Review: Leopold Tactile Touch Tenkeyless Keyboard (MX Brown)

2013-06-13*
hardware, leopold, cherry mx, realforce, unicomp

This is a review of the Leopold Tactile Touch Tenkeyless computer keyboard, model FC200RT/KB, part FC200RT/AB (hereinafter “Leopold”); this keyboard features the famous Cherry MX Brown switches.1 I purchased the Leopold for $99 (before tax/shipping) from EliteKeyboards. The 104UG is my third mechanical keyboard after the Unicomp Ultra Classic (model UB40P4A) (hereinafter “Unicomp”) and Topre 104UG Hi-Pro (hereinafter “Topre”), both of which were reviewed in my previous post. I will be comparing the Leopold against these two other models; I’ve kept the same general headings in this post as well, to keep the review somewhat consistent.

The main reason why I purchased the Leopold was because the family computer needed a replacement; because I did not want another Topre or Unicomp, I decided to try out the Cherry MX Brown switch. This is my first real experience with the very famous Cherry switches, which aren’t as expensive as Topre switches but still have a solid reputation as a mechanical switch suitable for industrial/commercial applications. I purchased the “tenkeyless” version, which is exactly like the regular 104-key keyboard (classic IBM 101 keys, plus 2 Windows keys and a “right click” menu key) minus the numer pad on the right; the reason was because Elite Keyboards did not have a full-sized version in stock. Still, this version has all the goodies like Scroll Lock (useful in Linux tty sessions), Insert, Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down.

Build Quality

Like the Topre, the build quality of the Leopold is very good, although it falls short a tiny bit. The weight of the keyboard is very nice for its size. The keyboard is made in Taiwan, and even though its length is considerably shorter than the Topre, it still bends a tiny bit when you twist it from end to end. All of the keys except the first two rows (Esc through Pause, and ` through Page Up (minus Backspace)) have the plastic separation dots I mentioned for the Unicomp, although these are much smoother. If you pop open the two plastic feet in the back, you can see parts of the PCB (the green board with electronic circuitry) through two thin slits, which can be annoying for the eagle-eyed consumer. The included USB cable, which is detachable (why don’t all manufacturers do this?), boasts a 1.8 meter length — which I find very useful.2

DIP Switches

Like the Unicomp and Topre, the Leopold does not have any DIP switches. As I’ve said before, I find hardwired DIP switch technology useless.

Feel

The MX Brown switches feel surprisingly nice. They just feel very natural, even, and really fun to type on, and also quite accurate. The keys are very quiet, and if you type properly without pounding on the keys, the sound generated is totally reasonable. Like the Topre, you can type on these keys very slowly to significantly reduce any noise. The key surfaces have a very normal, non-glossy plastic feel, so there are no complaints there.3

Like the Unicomp, I can put my fingers on the home row (the default position for touch typists), and rest all of my muscles, from my fingertips to my shoulders, without actuating any keypresses. In this respect, I can say that either the MX browns or buckling springs are recommended for touch typists over the 45g Topre switches.

As for the actual feel of the keypress, it is a two-part phase. First, if you press slightly you will feel and go past the initial bump to register the keypress; second, after the bump, you can still press the key about the same distance to bottom out. To be even more precise, if you press the key at an angle from the start, you will go about 1-2mm against a grainy plastic feel, and come up against that initial bump, but not enough to register the keypress. All of these different phases have their own feel, and subjectively speaking, the entire keypress experience feels as if you are ever so lightly brushing plastic against plastic. However, there is not much plastic noise involved, so it’s not as if the keypresses feel disorganized or uneven. As far as enjoyment goes, these MX browns are very satisfying — they are not as loud as buckling springs, yet still give you plenty of tactility to still maintain typing accuracy.

The only negative side of this keyboard is that the spacebar’s bottom edge feels a bit too sharp, and my left thumb feels a bit uncomfortable as a result. I use the area of the thumb perpendicular to where the fingernail starts to grow, perhaps as many others do, so this may be a problem for you. However, keep in mind that you can always purchase replacement Cherry keycaps because they are the most popular type of mechanical keyswitches on the market. For me, I unconsciously adjust my left thumb so that I type with the area closer to my first knuckle, so it is not a big deal.

