Posted On 07/28/2015 By In News

REVIEW: Realforce 87U 55g

Page Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. Typing Test
  3. Packaging, Unboxing, and Contents
  4. External Build
  5. Internal Build
  6. Switches
  7. Layout and Function Keys
  8. Summary & Conclusion
  9. Full Gallery
  10. Where to Buy

Introduction

The Realforce 87U is a very high end keyboard aimed at professionals and typists, not casual users or gamers. At ~$230 the 87U is not a cheap keyboard, and is actually the most expensive keyboard I’ve reviewed to date. At first glance the list of features for such a pricey keyboard may seem underwhelming. The keyboard has no fancy backlighting of any kind, it only has 4 dip switches (whereas the KUL has 7 and the WASD Code has 6), and the overall packaging and accessories list don’t reinforce the price either. The magic of the 87U is unquestionably the feel of the 55g Topre switches, an elusive switch only found stock in Realforce keyboards. The build quality is absolutely fantastic as well, I have no doubts the Realforce will easily last me a decade.  So, I have a keyboard with some of the best feeling switches money can buy, and exceptional build quality, but is that enough to warrant the extremely high price tag? Let’s find out.

Typing Test

Packaging, Unboxing, and Contents

Much like other high end Japanese keyboards (I’m looking at you HHKB), the Realforce 87U’s packaging is not going to win over any buyers or attract any attention in a retail scenario. Quite frankly, the plain cardboard box looks like an artifact straight out of the 90’s. On the front of the box it lists the following specifications:

1. Tenkeyless Compact Keyboard.

2.Much better Operational Performance by Electrostatic Capacitive System.

3.No chattering over 30 million times.

4.Good feeling of oneness with cup rubber.

5.Enable to set 5 function by Dip-switch as described in bottom of package.

Mind you I copied that word-for-word, with the non-uniform spacing behind the numbers and odd capitalization. If I didn’t know any better I’d already be assuming the worst about this product based on the packaging. The back of the box lists the same specifications along with the dip switch functions.  Upon opening the box there is more of the same plain cardboard, with the keyboad wrapped neatly in a plastic covering. The packaging isn’t bad, as it does the job it was intended for well enough, but it is definitely unassuming and completely forgettable at best.

 

Inside the box

Included with the 87U is one instruction manual (with no English at all), 1 metal keypuller, and a two extra keycaps for swapping around the Caps Lock and Control keys. The metal keypuller is not something that I would ever recommend using. It is far too easy not to grab a switch tight enough, resulting in the metal clips of the puller being forced up the side of the keycaps, which will leave permanent marks. Instead I would recommend using a standard wire keypuller if at all possible. That being said I was very pleased by the included keys. I noticed that the included 1.25 Caps Lock, used when swapping Caps Lock/Ctrl on the bottom row, included the LED window. Unlike most keyboards, when you swap the Caps Lock/Ctrl it also swaps the LED’s, as there is also one on the bottom row for the Caps Lock, which is fantastic.

*Something to keep in mind is that when you flip a dip switch, the change will not take effect until you unplug/plug in your keyboard. 

External Build

Case

The 87U is a very solid keyboard, the heft is one of the first things I noticed about it while taking it out of the box. When I tested the flex of the case by twisting each side in opposite directions, there was little-to-no flex at all. It fared as good, if not better than the KUL. It is an incredibly sturdy keyboard. Another nice feature is how easy the case is to open. The top and bottom cases are only held together by 3 clips on the front underside of the keyboard.

Reverse side (rubber pads, feet, etc.)

Much like the HHKB, the rubber feet aren’t terrific. The rubber feet at the front of the keyboard do a moderately good job of holding the keyboard in place, though the back feet have no rubber on them and do allow for some slippage. The attached 5.25ft cable has 3 runs (left, center, right) that it can be routed though, all of which hold it very securely in place. I do find myself wishing the cable was indeed removable, as this would make it easier to transport or swap out with other keyboards. At the same time I understand it might be safe to assume that most people purchasing this keyboard will be using it exclusively on a home PC and will have no need for a removable cable. Still, this is a feature I am always an advocate for.

Keycaps

Simply put, the keycaps are fantastic. They are relatively thick PBT and have the slightly textured feel that PBT is often associated with. The black-on-black dye-sublimated legends look terrific, and really helps the keyboard stand out. In low light setting the keys can be moderately hard to read which is something to consider when choosing between the white and black versions. The white 87U comes with keycaps that are much easier to read. Having the nice PBT keycaps really amplifies the feel Topre switches and gives an incredibly refined typing experience right out of the box. The Novatouch really suffers in this area; the stock thin ABS keycaps leave quite a bit to be desired. The only downside to the keycaps at all is the ABS spacebar. It is quite unfortunate that such a nice keyboard comes with such a meh spacebar, especially when all the other keys are already PBT. Recently Matt3o, a very active community member, helped design PBT spacebars that will fit both the HHKB and Realforce keyboards, so having the ABS spacebar is definitely not as big of a deal as it used to me, it is merely a minor inconvenience now.

*If swapping keycaps out with custom sets is important to you, keep in mind that Topre stems are not compatible with MX style stems, thus finding aftermarket keycaps/keycap sets is both difficult and expensive. 

