input club kira

Posted On 01/24/2019 By In Keyboard Reviews, Reviews

Input Club Kira Review: Got 99 Keys, But A Fn Ain’t One

The Kira, the latest offering from keyboard maker Input Club, marks a return to the company’s semi-weirdo roots. After starting out by making the Infinity ErgoDox kit, the group moved on to tamer fare like the WhiteFox and the K-Type. Although those boards certainly had their fair share of flair, they had more conventional overall designs and layouts. Not so with the Kira.

Designed in collaboration with Angelo Tobias (thesiscamper), the Kira has a chunky, translucent bottom and a 99-key layout that tries to cram nearly a full-size layout’s worth of keys into a more compact form factor. This funky layout has been around in various iterations for a while now, since the Lightsaver emerged, and the Input Club and Tobias married it with some of their own design ideas.

The Kira is available in multiple configuration options. You can go with a silver chassis that’s metal or plastic, or a black one that’s metal or plastic. The price difference between the metal and plastic options is $80. That’s not unfair, but given that you can buy another whole keyboard for that amount, you better really want that metal goodness.

The switch options are numerous, ranging from Hakos to Cherry to Kailh to NovelKeys Box. Conveniently, there’s no price difference regardless which switch option you pick. They’re all hot swappable, so you can choose different switches after the fact if you so desire.

The model I have on hand is the silver plastic edition with Hako Clear switches. Let’s take a closer look at the Kira.

A Closer Look

The shiny silver bezel positively sparkles, and it’s set off nicely by the bright white keycaps and glowing bottom chassis. For a piece of plastic, the bezel looks beautiful, but it definitely looks and feels…like plastic. There are three indicator lights tastefully arranged vertically on the upper right side.

input club kira

The bottom of the Kira is also plastic, but it’s translucent to allow the full glow of the RGB lighting to spill onto your desktop. It’s a lovely effect, and the angular side design that complements it is fetching–just slightly dramatic without being too in-your-face. The view of the top of the Kira is less dramatic, which is probably a wise decision. Almost like a sort of keyboard mullet, with business in the front and the party on the sides.

input club kira

Being all plastic, the chassis is prone to some flexion if you twist it. The steel backplate combats this somewhat, and it’s likely responsible for the sturdy typing feel. It’s silver, just like the plastic bezel, and it’s equally pretty. You can see a difference between them if you look closely, but you’ll never notice day-to-day. The backplate is, of course, covered up almost entirely by the keycaps, and if you have the RGB backlighting on, it completely changes the look of the backplate anyway.

The Kira is a rather high-profile build, and I found myself wishing that it came with a wrist rest. Granted, that’s a personal and subjective preference, and I know that I gravitate toward shorter height and a gentler typing angle, but it’s worth noting. Regardless, the Kira lacks any flip-down feet, so you can’t change the angle of the keyboard at all. If you want a different feel, you’ll need a wrist rest.

input club kira

The lack of flip-down feet was a choice, not an oversight. The bottom chassis is meant for beauty, and making it hipro gives you the largest possible area for the lighting. Adding feet would arguably make the angle too high; making the chassis a lower profile (and adding flip-down feet) would reduce the amount of glow. The underside does have two huge horizontal rubber pads that keep it from sliding around your desk, so points for that.

The smooth rubber cable is removable and has USB Type-A on one end and USB Type-C on the other. The USB Type-C port is located on the back of the Kira, instead of underneath as we’ve seen on many removable cable designs. You lose the extra stability that some keyboard makers build in to those underneath placements, but the easy access afforded by the Kiras is an acceptable compromise, in my opinion.

It’s rare that I even mention a keyboard’s packaging, but the Kira comes with a terrific carrying case. It has straps inside to hold the Kira snugly in place, and there’s an interior pocket (and plenty of clearance) for accessories or even another whole keycap set. The outside of the case is ash gray, with an orange zipper that’s meant to match the default orange-and-gray keycaps on the Kira. Why the Input Club is not using this as a louder marketing tool is beyond me; it’s worth quite a few extra dollars, which is to say, it essentially defrays the overall psychological cost of the Kira.

