Review: Realforce 104UG Hi-Pro

2013-06-06*
hardware, realforce, unicomp

This is a review of the 東プレ (Topre) Realforce 104UG Hi-Pro computer keyboard, model YK2100, originally released in April 2013 (hereinafter “104UG”); this keyboard features the famous (and expensive!) Topre switches. I purchased the 104UG for $290 (before tax/shipping) from EliteKeyboards. The 104UG is my second mechanical keyboard after the Unicomp Ultra Classic, model UB40P4A, which I purchased back in fall 2009 for $70 before tax/shipping (hereinafter “Unicomp”). Because my mechanical keyboard expertise is limited to these two keyboards, I will be comparing the 104UG with the Unicomp.

I am a programmer and touch typist, and also have an acute sense of hearing. While I love the Unicomp’s tactile feel, I feel that the keys sound too loud (except when I have my heaphones on). The sound issue was the main motivating factor behind my decision to purchase another keyboard.

I did not choose a small form-factor (SFF) keyboard like the HHKB, for several reasons. First, I use Linux so keys like Page Down, Page Up, Insert, Home, End, Scroll Lock are very useful to me; this is the major reason why I did not purchase a smaller form-factor keyboard with fewer keys, as I do not enjoy pressing the Fn key to use these aforementioned keys. In Linux, I use Shift+Insert every day because it’s the de-facto way to paste text; it would be painful to hunt down the Fn key every time I wanted to paste something. Second, I still want to use my Unicomp for extended typing sessions on my laptop (I hate my laptop’s built-in keyboard), and I don’t want to change keyboard layouts every time I switch from my desktop (104UG) and primary laptop (Unicomp). I want to save every ounce of muscle memory when moving between my systems; hence my decision to buy a standard US ASCII 104-key keyboard like the Unicomp.

Build Quality

The overall build quality of the 104UG is excellent. There is zero twisting when you try to twist the two ends of the keyboard, and the keyboard itself is pretty heavy. It is actually heavier than the Unicomp, which is known for its “built-like-a-tank” reputation. Also, the USB cable on the 104UG is slightly thicker than the Unicomp.

The Unicomp, actually, comes with lots of plastic blemishes, although they are not that noticeable. Also, the Unicomp’s keycaps all have a tearing dot area that looks quite ugly — you can see them all if you look at the keys by leaning over their backs (the angle that a person sitting directly across from you would have). If you’ve ever built model kits of assemble-yourself, miniature plastic airplanes or tanks, which come in sheets of plastic pop-out parts, you’d know exactly what I’m talking about, because they look quite similar to that effect, although, to Unicomp’s credit, the dots have been smoothed out. (If you clean your Unicomp’s keycaps with cloth, the dots will sometimes catch a thread or two, because they are sometimes sharp.) No such dots exist on the 104UG.

DIP Switches

The 104UG does not have any DIP switches like on the HHKB, but I find such hardwired technology useless in today’s modern computing world. I use Linux where you can use xmodmap which allows you to switch any key with any other key, or even disable keys entirely.1 You just can’t get this kind of ultimate flexibility with DIP switches.

The only advantages for using DIP switches I can think of is if you (1) like to move your keyboard around different computers not owned by yourself and (2) you are not technically knowledgeable enough to download key-switching software to get the same behavior. Or, maybe you only connect to computers using a low-level interface (e.g., Linux tty without X) and want to use your modified keys there before something like xmodmap can be used… although I find this scenario unrealistic.

Feel

The 104UG’s high profile keycaps gets some getting used to. The spherical keys do not really make my typing experience any more difficult, but I do like how the number keys on the top row really stand out, making it much easier to type those keys than a traditional keyboard. Also, the keycap surfaces have a very slight rubbery feel, which you can feel when you touch the wider keys like Enter or Shift. I believe that this is because the keycap surfaces are so smooth, and not because they are made out of PBT (polybutylene terephthalate), because the spacebar (which is made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS) feels virtually identical when you intentionally rub against the keycap surfaces with your fingers. The Unicomp’s keycaps are made from PBT, as well, I believe, and there the keycaps have microscopic bumps on the vertical surface where the keys are printed, so that they feel like normal plastic. (The Unicomp’s keycaps, from the sides, are smooth but also glossy; the 104UG’s keycap surfaces are all uniformly smooth, but not glossy at all).

The overall typing experience on the 104UG is a pleasure to use. However, I do want to eventually try out a 55g version because, coming from buckling spring technology, these 45g weighted keys feel very light. I can feel a slight rubbery bump when I press a key on the 104UG, but I am so used to the accurate, hard clicks of buckling springs that I just feel a little bit unimpressed by the tactile feedback.

I will also state here that on the Unicomp, I could rest all of my muscles on my arms, from my fingers, to the wrists, the forearms, all the way up the shoulder, when I rested my fingers in the default position (fingers on A, S, D, F, and J, K, L, ;). I cannot do the same on the 104UG, because my middle fingers usually end up pressing the keys (D or K); I have to always be conscious about resting my muscles. This is proving to be somewhat distracting as my Linux setup requires almost no use of the mouse, and I have a habit of just resting my hands on my keyboard.2 For this reason, I am very tempted to try out Topre’s 55g weighted keys, and if that key weighting will allow me to rest my fingers/arms just like my Unicomp.

Keycap Wiggle

The keycaps feel wiggly because of their extra tall height; you can readily feel this when you wiggle your finger on the top of the keycap without pressing down on it. The wiggle is nearly absent for the “regular” height keys on the bottom row — the CTRL, Windows key, ALT, spacebar, etc.; I wonder if the non-high-profile Realforce keyboards feel this way as well (and I am tempted to buy another Realforce just to see). To give you some perspective the Unicomp keys hardly wiggle at all (except for the spacebar), and I actually prefer the feel and sound of the Unicomp keys as my fingers run across them. When you do brush your fingers across the keys on the 104UG, you hear a flurry of very thin springs touching against plastic and honestly it does a disservice because this sound makes the keyboard appear like it’s been used for 5 years.

