I understand why it took Goldilocks several tries before she found her porridge just right. I’m having a similar experience with Keychron’s Q series of mechanical keyboards. I’ve been switching off between the compact 65% Keychron Q2 with a knob and the latest release, the Tenkeyless Keychron Q3. It’s the newest keyboard that works best with my day-to-day needs.
The Keychron Q3 is the third available layout from the company’s Q-series lineup of fully customizable DIY keyboards, and I’m finding it to be a perfect size. (There are six layouts in all, including this full-size version.) The six extra buttons on the right side offer a little room for expandability without tacking on a ton of extra space on the board. What’s important to me is that my desk isn’t overtaken by keys that I’m not using all the time. I also prefer a keyboard that I can fully service myself.
Knob-on or off?
First things first: Would you like a knob? The Keychron Q3 is available with an optional knob in the upper-right part of the board. That seems to be the model getting dinged the most by buyers since the knob has a funny placement that’s crammed between buttons. I requested the knobless version for my review unit because Keychron made the knob too sensitive on the Q2. I wasn’t about to have music blasting in my ears while trying to find my writing zen.
The main difference between the Q3 and its siblings is the keyboard layout. I already mentioned that the Q2 is a 65% board. The Q3 is an 80% tenkeyless, which means it has everything but the number pad. (There’s also a 100% version if you need the number pad.) You get the Insert, Home, and End buttons, along with Page Up, Page Down, and Delete. There are also three extra buttons at the top of those six that are programmed to take a screenshot, fire up a digital assistant, and shuffle through RGB backlight settings.
The good news is that these keys are entirely programmable using the indie VIA app, which works on PC, Mac, and Linux. Granted, you will have to buy a new keycap to make its symbol match its new function, but the ability is there. I’ll talk about the VIA experience and adjusting the RGB lighting later.
Keychron sent me the Carbon Black fully assembled version of the Q3 with stock OSA profile PBT keycaps, which have a bit of a dip in the middle. It’s also available in Silver Grey, Navy Blue, Shell White, and a Retro style, which looks like a gray hue scraped off your favorite library catalog keyboard. I was not too fond of the stock keycaps on the Q1 and Q2, which are also OSA profiles, so I swapped them out for a set of Keychron’s OEM profile Dye-Sub PBT Keycaps in Unicorn. I prefer the flat-top and subtle texture on the purple, pink, and white PBT keycaps I have now.
Swapping keycaps is still an easy feat
Swapping out the keycaps on the Keychron Q3 meant I got to take apart the board to see how it fares for DIYers. It’s easy to do, but it can feel intimidating if you’ve never done this sort of thing before. Even I paused before going in, and this is the fourth Keychron board I’ve tinkered with.
You don’t have to take off the Q3’s frame to swap keycaps. But it does make the process more accessible, since the keys are so close together. It was frustrating trying to extract each keycap with my puller tool, and as was the case with the Keychron Q1 I reviewed, I kept accidentally pulling out switches I didn’t want to unseat. It’s also much easier to get at the spacebar and other rectangular keys that are anchored by two switches instead of one.
If you do decide to try my route and take apart the frame, the good news is the keyboard comes with a magnetized screwdriver and Allen wrench in the kit. There’s even a switch puller, though I never used it.
You start by removing the bottom case, which requires you to flip over the board and remove the screws in each corner. I hate that I have to do this every time I want to swap keycaps, but at the very least, it encourages me to clean between swaps.
Then, you flip it back over to remove the top aluminum frame, exposing all the mechanical parts underneath. As with the Keychron Q1, there’s a daughter PCB under the aluminum frame, which serves as the switch controller between Mac and PC mode. You’ll have to unhook it before you can fully expose the main PCB and get to swapping.
I said it in my last review, and I’ll repeat it for you and myself: no matter your experience with mechanical keyboards, watch Keychron’s YouTube channel before doing anything else. I had a close call with the Q3 because I used a too harsh tool on the daughter PCB cable. It’s a rookie move from me, but I’m also a person who suffers from having no patience.