Internal Build

The internal quality of the Realforce was flawless. The PCB held nicely in place by the case, and the rubber cups are sandwiched securely in place between the metal place and PCB by ~30 small screws. Opening up the case is very simple, and is done my pulling outward on the 3 clips on the front of the case. This can easily be done with just a finger nail. Upon opening the case the plate+PCB will be separated from the case, with no screws holding it in place. To completely remove the PCB you will need to unclip the power cable and use a screwdriver to unscrew the red ground wire. One benefit of Topre keyboards are that they can easily be fully disassembled should a spill happen. If you unscrew the ~30 small screws connecting the plate and PCB you will be able to remove both the rubber cups and metal springs from the PCB to gently wash. Obviously shorts can still occur, so still be extremely cautious if you insist on eating or drinking near your keyboard.

*For more pictures of the internal build of the 87U check out my HOW TO: Modifying an HHKB with 55g Domes article.

Switches

Alas we get to the 55g Topre switches. These switches are the heart of the keyboard, and are undoubtedly the highlight of the 87U. For those of you that have yet to try Topre switches, they are very hard to compare directly to any other type of switch. I often hear people compare them to Cherry MX Browns or Clears, but quite frankly I completely disagree with both comparisons. The Topre switchs are all tactile and hit their peak resistance very close to the top of the keypress, unlike tactile Cherry switches that hit their peak resistance closer to the middle of the switch. This already gives them a completely unique feel apart from their Cherry counterparts. Now, the 55g differs rather significantly in feel from the 45g switches due to having a heavier actuation force and a more pronounced tactile bump. The combination is glorious. Coming from the perspective of someone that types ~5000 words a day, I can definitively say that the 55g Topre switch is my favorite switch for extended typing sessions. I really do enjoy the “good feeling of oneness with cup rubber” in this case.

Another high point of the switches is the sound. I find the beefy thock of the Topre switch  to be very soothing. There is still some thin clicking when the key is released and the plastic slider hits the top of case, but it is definitely not something that takes away from the experience in any way.

Layout and Function Keys

The TKL layout of the 87U is my preferred keyboard size. As someone that doesn’t ever heavily rely on a numpad, I like being able to claim back the precious desk space the numpad on a fullsize keyboard would take up. The dip switches do allow for some layout customization, but nothing too in-depth. One change I really wish I could make is swapping the backspace and backslash keys.

Here are the complete dip switch specifications:

Dip SwitchKeyOFFON
SW1Left Ctrl KeyLeft CtrlCaps Lock
SW1Caps Lock KeyCaps LockLeft Ctrl
SW2Windows, Context KeyEnableDisable
SW3Numeric keypadEnable Disable
SW4Firmware Update ModeDisableEnable

Summary & Conclusion

The 55g Realforce 87U is something completely unique in the keyboard world. At the end of the day does it warrant the extremely high price tag? Honestly, I can’t answer that question. Personally, I think it does. The overall feel of the 55g Topre switches and the robust build quality easily make this keyboard an investment that should last years. If you are like me and spend large amounts of your day typing, the $230 price tag really doesn’t seem so bad when you calculate the number of hours you’ll probably use the keyboard over the next decade. If you casually use your computer to surf the web, lightly respond to emails, or game, there very good keyboards out there for under half the price.

There are a few tweaks I would like to see Realforce make in the future, notably adding rubber feet on the back legs and a removable cable, but overall this is a nearly perfect keyboard out of the box. The combination of the Topre switches, PBT keycaps, and solid mounting plate simply make this one of, if not the best out-of-box typing experience money can buy. I highly recommend giving this keyboard a try if you ever get the chance.

Pros

  • Extremely high build quality
  • 55g Topre switches feel fantastic
  • Thick PBT keycaps
  • Dye sub legends
  • 4 dip switches for layout options
  • Typing experience is unrivaled
  • Can send “true” numpad data

Cons

  • Non-removable cable (~5.25 feet)
  • Included keypuller is garbage and can damage your keycaps
  • No instructions in English
  • ABS spacebar
  • Very expensive (though still worth it, in my opinion)
  • No media keys
  • Looks

 

Final score: 8.9/10 

Full Gallery

 

Where to Buy

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3 Responses

  1. I use the Realforce 87U with ergonomically weighted keys and agree with everything in this review. The feel really is unique and a joy to type on. There’s one problem that’s pretty annoying though—on a Mac, if I try to wake up the computer by pressing a key, the keyboard freezes up. I have to unplug it and plug it back in. Apparently, this is a longstanding problem with this keyboard. I trained myself to wake up the Mac with the mouse instead, so it’s not a showstopper.

  2. livingspeedbump

    Thanks Todd, good to know. Will give that a try tomorrow. I always try to test keyboards on Mac/PC/Linux bases systems and usually report only if I find it doesn’t work with one. I didn’t wait long enough to see if it would freeze the keyboard when waking up the mac though. After a bit of research it would seem this is indeed an issue with the keyboard. I will report back after trying it myself.

  3. Aaron

    Great review, Andy! When will you be getting a PBT spacebar to review?

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