A Guide to Keycap Profiles for Your Mechanical Keyboard

August 10, 2023

You're diving into the world of mechanical keyboards, aren't you? One of the key elements you'll encounter is keycap profiles. These little features significantly impact your typing experience. Whether you're a gamer, a typing enthusiast, or somewhere in between, there's a profile for you.

From the tall, thick sound producing SA profile to the comfortable, sculpted Cherry and OEM profiles, each has its own charm. But how do you choose? It's all about personal preference and what feels right under your fingers.

In this guide, we'll explore the different keycap profiles, their characteristics, and what they bring to your typing or gaming experience.

What are Keycap Profiles?

Keycap profiles refer to the shape and design of the individual keycaps found on mechanical keyboards. Each keycap profile has its unique characteristics, including the shape of the key's top surface, its height, and the angle at which it slopes. These profiles significantly impact the overall typing experience, comfort, and aesthetics of the keyboard.

Different keycap profiles have evolved over time, and each has its own following within the mechanical keyboard community.

Keycap Materials

Keycaps for mechanical keyboards are made from various materials, each with its own unique characteristics, feel, and durability. The choice of keycap material can impact the overall typing experience, aesthetics, and longevity of the keycaps. Here are some common materials used to manufacture keycaps:

  1. ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene):
    • ABS is one of the most common materials used for keycaps, especially on stock and budget-friendly mechanical keyboards.
    • It is relatively inexpensive to produce, which makes ABS keycaps widely available.
    • ABS keycaps tend to have a smooth and slightly shiny surface.
    • However, they are more prone to wear and can develop a shiny or greasy appearance over time with extended use.
    • The legends (letters and symbols) on ABS keycaps are usually pad-printed, which can wear off with heavy use.
  2. PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate):
    • PBT is another popular material used for keycaps, known for its durability and resistance to wear.
    • PBT keycaps have a more textured surface compared to ABS, providing a better grip and a more satisfying feel during typing.
    • The legends on PBT keycaps are often dye-sublimated or laser-etched, resulting in a more durable and fade-resistant print.
    • They are less prone to developing a shiny or greasy appearance, even with prolonged use.
  3. POM (Polyoxymethylene):
    • POM keycaps are less common but offer a unique feel and sound during typing.
    • They have a smooth and slightly slippery surface, which some users may find desirable.
    • POM keycaps are known for producing a distinct "thock" sound, making them popular among certain mechanical keyboard enthusiasts.
    • However, they may show signs of wear over time, similar to ABS keycaps.
  4. PC (Polycarbonate):
    • Polycarbonate keycaps are relatively rare and are typically found in custom or artisan keycap sets.
    • They have a unique translucent appearance, allowing for backlighting to shine through the keycap for an eye-catching effect.
    • Polycarbonate keycaps can be more expensive than other materials due to their less common availability.
  5. Specialty Materials (e.g., metal, wood, resin):
    • Some artisan keycap makers experiment with specialty materials like metal, wood, or resin to create unique and aesthetically pleasing keycaps.
    • These materials are often used for custom and limited-edition keycap sets, catering to enthusiasts seeking exclusivity and individuality in their keyboard setups.

The material of the keycap plays a crucial role in determining the overall typing experience, durability, and visual appeal. Mechanical keyboard enthusiasts often explore different keycap materials to find the ones that best suit their preferences and complement their keyboard setups.

Types of Keycap Profiles

Keycap profiles play a pivotal role in shaping the typing experience on mechanical keyboards. In this section, we explore the most popular types of keycap profiles, each offering its unique feel and aesthetics.

Cherry Profile Keycaps

The Cherry keycap profile is one of the most popular and widely used keycap profiles in the mechanical keyboard community. It is named after Cherry Corporation, a German company known for producing mechanical switches, and it is the profile commonly used on Cherry MX switches.

SA Profile Keycaps 

The SA keycap profile is a popular and distinctive keycap profile known for its tall and spherical shape. "SA" stands for "Spherical All," referring to the consistent spherical design across all keycaps, irrespective of the row they belong to. 

