Oneness with rubber cup: leopold-style
Model Number: FC980C
Retail Price: $259
Weight: 2.36 lbs/ 1.07253 kg
Key switch type: Topre Electrostatic Capacitive 45g
Keycaps: Dye sublimated PBT
Keycap average thickness: 1.1 mm
Leopold is a South Korean manufacturer and online retailer of mechanical keyboards and computer peripherals. Founded in 2005 Leopold caters to the keyboard enthusiast and gaming communities and is generally praised for excellent quality keyboards with innovative designs. Leopold sells its own brand of mechanical keyboards along with other Topre-based third-party keyboards on their website, like Real Force and Happy Hacking Keyboards. Leopold-branded keyboards come with with either Cherry MX or Topre switches.
The FC980C keyboard in this review has key switches made by Topre Corporation of Japan. Topre switches are controversial among some because they use rubber domes to achieve their resistance and tactility. People who like them, generally love them. Those who dislike them, tend to refer to them derisively as expensive rubber domes. It’s easy to have a mental hangup paying such a premium for a rubber dome keyboard but expensive or not, it’s undeniable that Topre switches generally feel great to type on. I’ll get into this more in the body of my review.
Rubber dome key switches have earned a poor reputation due to low build quality, lack of tactility, mushy key feel, and a lack of responsiveness from the requisite “bottoming out” of each key stroke to actuate the key switch while typing. They also suffer from premature failure from oxidation on the contacts. These attributes are why many consider rubber dome key switches categorical garbage. While I tend to agree with this in some instances, there are some exceptions. One example of high quality rubber dome keyboards I can recall is the early MacAlly iKey 104 Graphite keyboard. While I don’t have one any more, I’m pretty sure it was a rubber dome with slider design, and it was really nice to type on.
Unlike typical rubber-dome keyboards, Topre switches have a metal conical spring underneath each rubber dome. Each spring’s proximity to the PCB is detected via a pair of electrodes located on the PCB. This design means Topres don’t require “bottoming out” to register a key press like traditional rubber-domes, which creates a much more enjoyable typing experience. Additionally Topre switches use a higher quality “rubber” than their typical rubber-dome brethren. I believe they use a high-grade silicon, but I haven't been able to confirm that fact. Regardless of the material, Topre switches are often described as crisper, smoother, more linear and more refined by comparison.
One of the things I most admire about Leopold is their unassuming design. This extends even to their product packaging which is about as unassuming and utilitarian as it gets. Featured on the front of the box is line art of the FC980C along with an almost technical description of what’s inside: “98KEY ELECTROSTATIC CAPACITIVE COMPACT KEYBOARD.” On the sides and back are essentially every design spec that really matter: switch system, number of keys, keycap material layout type, weighting of the key switches; they list the stroke depth and the model of PCB used. I really respect this approach, particularly at a time when gaming keyboards tout marketing gimmicks but don’t really give you any meaningful information about their product. Leopold takes the opposite approach by listing all the technical features (which are phenomenally good ones in my opinion). The only thing that comes remotely close to marketing jargon is the classic “Good feeling of oneness with rubber cup” customer proposition, which one could argue isn’t really marketing speak as much as simple truth.
One interesting tidbit I picked up from the back of the box, way at the bottom is a note that says “DESIGNED BY LEOPOLD MANUFACTURED BY TOPRE.” Interesting indeed. I have a couple Topre keyboards and while their construction is first class, I’d put the FC980C head and shoulders above them in terms of build quality.
Inside there’s minimal packaging materials. Leopold includes a useful clear plastic dust cover and detachable USB cable. I always appreciate the inclusion of a dust cover and I wish more keyboard manufacturers would include one. Generally, dust and mechanical switches don’t get along, so the more dust I can keep out of a keyboard the better. Also included is a user manual that’s mostly in Korean but there are a few bits in English referring to “Deep Switches” which I’m guessing mean the dip switches.