Once the keyboard is free from its aluminum frame, swapping out keycaps is standard practice. It took me less than half an hour to swap out 88 keys with my remover tool, which I prefer over what Keychron bundles with this board (though the one they include is not bad!).
That daughter PCB board that lets you switch between Mac and PC is a little tricky to tuck back into the case. I did have a moment where I’d screwed together half the aluminum frame, only to realize the other half wouldn’t seal because I didn’t layer pieces correctly. Again, this is why you watch the YouTube video before diving in.
I’m so pleased with the final look of Keychron’s purple and pink keycaps paired with the Q3's black frame. All that was left to do was figure out how to program the RGB to complete the aesthetic.
VIA is better than bloatware
I’m still a little intimidated by VIA, the indie software available for QMK-supported keyboards, including Keychron’s boards. VIA is pretty user-friendly if you stick to the basics, but it can get confusing if you try to do anything more than reprogram a key.
Adjusting the south-facing RGB lights for the Keychron Q3 is not like doing so on a Razer or SteelSeries mechanical gaming keyboard. There is no giant piece of software on your Windows machine that does the bidding for you, nor is there a responsive interface that lets you see per-key lighting. Instead, you have to trust your instincts and make sure you’re pressing down the right buttons as you program.
After a bit of YouTube sleuthing—God bless the mechanical keyboard community—I finally learned that Keychron’s keyboards use layers within VIA. So I flipped over to the RGB option within the software and located the appropriate commands to get pink backlighting across the whole board. It took me a little trial and error before I realized what was happening, but it made sense once I figured it out. I do prefer a real-time graphic interface when I’m doing this, so perhaps it’s time Keychron figures something out for keyboard users who don’t want to go through this kind of puzzle-solving.
How it types
The Keychron Q3 is a hot-swap keyboard, which means you can swap in 3-pin and 5-pin compatible MX mechanical switches. The Q3 is available with Gateron G Pro Red Linear, Blue Clicky, or Brown Tactile switches. They’re all still co-created with Gateron, which makes the best Cherry MX knock-offs. All switches come pre-lubed except for the Blue switches. My review unit is equipped with Brown switches tuned for office work and the occasional game. They’re a little louder and slower than the Red ones, but I’ve always preferred Brown for blogging.
As with every mechanical keyboard I review, I put it through the paces in Monkeytype, an online typing test I use to get a generalized assessment of how fast I can type on a board. On the Keychron Q3, I managed up to 123 words per minute (WPM) with around 80% accuracy, which is about how I type when I’m rushing through my notes. At 98% accuracy, I managed up to 119 WPM.
I received that mark several times through testing the keyboard, so it was nice to see consistency. And there’s proof in the pudding: I managed all my WWDC 2022 coverage with the Keychron Q3, which was comfortable to use throughout!
An easy way to DIY
I’m a little late to assess this particular keyboard, but it meant I could experience the Keychron Q3 as an actual daily driver. The Q3's comfortable typing experience and available keys for my line of work make it nearly the perfect keyboard for blogging online. Though if you are into the idea of the DIY, take heed that you must take apart the board any time you want to swap out a complete set of keycaps.
VIA is the only other caveat when deciding on a Keychron mechanical keyboard over the other mainstream offerings. However, there is enough documentation around this specific keyboard line and its software to help any newcomer to the hobby figure it out as they go along. For that reason, Keychron is still the keyboard brand I suggest to those looking to invest in something user-serviceable.
You can buy the Q3 barebones for $164, sans keycaps and switches. If you decide you want the knob, it costs $174 for the barebones version and $194 for the fully assembled version. Or you can pay $184 for the fully assembled version without the knob. I still think the price is worth the set of keycaps and switches that will inevitably become backup when you order your next group buy.
Updated 6/24/2022 at 10:30 p.m.: We have updated this review with more context regarding our decision to remove the keyboard’s frame to swap out its keycaps. Additionally, we have also corrected a typo in regards to pricing.