Computers & Accessories

ABS vs PBT Keycaps: Things you Should Know

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MuchNeeded
1 January, 2022 • Updated 16 days ago
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In the world of mechanical keyboards, keycaps can be a critical factor when it comes to making a purchase decision. Back in the day, PBT keycaps were instantly seen as the superior option, however these days, the lines have become blurry.

While both keycaps are made from different kinds of plastics, the common ground usually ends right there. PBT keycaps are usually considered to be matte and textured while also being more durable. This however, comes at a higher cost, whereas ABS keycaps are usually less expensive with a smooth surface but are prone to wear and tear.

So, are these the only differences between these two kinds of keycaps? Unfortunately not. ABS and PBT have differences that range all the way from typing noise, durability, flexibility, thickness and a whole lot more.

Fortunately, we’ve done thorough research into all the common and practical differences among these two kinds of keycaps so make sure to continue reading to gain a comprehensive understanding of the right mechanical keyboard choice for you.

Here are the main differences between ABS and PBT keycaps and how to know which one is best suited to your needs:

ABSPBT
DurabilityDurale but not for longMore Durable
CostCheapExpensive
NoiseLoudDull and quieter
ComfortLess comfortableHighly comfortable
WeightLightweightHeavy, twice the weight of ABS
Look & FeelSmooth and glossyMatte and textured

ABS Keycaps

Features

  • Cheaper than PBT keycaps
  • Easily available
  • Smooth texture
  • Thinner plastic

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) is a thermoplastic, which means that it can easily be melted or remodeled, making it recyclable. Another, more common example of ABS plastic are LEGO bricks.

ABS plastic is generally cheaper to produce while also being durable and resistant. ABS keycaps are also highly impact resistant; this means that they can handle millions of keystrokes before starting to wear out or break. When talking about texture, ABS keycaps have a very smooth feel that can sometimes even make your fingers glide across the keyboard.

However, just like PBT keycaps, ABS have their downsides. To start off, their cheap constriction means that they will eventually start to crack. The lettering on the keycaps can also start to wear off and fade away with time. The smooth texture of an ABS keycap also leads it to appear greasy or shiny some usage. These are some factors to keep in mind when considering ABS keycaps.

Generally, injection molding is used to make an ABS keycap. While there are many methods of printing legends on the keycaps, the most common one is pad printing. Other methods include laser marking or laser engraving.

ABS keycaps can come in thicker variants which tend to last longer with better printing, however the majority of ABS keycaps are of lower quality.

Advantages
  • Widely Available
  • Cheaper
Disadvantages
  • Gives a greasy feel after some time
  • Legends can start to fade away
  • May start to crack or break after some time

PBT Keycaps

Features

  • Heat resistant
  • Does not crack over time
  • High durability
  • Sturdy keycaps

Turning towards the second option on the list, PBT keycaps are made from a thermoplastic polymer called polybutylene terephthalate. Unlike ABS, PBT can be mixed with other materials to create specific and unique properties.

All this means that PBT keycaps are more resistant to heat and wear and tear. PBT keycaps also tend to be sturdy and thicker, making them long lasting. PBT keycaps have a textured feel to them and have a matte finish. The higher thickness means their lettering will also take much longer to wear off as compared to ABS.

When typing, PBT keycaps produce a dull sound which is tolerable to the ears as compared to ABS keycaps which are louder. PBT keycaps are also twice as heavy as ABS. However, for all of this, PBT keycaps can be costly and they can also be more difficult to find in the market as opposed to their counterpart.

Advantages
  • Matte texture doesn’t wear off
  • High durability
  • Produces better doubleshot keycaps
Disadvantages
  • Expensive
  • Uncommon

Now that we’ve covered some of the general information, you might have an overall idea of what PBT and ABS keycaps entail. However, when making a purchase decision, these factors can also be addressed in further detail. We’ve broken down the same points mentioned above while adding some more information to give you a comprehensive guide in the following points.

Cost

When buying or considering which keycaps will fit your lifestyle better, the first and foremost factor to consider is your budget. When it comes to pricing, ABS keycaps are generally cheaper because of their material and manufacturing. PBT keycaps tend to be more expensive because polybutylene terephthalate can be harder to form in the injection molding process.

In some isolated cases, thick ABS keycaps can end up costing more than PBT caps simply due to their extra thick build and custom designs. Generally, however, you can find ABS keycap keyboards from about $10, while PBT mechanical keyboards usually have a starting point of about $50.

Sound

When typing, both ABS and PBT keycaps tend to produce different typing noises, which come down to personal preference.