Switches

As I mentioned earlier in this article, you have a cornucopia of switch options with the Kira, but the unit the Input Club sent me has Hako Clears. Designed by the Input Club and manufactured by Kaihua, the idea behind the Hako Clear was to use the Kailh Box design but make the keyfeel more akin to a Topre switch. It’s tactile, but in a way that feels completely different from a Cherry MX Brown.

input club kira

The stem feels less wobbly at the top, for one thing, but the Hako Clears are also quite heavy on the initial press. The tactile bump begins almost right away, and it’s not exactly light. You’ll be at 50gf about 0.2mm into the travel, and the peak of the tactile bump is over 60gf. Actuation looks to be about 54gf, but then the weight significantly and rapidly increases, landing at about 80gf at the end of the travel. The weight is intended to discourage you from bottoming out the keypress.

Many switches allege to bottom out at such a high weight, but they actually land somewhere far short. See for example the Input Club’s Cherry MX Brown force curve showing that it bottoms out around 55gf. Compare that to the Hako Clear, which is actually 80gf at the end of the travel.

For someone like me who’s constantly switching keyboards, switch feel becomes relative instead of absolute. For example, the Hako Clear can be considered a medium-weight switch, but it feels heavy to me because I started using the Kira after spending a great deal of time with Kailh Box Whites that are lighter and have a sharper tactile feel (and a click, to boot). Hako Clears on the Kira offer a dull (as in not sharp, not as in stupid) typing sound that’s more friendly to coworkers who really, really don’t want to hear you clacking away all day.

Keycaps

The Kira comes with Cherry Profile PBT dye sublimated keycaps that are ~1.5mm thick. The default colorway is essentially white alphas with black legends and a mix of gray caps with a few choice orange ones (Enter, Enter, and Esc). However, each Kira comes with a set of replacement keycaps. Each of the three jewel-toned sets (blue, pink, and purple) include the two Enter keys, Esc key, and four arrow keys. There’s a set of orange arrow keys in the bag too, if you want to swap those for the default gray.

input club kira

The colors are vibrant. The white keycaps positively shine next to them, but as with any white keycaps, I worry about the collection of dirt and grim over time. It’s inevitable that they’ll collect brownish gunk from you, even if you carefully avoid Dorito fingers.

The homing keys threw me at first, because they have both a bar and a scoop. Regardless whether you’re a scoop person or a bar person (is anyone a nipple person?), this should please you to an extent, although I felt like having both a bar and a scoop was a little redundant. Of course, you can’t please everybody, so using both was probably a smart compromise.

input club kira

I first noticed the scoop because the F key looked like it was sitting much lower than the adjacent G key, and the J key looked like it was too high. The 5 key in the numpad looked similarly too high. I suspected this was because of either keycap cross stems that were too tight or too loose, or some anomaly because the switches were seated poorly. (These are hot-swap switches, after all.) Regardless, it was irritating.  

After mashing all the offending keys down to ensure all caps were snug as possible, the issue was still obvious. (I brought in a 9-year-old to check me, and she spotted the height discrepancy immediately.) I switched the F and J caps, which smoothed things out a bit, but the F keycap (now placed where the J keycap is supposed to be) was still too high. So I swapped the actual switches and put the keycaps back where they belonged, and voila, I corrected the height.

That is not an ideal situation. Hot swap or not, I don’t like having to play musical chairs with caps and switches just to get all the keycaps positioned at the correct height.

Layout: Mind The (Total Lack Of) Gap

As I mentioned at the top of this article, the Kira’s funky physical layout is a take on the Lightsaver layout, with minimal differences. Generally speaking, this layout keeps the total package nice and compact while also taking advantage of all the capabilities of a full-size keyboard. The right Shift key is shortened, and a couple of bottom-row keys are removed so the arrow cluster can slide over. Then, the full numpad slides to the left (to the left, to the left, to the left), with the 1 of the numpad sitting in the same column as the right arrow key. It actually fits in a 17-key numpad this way, although the 0/Ins key had to be shortened to 1U to do so.

