Keychron K3 wireless keyboard review: compact with compromises

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Keychron’s keyboards are an attractive option for anyone looking for a relatively affordable wireless mechanical keyboard. The latest model is the Keychron K3, which starts at $ 74. The K3 combines the low-profile design of the K1 with the compact 75 percent layout of the K2. The result is a keyboard with a slim and compact form factor, with a height somewhere between a typical mechanical keyboard and a keyboard with laptop-like switches.

It’s a tempting prospect if you’re looking for a compact, portable board that won’t take up too much space in a laptop bag. The K3 also boasts several other useful features, such as hot-swappable switch options that allow you to completely change the feel of your keyboard without soldering, and cross-compatibility with Windows and Mac. But unless you really want or need a slim keyboard, the K3’s unobtrusive design offers trade-offs that mean the keyboard isn’t the perfect choice for everyone.

The Keychron K3 is available with a white backlight for $ 74 or an RGB backlight for $ 84. In terms of switches, you have a choice of a set of low-profile switches made by Gateron or a set of Keychron’s hot-swappable optical switches. Keychron claims these optical switches are more responsive and durable, but more importantly, unlike the Gaterons, they are hot-swappable, meaning you can remove and replace them without soldering. Variants of these optical switches include linear (white, red or black), tactile (brown) or click switches (blue or orange). That’s quite a few options, and Keychron currently sells sets of this for $ 19 (regular price $ 25).

My model came with a US ANSI format with RGB backlighting. I’ve mainly used Keychron’s brown optical switches during my time with the K3, but switched to the stiff, click-like orange switches for a few days to see what they were like. Keychron tells me that a version of the keyboard with a UK ISO format will be released in July.

If you are familiar with the keyboard layout used by most laptops, you will feel right at home with the Keychron K3’s so-called “75 percent” keyboard layout. It’s a lot more compact than a full-size keyboard layout (one with a number pad on the side) or even a keyboard without a keyboard (same thing, minus the number pad), but it also still includes arrow keys and a function row like five of the six keys normally placed above the arrow keyboard. (There is no dedicated “Insert” key, but the built-in hotkey is Fn + Delete.) The feature row also provides Mac and Windows compatible media keys, such as brightness and volume control.

The 75 percent layout includes arrow keys.

The compact layout leaves room for the most frequently used keys.

For a lot of people, especially those used to a laptop, I suspect these are all the keys they need, and I never found myself needing a key that wasn’t on the keyboard. I also don’t think there are any keys that are hugely out of place, like the annoyingly easy to operate backlight key on the original K1. That’s useful because the Keychron K3 doesn’t allow you to remap the keys natively, which means you can’t reconfigure the keyboard to change important locations or add others that might be more important to your needs.

Keychron advertises that you can technically remap your keyboard’s keys at the OS level using programs such as Karabiner on the Mac or SharpKeys on Windows, but it’s a bit hacky and means the layout of your keyboard will change if you ever need to connect it to another device. I don’t think most people will have any major problems with Keychron’s 75 percent layout, but beware if you’ve built muscle memory by using another compact board.

There is one layout customization option built into the keyboard, and that’s a small toggle on the top left of the keyboard to toggle between Mac / iOS and Windows / Android layouts. The keyboard also comes with Mac-specific Command and Option keycaps out of the box, but if you’re a Windows user like me, there are Alt and Windows keys you can install on the board during installation. Just use the included keycap puller to take the Mac keys off and firmly press the Windows keys on the switches into place. (Here’s one quick video guide in case you’ve never done this before.)

Swapping the keyboard switches is relatively easy.

The other switch on the top left of the K3 is a slider to toggle between wired and wireless mode. Wired mode works as expected via the K3’s included USB-C cable, while wireless mode lets you pair with up to three devices via Bluetooth 5.1. I paired the K3 with a Surface laptop, iPhone and iPad, and the keyboard switched between the two with no issues.

Wireless users should keep in mind that battery life has taken a dip compared to the K2. With the backlight off, Keychron says the K3 should last around 99 hours, instead of 240 hours with the K2. With the backlight on, the battery life drops to 34 hours (between 68 and 72 hours). That’s probably because the K3’s slim form factor means that Keychron will only fit a 1,550mAh battery rather than a 4,000mAh battery like the K2. I switched between wired and wireless modes during the testing period, which meant I never saw the keyboard battery life drop to zero. But these numbers mean you’ll likely need to charge the K3 on a weekly basis if you want to keep the lights on.

