Quick Look: Drop + RedSuns GMK Blue Samurai Custom Keycap Set 12

Quick Look: Drop + RedSuns GMK Blue Samurai Custom Keycap Set

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Introduction

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By this time, my full reviews of the Drop CTRL and Drop ALT keyboards would have been published for all to see. Those two were among the first products to come out of what Drop calls "Drop Studio," an in-house venture to develop and bring to market products in different segments, including mechanical keyboards and audio. The keyboards were certainly impressive even if they weren't the latest to come out of Drop Studio, but I have admittedly been more excited about doing this quick-look article. Custom keycap sets are likely how many in the enthusiast keyboard community first heard of Drop, with several collaborations that have been wildly successful. One common complaint with these ventures has been the long lead time for delivery, often exceeding a year. So with Drop now working on stocking some of the popular keycap sets closer to a retail shop, I sought to see how an example such keycap set worked out. Thanks again to Drop for providing a keycap set sample to TechPowerUp!


The object of this quick-look article is the recently launched Drop + RedSuns GMK Blue Samurai keycap set, which in itself is a companion design to RedSuns' first design, the Red Samurai keycap sets. The latter was available in three versions to fit the three Drop Studio keyboards (CTRL, ALT, and SHIFT) in addition to more custom options, so news of a more customizable set in blue intrigued many. Renders and initial photos also came up soon thereafter, which unfortunately did some harm in that the colors appeared brighter than they actually were for the retail units, especially for the blue keycaps themselves. Seen above is an example keyboard build using the retail units, including the add-on Hiragana script keycaps. I chose it because it shows off the possibilities better when it comes to the Blue Samurai keycaps, and I also only have the base kit and none of the add-ons here. Let's dig deeper now, beginning with the packaging itself.

Packaging


I am one of those waiting patiently for my own purchased GMK keycap set to arrive, so this happens to be my first GMK experience. I understand that different keycap sets get different packaging designs based on the designer, but this was quite a poor unboxing experience if I say so myself. The outer packaging comes with a plastic wrap stretch over the "box," and a sticker on the back confirms that this is indeed a GMK-manufactured keycap set. First impressions are quite important for purely aesthetic items, and this one reminded me more of a cheap Fisher-Price toy packaging, which is less than ideal.


The actual product box employs a two-piece packaging with an outer cardboard sleeve for aesthetics. I once again have to convey my disapproval of the whole design; the aggressive "Blue Samurai" writing and design make it seem more like an unauthorized action figure is inside. I know that most people could not care less about this, but for the price point and lead times that designer custom keycaps carry, the unboxing experience is a key metric in my books. It is on the sides that we get more useful information regarding the manufacturer, but the other side warning about the contents being choking hazards for age groups does not help dissuade from the plastic toy comparisons.


Perhaps I had other expectations based on my experiences with Akko and a few other keycap set makers, but the unboxing experience only just improves from this point onward. With the sleeve removed, we see a cardboard sheet tucked in place to hold the contents of the first layer in place, which in turn is a cardboard inlay that fits over the bottom layer as the top itself. These two layers have seven rows each, and physical divides between rows help with further compartmentalization. I did have to pretty up the keycaps somewhat since a few of them had come out of their designated spot during transit. Removing specific keycaps is not hard thus, although putting them back in order as well as storing the extra ones clearly is not going to be as easy. Overall, I personally think the packaging can be improved in both function and form.

Closer Look


Right, on to the main event now. In the absence of the other add-on kits, I have to resort to using stock photos from the Drop product page to talk more about the theme and various options. As with the Red Samurai set before, the RedSuns Blue Samurai keycap design takes inspiration from General Ii Naomasa from the Sengoku Japanese era. Hilariously enough, it is the second product in a week that I have reviewed that opts to do something similar. In this case, the founding father of the Samurai code gets paid tribute with two colorways: the Red and Blue Samurai sets, of which the latter offers more options as seen above.

The Blue Samurai set adopts a primarily deep blue base with dark gray and golden yellow accents elsewhere coupled with the same golden yellow legends. The base kit consists of a very respectable 153 keycaps that will cater to most keyboard form factors today, including those with split space bars and different associated modifier sizes. What might irk fans of the original RedSuns GMK Red Samurai sets is that the base kit no longer uses the Nishi set of keycaps with the Hiragana script underneath the modern Latin English alphabets. These are now separately sold for both the Red and Blue Samurai keycap sets, and fans of the Hiragana aesthetic may also enjoy the pure Hiragana kit seen above. What I would have liked instead is the inclusion of some of the novelties with the base kit, but offering them separately is the current norm with keycap group buys and designs, which I don't agree with, though I understand why it is being done for monetary reasons, of course. The novelty designs are available in two kits: symbols/designs and text-based. The former set does look nice to me and fits the theme if going by the stock photos, which is all I can say in the absence of any hands-on experience.


Aside from a replacement Esc and Enter key, the base kit lacks the golden keycaps, and not having a single yellow space bar in the kit was disappointing. Instead, there is a whole separate add-on for the space bar kit in this color, which adds positively to the aesthetics and negatively to your budget. Adding to the temptation is the optional Mechcables Blue Samurai coiled aviator-style split cable seen above. Custom keycap sets typically offer deskmats and/or cables such as this one, especially for the more popular designs, so seeing this accessory was not surprising, and I only point it out for those interested in extending the theme beyond the keyboard body itself. Once again, I have no personal experience with either of these options.