The FC980 represents what I consider some of the best modern keyboard case design. It’s unassuming, understated, and an expression of beautiful simplicity. The construction is rock-solid, made from thick black plastic that doesn’t rattle or flex when you handle it. The plastic has a satin-like texture that hides fingerprints. Knocking on it reveals a super-solid build without the hollow sound you get from many modern-day mass-produced keyboards. Picking it up reveals a decent heft for the 980C’s size, weighing in at 2.36 lbs. or 1.0725 kgs. Fit-and-finish are really top-notch. I can’t find a single blemish or misalignment, no matter how closely I look. It’s typical Japanese manufacturing: perfect, down to the smallest detail.
The FC980C’s side profile is a simple wedge shape that’s really beautiful to look at. The angle of the case provides a good ergonomic incline. There aren’t any Leopold logos on the top or sides of the case, but etched on the front is a cryptic formula in almost undetectable black letters: C = Q/V = ℇ(A/t). A quick Google search revealed that this is the formula for capacitance, probably a nod to the electrostatic capacitive Topre switches inside. The Num Lock, Caps Lock and Scroll Lock lights are small, but easy to see when illuminated, in a simple red LED. It’s hard to overstate how badass it was for Leopold to go with such a utilitarian design aesthetic with the FC980C.
On the under side of the case are four large rubber feet to prevent slipping. There are also two flip-out fleet with their own rubber pads (nice touch). There’s a mini-USB jack with 3-way cable gutters. I’ve found that most USB cables don’t fit the FC980C because of the clearance around the USB jack, so I just use the simple plastic USB cable that Leopold provides. One suggestion for improvement would be to put the USB jack on the back of the case rather than the bottom, preventing any cable compatibility issues. There are 4 dip switches that swap the function of the Control and Caps lock keys, Windows and Left Alt keys, Windows and Function keys, and one switch that disables the Windows key, probably for gaming. Lastly, there is a product label with Model, Part and Serial numbers listed. The label also says “Made in Japan.”
The FC980C has an interesting ANSI layout that strives to provide the functionality and usability of a full-size keyboard in a compact, space saving form. With 98-keys, rather than a standard 104-key layout Leopold chose to remove the Home, End, Print Screen, Scroll Lock and Pause keys by combining them with the Page Up, Page Down, I, O, and P keys respectively. These functions are accessed via a Function key on the bottom row. Leopold also removed the right Control key. The typical nav keys like Delete, Insert, Page Up and Page Down were all moved to the top row, and the 0 key on the numpad was reduced to 1u. All of this allowed Leopold to position the numpad and main keys as close as possible while retaining the cursor keys, sandwiched in between. Overall it’s a really smart way to save space, while retaining all of the most important and functional keys. I’m a heavy user of the numpad and cursor keys so I could just as easily use the FC980C for work as I could for gaming. In fact the biggest learning curve for me was adjusting to the 1u 0 key on the numpad. It’s awkward to have to reach over with your thumb, and I invariably end up accidentally hitting the right arrow key. Despite that one annoyance, I think the FC980C makes sense for anyone looking for a full-size keyboard but wants to save a little space on their desktop.
The Topre-mount keycaps on the FC980C are made from thick PBT (with the exception of the space bar, which is made from ABS), with dye sublimated legends which means they won’t shine or wear with heavy use. They’re about 1.1mm thick, not the thickest keycaps I’ve seen, but certainly damn-good by modern standards. The legends are black-on-black, which probably isn’t for everyone, but because I’m a touch typist, I rarely look down at my keyboard while typing. They have a nice texture that gives your fingers just enough grip to feel like they’re in control. I think the black-on-black looks kinda Darth Vader-badass and it complements the understated design of the FC980C. I ended up replacing my spacebar with a yellow PBT spacebar which gives the keyboard just a touch of bling. It’s kind of cool going all PBT, and usually the spacebar is the first key to shine up, so problem solved. The second-layer key functions like Home and End are side-printed on the front of the keys. I’m not sure what the font is but it’s, reminiscent of Cherry’s.