  1. Tall and Spherical Shape: The SA profile is characterized by its tall and rounded keycaps. Compared to other profiles like OEM or Cherry, SA keycaps are significantly taller, providing a unique and retro appearance.
  2. Consistent Design: One of the key features of the SA profile is its uniformity. All keycaps have the same spherical shape, regardless of the row they occupy on the keyboard. This uniformity allows for a more symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing look.
  3. Sculpted Rows: While the SA profile maintains a consistent spherical shape, the rows of keycaps are still sculpted to accommodate finger positions. The rows are typically arranged in a stair-step design, with each row having a slightly different height.
  4. Keycap Legends: SA keycaps often feature well-defined and centered legends (letters and symbols) on the top surface. These legends are typically dye-sublimated or double-shot molded, ensuring long-lasting and vibrant keycap markings.
  5. Retro Aesthetics: Due to its tall and spherical design, the SA profile is often associated with vintage and retro aesthetics, reminiscent of older typewriters and vintage computer terminals.
  6. Specialty Sets and Colorways: SA keycap sets are available in a wide variety of colors and themes, allowing enthusiasts to customize their keyboards according to their preferences and style.
  7. Keycap Material: SA keycaps are commonly made of ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) or PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) materials. PBT SA keycaps are known for their durability and resistance to wear, making them a popular choice among SA enthusiasts.

Advantages of the SA Keycap Profile

  1. Unique Aesthetics: The tall and spherical shape of SA keycaps provides a distinctive and retro appearance that stands out from more common keycap profiles. It can give a keyboard a vintage or classic typewriter-like look, appealing to users who enjoy nostalgic designs.
  2. Customization Options: SA keycap sets are available in a wide range of colorways and themes. This allows mechanical keyboard enthusiasts to personalize their keyboards with unique and visually striking keycap combinations.
  3. Long-lasting Legends: SA keycaps often feature dye-sublimated or double-shot molded legends, making the legends more durable and resistant to wear compared to some other keycap printing methods like pad printing.
  4. Sculpted Rows: While the SA profile maintains a consistent spherical shape across all keycaps, the rows are still sculpted to fit the natural positions of the fingers. This sculpted design can provide a comfortable typing experience for some users.

Disadvantages of the SA Keycap Profile

  1. Tall Profile: The tall and spherical design of SA keycaps may not be comfortable for everyone. Some users may find the extra height to be less ergonomic, especially for extended typing sessions, as it requires more finger travel to reach the keys.
  2. Adjustment Period: Due to the height and spherical shape, some users may require an adjustment period to get used to typing on SA keycaps. The key feel can be quite different from more standard profiles like OEM or Cherry.
  3. Limited Compatibility: SA keycap sets are designed for specific keyboard layouts and may not be fully compatible with non-standard layouts or certain keyboard configurations. Users with non-standard layouts might have difficulty finding SA keycaps that fit all keys properly.
  4. Cost: SA keycap sets, especially high-quality PBT versions, can be relatively expensive compared to other keycap profiles. The uniqueness and quality of SA sets contribute to their higher price point.
  5. Availability: While there are various SA keycap sets available, they might not be as widely available as more common keycap profiles like Cherry or DSA. Limited availability can make it challenging to find specific SA sets.

DSA Profile Keycaps

The DSA keycap profile is a uniform keycap profile known for its flat and cylindrical shape. "DSA" stands for "Distributed Structure A," indicating that all keycaps have the same shape and height across the entire keyboard, regardless of the row they belong to.

  1. Uniform Design: The DSA profile is characterized by its uniformity. Unlike other profiles like Cherry or SA, where keycaps have varying heights and shapes based on row placement, DSA keycaps have the same flat shape and height for all keys.
  2. Flat Top Surface: DSA keycaps have a flat top surface, offering a consistent feel under the fingertips. This flat design creates a symmetrical and minimalistic appearance on the keyboard.
  3. Cylindrical Shape: The sides of DSA keycaps are cylindrical, tapering gently towards the bottom of the keycap. This shape provides a smooth and comfortable surface for the fingers to rest on.
  4. Sculpted Rows Not Applicable: As the DSA profile is uniform, there are no sculpted rows like those found in profiles such as Cherry or SA. This uniformity allows users to easily swap keycaps across different rows, making it popular for custom keyboard layouts.
  5. Keycap Legends: DSA keycaps often feature well-defined and centered legends (letters and symbols) on the top surface. These legends are typically dye-sublimated or double-shot molded for durability and longevity.
  6. Versatility: The uniform design of DSA keycaps makes them versatile for various keyboard layouts and configurations, including non-standard and custom layouts.
  7. Keycap Material: DSA keycaps are commonly made of PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) or ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene). PBT DSA keycaps are popular among enthusiasts for their durability and resistance to wear.

