Reviewed :: Clueboard 66% Mechanical Keyboard

A Professional Grade Tool

Model Number: N/A
Retail Price: $499.99
Weight: 2.19 lbs/ .99 kg
Key switch type: Zealio 65 g
Keycaps: Doubleshot ABS
Keycap thickness: 1.43 mm

Some Background

Clueboard is a boutique manufacturer of custom, limited-run, DIY mechanical keyboards and keypads. Based in Santa Cruz, California, and spearheaded by Reddit user ‘Skyllydazed’ their keyboards are very much a product of current keyboard design and thinking, driven by the keyboard enthusiast community. The company’s goal is to “make typing enjoyable,” pure and simple.

As of writing this review, Clueboard’s products are sold online, via Clueboard’s website, or through “group buy” platforms like Massdrop. Clueboard’s keyboards and keypads are sold as “kits” meaning you generally can’t buy them assembled and ready to use. Purchasing a new Clueboard kit means assembling the keyboard from its various components, like the PCB, case, switch plate, key switches, key caps, LEDs and more. Understandably, assembling a keyboard could seem like a major chore to some, but for others, building is half the fun.

As a DIY kit, customization is important, and there’s plenty of ways to make a Clueboard your own. There is no standard Clueboard keyboard configuration and even the layout can be customized. Cases come in different anodized colors, like silver, dark gray, orange and even purple. An optional “Decorative Pack” can also be purchased and installed which adds colored LEDs and an acrylic spacer to the middle of the aluminum case for some added bling.

A Clueboard keyboard is compatible with virtually any Cherry MX or Cherry MX-clone key switch, and I’ve seen some limited support for Alps switches. I’m really hoping they’ll start to do more Alps compatible boards. The PCB supposedly supports both switch types by the way. The end-user must solder their preferred switches onto the PCB as part of the buildout. Someone without the time, tools or ability to solder switches onto a PCB may want to stay away from Clueboards or maybe hire someone to assist.

Clueboard PCBs are fully programmable, which means you can set the function of each key, create custom macros, and even add new layers of buttons and functionality.

The name Clueboard is intriguing. I wondered if there was a special meaning so I emailed the company asking if there was a story behind the name. And sadly, there really wasn’t a story. Maybe they just liked the way it sounded. Anyway, I think it’s a great name with a pretty cool logo.

Review

Note: for this review, I not only used this keyboard exclusively for 2 weeks prior, I also used this keyboard to write the review itself.

Here are the basic specs for this particular keyboard:
– Gray aluminum case
– 65g tactile Zealios with Stabilizer Pack
– GMK TA Royal Alpha keycaps
– Decorative Pack (Reflective board, Acrylic Transparent Spacer + RGB LEDs)
– Assembled by Clueboard

Here’s a detail photo of the GMK TA Royal Alpha keycaps with Zealio 65g tactile switch.

The Clueboard 66% kit was first available on Massdrop’s website as part of a group buy in November of 2016. Production and delivery took over 5 months, which seemed like an eternity, and the long lead-time may have partially resulted from the unexpected demand for such an expensive keyboard but I also think these limited-run projects take time. It was, and still is—by a huge margin—the most expensive keyboard I’ve ever purchased costing a whopping $499 (gulp). While there was some online commiserating over the price, there quickly became a collective realization that you get what you pay on the Clueboard 66% for especially when juicy details about the build quality became apparent. I splurged, so mine was fully loaded, but the base kit was around $270, I think. Let’s be honest: a 66% form factor, fully programmable keyboard CNC machined from two solid pieces of 6061 aluminum with killer key caps, Zealio 65 g switches and some bling? My bank account’s going to lose that battle every time.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, and judging from the discussion boards it looks like lots of people took the plunge. While I’m not the type that typically purchases small form factor keyboards like 66% keyboards or even TKLs, it looked too cool to pass up. Later, the kit was available on Clueboard’s website, and some additional case colors surfaced, but availability was short-lived. I’m really looking forward to seeing what people build, especially with the different case colors that were available.

Unboxing

The Clueboard 66% came in a very simple, nondescript white box, with a round Clueboard label on the front. It was very underwhelming considering the amount of money spent on the keyboard. Inside there was minimal packaging, just some air bags, the additional key caps, for a full-size keyboard, and simple receipt from Massdrop.

Mine came pre-built by Clueboard and yes, some readers might say, what’s the fun in that? But with two small, very curious, very destructive children, I knew trying to do it myself was not only delusional, it was probably a disaster in the making.

