The keycaps you choose will go a long way toward determining the feel and performance of your mechanical keyboard. After all, this is the part of the keyboard that you actually touch, so you want to make the right choice here. Switches get a lot of attention, and rightfully so, but don’t overlook the importance of keycaps.
In this article, we are going to highlight two popular keycap options – ABS and PBT. Let’s take a moment to define both of these products before comparing them in detail.
What are PBT Keycaps?
Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT) is a thermoplastic polymer that is becoming increasingly popular in the keycap market. While it is more expensive to source and produce, the benefits of PBT make it a worthwhile investment. PBT is more rigid and wear-resistant than its counterpart ABS, meaning it lasts longer and is less likely to show signs of deterioration over time.
The defining characteristic of PBT keycaps is their textured, sometimes sandy, feel. Higher-end PBT keycaps often have a more luxurious texture than their cheaper counterparts. PBT keycaps are also matte and not very shiny. Additionally, they tend to be thicker than ABS keycaps due to the manufacturing process, which requires thicker walls.
PBT plastic is a semi-crystalline polymer that boasts exceptional heat and chemical resistance. It can withstand high levels of friction and impact, which makes it an ideal material for products that require durability and strength. PBT is often used in automotive parts, electronics interiors, and engine and motor covers.
Overall, PBT keycaps offer a sturdier and longer-lasting alternative to ABS keycaps. The texture and thickness of PBT keycaps make them a popular choice among enthusiasts who value quality and durability in their keyboards.
Interested in the science?
Melting point: 433.4°F (223°C)
IUPAC ID: Poly(oxy-1,4-butanediyloxycarbonyl-1,4-phenylenecarbonyl)
What are ABS Keycaps?
ABS keycaps are keycaps made out of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, a type of plastic. Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic is a copolymer plastic that can be easily melted down and remolded, making it a highly recyclable plastic. ABS is known for its stability and ease of molding, which makes it a popular material choice for many products, including LEGO bricks and power tool housings.
ABS keycaps are the standard keycaps that most people are familiar with. In the past, ABS keycaps were associated with being cheap and of low quality, but this reputation was largely due to the thin and poorly manufactured keycaps that were made in the early days of computers. Today, ABS keycaps are still relatively affordable, but they are much more durable and can withstand a lot of typing.
ABS keycaps are impact resistant, which means they can withstand millions of keystrokes before cracking or breaking. However, they do tend to wear down over time, and the lettering on the keycaps may fade away after heavy use. ABS keycaps have a smooth texture that many people find pleasant to use, but cheap and poorly manufactured keycaps may become greasy and shiny after prolonged use due to exposure to UV rays.
Most ABS keycaps are made through injection molding, and the legends (letters or symbols) are printed onto the keycaps using various methods such as pad printing, laser marking, and engraving. Mechanical keyboards often come with OEM (original equipment manufacturer) ABS keycaps, but there are also more expensive sets available online that offer thicker plastic and custom designs.
Boiling point: 293.4°F (145.2°C)
Density: 1.060–1.080 g·cm−3
Solubility in water: Insoluble in water
PubChem CID: 24756
Longevity: 50 to 70 years
ABS vs PBT – How to Choose the Right Keycaps
ABS keycaps are more common of a plastic and cheaper than PBT keycaps, which are less common and higher quality. In fact, LEGO bricks are made of ABS because of their higher quality and resistance to fading.
There are a variety of factors to consider when picking out your keycaps. Whether you are buying a new keyboard or just some new caps for your existing board, you’ll want to keep the points below in mind.
Let’s start our comparison of these two materials with a look at durability. If you are going to invest in a mechanical keyboard, you want the board to hold up for millions of keystrokes to come.
The good news here is either of these materials will likely hold up over the long run. There is a reason these materials are both used for keycaps – they are both suited to the kinds of repeated forces that are placed on a keyboard when used for typing, gaming, etc. Either way you go, you shouldn’t have any issues with keys cracking or breaking anytime soon.
With that said, there are reasons to favor PBT keycaps over ABS for durability. While ABS keycaps probably won’t break anytime soon, they might wear down on the top and develop that distinctive shine that you have probably seen on well-used keyboards. That shine causes the keys to be slick and they might not perform as well as when they were new.
Durability is one of the areas where PBT keycaps excel. Unlike ABS, PBT caps are not likely to develop that shine, and they are likely to provide more grip over the long run as a result. If you log a lot of hours on your keyboard and want it to stand the test of time, you’ll want to favor PBT over ABS.
Another notable difference between these two kinds of keycaps is found in the feel they offer the user. PBT keycaps tend to have a textured surface, which feels just slightly rough when you run your finger across the key. On the other hand, ABS keys are usually smooth to the touch, even before they have developed the shine that they can take on later in life.
This is a point that is mostly about personal preference more than anything else. Many mechanical keyboard users value that slightly rough feel, as it gives them a nice grip on the keys when working quickly and pounding out hundreds of keystrokes in a minute. Not only do the keys come straight from the factory with this feel, but the material is able to maintain that feel over the long run.
If that textured feel is not for you, perhaps it would make sense to look at a set of ABS keys. While the smooth feel that they come with is something you might like, watch out for them to get too slick in time, at which point they might get harder to use effectively. If you do go with ABS rather than PBT, there’s a good chance you’ll want to replace your keycaps sooner to keep your board functioning at its best.
The noise that your mechanical keyboard makes while in use is largely determined by the switches under the keys. However, the keys themselves can play a role. And again, just like with the texture point, this is another point that largely comes down to personal preference. A board that sounds great to you might not sound appealing to another user.
You’ll probably find that PBT keycaps are going to sound more ‘solid’ than their ABS counterparts. The PBT material is often thicker than what is used to make ABS keys, and as a result, the sound that comes back when you press down on a key is particularly clear. If you notice a bit of rattling when typing quickly on a board with ABS keys, that issue could be cleaned up by making the switch to PBT.
PBT keycaps have a higher melting point than the ABS variety. That might not seem like a big deal, but a fair amount of heat can be generated during a long gaming or typing session. The ability to hold up to higher temperatures is another reason why you can expect better durability from PBT.
At some point, the conversation has to turn to cost. Even if a certain product offers incredible features and amazing durability, it won’t be an option if the price doesn’t fit in your budget.
As you might expect given what we’ve learned so far, PBT keycaps cost more than ABS. The PBT material is harder to source, and harder to work with, and those realities are reflected in the cost of the caps. Whether or not the added cost is worth it to you will be a personal decision.
You may need to pay around double the cost of ABS keycaps to purchase caps made from PBT, but that will vary depending on the board you are using, the specific caps you want to buy, etc. As you shop, remember this – PBT is more durable, so spending more now may pay off in the long run if you don’t have to replace the caps so quickly.
What are Doubleshot Keycaps?
Have you ever had a keyboard where the letters or numbers wore off the keys and were no longer visible? This can be frustrating, and it may lead to the purchase of a new set of caps – or a new board entirely.
With double shot keycaps, you won’t have to worry about this problem. This style of keycap uses two layers of plastic, so the legend isn’t actually printed onto the surface of the caps – it is just part of the keycap itself. Opting for double shot caps will give your board another level of durability.
Ultimately, the choice between ABS and PBT keycaps depends on your personal preference and needs. If you value durability and grip, PBT keycaps are the way to go. However, if affordability and a smooth texture are more important to you, ABS keycaps might be a better choice. Keep in mind that PBT keycaps are more expensive, so you’ll need to factor that into your decision.
When selecting keycaps, take some time to consider what works best for you. If you plan to log a lot of hours on your keyboard and want it to last, PBT keycaps might be a wise investment. If you prefer a smooth texture and don’t mind replacing your keycaps periodically, ABS keycaps could be a good option. Ultimately, the right choice for you depends on your priorities and budget.