Advantages of the DSA Keycap Profile

  1. Uniform Typing Experience: The DSA profile offers a consistent typing experience across all keys since each keycap has the same flat shape and height. This uniformity can be appealing to users who prefer a symmetrical and predictable feel while typing.
  2. Easy Keycap Replacement: Due to the uniform design, DSA keycaps can be easily swapped and rearranged across different rows on the keyboard. This makes it convenient for users who want to experiment with different layouts or customize their keyboard's appearance.
  3. Compatibility: The uniform shape of DSA keycaps makes them compatible with various keyboard layouts, including non-standard and custom configurations. This versatility allows users to use DSA sets on a wide range of mechanical keyboards.
  4. Minimalistic Aesthetics: The flat and cylindrical design of DSA keycaps gives them a clean and minimalistic appearance, which can be visually appealing to users who prefer a simple and understated look for their keyboards.
  5. Keycap Material Options: DSA keycaps are available in various materials, including durable PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) and more affordable ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene). Users can choose the material that best suits their preferences in terms of texture and durability.

Disadvantages of the DSA keycap profile:

  1. Flat Keycap Surface: The flat top surface of DSA keycaps may not be as ergonomic for some users compared to more contoured profiles like Cherry or SA. Some users may find the lack of curvature less comfortable during extended typing sessions.
  2. Less Keycap Differentiation: Unlike sculpted profiles like Cherry or SA, where each row of keycaps has a unique shape, the uniform design of DSA keycaps lacks this differentiation. Some users may prefer a more ergonomic feel provided by sculpted profiles.
  3. Key Legibility: Since the legends on DSA keycaps are usually centered, some users may find them less visually prominent compared to other profiles with more prominent legends, especially in certain lighting conditions.
  4. Personal Preference: Keycap preferences are subjective, and while some users enjoy the uniformity and flat design of DSA keycaps, others may prefer the distinct feel and aesthetics offered by other profiles.

MT3 Profile Keycaps

the MT3 keycap profile is a unique and distinct keycap profile designed by Matt3o, a prominent figure in the mechanical keyboard community. "MT3" stands for "Matt3o's Sculpted Profile," and it is known for its retro aesthetics and comfortable typing experience.

  1. Sculpted Design: The MT3 profile features a sculpted design, similar to traditional profiles like Cherry and SA. Each row of keycaps has a different shape and height, conforming to the natural positions of the fingers when typing.
  2. Tall and Curved: MT3 keycaps are generally taller than standard profiles like Cherry and OEM. The keycaps have a curved and sculpted top surface, providing a comfortable and ergonomic typing experience.
  3. Retro Aesthetics: One of the key highlights of MT3 keycaps is their retro-inspired design. The keycaps are often shaped with a distinct, nostalgic appearance reminiscent of vintage typewriters and terminal keyboards.
  4. Spherical Top Surface: The top surface of MT3 keycaps is slightly concave, creating a spherical shape. This design enhances fingertip stability and contributes to a comfortable typing feel.
  5. Unique Legends: MT3 keycaps often feature unique legends (letters and symbols) with a vintage typewriter font. The legends are typically dye-sublimated or double-shot molded, ensuring durability and an authentic retro look.
  6. Premium Material: MT3 keycaps are made from high-quality PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) material, which is known for its durability and resistance to wear. The PBT material adds to the premium feel of the keycaps.
  7. Limited Edition Sets: MT3 keycap sets are often released as limited editions or group buys, adding to their exclusivity and appeal among mechanical keyboard enthusiasts.
  8. Advantages of the MT3 keycap profile
  9. Unique Retro Aesthetics: The MT3 keycap profile offers a distinct and nostalgic appearance, reminiscent of vintage typewriters and terminal keyboards. It provides a unique and eye-catching look for mechanical keyboards, appealing to enthusiasts seeking a retro-inspired design.
  10. Comfortable Typing Experience: The sculpted design and tall profile of MT3 keycaps provide a comfortable and ergonomic typing experience. The spherical top surface contributes to stable finger positioning, reducing finger fatigue during extended typing sessions.
  11. Premium Material: MT3 keycaps are typically made from high-quality PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) material, known for their durability, resistance to wear, and pleasant texture, providing a premium feel to the keycaps.
  12. Versatile Compatibility: MT3 keycap sets are often available in various kits to accommodate different keyboard layouts and configurations, making them suitable for a wide range of mechanical keyboards.
  13. Disadvantages of the MT3 keycap profile
  14. Limited Availability: MT3 keycap sets are often produced as limited editions or through group buys, which may result in limited availability. Users may need to keep an eye on group buy announcements or aftermarket listings to acquire specific sets.
  15. Higher Cost: The uniqueness, limited availability, and premium materials of MT3 keycap sets can lead to higher costs compared to more mass-produced profiles. This higher price point may be a deterrent for some budget-conscious users.
  16. Preference Variability: As with any keycap profile, personal preferences play a significant role in determining the appeal of the MT3 profile. Some users may not find the retro aesthetics or the taller sculpted design as appealing as other profiles.
  17. Limited Customization: The MT3 profile's distinct sculpted design may limit the ability to mix and match keycaps across different rows or layouts, which could be a consideration for users who enjoy fully customizing their keyboard setups.

