If you own a mechanical keyboard you may be interested in changing the keycaps that it came with, which is why it’s important to know the differences between PBT keycaps vs. ABS keycaps before you begin shopping. Both ABS and PBT keycaps can be single-shot or double shot and designed for unlit or backlit and RGB keyboards. ABS keycaps are preferred by some, and yet others are passionate about PBT keycaps, so it can be difficult to know which is better for you.
This article will walk you through the different ways that keycaps are manufactured, and the differences between the materials most widely used, ABS and PBT. This will help you make sense of the age-old debate between ABS keycaps vs. PBT keycaps and the differences between them.
What are Double Shot Keycaps?
Before embarking on a journey to find the perfect set of keycaps for your mechanical keyboard it is important to understand the difference between standard, single-shot keycaps, and double shot keycaps. Double Shot refers to a process used when two plastics are molded together to form one keycap. One plastic is used for the main housing unit while the other is injected inside the main keycap to form the stem that connects to the switch, and is used for the color of the inscription. In less expensive instances of double shot keycaps, the main keycap may also contain the stem, and a smaller amount of material is injected into the keycap for the sole purpose of producing the inscription layer.
This process serves the dual purpose of ensuring the legend never fades, while also making it easier for light to shine through the legend. The alternative to using a separate plastic for the legend is to print it on, however, the problem with printed legends is that when they are produced on ABS keycaps during a process called dye-sublimation, or dye-sub, they tend to fade over time. Your fingers will constantly rub against the inscriptions on your keys (unless you are using a blank keycap set), and UV rays can also accelerate the fading process. Double Shot keycaps are more durable and more expensive than standard keycaps and are available in both PBT and ABS materials.
What are Pudding Keycaps?
Another common type of keycap that is frequently discussed with double shot keycaps are pudding keycaps. Pudding keycaps are a specific type of double shot keycaps that are designed to allow the light to shine through the legend and also through the sides of the keycap. Even though pudding keycaps have a translucent design, they are still rugged and durable. Pudding keycaps are great for those who want to enjoy the beauty of RGB lighting through their inscriptions as well as produce an underglow effect on their keyboard. They can be produced with ABS or PBT materials and because the design has been around for many years, pudding keycap sets can be quite affordable in both PBT and ABS materials.
What are ABS Keycaps?
ABS keycaps are made from Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene and are the most common keycap material used. They are used on both affordable and high-end keyboards because they are cheaper and easier to produce. There are thousands of ABS keycap sets on the market, most of which are very inexpensive, although there are also premium and much more expensive ABS keycap sets that can cost as much as a premium mechanical keyboard.
ABS keycaps can be single shot, meaning only one layer of plastic is used which can make them significantly lighter and less expensive. They can also be made as double shot keycaps where two layers of plastic are used. Both single shot and double shot keycaps can be designed for RGB keyboards, designed for non-backlit keyboards, or work well on both.
Inexpensive ABS keycap sets will almost always use far less material in production and will typically use OEM profiles that are mass-produced. Once the tooling is created for a keycap set it can then be used in a variety of different color patterns for years to come. The advantage for a manufacturer to continue to produce keycap sets for many years is that it is very expensive to create the tooling for a keycap set, but if the keycap set has been produced for several years the cost of developing the tooling has long been recouped. This allows manufacturers to produce the keycap set for only the cost of the material, power to run the machines, and labor, leading to thousands of very inexpensive ABS keycap sets.
More expensive ABS keycap sets will use more material and be heavier. When an ultra-premium ABS keycap set is produced it will typically be comprised of a base kit, which can include all the keys needed for a full-size keyboard, which also includes the keycaps needed for a 60% keyboard, 65%, 75%, and TKL (tenkeyless) keyboard. They may also include a novelty set, or this could be a separate set.
Premium ABS keycap sets are usually produced by top manufacturers who contract famous keycap designers to develop fonts, color schemes, and artistic key inscriptions. In some cases, the keycap set could be based on, or even a collaboration with a popular series or movie. When a special release of a keycap set is announced and pre-orders begin it can take 6-months to over a year for them to actually be produced and shipped and can cost close to $200 for a base kit that can sell out quickly to a niche group of enthusiasts.
Advantages of ABS Keycaps
ABS keycaps are made from incredibly durable plastic, despite being rather flexible. An ABS keycap is impact-resistant so it will take a lot of use, or a lot of force to crack one. ABS is much easier to use than PBT when manufacturing keycaps, so the colors and legends are almost always very sharp and crisp. They can also complement RGB keyboards better than PBT because it is much easier to make ABS keycaps that shine through RGB colors. Some people like the shininess of ABS keycaps, as well as the slick feel. ABS keycaps may also impact the sound of the keyboard, and some people prefer the sound of ABS keycaps vs. other materials.