Keycap Wiggle

Like the Unicomp, the Leopold’s keys barely wiggle at all when you brush your fingers across their surfaces, and also do not make any excessive rattling sounds. Because of this, the keys individually feel very snug and fit — I like it!

Volume

The MX browns are less noisy than the Unicomp; subjectively, they are about 40% as loud as the Unicomp, and I will peg the browns as a middle way between Topre and Unicomp. As I mentioned before, the keys can be very quiet if you type deliberately.

Rubber Feet

There are 4 rubber feet, although, like I stated in my previous post, I don’t really care for feet of any kind on a keyboard. But if you like rubber feet, you will like the Leopold because there are actually 6 rubber pads — 2 on the NW and NE corners, and 4 (2 each) on the SW and SE corners. Given the fact that this keyboard packs a decent amount of weight, it’s not going to slide around aimlessly as you type anyway. On the other hand, the rubber feet do give about 2-2.5mm clearance against the desk’s surface, so the official keyboard product label can probably last longer (if you’re concerned about product labels, haha).

Plastic Swivel Feet

The Leopold also has two plastic swivel feet. Personally, I don’t like using plastic swivel feet because the elevated angle feels unnatural to my piano-friendly fingers and wrists, but they are there if you like the elevation.

USB Cable Inlay

The Leopold also has grooves (cord inlays as I call them) in the back of the keyboard, designed so that you can neatly determine which direction the cord will “exit” from the keyboard. Where as the Topre only allows you to make the cord exit left or right, the Leopold also lets you exit the cable from the center — perfect for my family computer setup in the living room, where the computer is directly in front of the coffee table! Needless to say, Topre needs to copy this feature from Leopold.

Quirks

The Leopold has some unique features:

Cost and Value

The Leopold costs $99, just $20 more than the Unicomp at the time of this writing. I can easily say that the price of this keyboard is completely justified by the apprent build quality and performance.

Conclusion

I actually recommend this keyboard over the Unicomp if you are looking for your first mechanical keyboard. The build quality is very good, and the same goes to the feel of the keypresses. I must say that the various YouTube videos of MX Brown switches are by and large misleading; I expected these switches to be much louder and also have a lighter, cheaper plasticy feel. To my surprise, the keys felt quiet and at the same time, very solid. I feel as though the weight of the keys are really at the sweet spot — any heavier or firmer than this, and you’ll probably feel tired pressing down on the keys. (The Unicomp has heavier keys, but the nature of buckling springs is such that the heavy point of actuation lasts only momentarily — not enough to tire out your fingers too much.)

104UG vs. Unicomp vs. Leopold Cherry MX Brown

The MX browns are quiet enough to allow you to appreciate classical music on speakers; and, the actual noise of the keypresses in regular use are about even with the Topres (although the Topres are quieter if you press down very slowly). For first-time buyers of mechanical keyboards, I recommend the MX browns, just because they feel so natural. You will immediately feel comfortable with the MX browns. Any Topre board will cost at least 2-4x as much as either the Unicomp or Cherry MX board — you should just try out the Cherry and Unicomp first before going for a Topre. And, I will add that if you really like the weight of the MX browns or buckling springs, get a 55g Topre board because the 45g keys feel extremely light compared to these two switches (the difference is almost night and day, even for the MX browns).

Still, I have a soft spot for my Unicomp. I feel that the buckling springs give the best tactile feedback when it comes to registering keypresses, and I have made a fair number of typos while writing this post on the Leopold, most of which I would not have made had I typed on the Unicomp. The accuracy of the Unicomp is really unmatched.

I guess I am sort of leaving the Topre out in the cold, but it’s really only because of its exorbitant price point — only get it if you spend serious time at the computer. The Topre switches, as far as their feel when you press down on them, feel much more refined and smoother than the MX browns, while still giving you a little tactile bump. Unless you spend a lot of time at the computer typing away at things, the Topre experience is just not worth the $300+ price tag.


  1. The page at Elite Keyboard says this is model FC200RT/AB, but if you actually look at the sticker at the back, it says “Model No.: FC200RT/KB” and “Part No.: FC200RT/AB”.

  2. The USB connection port on the keyboard is actually a mini-USB connection, called “male mini USB Type B” which has 5 pins.

  3. I despise shiny/glossy plastic products, like the “Das Keyboard”.