Case Design

Lifting the Clueboard out of the box, I quite literally felt like I was holding a solid bar of aluminum in my hand. At 2.19 lbs, it’s very heavy for its compact size. The build quality of the Clueboard 66% is in a word superb. Massdrop described the Clueboard as “heavily reinforced, making for a sturdy keyboard with no flex.” This is a major understatement. No joke: The Clueboard 66% could probably survive a direct nuclear attack, and would thereafter do nicely as bludgeoning weapon when our machine overlords take over. Massdrop was correct: there is zero, I repeat, ZERO flex in the case.

The keyboard is quite gorgeous, and you can tell that the folks at Clueboard spent a lot of time working on the overall appearance and details. The tapered and beveled edges are subtle and beautiful to look at, and the clear acrylic spacer accentuates the design when backlit. For anyone considering purchasing a Clueboard, I would say that the decorative pack is worth the extra cheddar. When it’s sitting on your desk, all lit up, the Clueboard 66% is like a little sparkly little gem. It’s pretty cool. Unfortunately, the lighting didn’t show up in the photos but you can see the lighting effect in the typing demonstration video at the end of this review.

My particular keyboard came in an anodized dark gray, which is reminiscent of Apple’s Space Gray. The case had absolutely zero blemishes, although I’ve read that some have had a few QC issues. The bead-blasted finish is amazing to look at. It seems to change colors in different lighting and has a terrific satin texture. It also completely hides fingerprints which is a bonus. Honestly, whole thing is top-notch quality workmanship and the more you look at it, the more you appreciate all the little details.

On the bottom is the Clueboard logo beveled into the aluminum bottom, along with four very large rubber feet that prevent slippage. Disassembly is as easy as it gets. Remove two large hex screws and you’re in. The Clueboard 66% is definitely designed to get inside with minimal effort, which is greatly appreciated. On other keyboards just taking the case apart can be a major pain or virtually impossible.

Back of the Clueboard case with logo and large rubber feet.

There’s a hole on the bottom of the case that allows a user to access a reset button on the PCB. The reset button is useful when flashing the keyboard’s firmware or when you are accessing layers or hidden functionality and something unexpected happens that you can’t undo. I ran into that a few times when playing around with the light effects, etc.

Conspicuously missing from the bottom are adjustable feet, a very Apple-ish move. Surprisingly, I saw very little pushback on discussion boards on this, and quite honestly, I thought it was going to get a stronger negative reaction. I actually don’t think adjustable feet are necessary if the keyboard is designed well. Just look at the AEK. The angle of the case is very comfortable for extended periods of typing. I really think ‘Skullydazed’ knows his shit when it comes to the ergonomics of a keyboard.

The Clueboard 66% has mini-USB port on the back so users can select their own USB cable. This is a great feature and I wish more keyboard manufacturers would go to detachable USB cables. That being said, I wish keyboards manufacturers would go with micro-USB rather than mini-USB because there are many more cable options out there.

 

Layout

The Clueboard comes in a 66% form factor, which is more of a minimalist approach to keyboard design, with 66 keys in an ANSI layout. There are many people (and I’m not one of them) who believe in sacrificing unnecessary keys for desk space and keyboard size. Not only does it create keyboard space efficiency and portability, it also allows your mouse hand and keyboard hand to sit closer together, which is an advantage to gamers. In Clueboard’s 66% layout, the Function keys are removed as well as the numpad, and most of the nav cluster. Remaining are the Arrow keys and Page Up and Page Down keys. The Clueboard 66% was modeled after Leopold’s popular FC660 keyboard layout, but Clueboard chose the Page Up and Page Down keys rather than the Insert and Delete keys, which is a nice design improvement IMO.

66% layout of Clueboard.

I’m a fan of function keys (and lots of them) as well as the numpad so it took a few days adjusting to the 66% layout. There really is no way of compensating for the lack of a numpad especially when it comes to working in MS Excel. Luckly, the Clueboard 66% has multiple function “layers” that allow the number keys, for example, to become function keys, and and after a few days I got the hang of it. Despite the 66% layout, the keys that are remaining are full-sized, which makes the keyboard really comfortable to type on. Overall my typing speed was normal and my fingers felt right at home. Despite being a space saving design, it doesn’t feel that way when typing.

Keycaps

This particular Clueboard came with GMK TA Royal Alphas, which are thick, double-shot German-made MX mount keycaps, inspired by the Triumph Adler Royal Adler 610 typewriter. They are all-around gorgeous and are some of my favorite key caps to date. The keys are a light gray ABS plastic with dark green double-shot legends, with alternate German characters in a lighter lime green. The alternates look like they’re pad printed and will probably wear off relatively quickly, but because the keycaps are double-shot, the main legends aren’t going anywhere. At 1.43 mm thick, they have a satisfying heft and contribute to the overall sound of the keyboard. On either side of the Alt key is a Code button, rather than a Windows key, which is kind cool. Overall, two very enthusiastic thumbs up on the Royal Alphas. I swapped out the Escape key with one of Clueboard’s custom double-shot ABS keys because, why not?

