What does the next phase of the mechanical keyboard market look like? Probably a lot like the preorder launch of the Rama Works KOYU. There are moments when (and where) you can see things clearly, summarized and defined, when many pieces and parts that have already existed coalesce just so. I had that sensation looking over Rama’s blog post about the KOYU keyboard, struck by how perfectly it embodies the transition the hardcore enthusiast mechanical keyboard world has been making, and where it’s heading.
The KOYU is a 65% keyboard that is both high-end and flexible by design. It has the currently popular hi-pro chassis, made from an aluminum unibody that provides an 8-degree typing angle. The PCB has surface mounted LEDs. The keyboard uses a removable USB Type-C connector. You can hot-swap Cherry MX-style switches with the 4.5mm integrated plate without solder, so you can easily marry the KOYU with your preferred switches. Further personalize your KOYU with the keyset that’s been prepared for this exact layout, or use one you’ve purchased separately. It’s available in numerous different colors, too–six in total, not counting the Tank editions.
Plus, the KOYU’s PCB is compatible with QMK, so it’s eminently programmable.
Just with those options alone, the KOYU offers customers tremendous flexibility. So few KOYUs will be alike. That cuts sharply against the trend of bigger keyboard companies that typically offer one or two chassis styles and maybe a few switch options, and sometimes they don’t offer software support for programmability.
Because there are so many options for customization after purchase, even a one-size-fits-all package is insufficient. Thus, like many group buys these days, the preorder phase of the KOYU offers piecemeal options. You can buy a kit (with no switches or caps), just the switches (the “starter kit”), just the PCB, just the PBT Industry keycaps, just the extra rubber feet, and just the extra internal weight.
The above caters very much to the DIY market. This is, in my opinion, generally a good thing, and it mirrors what’s happened in the PC enthusiast world. Although plenty of people buy prebuilt and/or custom PCs, a huge number of people just build their own. Going the DIY route typically reduces one’s overall cost, and the result has been an overwhelming growth of enthusiasm for and expertise in PC components. That has driven the entire industry to do better and has led to a great deal of innovation. What’s been happening in the keyboard world feels similar.
Weights And Weights And Weights
In case the KOYU’s aluminum chassis isn’t heavy enough for you, there’s an optional 800g brass weight that you can attach to the bottom. But there are also two mega-heavy versions of the KOYU: the Tank and the oxymoronically named Tank Lite.
The KOYU Tank Edition is milled from brass instead of aluminum, and then “hand polished for hours” and PVD coated. It weighs a beastly 4.4kg by itself, or 5.2kg with the additional weight. The Tank Lite is the same thing but is “just” 3.5kg/4.3kg. They come in Rama’s Moon colorway.
Speaking of weight, purchasing any of these items will make your wallet significantly lighter. The standard KOYU will cost you $360 USD (that’s without switches or keycaps), but the Tank and Tank Lite cost a breathtaking $1,000 and $800, respectively.
That speaks to another trend, that of the super-high-end. It’s a stratosphere where only the most absurdly passionate and well-heeled enthusiasts traffic. At that level, the keyboards cease to be tools and become art of some kind.
Learn From the Pros
Rama Works, like some other small but growing keyboard makers/vendors, is taking important cues from bigger mechanical keyboard companies. This KOYU announcement is accompanied by pretty graphics and images, a lengthy debut blog post with specifications, ready-to-go buy buttons to click, and even a short hype video. These seemingly small and unnecessary details are–psychologically speaking–much of what creates the impression that a given outfit is a professional company rather than merely a talented amateur running a group buy.
Far too many otherwise tantalizing projects that come out of the enthusiast keyboard world miss out because the announcement boils down to little more than a photo posted on Instagram. A bunch of Instagram likes and a thread on r/mk do not a product launch make.
The one thing missing from the KOYU prelaunch is a bona fide press release that gets distributed to journalists who cover mechanical keyboards. It’s standard operating procedure for bigger keyboard companies to email-blast as many journalists as possible in an effort to get coverage for the products. For better or for worse, journos really, really like to have all of the pertinent information wrapped in a tidy package and presented thusly.
But there are some aspects to a product prelaunch like this one that will, at least for the short term if not longer, be endemic to the hardcore mechanical keyboard enthusiast community. The KOYU is an elaborate group buy. The old way of doing things is to create a product, guess how many you think you’ll sell, manufacture them, and hope you move all the inventory. Small outfits can’t afford those margins of error. And so, many keyboard purchases are in fact pre-purchases, where the customer’s money pays for the actual manufacturing of the product.
One could be tempted to call that method amateurish were it not for the fact that established companies are doing the same thing. Das Keyboard did so with its Q series keyboards, and even Cooler Master is taking the crowdfunding route for its upcoming analog ControlPad. That is to say, the money now/product later approach is probably here to stay.
The New Normal
It’s hard to explain how dramatically the mechanical keyboard world has grown and shifted in the last several years. (I attempted to do so to a small extent here.) In asking the question of what this market will look like in the near future, I see some answers in the Rama Works KOYU announcement. Product releases will likely be marked by the following:
- They will be increasingly professional and provide complete, detailed information/specs
- They will have a wider reach as more mainstream tech publications pay attention
- Products will have flexibility and options by design
- Design, colors, and materials will be just important, as if not moreso, than other functionality
- Product releases will cater, at least in part, to DIY enthusiasts (read: options, options, options)
- The consumer becomes part of the product development cycle, moving from point of sale to funding the manufacturing
What do you think?