I may have come off as a negative nancy thus far, but allow me to explain why. GMK keycap sets are the current standard most others are compared to. The German manufacturer has been extremely accommodating of the enthusiast keyboard community, accepting group buy collaborations from designers small and large. This has worked out massively for GMK, to where it has invested in more equipment and manpower, but there is no denying that the added pressure of all these orders has resulted in some really long lead times for more than a few group buys to date. There are other keycap makers, including Akko and Mistel, whose products we have seen before, but the Asian brands tend to go with dye-sublimed or doubleshot injected legends on PBT plastic. I myself adore PBT plastic, albeit mostly because there are very few good-quality ABS keycap sets out there.

When done properly, ABS plastic keycaps are a better base for designs as they are glossy and offer a brighter presence. GMK keycap sets tend to be of the ABS plastic variety, with extremely thick plastic courtesy 1.5-mm-thick walls. For context, the default gaming-marketed mechanical keyboard has ~0.9-mm-thick ABS plastic keycaps which wear out sooner than I'd like. The legends here are also doubleshot injected to where they will only wear out with the rest of the keycap composition, thus making for highly durable keycaps. Yes, they will develop a shine over time, but differently from the norm, and the feel of the smoother ABS plastic often goes more appreciated by enthusiasts, so much so that these keycaps are highly sought after.

The thicker plastic composition and deliberate design choice make these opaque keycaps with only the golden keycaps allowing the slightest of light through in a few spots. It is also on the sides that you see the manufacturing point of securement, and overall build quality is excellent. In fact, I will go so far as to say that quality control and manufacturing of the actual keycaps is so good that I had to use a macro lens to see where the legend injection smoothly terminates. The legends themselves are very uniformly applied, with the mold used no doubt having gone through multiple quality checks, too. As far as the technical facet is concerned, I have no complaints about the product quality. I would have preferred a lighter shade of blue, perhaps somewhere between the final version and what the 3D renders initially showed, but this is at least no surprise for paying customers. There is plenty of contrast between the two colors on each keycap color combination here, and I do like the golden yellow on blue as it is now coming off classy, yet relatively unique.


To demonstrate how the base kit looks installed on a keyboard, I chose the Drop ALT for two reasons. The first is quite obvious as I wanted to use a first-party product if at all possible. The second reason is that this 65% form-factor keyboard is more demanding than the Drop CTRL, a TKL unit that is the only other Drop keyboard I have here. There is a shorter right Shift on the Drop ALT, which the Drop + RedSuns GMK Blue Samurai base kit handles easily, but then we get to the four keys at the right—Del, Home, Pg Up, and Pg Dn—in row profiles different from the usual. The 153-key set did well in meeting pretty much all requirements, although there were only two Home keycaps and neither fit perfectly. The one chosen is close enough not to be noticeable in practice, but I have to note that there is no add-on kit which will solve this. There are plenty of other keycaps which will, but it is something to be aware of if you want to use this as-is. The Red Samurai set comes in a 65% kit form, which may well be the solution if you don't mind or even prefer red to the blue here.

There is a bonus third reason why I went with the Drop ALT, although I could have probably gone with pretty much any other mechanical keyboard to date. It's no surprise to many that the GMK keycaps are Cherry MX stem compatible, and as is the case here, many of their sets also use the Cherry profile. The thicker ABS plastic and Cherry profile can be less-than-compatible with some north-facing switch configurations, especially those with associated LEDs for lighting. The Drop ALT is one such keyboard, and I had a couple of keycaps on the modifiers that didn't fully bottom out without impacting the switch housing. Unfortunately, this will be the case with other keyboards too, making it something else to be aware of. It's not a dealbreaker for me, and the average user probably won't even notice this in practice. That having been said, the Cherry profile also is still one of the more popular keycap profiles for aftermarket sets.


The video and photos above are just a reference to show how the Drop + RedSuns GMK Blue Samurai keycap set fares with keyboards with back and side lighting. The base kit, and likely all the other kits, are opaque to where any backlighting really ends up being accent lighting between keycaps. Side lighting is unaffected, so all your fancy RGB lights will be purely aesthetic in this case, with the keycap legends not really visible in the dark.



Above are two recordings of the different keycaps installed on the same keyboard and switch assembly, namely the Drop ALT with the Halo True switches. The first recording uses these Blue Samurai keycaps, and the second recording is with the stock doubleshot PBT keycaps that are slightly thinner at ~1.35 mm wall thickness. As such, all other variables are constant—the only difference is the keycaps. I did the recording on the same day and kept external factors as close to the same as possible, too. What you ultimately see is that these Blue Samurai keycaps sound quite similar to the already excellent-sounding stock Drop ALT keycaps, albeit slightly higher in pitch. The difference in pitch goes unnoticed while typing unless you do an A/B comparison as I did here. The difference may be accentuated with different keyboard compositions and switch choices, but I can't practically test every single combination out there.

The Drop + RedSuns GMK Blue Samurai custom keycap set is now available for purchase from Drop. The base 153-key kit tested here costs $150 as of the date of this article; the Nishi kit costs $90, Pure Hiragana kit $90, Novelties kit $80, Novelties Text add-on $45, and Samurai Spacebars add-on $20. Those interested in the Mechcables Blue Samurai aviator coiled cable can find it on the product page for $69. There have been many in the enthusiast keyboard community who said that it is the lead time and not pricing that keeps them from ordering such sets. With Drop making many sets available for immediate purchase without long lead times, now is as good a time as any to find out if that's still the case!
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