The FC980C’s key switches are the most controversial aspect of this keyboard since people seem to either love or hate Topres. As I said in the background, their high price, and the fact that they’re basically rubber domes makes it difficult to consider them objectively. For those of you who hate Topres, fear not, Leopold offers the FC980C in a near-identical form-factor, known as the FC980M with standard Cherry switches. The FC980C’s Topre switches have a 45g weighting, similar to Cherry browns. You might think that makes them feel like their Cherry counterparts but nothing could be further from the truth. First, Topre’s tactile bump is right at the beginning of the downstroke, rather than about 1/4 of the way down with Cherry browns. As a result, it’s difficult not to bottom out when typing quickly. I find the impact of bottoming out fatiguing to my fingers after long periods of typing, similar to typical rubber dome keyboards. Second, Topres are infinitely smoother than Cherry’s switches. It almost feels like Topres are factory lubed, although I believe it actually has to do with the type of plastic Topre uses, and the precision of their tooling. Cherry switches tend to feel unrefined by comparison. Of all the Topre switches I’ve tried, 45g seems to be the perfect weight.
Typing on Topres produces a signature “thock” sound that’s undeniably satisfying. It isn’t loud, but it provides enough auditory feedback to give your ears what they need. The FC980C is very office friendly and would work just fine in a quiet environment. In fact, your office peers might grow to love the sound your keyboard makes as you thock, thock away.
Overall, I don’t love or hate Topres, but I find them incredibly interesting, and they certainly have a permanent place in my keyboard collection. I strongly suggest that anyone interested in mechanical keyboards should at least give them a try. Topres are a huge upgrade from a typical rubber dome switch keyboard. They’re crisper, much more tactile and smoother. But there’s no getting around the fact that Topres are super-expensive, and I’m not sure they’re worth the price (at least to me). That being said, Topres are some of the smoothest switches I’ve ever used. And while I love the sound, I don’t love how they cause my fingers to fatigue from bottoming out. Also, their extreme refinement can actually make them seem slightly boring after extended use. Their tactility is almost one-dimensional, lacking the tactile complexity of an Alps SKCM switch, for example. It's possible that there’s such a thing as too smooth/refined. Alps SKCM Orange or Cream Dampened switches still reign supreme in my book but I’m nevertheless glad I own a few Topre boards and enjoy using them whenever I break them out.
Overall Impression and Summary
There's an uncompromising approach that Leopold brings to keyboard design that I deeply respect. Their FC980C is an all-around solid keyboard built with a beautiful utilitarian design aesthetic. It eschews a lot of the typical gimmicky features that many other keyboard companies rely on: backlighting, n-key rollover, cyber fonts, laser beams, etc. What remains is a keyboard that checks off all the features that really matter in the long run: hefty, well designed case, dye sublimed PBT keycaps, metal mounting plate, detachable USB cable, near perfect build quality and Topre key switches (for those who see Topres as a positive), to name just a few. I applaud Leopold for going this route, and not adopting a lot of the seemingly sexy keyboard features that in the long-run, don’t necessarily provide a better user experience.
The FC980C could easily be my daily driver, and in fact it was work keyboard for many months. I’d highly recommend to anyone looking for a smaller form factor, but still wants to retain the convenience of a full-size layout. If a business professional or executive were looking to get into mechanical keyboards, or just looking for a “really good” keyboard, and money wasn’t an issue, the FC980C would be my first pick. Yes, it’s on the expensive side, but for everything other than the key switches, I think you’re getting what you pay for. For those who don't want to pay for Topre switches, there's always the FC980M variant with Cherry switches, that's significantly less money. Regardless of the key switch, when it comes to today’s non-custom, high-end keyboards, Leopold offers some of the best around.
Pros: Near full size layout and functionality, compact design, amazing build quality, office-friendly noise level, thick PBT keycaps, Topre switches
Cons: High price
Thanks for reading my review. I hope it was informative, helpful and enjoyable. Below is a video of me typing on the Leopold FC980C.
*A very big thank you to Deskthority for making photos of Topre switches available.