OEM Profile Keycaps

The OEM keycap profile is one of the most popular keycap profiles in the mechanical keyboard market. "OEM" stands for "Original Equipment Manufacturer," indicating that this profile is often used as the standard keycap profile for many pre-built and off-the-shelf mechanical keyboards.

  1. Sculpted Design: The OEM profile features a sculpted design, which means that the keycaps have varying heights and shapes across different rows of the keyboard. Each row is slightly different to match the natural curvature of the fingers when typing.
  2. Slightly Curved Top Surface: The top surface of OEM keycaps has a gentle curve, offering a comfortable and familiar feel under the fingertips. The curve is subtle and not as pronounced as in some other profiles.
  3. Cylindrical Shape: The sides of OEM keycaps are cylindrical, tapering gently toward the bottom of the keycap. This shape provides a smooth and elegant look to the keycaps.
  4. Common Height: The overall height of OEM keycaps is considered medium, striking a balance between low-profile and high-profile keycap designs.
  5. Standard Keycap Legends: OEM keycaps typically feature standard legends (letters and symbols) on the top surface. The legends are usually pad-printed, laser-etched, or double-shot molded for durability.
  6. Keycap Material: OEM keycaps are commonly made from ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) or less commonly from PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate). ABS keycaps are more prevalent due to their affordability, while PBT keycaps are favored for their durability and resistance to wear.
  7. Versatile Compatibility: OEM keycaps are designed to be compatible with various mechanical keyboard layouts and switch types, making them a widely used and versatile option.
  8. Advantages of the OEM keycap profile
  9. Comfortable Typing Experience: The sculpted design and slightly curved top surface of OEM keycaps provide a comfortable and familiar typing experience. The keycaps are designed to match the natural curvature of the fingers, making typing for extended periods more enjoyable.
  10. Widely Available: The OEM keycap profile is the standard profile used in many pre-built and off-the-shelf mechanical keyboards. As a result, OEM keycap sets are widely available, making them easy to find and replace.
  11. Versatile Compatibility: OEM keycaps are designed to be compatible with various mechanical keyboard layouts and switch types. They can fit most standard and non-standard layouts, making them a popular choice for a wide range of keyboard configurations.
  12. Affordable Options: OEM keycaps made from ABS material are often more affordable than some other keycap profiles, making them accessible to users with various budgets.
  13. Disadvantages of the OEM keycap profile
  14. Limited Customization: The OEM keycap profile is not as customizable as some other profiles like DSA or SA. The sculpted design means that each row has a specific shape and height, limiting the ability to create fully customized layouts.
  15. Legends Wear: OEM keycaps with legends that are pad-printed or laser-etched may be more prone to wear over time with extended use. The legends can become less visible or faded, particularly on frequently used keys.
  16. Less Unique Feel: Some mechanical keyboard enthusiasts may prefer more unique and specialized keycap profiles like SA or MT3, which offer distinct typing experiences and aesthetics.
  17. Ergonomic Variability: While the OEM profile is comfortable for many users, some individuals may find the keycap height or curvature less suitable for their ergonomic needs, especially if they prefer higher-profile keycaps for improved hand positioning.
  18. Material Quality: The keycap material used can significantly impact the overall quality and feel of OEM keycaps. ABS keycaps, which are more common, may develop a shiny or greasy appearance over time with extended use.