Underside of GMK TA Royal Alpha Keycap showing thick ABS sides and double-shot lettering.
Key Switches

Prior to the Clueboard, I hadn’t used Zealios. Reading about them I discovered a borderline fanatical following similar to that of Topre, only maybe without as many haters. While Topres can be somewhat polarizing, Zealios seem to have been received with universal approval. Zealios are essentially lubed and modified Gaterons with custom sliders and springs. The online consensus is that they are smoother, and more refined than Gaterons, and Gaterons are generally smooth to begin with—much smoother than Cherry MXs.

I’ve never been a big fan of Cherry switches, and while I find Gaterons an improvement, I’m really not a big fan of Gaterons either. But I have to say, the Zealio 65g switches that came with my Clueboard are really good. They’re very smooth and there’s just enough tactility and auditory feedback to make them incredibly satisfying, even addictive to type on. I wouldn’t say they’re better or worse than some of my top 5 list of switches, like Orange Alps or Buckling Springs, just different, in a good way. They’re the best iteration of the Cherry MX design that I’m aware of, and it’s proof there there is no such thing as an “end game” keyboard. As they say, variety is indeed the spice of life.

In terms of smoothness, I generally look to Topre switches as a benchmark for comparing other smooth key switches. Comparing Zealios side-by-side with some Topres 35g, I’d say the Zealios come very close. For those who generally don’t like Cherry MXs or Cherry MX Clones because of their scratchiness or lack of refinement I say, give Zealios a try. You might be surprised.

The sound is good too—closer to Topres (maybe?) than anything else (why do I keep mentioning Topre?). While the Clueboard case and the key caps all contribute to the sound, everything works together to create an auditory feedback that’s almost like the sound of raindrops. It’s very zen-like and satisfying soundtrack over long periods of typing sessions.

Lighting

The Decorative Pack includes an acrylic spacer sandwiched in between the two metal plates that form the case as well as RGB under lighting. The lighting isn’t really to backlight the keycaps. It’s to create a general ambient glow that looks fantastic coming through the acrylic spacer. With a few keystrokes, you can adjust the brightness, color, and saturation of the LEDs. You can also turn them completely off but that seems like kind of a waste to me. Overall, my recommendation is to pony up the additional money and add some bling. In the long run, it’s worth it. For this Clueboard I chose a light green LED to match the keys. If you want to see what the lighting looks like, just go to the end of the post for the video of the typing demonstration.

Overall Impressions and Summary

The Clueboard 66% is an amazing manifestation of what a modern high quality keyboard can look and feel like. For those of us who lament the current state of plastic-on-plastic, rubber dome disposable dog shit keyboards out there, take heart. Well-made mechanical keyboards are still being produced and the Clueboard is up there with the best of what’s around. Yes, they’re not readily available, but I think that will come with time.

Clueboard describes their keyboards as professional grade tools, and I think that’s true, especially when talking about build quality, ergonomics and overall user experience. But I think that’s only half the story. The Clueboard 66% shows how a few passionate people can build a truly remarkable product. When I look at the Clueboard 66%, it’s as much a professional-grade tool as it is a gorgeous work of art sitting on my desk. And that’s what’s really intriguing and amazing about the mechanical keyboard community right now. Sure, a lot of great looking, iconic keyboards have been produced over the past 30 to 40 years, but they were always created by corporations for (mostly) corporations or via focus groups. Today people are designing and making products that not only function better than anything that can be purchased from the mega corporations out there, they look beautiful and (frankly) belong in an art gallery. This is the story that gets me really excited because I want to see where this train goes.

True, the Clueboard 66% is expensive, and that might be a turnoff or just not feasible to some, but I’m glad there are companies like Clueboard out there and my hope is that they will continue to work to bring costs down without sacrificing quality. As they get better at what they do, hopefully more people will be able to use their products. The Clueboard 66% is not only fantastic to type on I think it’s beautiful.

Pros

The Clueboard 66% looks gorgeous and has amazing design and build quality. The 66-key design is space saving, without sacrificing some really useful keys like Arrow Keys and Page Up and Page Down. It has good customization options and it’s easy to add functionality and additional layers. The detachable USB cable is a good feature and the case is uber-easy to get into. The double-shot keycaps are excellent quality with sharp, crisp legends and Zealios are some of the smoothest key switches out there. The acrylic spacer and backlighting look kick-ass in sitting on your desk.

Cons

You have to build it yourself. It’s also expensive and there’s no function keys or numpad.

Thanks for reading my review. I hope it was informative, helpful and enjoyable. Below is a video of me typing on the Clueboard 66% Mechanical Keyboard.

Published by

Jim

A keyboard enthusiast who writes about keyboards for the Mac.

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