Well hey there, welcome to this post. I’m tellin ya right now that this is going to be a long winded and hefty read, all about some silly PBT keycaps. I’m going to go in depth on the dyesubbing quality regarding these caps, where they come from, differences in versions, etc etc. I’m pretty terrible at prefacing these kinda things, so let’s just get rolling.
PLEASE OPEN ALL IMGUR LINKS IN FULL SIZE AND GET A GOOD LOOK AT THE DETAILS, ESPECIALLY THE ONES SHOWCASING DYESUB
~ It’s all about the blanks ~
Dyesubbers using blanks from various manufacturers has been a common practice since the hobby really came around. You’ve mostly likely heard of Gateron being the supplier of blanks for various dyesubbers, however these are not Gateron but still seem as widely used and new to the scene. We have to call them something tho… I’ve seen XMX thrown around as the and I like it enough to use that instead of spending the time to source the manufacturer for the caps. I don’t really wanna dig into these sort of business sources as it’s none of my business, but as a curious hobbyist I want to make sure I have a solidified naming process to help clarify and keep all of us sane. So, for simplicities sake, XMX are the blanks that the dyesubbers Xiami, Shenpo, and NicePBT use. The proof is in the booty as this pic will show if you click here. Notice you’ll see the stems have this unique + shape rather than the cylindrical shape you’ll see on GMK, ePBT, etc. Sprue marks are all in the same place, they all use the same type of lettering to indicate which row/key it is (tho the key # doesn’t always match up, f10 keys are different between all three sets, this is likely just a number to keep count of how many keys were included on that row, and before going thru the process of dyesubbing they get mixed up on the tray).
~ Well, are the blanks good? ~
Yeah, honestly, they’re pretty awesome, which is why I wanted to educate myself on what else uses them and now I have 3 sets in hand and 2 more on the way. They live up to being 1.4-1.5mm thick and they have a pretty interesting sound different from most PBT. The texture isn’t baby smooth like HK gaming/Artifact Bloom nor is it chalk board gritty like Leopold, however when they do ship they’re a bit dusty and benefit from a bath or just general use for a little bit.
~ Let’s talk about v1 and v2 ~
Some dyesubbers go through phases of their keycap quality, usually toting around how new moulds will make the keycaps better. ePBT saw that change a few times as recently as last year, IFK has seen that change from being basic Winmix to having unique moulds that NK_PBT uses now too, etc etc. In XMX’s case, they did improve. The v1 moulds aren’t much different, but the largest indication is that they have a cylindrical stem shape instead of the + as seen on these Shenpo v1s here. Shenpo still has some v1s floating around taobao, and older NicePBT sets use the v1 mould as well as seen here, however if those ever get restocked/remade I have a good feeling that they would transition to the v2 moulds. There is almost no difference between the v1 and v2s in terms of quality/use other than potentially the v1s might sit a bit higher than v2, but it is so marginal that I honestly wouldn’t say you should be actively avoiding v1s.
~ DIE SUB ~
Well, this for me, is the most important aspect of comparing these dyesub manufacturers. You have three “different” products, all offering wildly different colorways and sometimes compatibility and availability. Which one is the better buy? That’s why I wanted to make this post. If you have one of these and another colorway by a different one of these manus looks enticing, chances are you won’t regret that purchase. If you want to get into “well you shouldn’t be looking at keycaps under a microscope” or “your sample pool isn’t big enough you should be using all the sets” or “you need to compare these to epbt and crp and hk gaming and artifact bloom and geekark and winmix and ifk and milkyway and and and and” just keep in mind this is a hobby. This isn’t a serious fucking thing. It’s keyboards. I’m a new father using my free time to write this up because I find it fun and interesting and want to spend my time showing my love for this hobby. That is the bottom line. We’ll start with the order I received my sets.
