certain chemicals, potentially causing damage or discoloration.

What Are PBT Keycaps

an image of a mechanical keyboard with PBT keycaps

The other common kind of keycaps are PBT keycaps. PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) is another type of plastic commonly used in the manufacturing of keycaps for mechanical keyboards. PBT keycaps have distinct characteristics that set them apart from ABS keycaps. 

Dye-sublimation and double-shot molding are popular methods used for printing legends on PBT keycaps because these methods result in durable and long-lasting keycap markings.

Pros and Cons of PBT Keycaps

Like ABS keycaps, PBTs also have their own share of pros and cons.

Pros

  1. Durability: PBT keycaps are more durable than ABS keycaps. They are more resistant to wear, chipping, and the development of a shiny or greasy appearance over time.
  2. Texture: PBT keycaps have a textured and matte surface, providing a different feel compared to the smooth and glossy surface of ABS keycaps. 
  3. Thickness: PBT keycaps are often thicker than ABS keycaps.
  4. Resistance to Shine: PBT keycaps are less susceptible to developing a shiny surface. This helps them maintain their original matte finish, providing a cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing look.
  5. Printing Techniques: PBT keycaps support various printing techniques including dye-sublimation and double-shot molding that result in durable and long-lasting legends.

Cons

  1. Limited Availability and Higher Cost: PBT keycaps are often considered a premium option, and keyboards equipped with PBT keycaps may be more expensive. Additionally, there might be fewer color and design options available compared to ABS keycaps.
  2. Compatibility with Certain Printing Techniques: PBT is less compatible with certain printing techniques like laser etching and pad printing, which are commonly used with ABS keycaps. While other techniques like dye-sublimation and double-shot molding are effective, they might limit some design possibilities.

Performance in Gaming

a close-up image of a gaming mechanical keyboard

There is really no strict "better" choice between ABS and PBT keycaps for gaming. You can refer to this list as a general guide. 

1. Durability

  • Winner: PBT. PBT keycaps are generally more durable than ABS keycaps. They are resistant to wear, chipping, and the development of a shiny surface, making them suitable for prolonged gaming sessions.

2. Texture

  • Winner: Personal Preference. The texture of keycaps is subjective. Some gamers prefer the smooth surface of ABS keycaps while others enjoy the slightly rougher texture of PBT keycaps.

3. Thickness

  • Winner: PBT (for those who prefer thickness). PBT keycaps are often thicker than ABS keycaps, providing a more substantial and satisfying feel for some users. However, the thickness preference can vary among gamers.

4. Resistance to Shine

  • Winner: PBT. PBT keycaps are highly resistant to developing a shiny or greasy appearance even with extended use. 

5. Cost

  • Winner: ABS. Keyboards with ABS keycaps are generally more budget-friendly than those with PBT keycaps. If cost is a significant factor, ABS keycaps may be a more practical choice.

6. Printing Techniques

  • Winner: Depends on the technique. Both ABS and PBT keycaps support various printing techniques. Legends on ABS keycaps are often printed with laser etching or pad printing. Legends printed on PBT keycaps are printed using dye-sublimation and double-shot molding. 

Conclusion

The decision between ABS and PBT keycaps for your gaming keyboard depends on what you value most. If budget is a consideration, ABS keycaps could be the ideal choice. They're also ideal for games that require you to rapidly and smoothly "glide" your fingers across the keyboard.

If you prioritize longevity and a robust feel and you don't have to worry about your budget, you might want to opt for PBT keycaps.

The optimal gaming keyboard varies from person to person, so consider your requirements, preferences, and the games that you love playing.

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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