One thing that the Input Club chose to cut from the Lightsaver layout is the Fn key that would go between the right Alt and right Ctrl keys. A Fn key with which to change layers would have made tons of sense, but there isn’t one anywhere on the Kira. Instead, to change layers you have to press a combination of keys. (We’re going to get into all of that in a different article.) Without the Fn key, there could no longer be three 1U keys to the right of the spacebar, so both the right Alt and right Ctrl keys were converted to 1.5U to cover the gap. Problem solved, just perhaps not so elegantly.

Although the Input Club admitted that losing the Fn key was not ideal–an oversight, really–they opted to not squeeze it in for aesthetic reasons, I’m told. They also figured that because every key is programmable, people could assign the Fn key where they needed it, if they needed it.

The left side of the Kira is a little different, too. Instead of the Lightsaver’s simple left Ctrl and Alt keys, the Kira has three in that space: Control, “Super,” and Alt, each of which is 1.25U.

The Super key is a Win key by default, but its name raises a question. Why “Super?” I asked Andrew Lekashman of the Input Club. “When possible, we try to stay away from OS-specific keys,” he told me. “Most of our team primarily uses Linux, some members use MacOS, and a very small set of us are Windows users. Any key can have any function on our keyboards, and we felt ‘Super’ was an appropriate modifier for cross-OS functionality.”

In order to cram 99 keys into this small, gapless layout, the navigation keys had to be moved around. Print (Screen) and Delete are on the top row, next to one another, and Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn complete the row to the right. So what’s missing? Scroll Lock and Pause Break, as well as the redundant Ins key. With the aforementioned absent bottom row keys, you get to almost a total recreation of a full-size keyboard’s worth of keys.  

The top two rows are linear to one another instead of staggered like the rest of the rows are. It makes some sense to do it this way, if only to fit as many keys as possible across the top row, but the look is a bit of an acquired taste in my opinion. Aesthetically, I find it too non-symmetrical given that the rest of the layout is staggered. Worse, because of the keyboard and the keycap profile, the top row feels like it’s physically lower (in terms of height and accessibility) than the penultimate row. To hit Delete, I feel like I’m reaching over and down a hump.  

On the whole, though, it’s a clever layout. If you’re not keen on using a Fn layer for half of your keys, you lose very few physical keys versus a standard full-size layout here. Even so, it takes some getting used to. The arrow keys are just slightly in a different place than where I’m used to having them on a TKL board, for example, so I keep overshooting them and hitting the adjacent Ins key instead. The short right Shift key is another hard target at times. Muscle memory is a heckuva thing, but I did begin to adjust to the layout more and more over the days I used the Kira.

As a comment more than a criticism, note that although there are numerous onboard controls available on different layers of the Kira, none are indicated on the keycap legends. You’ll have to check the configuration and commit those items to memory, or set your own through the Kiibohd configurator.

Lighting: The Electric Pumpkin Effect

A keyboard like the Kira cracks open a debate about the purpose of lighting on keyboards. There are many folks who can’t fathom buying a keyboard without RGB backlighting, but plenty of people wouldn’t buy or build one with a single LED cluttering things up. The division could be bling versus business, or perhaps gaudiness for the sake of gaudiness versus an orthodox fundamentalist devotion to keyboard purity.

That tension, silly as it may be, is there, but neither speaks to the question of how backlighting can be used as a tool. And no, I’m not talking about email notifications or in-game warnings about low ammo. Talented typists don’t need backlit legends–some, who are far braver than I, don’t need legends at all–but many of us like having a small, glowing reminder of which keys do what when we’re typing in the dark. With any nonstandard layout, as on the Kira, perhaps more folks than usual would like an illuminated guide to what’s what. Therefore, an otherwise staid keyboard like the MK Night Typist that has simple, white LEDs is not flexing; it’s adding a productivity feature, in the form of backlighting.

But the Kira’s keycaps don’t offer shine-through legends; the caps are totally opaque. That means this keyboard’s lighting is purely for cosmetic reasons. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but given that it’s supposed to be fun and not helpful, the lighting implementation should be better than it is.

input club kira

Don’t get me wrong, when you first plug in the Kira and watch the whole thing start glowing orange like an electric pumpkin, it’s a pretty cool look. And it nicely complements the orange keycaps, and with the lights on, the white and gray caps complete a lovely overall aesthetic. The caps look like they’re floating in pools of light thanks to the bright underglow on the backplate.

