A Kickstarter in China called Kemove reached out to offer a review of their new keyboard. As a person who types ninety percent of my day (just ask Grammarly), I said, “sure.”
What intrigued me about this keyboard was its small size and that it leveraged mechanical keys, which are beloved by those who type and those who game.
I have to say I was impressed by the general engineering of the keyboard. It is solidly built, has great key travel and looks good on a desk.
But that’s the device I received in the box. The real differentiator for Kemove is not the keyboard as delivered, but the one you can build yourself.
The Kemove keyboard leverages mechanical keys, which are valued for higher-end keyboards from the likes of Mathis, Cherry, and Logitech to name a few. The Kemove design differentiates by not just shipping with mechanical switches, but by allowing owners to buy their own switches and replace them—and by encouraging that behavior. And because the platform is built around removable switches, it is also built around removable keys. For the buyer of the Kemove interested in a custom feel or a custom layout, the company claims the Kemove keyboard can be all things to all people—from custom keys, to split space bars and different switches for different functions. Logitech also sells switch kits to change keyboard experiences (see their Pro X Switch Kit here).
My sense is that the community of gamers or very persnickety writers who want to build their own keyboard experience is pretty small (the Kickstarter campaign only has 445 backers so far). While the value proposition for a personalized keyboard is clear, the size of the post Kickstarter market isn’t so well defined. But as a Kickstarter project, its market defines itself and sets the boundaries and constraints on technical development.
The Kemove Keyboard I received came in a box with three extra switches. Different switches produce different sounds, different feels, and different travel distances. I can see swapping out an entire keyboard for a different feel, but I’m not sure the purpose of a couple of alternative switches except perhaps as props for practice. The early version I received did not include technical or marketing material to make that point (though a PDF of key functions and starts of a manual of sorts in Excel format was sent later). The box did include key and switch pullers for those who want to dig into the key swapping movement. I did not swap out any keys.
To return to the basics, the Kemove keyboard includes Bluetooth and wired support on the same device. It charges while connected and being used. An accompanying USB-A to USB-C cable provides the tether and the power conduit. Power turns on via a slide switch on the back of the keyboard.
As for additional features, like the wild combinations of moving colors activated by both touch and sound, that’s not my number one appeal. I do like a backlit keyboard. I want easy configuration and I just want it to work. The Kemove keyboard does not fit that requirement. The number of built-in combinations and the need to cycle through them makes it challenging to literarily light on one that works. I’m still not sure how to just make the keyboard backlight white, for instance, but I can make Frozen blue after several clicks to cycle through the color schemes.
Configuration issues may be taken care of by the supporting application that promises programmable configurations for keys and colors. Unfortunately, the application downloaded to my PC did not recognize my keyboard in either tethered or Bluetooth mode. And it ran only on the PC, not the Mac. So that’s going to need to get fixed.
As for the Mac, despite the switch, the PR agency informed me that the current device isn’t really made for Apple’s platform yet, but that is coming. I had a hard time getting my Mac to even see the Bluetooth 5.1 device. I eventually did and it seemed to work (there is a Mac/PC switch on the back, but I don’t know why, as the issue between platforms is more about key placement and mapping than about any feature flip. I don’t own another keyboard that forces a choice between Mac and PC on a switch).
I also experienced the keyboard “getting away” from me when playing with the lighting features. In Bluetooth mode on the PC typed by itself (rows of letters, or unrequested carriage returns), which is never a good thing for a keyboard to do. It seems to become lost in its logic and forget that it’s a keyboard and not a light show.
Recommended improvements for the Kemove Keyboard Kickstarter
With a week into the keyboard, there are a few rough edges on features, even though the engineering is very smooth. Here are a couple of suggestions:
- Create a keyboard cover. This is a small keyboard, and therefore, despite it being a bit heavy, it may well become a traveling companion. It needs a cover to protect the keys in a bag.
- Don’t say the smaller keyboard is 60% (I was trying to figure 60% of what—I’m guessing of a full-sized keyboard). Say it is “compact.”
- Create documentation that teaches people the value of switch and key swapping, and detailed instructions about how to do it.
- Include some easy to access basic backlighting modes. The keyboard seems to default to a pinkish frost white when powered on but getting back to that as a basic color scheme doesn’t seem possible…at least I haven’t figured it out yet without cycling power.
- Work with localization teams on the translation of features, technical specifications, and user interfaces (for instance, they refer to their software as a “powerful drive” when they mean a “powerful driver.”
Bottom-line, so far
My computing experience started with mechanical switches. I have worn the keycaps labels off my Mathias Laptop Pro (which I’m using to type this review).
This is a device coming from an in-progress Kickstarter, so it isn’t fully baked yet. As a pure keyboard, I like the Kemove 60%’s overall look and feel. As a differentiated offering for those who want to configure their own keyboards, I’m sure it will appeal to some. We do need children to understand the principals behind the technology they use every day. So the Kemove keyboard could become a maker space learning tool, kind of a Lego-like experience for keyboards.
Any wider adoption of this keyboard will require the finalization of the product from software to technical documentation and support. If they don’t capitalize on the configuration features and really make a marketing push to create a do-it-yourself key swapping phenomenon (meme, community) the keyboard is likely destined only to sell to gamer hobbyists.
That said, there aren’t enough good mechanical keyboards in the market for those of us who type all day. Perhaps creating pre-packaged versions for typists, gamers, etc. would be a better market move than DIY.
For now, the Kemove 60% isn’t going to become my keyboard of record. I need more reliability, fewer lighting features, a working driver and a quieter experience.
Those who want to dive into the keyboard configuration world, check out the extensive videos on the Kickstarter page and see if you are interested in helping fund and shape this keyboard’s future.
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