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What we bought: Topre’s Realforce keyboard is totally impractical, but I can’t go back

It's wildly expensive and missing basic features, but it feels so nice that I don't care.

Jeff Dunn / Engadget

There are two points I want you to take away from this article. The first: An overwhelming majority of people do not need to pay $300 for a keyboard. Easy enough. But I’m about to wax poetic about one particular $300 keyboard that has made my life better, and I don’t want it to be mistaken for a universal endorsement. There are several perfectly competent keyboards available for a tenth of this price, and many excellent models —some would even say “premium” — are available for as little as $100. You have to be a particularly warped kind of consumer, one who has invested too much time in forums populated by eternally unsatisfied keyboard enthusiasts, to take this sort of plunge.

And yet!

I am incredibly privileged to be able to test and write about tech products for a living, but it’s exactly those two things — using a bunch of products, and doing a bunch of writing — that led me to buy Topre’s Realforce R2 PFU keyboard a few years back. I’ve tested several keyboards for work over the years, from compact and mobile-focused options to all sorts of mechanical models. Many of these were great for the right person, but none of them totally fit my needs as someone who has to spend most of the week typing and editing. Some were too fast, some were too loud — either in noise and RGB-addled design — some felt too slick to the touch.

Taste in keyboard feel is fully subjective, but, as with food or art, the more you obsess over it, the more in tune with your preferences you become. Topre keyboards have had something of a cult following for a long time now, so after not totally meshing with the various mechanical (Cherry, Kailh, Razer, Logitech, et al.) and non-mechanical keyboards I had used over the years, I dipped into my savings and talked myself into believing I’d be converted as well. There are various Realforce models — plus a handful of keyboards that use Topre switches but aren’t sold by the Japanese firm itself — but, as someone who uses the number pad, I decided to go all the way with the full-size R2 PFU.

You don’t have to know how a Topre keyboard works to enjoy one, but I’ll try to explain. For most, mechanical keyboards sit at the top of the keyboard pleasure food chain, with membrane or rubber dome keyboards all the way at the bottom. Topre’s electrostatic capacitive switches exist kind of between the two, but really in their own realm off to the side. They do use a rubber dome, but not in the same, simple way as many cheaper/laptop keyboards. They also don’t work like mechanical switches, which slide particularly-shaped pieces of plastic and metal against each other to create a distinct feel with each keypress.

A diagram showing how Topre's electrostatic capacitive keyboard switches are designed.

Instead, a Topre switch has a conical spring inside its rubber dome and a special capacitive sensor underneath the spring. At a certain point as the spring is compressed, the sensor recognizes that the switch has been actuated electrically and registers the keypress. The rubber dome component provides most of the key’s tactile feel and resistance, but there’s more going on under the hood in a Topre switch than there is in a simpler rubber dome switch, which must be physically “bottomed out” for a keypress to register.

What does all of that actually mean? That’d be my second point: Topre switches are a joy.

Touch typing on the Realforce R2 PFU is consistently smooth and satisfying. It’s fast enough but not too fast. Each press requires just enough force and returns just enough even resistance to give my fingers a distinct, bouncy response but not fatigue them over hours of work. Fully pressing a key here has a noticeably softer “landing” than you’d get on a typical mechanical keyboard. (My particular model has 45g switches, but there are also options with heavier 55g switches or switches with varying weights for different keys.)

This Realforce uses Topre’s “silenced” switches, which aren’t dead silent, but have a pleasingly muffled sound that doesn’t call attention to itself and is still far quieter than most mechanical keyboards. With my wife and I working out of the same one-bedroom apartment for the past three years, being able to keep the noise down has been a necessity. With this, I don’t need to sacrifice a richer typing feel in the process. That said, many Topre owners enjoy the more pronounced (but still mellow) thock sound provided by the non-silenced versions of these switches.

The Realforce is also just a well-made piece of hardware. The keycaps have a matte PBT finish that feels durable and avoids virtually all finger grease. The lettering is cleanly legible, and after years of use the dye has shown zero sign of smudging. The keys at the bottom of the board are gently sloped upward in a way that makes them easier to locate without looking. None of the keys feel loose, and there’s none of the “pinging” sound you might get if you slam down on a cheaper mechanical board.

A look at the silenced 45g switch used in Topre's Realforce R2 PFU Limited Edition keyboard.
Jeff Dunn / Engadget

The outer casing is made of plastic, but it’s thick and smooth, and it doesn’t creak as you press down. (It can flex a little if you go out of your way to squeeze the sides of the board, but there’s no real reason to do that in the first place.) The kickstands on the back are tightly wound in place, and the whole board has a robust sense of heft that keeps it firmly in place. Topre says each switch can survive 50 million keystrokes, which is lower than the ratings for some mechanical switches but still enough to last decades. And while the ivory-and-gray finish of my model won’t fly with everyone, I dig the more professional, ‘80s IBM-style aesthetic. I don’t need showy RGB lighting to signify to myself that I enjoy video games.

On the feature side, this model can also swap between three different actuation points — the idea being that a shorter actuation distance will result in faster key presses for tasks like gaming. I’ve barely messed with that, though, as the default setting has given the right balance between speed and accuracy. All of this is still perfectly serviceable for casual gaming. It also supports n-key rollover, meaning it’ll recognize any new keypress regardless of how many keys you may already be holding down at once.

There are still many reasons to not get a Topre keyboard. This particular model has nothing in the form of backlighting, for one. Its USB-A cable isn’t detachable, and it only has one kickstand setting. Realforce keyboards generally aren’t compatible with most third-party keycaps either, so your customizations are far more limited than most mechanical options. And, hello, they usually cost between $220 and $300. The fact that these switches are relatively complex, not in super-high demand and manufactured (and tested) by one company in Japan almost guarantees a high premium.

I also have to note that the Realforce R2 family of keyboards I’m talking about here is technically outdated, as Topre introduced a newer R3 series several months ago. As of this writing, however, those are still not easily available in the US. For now, the R2 models carry all the same general benefits and downsides but are more readily in stock. Broadly recommended third-party models like the Happy Hacking Keyboard are still around as well.

Regardless, any Topre keyboard is a niche device, best suited for enthusiasts who regularly spend long stretches typing and are willing to pay a premium for it to feel consistently pleasant. For better or worse (for my bank account), that’s me. I can’t say it was the most responsible purchase, but the Realforce has made years of work a little more soothing and subtly luxurious, one keypress at a time. If you find yourself in a similarly wanting state, it’s worth finding a way to try one out.