…for the most part. Once you look a little closer, some issues emerge. It’s subtle at first, but you can see that the LEDs create a localized glow under the white and orange keycaps (it’s more pronounced on the orange ones). If you leave the backlighting ablaze and turn the lights off…

…woof. The orange and white caps are aglow, but in a sort of ugly, uneven way. It’s like putting a flashlight up to your fingertips; yes, it’s kind of neat, but it’s not really supposed to look like that. Plus, the gray keycaps are dark and opaque enough that there’s no shine-through at all; their legends just basically disappear in the dark, even (or especially) with backlighting on.

input club kira

What is quite lovely, though, are the enormous glowing sides of the Kira. I could take or leave keyboard lighting that’s present only for cosmetic purposes, but I have to admit that the chassis underglow effect is just…great. And the Kira design gives it to you in a creative way, by making the entire bottom part of the chassis translucent, as opposed to the “RGB racing stripe” trend that’s shown up in IC’s own designs as well as from those of Corsair and others.

But the color of the lighting is a bit troublesome, too. The white just doesn’t appear white–not under the keycaps and not on the side lights. You can clearly see the red and blue of the LEDs trying to mix. The effect is at best a dingy white; at worst, a badly mixed pinkish. It looks particularly bad, in my opinion, with the orange caps on.

I should note that I solved the problem for myself by swapping the orange caps for the pink replacement set. With the color scheme thus white, gray, and pink, the pink of the caps picks up the muddled pinkish hue of the backlighting quite nicely. With the lighting off, it’s still quite a looker with the pink caps.

input club kira

Lights off, pink caps on

In sum, I like the Kira’s backlit keycaps in bright lighting conditions, but they look rough low-light situations, which is obviously unfortunate. Conversely, the side lighting all but disappears in broad daylight, but I love the way it looks in the dark. Best case is playing with a specific solid backlighting color that pairs well with one of the colored keycap sets.

Kiibohd Configurator Software

The Kira is entirely configurable through the Input Club’s Kiibohd configurator. A full explanation of how it works and how to use it is something we’re saving for a separate article, but here’s what you need to know:

First, the Input Club gets 50 points for needless yet enjoyable wordplay with the name of the configurator.

Second, for as powerful and flexible as it is, Kiibohd can be rather fussy. The software has an uncluttered, white-themed UI, but you’ll probably want to have the Wiki on hand so you know what you’re doing, because it isn’t necessarily immediately apparent how to use Kiibohd. Once you understand how to use the thing to configure your Kira, it’s not so intimidating, but it does have tons and tons of options. Every key is programmable, and the lighting is programmable, and there are seven layers available for you to play with. You can even directly edit the KLL code if you want. But you’ll probably need to spend a good bit of time carefully planning out how you want to configure everything; what keys you want to use to switch between layers; if you want to shift, lock, or latch layers; and so on. Having so much flexibility is paradoxically paralyzing for some people.

input club kiibohd

Because the configurations are firmware-based, you have to actually flash the firmware to save any changes. This is the really fussy part: You have to click Download Firmware, and then if the compilation works, you’re taken to a new page where you’re supposed to click Flash, and–uh oh, there’s an error message. No matter, I’ll just press this key combination of right Ctrl + right Alt + Esc to enter flash mode, and–nope, that’s not working. I guess I’ll have to flip the keyboard over and jab a paperclip into the base to press the reset button to get into flash mode, and then and only then can I save my configuration.

input club kiibohd

To further complicate matters, there’s the wildcard that the Kiibohd’s build server has to be up. I actually ran into this very problem. I struggled to get any configs to save. I eventually got it working, but one day while I was checking some things, I couldn’t even get the compilation to complete. After reaching out to the Input Club for clarification, a representative responded, noting that I had unlucky timing; the build server had just been down and had to be restarted.

Kiibohd is an extremely powerful and flexible configurator, but it has a bit of a learning curve, and it can be frustrating or tedious to save your custom layouts and lighting.