~ Shenpo ~
Shenpo can usually be found on ali/ali/taobao and they don’t seem to operate a shop of their own, rather, selling to resellers. I found my set here and there’s a few more by Shenpo you can find there as well. It was in stock, $41 shipped to me and arrive in a little less than two weeks. Here’s a picture of the dyesub quality on the TA set that I own. Shenpo has… The poorest dye sub quality of any of the manus on offer today. Often the legend comes off as “xerox’d” on and there is plenty of splices and cuts and bleeding, at least on my set. Still, for $40 you get entire large board compatibility along with split spacebars and great keycaps. I know a few others who have ordered some of Shenpo, and enjoy it enough especially considering the price. Some keys in my TA set came reverse dyesubbed and didn’t really seem terrible as I’ll touch on later. They don’t have any sets with more than just accent reverse dyesub keys however, which makes more sets available to me and helps keep their consistent quality. I would personally recommend it if you need some sort of beater set that won’t run the bank and you could use on most anything that is above a 40%.
~ NicePBT ~
Cannonkeys came onto the scene saying they were gonna stock their own unique pbt keycaps, and everyone got excited. After a little fiasco with the manufacturer regarding reselling the set they made for CK at a lower price on their own store, things seemed to be in working order. How, I’m not sure, if they got a new manu or whatever, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they now have a large collection of in stock sets with enormous compatibility running community created colorways. NicePBT is, by far, the best option for getting something unique that will work on all keyboards. I ended up getting a set of Black on Grey as I like the simplicity of it, and want to stock up on more boards that have 40%+ compat in one large kit, that’s my jam. Here’s the dyesub of the set I have. You’ll notice it’s so so so much better than Shenpo, as the legends are much softer but have barely any noticeable bleed. It’s very close to being around the best you can get, being beat out by CRP in my experience. I’d be amiss to not mention their reverse dyesub however, which can be found on some sets with entire mods being reverse. These keys I don’t believe are quality in the slightest, and it’s just the limitation of reverse dyesub quality that could deservedly have a separate post as long as this one. Here is the top of a BoG NicePBT cap with a reverse dyesubbed Shenpo cap. and here is the bottom of the same two keycaps. Notice on the sides there are some warping inward, creating a bow that is heavily noticable when next to keycaps that aren’t the same way. I don’t really know how Shenpo ended up with a better reverse dyesub, but it happened, and I genuinely think that Cannonkeys will make strives to improve these over time. I personally would not recommend sets that use reverse dyesub mods for the time being. I feel like I’m very happy with the BoG, and have no issues paying the extra premium to ensure that I have compat for all my small boards and above.
~ Xiami ~
Xiami is one dude dyesubbing stuff out of his garage, most commonly associated by being the guy who makes the keycaps for 21kb.com. He was taking custom orders and making custom keycaps until very recently, where he as of last week shut down his taobao store and stopped taking small batch custom orders. I was fortunate enough to get one made by him with a KLE I threw together in a few minutes like a hasty fever dream. Introducing RGBEnglish. I really like this set, and the memes that come with it but I gotta review it. Here’s the dyesubbing quality of the set I own. The quality is… better than Shenpo, but I don’t really know if it’s quite worth almost double the price you’d be paying for them from 21kb. The kits offer the same great compatibility and keycaps, and 21kb seems to be ordering a LOT of different and interesting sets using a wide array of sublegends. Me, personally, not the biggest fan of having a language I don’t personally use on my keyboard. Some people rave about doing that and might find justification in spending almost double for slightly better dyesub and that aesthetic. If that’s you, I’m sure you’ll be happy with your purchase, if you’re fast enough for the restocks.
~ You skipped here thinking this was a tl;dr, HAHA JOKES ON YOU ~
So! With all that which one of these is better? WEEELLLLLLLL they’re all really good and all have their own pros and cons as explained in their section. I personally think if you buy any of these sets because you like the colorway, you’ll be happy. If you buy a set because you need the compat, you’ll be happy paying that premium since you know that’s a necessary factor for getting those extra keys. I hope this was an interesting read and anything to get me to type on these keycaps more is a pleasure.
Shoutouts to Tay and Matt for some extra pictures of sets I didn’t have on hand, and to that lovely individual who helped make RGBEnglish real.