Hardware Review: Leopold FC700R Tenkeyless

My venerable (ca. 2002) Apple Pro keyboard recently died after an unfortunate altercation with a glass of water, so I’ve spent a bit of time looking for a good replacement. I’ve been interested in trying a mechanical keyboard for some time, especially recently after reading the opinions of people like John Gruber and Shawn Blanc, but because I work in an open-plan office in close proximity to four other guys, I was wary of getting anything too loud.

Most mac-based mechanical keyboard aficionados point to the following:

All of these offer a standard Mac keyboard layout, with different mechanical switch options.  Based on various reviews, I was leaning towards the Das, but no-one in Australia stocks the Mac version, and it doesn’t come in the ‘Silent’ (Cherry MX Brown) configuration. However, while I was trawling through the Australian computer hardware sites (such as PC Case Gear and Aus PC Market)  I noticed there were a significant number of mechanical keyboards catering to the gamer community. They didn’t offer a Mac layout, but the majority were based around the Cherry MX keyswitches (like the Das), and most had the option of an 87 key ‘tenkeyless’ form factor that excluded the number pad (like the Apple bluetooth/Macbook keyboards), but retained full-sized arrow & function keys like my old Apple Pro. I never use the number pad, so I was intrigued with this option — more desk space for Magic Trackpads & the like can only be a good thing.

I ended up going for a white Leopold FC700R tenkeyless keyboard with the Cherry MX Brown (tactile/no-click) keyswitches, from PC Case Gear ($120 + shipping). Leopold is a Korean company making Cherry MX-based keyboards that appear very similar to the popular Filco Majestouch line, and they’re also the only Cherry-switched keyboards sold by the US mechanical keyboard specialist Elite Keyboards.
Leopold FC700R


The keyboard arrived promptly (thanks PC Case Gear), and after reading the enlightening Engrish on the outside of the box, I managed to get it set up on the Macbook without much trouble. Modifier Key Options OS XI had to swap the Alt & Windows (Option & Command) keys over to preserve my sanity — there’s a built in facility in OS X System Prefs to alter modifier key functions, and the keycaps were easily pried off & swapped over. The side-printed ‘Media Player’ function keys all worked perfectly out of the box with the Fn modifier (I have the OS X ‘Standard Function Keys’ setting enabled), but the more obscure functions — screen brightness, mission control, keyboard backlight etc. aren’t available. I also managed to accidentally turn on the F5 LED (I presume this is the Num Lock?) a couple of times, and couldn’t turn it off again without unplugging the keyboard — unsure what’s causing that.

Physically, the keyboard is a solid, heavy, confidence-inspiring chunk of kit. Despite being smaller, it’s significantly heavier than the old Apple Pro keyboard. The weight, combined with generous, albeit low-fi, rubber footpads, mean the keyboard remains firmly anchored wherever it’s placed on the desk. The tenkeyless form factor is ideal for a modern desktop: the full sized function and arrow keys (plus dedicated forward-delete) are much appreciated, particularly given the amount of time I spend in Windows via Fusion, but you don’t feel it dominates the desk as much as a traditional 104 key full-sized keyboard. The body is simple and unadorned, and doesn’t consume any more desk footprint than it absolutely needs. Many people list the removable USB cable and three-way routing channel as a plus — I don’t see it as a significant benefit, but some do, so I’ll mention it all the same.

The keyboard came with a high-quality silicone keyboard protector that looks like something out of the early 90’s. It actually works pretty well in terms of providing minimal typing impedance and maximal glass-of-water impedance, but I felt it detracted from the tactile feel a little too much, so I’m not using it.

Leopold Keycap closeupThe most significant drawback (from my perspective, as someone accustomed to Apple polish) is the quality of the keycap printing. Most online retailers claim the Leopold keycaps are laser engraved. I suspect this only applies to the black keycaps — while I’m no expert, the white keycaps look more like they’ve been pad printed (they’re a bit uneven and have a clear coating). In addition, the text/artwork is not great; I’ve found having both “CapsLock” and “Back space” on the same keyboard to be a bit incongruous. Obviously buying the ‘Otaku’ blank keycaps would avoid that issue if you’re so inclined, but the availability of the white Otaku version seems limited.