Ideal Keycap Profile Usage

Choosing a keycap profile that suits your requirement and preferences can truly be a game-changer.

* The Cherry profile keycaps are among the best keycap profiles known for their comfortable and familiar typing experience, making them a popular choice among mechanical keyboard enthusiasts.

* The SA keycap profile is favored by mechanical keyboard enthusiasts who enjoy the distinct aesthetics and the taller, spherical feel during typing.

* The DSA keycap profile is favored by mechanical keyboard enthusiasts who prefer a consistent typing experience across all keys. Its minimalistic and symmetrical design makes it a popular choice for custom keyboard builds and layouts.

* Sculpted keycaps like the MT3 keycap profile are favored by users who appreciate its retro aesthetics, comfortable typing experience, and unique sculpted design. The combination of the spherical top surface and the sculpted rows provides a distinct and enjoyable typing feel.

* The OEM keycap profile is popular among both newcomers and experienced mechanical keyboard enthusiasts.

Keycap Maintenance

Taking proper care of your keycaps can help maintain their appearance, durability, and overall longevity.

  1. Clean your keycaps regularly.
    Dust, dirt, and oils from your fingers can accumulate on the keycaps over time. To keep them clean, use a soft microfiber cloth or a keyboard cleaning brush to wipe away any debris regularly. Avoid using harsh cleaning chemicals that may damage the keycap material.
  2. Use gentle cleaning solutions. 
    If your keycaps need a more thorough cleaning, you can create a mild cleaning solution using water and a small amount of gentle dish soap. Dampen a cloth with the solution and gently wipe the keycaps. Ensure the keycaps are completely dry before using the keyboard.
  3. Do not use abrasive cleaning tools. 
    Avoid using abrasive cleaning tools or surfaces that may scratch or damage the keycap legends or surface. Soft materials like microfiber cloths or gentle brushes are best for cleaning.
  4. Use a keycap remover. 
    When cleaning, you may find it easier to remove the keycaps from the keyboard using a keycap puller or a wire-style keycap remover. This allows you to clean the keycaps more thoroughly and reach the areas under the keycaps.
  5. Minimize exposure to the sun. 
    If your keycaps are exposed to direct sunlight for extended periods, consider covering or storing your keyboard when not in use. Prolonged exposure to UV rays can cause fading or discoloration of keycap legends.
  6. Do not put liquids near your keyboard. 
    To prevent liquid damage to your keycaps, be cautious when using beverages or other liquids near your keyboard. Accidental spills can lead to damage and discoloration.
  7. Use a keyboard cover. 
    Protect your keycaps from dust and debris when not in use by using a keyboard cover or a dust cover.
  8. Store keycap sets properly. 
    If you have spare keycap sets or artisan keycaps, store them in a safe and clean container to avoid damage or loss.
  9. Rotate keycaps.
    If your keyboard allows for keycap swapping, consider rotating the keycaps occasionally to even out wear and tear.

Handle them with care. 
When removing or installing keycaps, handle them with care to avoid putting unnecessary stress on the keycap stems or switch stems.

Conclusion

This guide explores the diversity of keycap profiles, shedding light on the distinct characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages of different profiles. Understanding keycap profiles is essential for mechanical keyboard enthusiasts and users seeking a personalized typing experience.

Whether you're a gamer, a typist, or just love the feel of a well-made keyboard, there's a profile out there for you.

Erickson, a certified Interior Designer and Ergonomist, has cultivated a unique career blending aesthetics, functionality, and well-being. Holding a Bachelor's degree in Interior Designfrom a prestigious institution, Erickson is well-versed in creating spaces that are both visually pleasing and conducive to human comfort and health.
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