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Keychron Q2 review: a great keyboard, now more compact

Last year, Keychron entered the world of high-end mechanical keyboards with the excellent Q1. It was compact, it was hot-swappable, it was easy to customize, and it felt amazing to type on. Now it’s taking a second swing at the premium market with the Q2, an even more compact keyboard that inherits much of what made the Q1 great.

The big change with the Q2 is that it has a 65-percent layout, meaning it’s missing the function row that the Q1 had. That makes it more compact (obviously), but if you want to access the function keys, you’ll have to use the Fn2 modifier. It means that choosing between the Q1 and Q2 comes down to whether you prioritize a compact layout or having more keys at your disposal.

My Q2 review sample also has a rotary knob on the top right of the keyboard, which by default controls your computer’s volume. This dial is also available as an option for the original Q1, but it came out after the original keyboard launched and after our review was published. So think of this review as being part Q2 review and part Q1 rotary knob review. Cool? Cool.

Like the Q1, the Q2 is an expensive wired keyboard. It currently starts at $149 for a bare-bones version without switches, keycaps, or a rotary knob. Adding the rotary knob costs an extra $10 ($159), and adding switches and keycaps costs an extra $20 ($169). Getting the keyboard fully assembled with a rotary knob will set you back $179 (this is the version I’ve been using, in its stock configuration, with Gateron G Pro Brown switches). Keychron characterizes these as early prices for initial customers and says it expects to see prices increase in mid-2022. If you want it with a UK or European layout there’s no fully assembled option and you can only buy it as a bare-bones keyboard, which sucks for me personally. You get a detachable USB-C cable in the box that’s braided, but not coiled, and it’s fine.

The Q2 is hot-swappable, so you can install or replace its switches without any soldering. As standard, you get a choice of Gateron G Pro linear red, clicky blue, or tactile brown switches. It also has per-key RGB backlighting, and the switches are south-facing, if you’re the kind of person who cares about that sort of thing. (That should provide better compatibility with third-party keycap sets, particularly those from GMK.)

Even in its bare-bones configuration, the Q2 is a lot more expensive than Keychron’s other 65-percent keyboards like the K6 (which costs just $59 and is wireless to boot). The reason is build quality and customizability: the Q2 (and Q1 before it) is in a different league of typing quality compared to Keychron’s other keyboards, and it supports QMK software, which means you can completely customize what each of its keys do.

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I expected to start this review by saying that the Q2 feels and sounds identical to the Q1 to type on. But Keychron has made a small change to the construction of the Q2 with the addition of an extra silicone gasket between the top and bottom sections of its case that reduces the slight “pinging” sound the original Q1 would make while typing. It’s a small change, but it’s a nice improvement. Keychron tells me it’s also incorporated this design element into the knob version of the Q1 and will roll it into the base Q1 from June.

Otherwise, the Q2’s typing experience is every bit as excellent as the Q1. It feels crisp and solid, and the keyboard’s stabilizers (the mechanisms that stop larger keys like the space bar from wobbling) don’t rattle when their keys are pressed. It’s a premium package and exactly what you’d hope for with a keyboard costing this much.

I like the keycaps that come included on the fully assembled version of the Q2. They’re made of hard-wearing PBT plastic, have double-shot legends, and use a somewhat uncommon OSA profile. That means they have a slightly rounded look to them (similar to SA keycaps), but they’re shorter and less stylized, which makes them easier to type on for me. Considering they only add an extra $20 to the cost of the keyboard alongside the switches, I think buying them is an easy decision if you like their design.

In classic Keychron fashion, you get both Mac and Windows keycaps in the box, and a small switch next to the keyboard’s USB port flips it easily between its Mac and Windows layouts. There are no adjustable feet to change the angle of the keyboard.

Whether or not the Q2 is the right keyboard for you will, I think, come down to whether you can live with its 65-percent layout. In my experience, the compact layout is a real love-it-or-hate-it design. Its proponents love how compact it makes the keyboard, but for others the lack of a dedicated function row, and the more limited number of keys around the arrow key cluster, are deal-breakers.

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Obviously, you should follow your personal preferences, but I’ve generally found that a 65-percent layout is usable on a Mac but occasionally tricky on PC. For starters, the default keyboard shortcut for closing a program on PC is Alt + F4, relying on a physical key that’s not present on 65-percent boards (on the Q2 you access it with Fn2 + 4). Macs can also use Cmd + Left and Cmd + Right as simple Home / End commands, so there’s less need for dedicated keys. But everybody’s different, and keys that might be optional for me might be essential for you.

It helps that the Q2 is QMK compatible, so you can use a program like VIA to customize its layout and ensure it has exactly the keys you want. Don’t like that the two keys on the far right of the Q2 are dedicated to Delete and Home out of the box? You can change them! (But you might need some extra keycaps if you want to change their legends).

VIA is a relatively intuitive piece of software to use, and once you’re set up it’s easy enough to start reassigning keys to perform different tasks. The most unintuitive element is that the Q2 has five separate “layers,” which can each be programmed independently. There’s 0 for Mac, 1 is Windows, 2 is Mac while holding the Fn1 key, 3 is Windows while holding the Fn1 key, and 4 is both Windows and Mac while holding the Fn2 key. It’s less confusing than it sounds in practice, but if you’re trying to change your layout and it doesn’t seem to be working, then this could be why.

It’s also VIA that lets you remap what the Q2’s optional rotary dial does. The dial has three functions — scroll left, scroll right, and press — which by default handle volume and muting. It’s a relatively stiff mechanism that means you need to be firm with it, but it’s easy enough to rotate with a single finger. I just wish it didn’t have a weird square cutout around it, which is presumably so it can use the same keyboard case as the non-dial version of the keyboard.

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I wanted to see if it could be turned into a tool for scrubbing through music and videos, and you know what? It totally can. Changing its purpose is as simple as working out the relevant keyboard shortcut in your software of choice and assigning it to the dial. So I mapped Ctrl + Cmd + Left and Right to the dial using macros, which allowed it to be used to scrub through files in VLC.

Better still, because the Q2 supports multiple layers, you can assign functionality like this to the dial without having to give up basic volume controls. So my VLC controls only activate if I hold down Fn1 while I turn the dial. I could even use Fn2 to set up a third set of rotary controls, if I were so inclined.

Overall, the dial is a great addition to the Q2 (or the Q1). Yes, it costs an extra $10, and takes the place of one of the keyboard’s keys, but it’s flexible enough that I think it earns its place.

Last year I said that the Keychron Q1 was the keyboard to get if you want a high-quality, premium typing experience without having to assemble a keyboard yourself or go through a lengthy preordering process. And the Keychron Q2 is no different. It’s well made, easy to customize, and feels great to type on. It even sounds a little better than the Q1 to boot.

Whether you opt for the Q1 or the Q2 basically comes down to whether you love or hate the Q2’s more compact design, and what you need to use your machine for on a daily basis. Its layout certainly won’t be for everyone, but if you value a compact keyboard above all else, then it’s hard to beat.

Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge