Drop’s original CTRL used to be easy to recommend as an accessible entry point into the world of premium mechanical keyboards. The retailer was an early adopter (by conventional standards) of hot-swap switches, making its branded keyboards ideal for hobbyists who wanted to be able to swap out their switches without having to solder. It was solidly built, programmable by QMK, and packed with RGB lighting.
But the world of mechanical keyboards moves fast, and the CTRL V2 (along with the more compact ALT V2 and larger SHIFT V2) is Drop’s attempt to catch up. It has hot-swap plugs that are compatible with a wider variety of switches, updated hardware that makes it sound and feel much better when typing, and more programming options.
In other words, it’s a big update to the original CTRL design. But it also costs $200 fully assembled, which puts it in competition with Keychron’s excellent and favorite Q series. Drop has a lot of work ahead of it if it wants to compete with a company that is firing on all cylinders.
Drop’s new line of V2 keyboards consists of five models in three different designs, which are available in basic form (i.e. without switches or keys) or fully integrated at a total of 10 different prices. The three designs are the compact 65-percent ALT V2, the larger numeric keypad-equipped SHIFT V2, and the numeric-less (also known as no-numpad) CTRL V2. Then, ALT and CTRL are also available in additional high-profile case options, which effectively hide the switches inside the case instead of leaving them exposed. In total, this means prices range from $140 for a basic ALT V2 to $250 for a fully built SHIFT V2.
The specific model I’ve been testing falls right in the middle of the lineup. It’s the fully built CTRL V2 with a low-profile case, which has an MSRP of $200, although, as of this writing, Drop is accepting pre-orders at a discounted price of $179 (orders will ship later this month). It’s available in a choice of black or space gray (I have the former) and comes with either tactile Holy Panda X Clear or linear Gateron Yellow switches (I have the latter).
The CTRL V2 has a simple and solid construction. Its aluminum case is sturdy, with very little flex, and there are a pair of magnetic feet included in the case to hold it at a six-degree angle. You can rotate these feet to raise them a little higher, remove them completely to use the keyboard flat on your desk, or even position them so that the keyboard tilts down away from your hands (also known as “negative tilt”).
The fully built version of the keyboard comes with a fairly discreet set of two-tone gray keycaps made of durable PBT plastic, with double-shot lettering that is wear-resistant and also does a great job of letting the keyboard’s RGB lighting shine. It’s not the most colorful or exciting color scheme, but it works well as a default option.
Around the top of the keyboard, there are not one but two USB-C ports. You can use either one to connect to your PC (great for cable management) and use the other to connect an additional accessory. The additional USB port was able to charge my phone or send audio to a headphone DAC. While opting for USB-C is good for future-proofing, it means you’ll have to use an adapter if you want to connect a USB-A accessory. Drop says the port supports a maximum data transfer speed of 480Mbps and between 2W and 4W for charging, so don’t expect this to quickly charge your phone or instantly download all your photos from a USB stick. This is a wired-only keyboard, with no wireless capabilities.
Drop has optimized the design of the CTRL V2 to make the most of its RGB lighting, and there’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that through a combination of north-facing switches, the aforementioned glowing keys, and a case with additional lighting on the sides, the RGB lighting is much more visible than on Keychron’s competing keyboards, where it effectively You’re just seeing any light bleeding around the edges of the dull keys.
Getting this quality of RGB lighting comes with a slight compromise. North-facing switches (where the RGB light is above the switch, just below the brightness legend) may be better for RGB lighting, but may also have Compatibility issues with some aftermarket Cherry profile keycaps.. If you’re looking for good RGB lighting, it’s a trade-off you may be willing to make.
The most annoying thing is that, under certain circumstances, the keyboard lighting can emit a weak, high-pitched hum. I experienced this by connecting the keyboard to the external Thunderbolt dock I use with my laptop, and how audible the hum was depending on the brightness of the LEDs and even the color they were set to (saturated colors like red are worse, but a pure white was silent). The hum completely disappeared when I connected CTRL V2 directly to my MacBook using a third-party USB-Ca-USB-C cable.
When I asked Drop about this, spokesperson Jyri Jokirinta told me that the keyboard passed Drop’s own quality control tests, as well as third-party tests. “With an average noise level of 17 dBa, V2 keyboards should be unnoticeable when used in most typing positions in a typical home or office environment. Most noise levels in rooms are between 30 and 40 dBa,” Jokirinta said.
I wouldn’t say the tinnitus I experienced was a deal breaker, especially since it only arose under such specific circumstances. But it’s something you have to pay attention to and pay attention to.
One of the biggest hobbyist updates Drop has made to its V2 line of keyboards is that its PCB now has two additional holes per switch to support 5-pin switches (the most common pin layout). While it was possible to use 5-pin switches on previous Drop keyboards, their two extra plastic legs had to be cut to fit their 3-pin sockets, a tedious process. There’s really not much more I can say about this upgrade: you get a switch puller along with a keycap puller in the box, and swapping switches is easier than ever.
The other customization upgrade Drop keyboards have gotten is improved QMK programming capabilities, including official support for the powerful VIA configuration software. Interestingly, even though Drop’s marketing for its V2 keyboards makes a big deal about its support for VIA, the option to use the software is a bit hidden. To use it, you must first download Drop’s own setup software (available for both Mac and Windows) and use that to update the VIA compatible firmware on the keyboard. Admittedly, it’s a fluid process once you know what you’re doing, but it would be nice if Drop Setup Guide made the process clearer. Once the firmware is updated, VIA works great for all your layout adjustments, macro creation, and brightness customization needs.
While these are all welcome changes, the improvements Drop has made to the keyboard’s typing sound and feel are ones you’ll feel every day. Thanks to a combination of better stabilizers (the structure installed under longer keys, like the space bar, to prevent them from wobbling) and more sound-deadening foam, the CTRL V2 feels much more premium to type on compared to the previous Drop keyboards. There’s no metallic ping or excessive rattle, just a nice, crisp, clear typing sound, and the Gateron Yellow switches in my sample had the right balance of smoothness and weight.
The Drop CTRL V2 feels better to type on compared to the company’s first-generation keyboards, but for my money, it’s not the best-feeling keyboard for its price. The Drop keyboard uses a integrated board constructionwhich arguably provides a less premium writing feel than the gasket assembly approach used in carving Keychron’s Q3 without tenkey, which can be had for $184 (although since Drop offers free shipping on US orders over $99 and Keychron does not, the prices of the two keyboards are likely to be roughly equivalent for many US buyers). I haven’t personally used the Q3, but it uses the same construction as the Keychron Q1, which I think is great for typing.
In terms of typing feel, I think the Keychron has the edge at this price and it matches the other features of the CTRL V2 like 5-pin hot swapping, VIA programmability, and an aluminum construction. Drop’s CTRL V2 has a slight edge in the RGB department thanks to its glowing keys, but it doesn’t take the price-performance crown.
That said, the price-performance ratio becomes more attractive if you own any of Drop’s existing SHIFT, ALT, or CTRL keyboards. For between $55 and $75, the company will sell you only the upgraded circuit board for its new keyboards (which will give you support for VIA and 5-pin switches), and there is also the option to purchase the upgraded sound-deadening foam and stabilizers. If you’re not afraid of a small DIY keyboard, it’s a more affordable way to get a much higher quality keyboard and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it if your current Drop keyboard feels a little old.
Compared to Drop’s first-generation keyboard, the CTRL V2 is a much more modern and competitive proposition. Support for 5-pin switches is, at this point, a feature you should be able to take for granted on hot-swappable keyboards, and programmability via VIA gives you a lot of control over how the keyboard works. Aside from the LED hum I experienced (which is really a nuisance if it comes up with your setup), there’s very little to criticize the CTRL V2.
In reality, the only problem is competition. At the CTRL V2’s premium price, it’s competing against Keychron’s very capable board-mounted Q-series line, which I think has the edge in sound and typing feel. But if better RGB lighting and a handy extra USB-C port are important to you, Drop’s CTRL V2 line is worth considering.
Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge