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What are the typical sizes of mechanical keyboards?

Which one is right for you?

mechanical keyboard guts
Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

If you’re looking for a mechanical keyboard to buy right now to deck out your work from home setup, you might have noticed odd-looking letter clusters in the names of some of the keyboards you were looking at. Abbreviations such as “TKL”, “1800-Compact”, “60”, and more could be turning what should be a simple purchasing decision into an eighth-grade language class.

Like most things, once they’ve been explained to you, they’ll no longer be mysterious symbols and numbers – they’ll be important pieces of information in your buying decisions.

We’ll show you how to make sense of the additional numbers and letters, so you can find the mechanical keyboard that suits your typing needs.

So, how do I make sense of the sizes of mechanical keyboards?

Short answer: It all depends on the number of keys

We’re going to start at the larger and more common keyboard sizes, and work our way down to the smallest ones you can get commercially.

Full-size

das mechanical keyboard mac professional

Image: Kevin Raposo / KnowTechie

If your keyboard is sold as Full-size, that means it’s got the alphanumeric cluster, the navigational cluster, and the number pad, all separated horizontally, with a row of function keys across the top of the keyboard. Sometimes dedicated media keys and controls are also included, such as on the Das Keyboard model shown above.

The number of keys will differ depending on which region of the world you live in. American keyboards use the ANSI layout with 104 keys, European keyboards use the ISO layout with 105 keys, and Japan uses the JIS layout with 108 keys. This used to be the most common keyboard size, but it’s been surpassed by smaller layouts in recent years.


1800-Compact

1800 compact keyboard

Image: KnowTechie

If you want all the keys from a full-sized keyboard but don’t want to take up as much horizontal space on your desk, the 1800-Compact is for you. It’s basically a full-sized keyboard with the clusters in the usual navigation column moved above the number pad, and the arrow keys nestled in between the two resulting clusters.

Think of it as keyboard Tetris, just with that T-piece you hate actually fitting into your layout. Great if you don’t want to lose a dedicated number pad but you also want a little bit more room for your mouse.


Tenkeyless (TKL, 87 or 80 percent)

tenkeyless keyboard

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

Feel that you don’t want a number pad or that a huge keyboard will take up too much space on your desk? Tenkeyless, also known as TKL, 87%, or 80% is probably the way to go for you. It’s a popular layout for gamers for just that reason, with the shorter length of the keyboard giving them more space on their desk for using their mouse.

In its most common form, like the TKLs from WASD keyboards, it’s a full-sized layout without the number pad. That results in either 88 or 87 keys, depending on if you’re using ANSI or ISO, which then gives it its alternative nicknames of the 87 or 80 percent keyboard. They’re easy to manufacture, easy to adapt to as the layout is the same as full-size, and lighter in weight in case you transport your keyboard between multiple keyboards.


75 percent

75 percent keyboard

Image: KnowTechie

Losing keys from the layout isn’t the only way to reduce the size of your keyboard, and that’s how the 75 percent form factor was born. Basically, it’s Tetris at the point where your screen finally clears all the blocks at once.

It’s a form factor that’s gaining popularity, as you can have most of the keys from a Tenkeyless, in a much smaller area. The name “75 percent” comes from the size, with keyboards in this form factor, like the Vortex Race 3 above, taking up three-quarters of the desk space of a full-sized keyboard.


60 percent

computer and accessories on desk

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

Now we get to the 60 percent form factor, and my personal favorite. It’s usually just the full alphanumeric cluster, without the number pad or the function row from the top. Sometimes the most-used parts of the navigational cluster, usually the arrow keys and some of the PageUP, PageDown, Del, and Home keys are also crammed in, but usually those have to be accessed through the Fn key as they get moved onto a second layer.

That change really increases the amount of desk space that you can use for your mousing hand, while keeping all the keys you need for FPS games easily accessible. MMO players might want to opt for larger form factors as the F-row gets used for skills.


40 percent

40 percent version

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

Now we shrink the keyboard again, down to the 40 percent form factor. The number row disappears to a layer, as keyboard makers have 40 to 48 keys to work with here. Basically, anything that isn’t a letter key or the most used modifier keys such as Shift, Ctrl, Etc, gets moved onto other programming layers, and special keys to navigate between those layers are added, like on the Planck EZ that we recently reviewed.

This form factor isn’t for everyone, as having to unlearn the usual QWERTY form factor and learn new layers takes time. Adding to the difficulty of relearning how to type is that the 40 percent form factor is often in ortho-linear layout as well, so the staggered keys you’re used to become nice orderly lines. Great once you get used to it, not so great for overriding years of muscle memory.


Tenkey (number pad)

tenkey pad

Image: KnowTechie

Remember how a Tenkeyless is the full-sized form factor without a number pad? Well, the Tenkey is just the number pad. It’s a bit of a misnomer, as they’ve usually got 21 keys, with all the keys you’d need for inputting figures into a database document, or for use as a calculator.

They’re a great addition to your setup if you prefer to use one of the smaller form factors most of the day, with a dedicated number pad in case you actually need it. Plus, it’s a great excuse to buy another keyboard…


Now you know all you need to know about the form factors that mechanical keyboards come in. There are a few niche form factors that we’ve not covered here, mainly macropads with less than 10 keys or purpose-built controllers for games such as OSU!, but for most commercial keyboards you now know everything you need to about form factor.

What do you think? What kind of keyboard is best for you? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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