ABS and PBT are the two most common plastic used to make keyboard keycaps. Of the two, ABS is more widely used because it’s easier to mold and recycle, but PBT is more durable and wear-resistant.
The two keycaps vary in feel, look, and typing sound. We'll take a deep dive into their differences and see which keycaps are right for you.
What are ABS keycaps?
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is a thermoplastic polymer with a low melting point, which means it melts and remolds very easily. It’s also convenient to recover and recycle. Because of these properties, ABS is widely used in office products like toys, mice, keyboards, etc.
ABS plastics have low density, making them easier to process and color in the manufacturing process. Since they are readily available, ABS is commonly used to make keyboard keycaps. ABS keycaps are beautiful In terms of appearance. In regards to the typing feel, the production process plays a vital role in keycap production.
Normal keycap production processes include double-shot and dye-sublimation. Generally, that results in the keycap surface feeling fine and smooth while still staying in a budget-friendly price range. However, the GMK double-shot ABS keycaps are an exception. They incorporated thick ABS materials and applied expensive processing techniques to get solid, high-quality, and comfortable hand-feel keycaps, which explains their exorbitant prices in the market.
ABS Double Shot Cherry Profile GMK Keycap
Since they are softer, ABS does tend to get worn out quicker after a while and the glossy finish becomes shiny and sticky to your finger's touch.
For example, Macbook users often complain that its membrane keyboard (also made of ABS) looks oily and the keycap letters start to wear and tear after using it for a period of time. This seriously affects the overall look and feel of the keyboard and even makes it difficult to use over time.
What are PBT keycaps?
Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT) is also a thermoplastic. But unlike ABS, it has a semi-crystalline structure that’s stronger and more heat-resistant. It is used mostly inside electronic appliances to better contend their inner heat and electricity.
PBT is known for its hardness and density, so it tends to be thicker, stronger, and more durable than ABS. Regardless of its superior physical properties, the most PBT notable feature is its resistance to oil and chemicals, making it less likely to develop that greasy look.
The PBT keycap’s double-shot production method also adds to its product lifespan. Because of all of these, PBT keycaps do have a higher price tag compared to ABS.
The Keychron double-shot KSA keycap thickness is 1.6mm, thicker than most PBT keycaps with a solid, textured, and matte touch.
Manufacturing techniques explained:
Dye-sublimation: a process for printing the legends onto the keycaps in high heat.
Double-shot: Unlike printing, this keycap type is produced when two layers of plastic are molded into each other, along with the legends placed or printed between them.
PBT is more expensive and difficult to mold than ABS, leading to more challenges to manufacture PBT keycaps.
In addition, the coloring and light transmittance of PBT are not as good as the ABS’s, making it harder to achieve the desired brightness and color saturation. These difficulties do put more strains on quality and cost control.
Due to the PBT keycap’s poor light transmittance, it is more user-friendly to design the keyboard with a south-facing backlight. From the typist's angle, the keycap legends can also be seen at night.
Which keycaps are best for you?
Both these two keycap materials have their unique traits, it depends on what features are more important to you. Generally, PBT is known to be better for long-term use and will not wear or get greasy as much, good for people with hands on the sweatier side. The ABS keycaps, on the other hand, have more vivid color options available and offer a silky, skin-like touch. They are better for those who want a more fun flair to their desk setup. Whatever your preferences are, think about the manufacturing techniques we mentioned because the different materials do impact the keycap quality a great deal. Sometimes there're shoddy and cheap PBT keycaps filled with extremely low PBT content, they might even be worse than ABS.
So be alert and have fun typing!