Teardown

With the keycaps off, the Kira looks like a shiny silver keyboard baby. (The caps really temper all that silver.) The plastic frame just pops right off with a little firm but gentle force. Presumably, the metal version comes off equally as easy.

input club kira

The backpate is ~1.5mm of steel, and it takes just six small Phillips screws to free it and its attached PCB from the bottom of the case. It’s funny, for as pretty as the side lighting effect is, the translucent plastic piece all by itself in disassembled form looks cheap, like a tupperware tub. The PCB is beautiful–a clean, silvery white with no solder points (because of the hot swap switches). Instead, it’s peppered with Hot Swap Sockets. Although they’re part and parcel of the PCB–you can’t install them after manufacturing–they’re supposed to be more reliable that Holtites. They’re rated for 100 swaps apiece, so you don’t need to be too terribly judicious with your switch-aroos. (Pun intended. Pun always intended.) 

There are three screws holding the backplate onto the PCB, and they are not there just for show. They’re structurally crucial. Even with the three screws firmly in, I noticed that there seemed to be slightly wider gaps between the switches and their PCB mounts on the far edges of the assembly. I could squeeze the backplate and PCB together and close the gaps. That tells me the Kira could use a few more strategically placed screws to hold the PCB and plate together, which is to say, to make the switches more snug. I wonder if that would solve the problem I discussed in an earlier section of this article about the switch/caps heights being off kilter at times.

There are two LED controllers in the Kira, which makes sense on its face given the fact there are two distinct lighting zones. The two aren’t assigned specifically to the chassis lights or the switch lights, though; it’s just that there are 128 LEDs total on the Kira, and each driver handles 64. The chips are made by ISSI (IS31FL3733 [PDF]). It’s the same LED controller used in the K-Type.

The Atmel ATSAM4S8C MCU is a 32-bit ARM Cortex-M4 chip that the Input Club guys chose after they ran into trouble sourcing the initial chip of choice, the Kinetis K20. Simply put, they were facing 38 weeks or more of lead time to get their hands on Kinetis chips, which would have set back production on the Kira way too far. They eventually found a more than capable substitute in the Atmel chip and were able to continue on their merry way, making Kiras.

The Verdict

I’ll start the verdict-izing by saying that I wish I’d asked the Input Club for a review unit of the metal version of the Kira. The plastic bezel, lovely though it looks, was just a little too much plastic for my taste, especially when paired with the plastic bottom of the case. The company priced the metal and plastic version accordingly, so it’s not like you’re getting ripped off if you choose the plastic option, but maybe the $80 is worth it for the upgrade.

I do love that the Input Club offers so many switch options, and they get bonus points for including extra keycaps and the excellent carrying case gratis.

The 99-key layout takes just a bit of getting used to, but it’s also a great compromise for those who wish for the compactness of a TKL board but want a (nearly) full array of keys without having to memorize layers. However, I don’t like how the top row lays, and the linear nature of the top two rows looks odd to me in the context of the otherwise staggered keyboard. I wish they left a Fn key for us, too.

I was also not pleased that I had to fiddle with caps and switches to make all the keys the correct height. Maybe my Kira is a fluke, but I suspect others will have similar issues. The solution I found is not difficult, but it is annoying.

The backlighting is problematic, and it serves no function other than to look pretty (not that there’s anything wrong with aesthetics for the sake of aesthetics). The side lighting implementation, though, is creative and beautiful.

Even with the well thought-out layout, the Kira ships with a few pre-programmed onboard controls on different layers, including lighting controls. Using Kiibohd, you can configure the devil out of this thing.

The price will sting for some people, but those familiar with the mechanical keyboard world know that $179 isn’t a bad price for a unique keyboard with lots of features. $259 is a harder pill to swallow, but the premium does get you a metal frame.

ProsCons
Unique layoutNo Fn key
Beautiful, creative side lightingUneven cap/switch heights
PBT keycaps with extra color optionsBacklighting issues with keycaps
Carrying caseSo much plastic (should have gotten the metal version)
Fully programmableOnly one typing angle option

input club kira

Where To Buy

You can buy a Kira only through the Kono Store, and only through the end of January 2019, and only as a preorder. After that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Input Club ran additional buys later on, but that may depend on how well this first presale goes.

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Seth Colaner

Editor in Chief of Keychatter. Irrepressibly interested in things. Loves devices that click and clack. Data nerd. Proud Midwesterner. Pass the buffalo chicken dip.

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