If the biggest drawback is purely cosmetic, in contrast the biggest plus is purely functional. The keyboard feel is superb. I’m not sure if I can adequately explain the difference between a tactile mechanical keyboard and the more common dome or scissor models; you can either try it for yourself or take it on faith that they’re worth it. Noise-wise, the Cherry MX Brown switches are great for the office — my colleague is capable (and frequently so inclined) of pounding his Apple bluetooth keyboard much louder than I usually get out of the Leopold. The keys make some degree of noise bottoming out on the plate — more of a soft plasticy ‘clack’ than the metallic clickiness I recall from old-school keyboards — but it’s not enough to be disruptive. Soft landing pads would probably further reduce this if needed.

In summary

Pros:

  • Cherry MX Brown switches are veeerry nice
  • Compact tenkeyless form factor is highly recommended
  • Solid, quality construction

Cons:

  • Poor quality keycap printing
  • Odd F5 LED behaviour

If you use a keyboard all day, every day, it’s worthwhile finding one you enjoy using. I’m enjoying the Leopold.

 

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6 thoughts on “Hardware Review: Leopold FC700R Tenkeyless

  1. I got myself a set of these from PCCG about 2-3 months ago and looking for other users’ reviews – rare to find since this model is still only available in Korea and Australia. So thanks for this write up.

    A few clarifications, though.

    The keycaps are actually laser etched (different method to engraving). My left alt, D, K and C keys came with marks in the letters out of the box. I didn’t care enough to return it though, since I rarely look down at the keys anyway. I haven’t experienced wearing of any keys since then.

    Also worth noting is that the FC700R come with PBT keycaps, as opposed to ABS keys standard to most other keyboards in a similar price range (e.g. Filco Majestouch2). PBT keycaps are made of a higher quality that last longer, have a more countered feel and are less prone to show ’glossiness’ from usage.

    One gripe that nerds have in regards to Leopold is that for the larger keys (shift, enter, spacebar, etc.), they use ’cherry’ stabilisers (i.e. mini switches) whereas most other manufacturers use ’costar’ stabilisers (i.e. a metal rod). Though both do the same job, the costar ones are generally preferred as they provide a more uniform feel. This is especially evident with the spacebar in the FC700R – it definitely has a different/louder sound compared to the rest of the keys. Though, again, not enough to warrant me to care or notice unless I hit the space key quite hard.

    The general consensus for dampeners is that o-rings from WASD Keyboards are better than soft landing pads from EliteKeyboards – they feel less ’mushy’ and do a better job at reducing sound. However, both reduce the travel distance of keys and may take time getting used to. Furthermore, when typing on mechanical keyboards, you shouldn’t be bottoming out anyway.

    But I’ve actually gone ahead and placed an order for some 40A-R o-rings earlier today for ~$20AU, primarily because I’ve gotten used to typing on ThinkPad keyboards and prefer low-profile keys, so I actually want that reduced travel distance. The sound reduction will be a bonus. Check out this vid for a comparison of sound levels: http://youtu.be/lFkl1Vet1eU.

  2. Nice review, Sam. I just got a FC700R for the office with blue cherries. The F5 lock comes on (and off) with [Fn] and [Ctrl] key, presumably to lock on the function key functions (multi-media). However it does not do this. I couldn’t find any altered behaviour to the keyboard :I

    I did want to mention though, a few years back I bought a DSI Mac Modular keyboard for my Mac pro (http://output.hardcoder.net/dsi-mac-modular-and-realforce-87u), and to date it is my favourite keyboard. Although this also has blue cherries, somehow it feels better than my new Leopold, but I don’t know if this is just ‘wear in’, what I’m accustomed to, or the stabilizers that wong has mentioned. It has native Mac key layout, and is tenkeyless, so it’s a very worthy option if you ever decide on another Mac mechanical.

  3. I stumbled upon this from Reddit. Get KeyRemap4MacBook to get the brightness/media controls/etc. functions back. It also lets you change the modifier keys however you want.

  4. The F5 light comes on when you press Fn + Windows key, not Fn + Ctrl. And as you may figure from this and the Lock-text on the side of Windows key, it locks the Windows key out of use. Not sure why they put the light on F5, but I guess the LEDs look aeshetically better when located higher up on the keyboard.

    @w0ng Now with the massive amount of mechanical keyboards emerging from “gaming brands”, Cherry stabilizers are actually a lot more common than Costar-style metal stabilizers. The problem with Costar stabilizers is that, as far as I know, they are only available when Costar actually makes the keyboard. Costar is a quality factory, but rather outdated in my opinion, since they don’t make PBT keycaps for example.

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