ABS keycaps tend to make a more clunky, clicky noise which is often associated with the inexpensive build quality and thin rattling keys. PBT keycaps on the other hand produce a more clean and crisp sound. Since PBT keys are thicker and more sturdy, they minimize rattling, therefore removing that sound as well.

However, none of this is to say that ABS keycaps produce bad sound, as some people prefer the clicky sound of the ABS keyboard, thus it comes down to personal taste and preference.

Material

ABS keycaps are made from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene which does not encourage the mixing of different materials. Due to this, the head resistance of ABS keycaps is lower as compared to PBT. ABS being a thermoplastic, can be easily recycled due to its low melting point and easy remodeling, which makes it a popular choice for many manufacturers.

ABS keycaps go through a plastic injection molding process to be formed. Due to these qualities, the overall manufacturing process of ABS keycaps makes it cheap to build and sell, hence they are readily available and popular in the marketplace.

Turning our attention towards PBT keycaps, the polybutylene terephthalate used to build these keycaps is a thermoplastic polymer with a semi-crystalline structure. This means that it can stand to resist more heat and is a lot more durable than ABS keycaps. While PBT keycaps are also made from an injection molding process, it is a lot more expensive due to the material qualities.

As a result, however, the PBT keycaps are sturdy, thick and less prone to cracking over time.

Texture & Thickness

Once you’ve gained some understanding about the materials, the next step is to explore the texture of these keycaps. ABS keycaps tend to be smooth and shiny, with their thin construction playing a part in this. While ABS keycaps may give off a sleek aesthetic when new, over time the thin keycaps lead to fading of letters. The smooth texture also starts to become greasy and shiny, giving the keyboard an unpleasant look.

Unlike ABS, PBT keycaps are textured and matte. As mentioned before, their construction uses a thicker plastic which makes it more resistant to heat and long-term typing. The thickness helps retain the lettering and stops them from fading away. PBT keycaps are also textured and provide more friction when typing so your fingers do not slip.

Letter Printing

If you’re someone who will be typing a lot, as we assume you will, it’s important to understand and consider the letter printing options available. The 3 most common options are pad printing, sublimated dying and laser printing. Each of these have their own unique pros and cons

1. Pad printing:

This is by far the most common method of letter printing and the most inexpensive. You will find pad printing on most ABS keycaps due to their low cost of printing. In a simple manner, pad printing just prints on the letters on keycaps. Over time, however, this printing can be prone to wearing off.

2. Sublimated dying:

This is a slightly more complex process. Sublimated dying infuses the ink in either of the plastics (ABS or PBT) using a heat press process. While it can be used in both ABS and PBT keycaps, the sublimated dying process is usually recommended and done on PBT keycaps due to their ability to withstand higher temperatures.

3. Laser Printing:

After pad printing, laser printing is the second most popular letter printing option available on the market. Laser printing can be done by laser etching which is done by burning into the plastic with a laser. This leaves black colored legends in the keycaps. After the etching is complete, it can either be left as it is or filled with paint.

The second process of laser printing is laser engraving and this is mostly used in backlit keyboards. In this process, a transparent keycap is coated with black UV paint. Once this is done, a laser is then used to remove the paint in the shape of the legends. When the backlighting is on, it shines through the transparent keycaps and the area that was removed in the shape of the legend.

Double Shot Keycaps

The differences and varieties in ABS and PBT keycaps don’t quite end there. Double shot keycaps use a rather unique manufacturing process of molding together 2 pieces of plastic. Since the process uses 2 different pieces of plastic, double shotting ensures that the legends never fade away.

Double shot keycaps can be found in both ABS and PBT plastics. Backlit keyboards usually tend to use double shot keycaps to ensure great legend readability.

Pudding Keycaps

If you’re someone who wants to not only illuminate the legends on your keys but the entire keycap, then pudding keycaps are for you.

Pudding keycaps are usually double shot and prove to be popular among gamers or users looking for further aesthetic value from their mechanical keyboard.

Conclusion

Coming down to the main factors, as you’ve seen PBT and ABS keycaps have numerous differences that set them apart in almost every department. If you’re someone who is on a tight budget but still needs to get a mechanical keyboard, ABS keycaps are the way to go. While they will wear out over time and look shiny, they are still easy to find in the market, cheap to buy, and will last you a reasonable amount of time.

However, if you’re someone who has the extra pocket change, PBT keycaps might fit your shopping list best. It’s important to consider the weight of PBT keycaps and their matte texture, in case these features might not suit your use case or taste; but if you’re working in a stationary environment and enjoy a sleeker look, PBT might be your perfect fit.

Ultimately, in the showdown of ABS vs PBT, it all comes down to the user’s unique experience.

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