Volume

The 104UG is less loud than the Unicomp when I press the keys, so that is a plus. I can also silently press the keys if I am careful enough — great if you need to type something at night but don’t want to wake your neighbors. On the Unicomp, you cannot register a keypress without an audible click of the metal spring underneath each key; even if you press a key ever so slowly, you will still get a clicking sound.

Rubber Feet

I don’t really care for the rubber feet on this keyboard, or any other keyboard, and can’t really understand why a lot of people care so much about them. I am a touch typist (no ironic three-finger typing like you usually see on most keyboard-aficionado videos) and there is no way that I’m going to somehow slide the keyboard around as I type, rubber feet or not, on any keyboard. Actually, I would prefer it if the 104UG did not have rubber feet at all, because then I could just slide it around easily instead of picking it up each time and setting it down, seeing as how it is. (And, because it’s so heavy, there is that much less worry about it sliding around without any rubber feet).

I have no qualms about the bottom of the keyboard becoming scratched or whatnot, because that area of the keyboard feels as aesthetically important as the underside of my car. In fact, if I do somehow manage to remove the rubber feet, neither the cable nor the official Realforce product label would become scratched because the former is already set well inside the cord inlay, and the latter rests on the part of the keyboard that already enjoys about 0.5cm of clearance from the desk (the 104UG, like other Realforce models, has a concave underside design).

The Unicomp also has rubber feet, but they are less rubbery and not as thick, and I like that. The Unicomp’s underbody does not have a concave design like the 104UG, and the official Unicomp sticker on the back has obvious wear-and-tear damage on it as I’ve used it for the past 3.5 years. But again, I don’t really care about this kind of damage, because, well, I care about the keyboard’s performance, not its sticker.

Plastic Swivel Feet

The 104UG, like the Unicomp, comes with two swivel feet that you can pull out to make the keyboard become more elevated at an angle. I never use these feet on the Unicomp, and I don’t intend to use them on the 104UG. I believe my experience on the piano has somewhat affected my fingers’ resting position on the keys, and I prefer to have the keys lays flatter than at an elevated angle.

ABS Plastic Spacebar

The 104UG has polybutylene terephthalate (PBT) plastic keycaps, except for the spacebar which is made out of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). I’ve always wondered whether the spacebar would feel significantly different agains the other keys, but I can’t feel any difference.

Quirks

Interestingly, the 104UG has some peculiar features.

Cost and Value

The 104UG costs about 4x as much as the Unicomp. As much as I appreciate high-grade Japanese engineering and design, I think the 104UG’s real value should be closer to $200, not $290. Still, I understand that manufacturing costs are simply more expensive in Japan, and that’s probably where a third or so of the premium comes from.

Conclusion

I really like the 104UG a lot. I was surprised by its industrial-grade build quality, which felt even more tougher/heavier than the Unicomp (keyboard weight, USB cord thickness), combined with the fine design aesthetics of it. However, it is certainly not my ideal keyboard; I could do away with the Quirks I mentioned above. The price is expensive, although I think it is reasonably justified given that it is entirely made in Japan, and comes from overseas.

My ideal Realforce would have everything the 104UG already has, minus the quirks, and the following:

104UG vs. Unicomp

I absolutely love the tactile feel of buckling springs — it is extremely satisfying and also extremely accurate, even more so than Topre switches. The Unicomp has made me much more aware of my typos; sometimes I don’t even have to look at the screen to realize that I’ve made a typo (like when I’m copying something down from a book and my eyes are on the page, not the screen). It’s just that the loud click behind buckling spring technology makes it difficult for me to enjoy using it when I have classical music playing in the background (I enjoy soft piano sonatas, no less). However, I will say for the record here that buckling spring keys on the Unicomp do not uniformly create the same tactile feel or sound when they are pressed, probably because of the somewhat lax quality controls behind Unicomp’s manufacturing practices. To this day, my Unicomp’s K key makes a much louder sound and tactile feedback than the adjacent J key, which was annoying to me when I first got the keyboard.

The Unicomp also feels like the spiritual equivalent of an AK-47 — the buckling spring switches, by their nature, are so tough that I have no fear of disturbing anything when I work with it. For example, I will gladly carry my Unicomp inside my backback without any protective materials around it. On the other hand, I will probably never just throw my 104UG inside my backpack without any protective layer… it just feels so wrong. Maybe it’s because the wiggly keys make them feel so delicate to me.

I will also state for the record here that my Unicomp’s keypresses feel exactly the same as the day I got the keyboard in the mail, over 3 years ago. Mind you, I used it through school and many of my programming projects; and I use Vim-styled navigation keys (H, J, K, L) daily, so these home row keys have been pressed far more than the other keys — and yet, these keys do not show the slightest hint of being worn out; scratch that, the keypresses on the Unicomp still feel brand new. Buckling springs are that much awesome. Topre switches do use rubber membranes inside, although it is difficult to say just how long it will take before the rubber gives out and the keys stop feeling new.

For these reasons, I cannot unequivocally say that I prefer the 104UG over the Unicomp, or that I prefer Topre switches above buckling spring switches. I will actually give a slight edge to the Unicomp because I just like the sheer ruggedness of the key switches — the most important part of any keyboard.


  1. Surely there are similar programs on Windows or Mac systems as well.

  2. Even when I switch between desktop workspaces or different program windows, I use my keyboard, thanks to XMonad.

  3. Topre should change the box art on the shipping box that the 104UG comes in, because there these keys do have a small plastic bump depicted on them. Misleading, no?