A mechanical keyboard can make a world of difference if you’ve been using a cheap off-the-shelf membrane board or a flimsy laptop keyboard. Being a person who spends most of the day typing, I’ve taken a keen interest in mechanical keyboards for several years. Using a proper keyboard has really saved my hands. In my quest for the perfect typing experience, I became a little obsessed with finding the ideal combination of layout, materials, firmware, and switches. Just when I began to feel my search was futile, the WhiteFox appeared. So, I decided to build a keyboard — here’s how it went.
Why would I do this?
The WhiteFox is a custom mechanical keyboard sold by group buy site Massdrop (sign up required to view listing) and designed by keyboard enthusiast Matteo Spinelli. The first round of sales happened last December, and another round is underway now. You can get it fully assembled, or as a kit that you solder together yourself. I jumped on the first round, and opted to get the DIY kit version so I could build my perfect keyboard. I figured if I was doing this, I was going all out. I decided to build a keyboard for the same reason I (and probably many ET readers) build PCs — I wanted things a certain way.
You’ve probably been hearing more about mechanical keyboards in the last few years. This phenomenon really picked up in 2014 when the core patents of iconic keyboard switch-maker Cherry expired, allowing cheaper clones of Cherry MX switches to hit the market. The cheap mechanical keyboards are a good gateway, but the WhiteFox is not that. It was designed to cut no corners, offering premium materials and the features keyboard enthusiasts want most. Pricing for this board starts at $134.99 (no switches, keycaps, or assembly included) and goes up from there. The starting price for a fully assembled board is around $200 and the cheapest full kits are $179.99.
One of the available WhiteFox layouts.
The WhiteFox is a 65% keyboard, so it’s nicely compact but still has the all-important arrow keys. It has the keys I need, and no more. I personally can’t stand the bulky number pads on a keyboard, so full-sized boards are out. I also find tenkeyless ones to be rather large. The WhiteFox is fully programmable, so you can make any key on the board do whatever you want. It’ll do anything a larger board can do, and in much less space.
I had not used a soldering iron for a couple years when this group buy started, but I liked the idea of putting a keyboard together myself. It gave me a wider array of switch choices too. The switch is what registers each keypress, and the design of that switch determines what the typing experience is like. There are loud clicky switches like MX blues, tactile switches that make very little noise like MX browns, and linear switches that don’t click or have a tactile bump like MX reds.
But remember I mentioned the Cherry MX clones above? The patent expiration has led to some very cool and innovative takes on the Cherry design, like the Gateron-manufactured Zealio switch. The 67-gram Zealio is what I decided to use for my WhiteFox build. Switches are usually identified by the color of the stem — in this case Zealios are purple. The shape of the housing and the stem are the same as Cherry MX, so they’re compatible with the WhiteFox, standard MX keycaps, and any other keyboard designed to accept Cherry switches. They’re smoother than Cherry switches, have a more pronounced tactile bump, and there’s no extra click. As far as I’m concerned, they’re perfect for typing. They’re a little heavy for gaming, but that’s not what this board is for.
The build process
The image below is what arrives in a DIY WhiteFox kit. There’s the aluminum case, a plate for mounting switches (several different layouts are available), the PCB, switches, keycaps, screws, stabilizers, and a cable. Before I started soldering, I decided to do some switch modification. Why? Because I’m going all out, remember?
Even with the smoother action of Zealios, they can be smoother still with some lubrication. This involves opening each switch and taking the stem and spring out. I used Krytox lubricant on the stem guides and central post where the spring sits. The result is a smoother action with a slightly less abrupt tactile bump.
The WhiteFox is a good beginner DIY keyboard because all the the fiddly little components like resistors and diodes are pre-soldered. That means you only need to add the switches and LEDs, which are bigger and have a correspondingly large margin of error. The first step is installing a few switches in the corners and one in the middle. They plug into the plate, then you press the PCB down to seat them. It only takes a small amount of solder to secure them in place, and you want to go fast enough so you don’t damage the housing of your switch.
A Zealio switch with the top housing removed.
Because I’m paranoid, I tested the board after the first few switches were installed. After making sure they (and the PCB) worked, I mounted the rest and soldered them into place. To my chagrin, I found a defective switch in my batch. Luckily, it was a well known issue called “chattering” that was easy to fix. I just had to pop the switch open again and poke it with a screwdriver a few times (seriously).
With the switches in place, I was faced with the choice of whether or not to install LEDs. These are entirely optional on the WhiteFox, and most keycaps with shine-through legends are poor quality anyway. Still, I’m going all out, so I installed them. This is just like soldering the switches, but smaller. The LEDs also seal the switch tops, making it harder to remove or fix a defective switch. It’s a bit of a trade-off.
My soldering is sloppy, but it works.
With both the switches and LEDs soldered, all I had to do was clip in the stabilizers (the wires that keep longer keys straight) and mount the keycaps. I also applied some thick lubricant to the stabilizers to make sure there was no friction there.
The finished keyboard
The WhiteFox comes with what I would consider some very nice keycaps. They’re Cherry profile dye-sublimated PBT — an extremely durable plastic with legends that are impregnated in the plastic, so they won’t fade over time. There were some issues with these keycaps in the early run of keyboards, mostly due to misaligned legends. Mine seem fine, though. They feel and look fantastic — the “floating” design shows them off nicely. I also love that Massdrop includes so many alternate and novelty caps with this keyboard. The little fox head and the geometric shapes are particularly great.
While I like the stock keyset (which would probably cost at least $75 on its own as a separate item), another big draw with the WhiteFox is that it has fairly standard keycap sizes. The right shift and bottom row mods are smaller than regular keyboards (on my Vanilla layout), but those are still available for most all custom keysets.
The aluminum case has a lovely beadblasted texture, and there’s a nifty WhiteFox “Prima” logo etched on the bottom. If you get one in the new group buy, it won’t have the Prima badge; that was just for the first run. The finished board is hefty, but not unusually heavy. It’s about 1.5 pounds total.
As I mentioned previously, one of my main reasons for getting the WhiteFox was that it’s fully programmable. The PCB and firmware were designed by Input.Club, and they make a cool online configurator for visual firmware building. Just create a map, download the file, and use the provided software to flash it to the keyboard. Below is the keymap I worked out for my Vanilla layout board. The other layouts have keys in slightly different places, but you can assign them to anything.
Massdrop did experience big delays getting the first round of WhiteFox keyboards sent out, but this is custom hardware being made in small batches. The company says it has learned from the first drop, and the current one should go much smoother. If you want to secure a WhiteFox, assembled or not, the drop only lasts until Monday August 8th. The estimated shipping date for this round is in November. Yeah, I know — welcome to the world of mechanical keyboard group buys, where everything is made-to-order and takes months. The WhiteFox is worth the wait, though. It’s the finest keyboard I’ve ever laid my hands on, and I’d buy it again in a heartbeat.