Disadvantages of ABS Keycaps
The major drawback of ABS keycaps is that they can wear and become shiny, and the lettering can also begin to fade after a while. If the inscriptions are printed using dye-sublimation (dye-sub) they can even wear off completely. ABS keycaps are typically lighter and made with less material, so they can feel thin and cheap when typing. There are very premium ABS keycaps that feel a lot different, but once again these could cost upwards of $150 for the keycap set alone, which is why ABS keycap sets like these are rarely included on a new keyboard.
What are PBT Keycaps?
PBT keycaps are made from Polybutylene Terephthalate and are known to be one of the strongest and best quality plastics to use to make keycaps. PBT is a thermoplastic engineering polymer that is rigid and can handle a lot of abuse for years. Because this thermoplastic is in high demand in the automotive industry, there is not an endless supply of it, resulting in higher costs that can make it too expensive to be sold with a keyboard. PBT is brittle, so shaping it into keycaps is complicated and requires a very expensive tooling process that can only be used for one keycap set design. This means if you want to produce a PBT keycap set for a US layout, you will need to spend the same amount of money to develop completely new tooling for a UK, German, or French layout.
One of the distinguishing attributes of PBT is its ability to bear a matte finish. PBT keycaps can also have a grainy feel or a smooth texture. Some prefer the grainy feel because it produces a more tactile feel, while others prefer a smoother texture.
PBT keycaps can also be single-shot or double shot, although in the current market it is difficult to find new designs of PBT keycaps that shine through for RGB and backlit keyboards. As is the case with ABS keycap sets, there is a wide range in the prices for PBT keycaps. Generally speaking, PBT keycaps are more expensive than ABS keycaps, but there are still more affordable options of PBT keycaps that will use less material and provide a unique PBT feel, but perhaps not an ultra-premium feel.
Advantages of PBT Keycaps
PBT is one of the most durable plastics that is widely used and available for keycap sets. The inscriptions will not wear over time, even under extreme use. PBT also has a unique feel which could be described as silky or smooth, but not slippery, giving the typist extra feeling and a connection to the keyboard. PBT keycaps sets typically use more material than an ABS keycap set and are usually heavier. While it depends on the manufacturer, PBT tends to have a deeper, crisper, and less tinny sound when typing than that of a typical ABS keycap set. PBT keycaps are generally louder and more clear than ABS keycaps which many enjoy as it enhances their acoustical pleasure, and is perhaps more appealing for activating ASMR, autonomous sensory meridian response, which can cause a feeling of well-being while typing.
Disadvantages of PBT Keycaps
PBT keycaps are typically more expensive than ABS keycaps. When comparing a mid-range PBT keycap set to a mid-range ABS keycap set the price for PBT could be close to twice as much. Producing new high-quality double shot PBT keycap sets is difficult and very costly, so there are fewer options for these types of new keycap sets. There is also a very limited selection of double shot PBT keycap sets that will accommodate RGB and backlit keyboards. There are less expensive double shot keycap sets but the second shot of plastic can be very thin with only a minimal amount of material used. Some people may not appreciate the sound that PBT keycaps make, as they tend to make a deeper sound due to thicker plastic.
PBT vs. ABS
- Cost: Verdict – ABS keycaps
- Look: Verdict – ABS keycaps
- Feel: Subjective
- Durability: Verdict – PBT Keycaps
- Sound: Subjective
- Thickness: Verdict – PBT Keycaps
It is easy to make a snap judgment about which material is better, although when deciding to spend more on a new keycap set there are items to consider. Since many factors are based on personal preference, many people have already made up their minds as to if PBT or ABS is the best keycap material. ABS plastic keycaps are the norm, so the vast majority of people use them. Producing ABS keycaps is much easier due to the material, so they can look much better than PBT keycaps. Whether they are dye-sub (printed), laser-etched, or double shot, the inconsistencies in the inscriptions tend to be far less than with PBT keycaps and they tend to have a smooth, shiny, uniformed color throughout the entire set. In addition, it is much easier to find ABS keycap sets for RGB and backlit keyboards, so the options will be far greater with ABS.
Despite the overwhelming ABS keycap choices and all of their aesthetic virtues, ABS keycaps cannot compete with PBT keycaps when it comes to longevity. The vibrant color on ABS keycaps will eventually fade under UV rays and the lettering may disappear from wear. Those who aren’t content with their stock ABS keycaps may feel that it is too thin. In this case, a thicker, or double shot ABS keycap may be the best solution, although these keycap sets can get quite expensive as well.
PBT keycaps are rarely sold with keyboards and will typically only be included with high-end keyboards. If you plan to use the same keyboard for years to come then it may make more sense to add a set of PBT keycaps that will certainly last you throughout the life of the keyboard and beyond. For those that plan on a more substantial investment into their keyboard’s keycaps, have a look at the newest releases of ABS keycaps that are collaborations with famous keycap designers, or that are based on a series or movie theme that will bring you additional enjoyment while you work or game.