On the bottom of my test sample, there are a pair of fold-out feet to adjust the angle of the keyboard. I was told these were added as an overhaul compared to the first planks, which came with two sets of feet that you can switch between if you want to change the angle. I can’t say how annoying a system this could be, but the new feet support two different angles and they are easy to use. Keychron tells me that the model is still in stock without tilting feet and that this new model should be in circulation by the end of May. The build quality is otherwise solid, with little flex in the keyboard body on my model.

The fold-out legs can be adjusted to two different heights.

I mean, look how thin this thing is.

One of the nicest things about buying a mechanical keyboard with traditional Cherry MX-style switches is the customization options you get. If you want a more colorful or interesting set of keycaps, or if the keycaps on your board wear out over time, it is normally easy to exchange them for a new set. Swapping out real switches afterwards is generally a bit more difficult as it requires frequent soldering, so it isn’t popular in the same way.

In some ways, the Keychron K3 turns this dynamic upside down. The hot-swappable key switches are easy to swap out without having to grab a soldering iron, but while the keycaps are just as easy to remove, there’s not much of a reason for it. That’s because there are currently no third-party keycaps on the market that are fully compatible with Keychron’s low-profile design. The Cherry MX style cross design suggests they should be, but when I tried a few I had lying around, the stabilizer alignment on keys like the space bar didn’t match. Keychron tells me it plans to release new keycap sets for the board later this year.

It’s a shame because it would be nice to have the option to replace Keychron’s stock keycaps. They’re made from thin ABS plastic instead of the more premium PBT or thicker ABS, and their gray-orange color scheme is just plain boring. In any case, their legends are crisp, they are nicely curved for your fingers to find their place, and their dual inclusion allows the keyboard backlight to shine through and illuminate every key label.

Swapping the switches themselves was much easier than pulling out a soldering iron, although it still took a little elbow grease to remove some of the more stubborn ones with the included tool. It works by clipping and wiggling the metal hook around each switch until it comes loose. It took me about half an hour to swap out all the switches while watching TV in the background, plus an extra fifteen minutes at each end to handle the keycaps.

With limited keycap compatibility, you better get used to the K3’s standard caps.

These low-profile switches are not only hot-swappable, but how thin they allow the board itself to be. At its thickest point, it’s just over 22mm from the surface of your desk, and Keychron claims the low profile optical switches are only 10.77mm high, compared to 17.9mm for a conventional switch.

But being so unobtrusive, these optical switches are somewhat of an acquired taste. Whether I used the brown optical switches originally installed in the board, or the stiff and click-like optical orange switches, I never enjoyed the Keychron K3’s typing experience. It’s not awful. This is not a sluggish rubber dome or MacBook butterfly keyboard. But the limited key spacing of the K3’s low-profile switches feels unsatisfactory as you’re used to, and like regular Cherry MX-esque switches.

Of the two switches I tried, I preferred the stiff and clicky orange switches over the tactile brown ones. The stiffness of the orange switches coupled with the more tactile click made up for their low stroke somewhat, while I ended up making more typos while typing on the browns.

At the end of the day, I just love the height of a standard MX switch. That extra distance gives your fingers room to make mistakes and back off before you hit the wrong key. On the other hand, there is something shocking about having a key back so quickly. If you’re used to typing on sleek keyboards like Apple Magic Keyboard, the K3’s low key movement may feel more pleasant and familiar. But as someone who likes plain MX style switches, I wasn’t a fan.

There are Windows and Mac specific keys in the box.

RGB lighting shines through the keycaps.

The Keychron K3 is a feature-packed mechanical keyboard at a reasonable price. It works great over USB-C or wirelessly, and it has a 75 percent layout for the keys most people need, as well as a handy selection of function keys. The hot swap process is simple and Keychron has a suitable selection of switches that work with its hot swap system.

But Keychron has had to make some compromises to make a keyboard this thin, and you have to want a low-profile keyboard to endure them. Battery life has dropped compared to the K2, and the K3’s low-profile switches can be an acquired taste. The lack of support for third-party keycaps is also a shame.

If you have a strong preference for a low-profile keyboard and aren’t interested in trying out third-party keycaps, the K3 is a nice package. But it can’t match the versatility of Keychron’s other boards.

Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge