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?
PBT keycaps are keycaps made out of a form of plastic called polybutylene terephthalate – or PBT, for short. These kinds of keycaps are often found on high-quality mechanical 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. The lower-priced segment of the market offering budget keyboards will typically include ABS keycaps.
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.
It’s hard to say one type of keycap is ‘better’ than the other when there are so many variables to consider. As a general rule, most mechanical keyboard users are going to prefer PBT over ABS, simply because of the added durability and textured feel. For those reasons, PBT keycaps are more expensive, so you always need to keep that in mind. Whether you are refurbishing an old board or buying a new one, take some time to pick out the keycaps that make the most sense for your needs.