When it comes to keycaps, there are generally two most commonly used plastics. These two types are what I will be comparing in this article which are PBT keycaps vs ABS keycaps.
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Both of these types have quite a few different characteristics. It’s important to understand what these are when buying or building a mechanical keyboard.
A PBT keycap is often textured, while an ABS keycap is more smooth. The ABS is also more commonly used because it is cheaper to manufacture. In most cases, the PBT is a more premium keycap whereas the ABS is usually cheaply made and low-quality. Since they are cheap, they are also less durable. ABS keycaps develop a shine over time while PBT caps usually don’t.
Even though PBT keycaps seem like the superior choice, some people actually prefer the shine of the ABS caps. Also, of all the time using my keyboard, I’ve never really had a keycap break on me. So, I don’t think durability matters too much. For the most part, it really comes down to personal preference.
I will go over everything you need to know about the differences between ABS and PBT keycaps and then you can conclude which one is your preferred choice.
ABS Keycaps Explained
An ABS keycap is strong yet cheap to produce. This is why they are the most commonly used plastic. ABS stands for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene which is a copolymer plastic that can withstand millions of keystrokes before any kind of damage sets in.
Though they won’t break too easily, they will start to fade fairly soon. At least in my experience. However, I’ve had people tell me they like the look of a keyboard that’s been broken in, they say “it gives it character.”
On top of fading quickly, ABS keycaps also develop a shine relatively quickly that makes it look greasy. These caps are always smooth but the look they get over-time is a whole nother level.
This happens due to the friction of your fingers repeatedly tapping away at the keys. Because the plastic is cheap, it doesn’t take much to wear away the top layer, causing it to shine. Kind of like using fine sandpaper to smooth out a rough surface. That being said, again, some people actually like this look.
The way ABS keycaps are usually made is through injection molding. After this process, the lettering is created through a few different processes. The method used for the lettering is different depending on the manufacturer.
A few of these lettering processes include engraving, pad printing, or laser marking.
The stock keycaps that usually come with mechanical keyboards are usually cheaply made. However, there are some higher-quality ABS keycaps available online. The best keycaps are more durable and usually have a thicker plastic. Some of these high-quality caps even come with custom designs!
PBT Keycaps Explained
PBT – or Polybutylene terephthalate – plastic is much more solid than ABS plastic. This makes it much harder to mold into keycaps. This is one reason why they are more expensive and less commonly used.
If you’re interested in having PBT keycaps you will have to do some research to find a keyboard and make sure it comes with these. It’s less common and the keyboard will cost you a premium.
Another option would be to purchase the caps separately through Amazon or other stores.
The benefit of owning PBT keycaps is that they’re usually more durable and last much longer. They also have a nice textured feel to them which many people prefer over the smoothness of an ABS keycap.
There are cheaper PBT keycaps as well as more expensive keycaps alike. Of course, the more expensive ones will be of much higher quality as well as a better texture feel.
They are also usually thicker than ABS which may result in a much deeper tone when typing away.
PBT Keycaps vs ABS Keycaps: Side by Side Comparison
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The most obvious difference between an ABS keycap and a PBT keycap is the plastic they use. Just as the names suggest.
PBT is usually more solid and much higher quality. Because of this they also seem to last longer than an ABS plastic cap.
That being said there is also such thing as high-quality ABS keycaps. While this may be true, usually, if a keyboard company chooses to use ABS caps it’s to save money. So chances are they won’t be of high-quality unless you buy them separately.
Look and Feel
ABS keycaps have a smooth texture to them. They can also become quite shiny especially over time they increasingly become greasy looking.
I will mention not all ABS keycaps are created equal, and some may not become quite as shiny as fast as others. Especially if you make sure your keycaps are of a higher quality.
PBT keycaps are much the opposite, being a matte color and also textured rather than smooth. Almost feeling like low grain sandpaper.
Standard ABS keycaps are usually thinner than their PBT counterparts. however, that being said, it may not always be the case.
It’s possible to have lower-quality PBT keycaps and it’s also possible to buy higher-quality ABS keycaps. So it really depends on what you get.
That being said, in a lot of cases, PBT keycaps are thicker than ABS keycaps.
I’ve had some experience with both types of keycaps. In my experience, it seems like the PBT keycap has a much deeper tone than an ABS keycap.
I think the reason for this is the thickness of the keycap influences the tone created. If you like a more deep, rich tone than you might prefer a PBT keycap
You may have to go to the store and do your own sound test to see what you like better. Or watch the following video:
One of the biggest factors to consider between the two keycaps is the price. A higher-quality keycap is, of course, going to cost more than its counterpart.
There are of course expensive ABS keycaps made. There are also more commonly cheaply made ones. PBT keycaps could also fall in this same range.
However, for the most part, a PBT keycap will come at a higher premium than an ABS keycap. This is because PBT plastic is harder to mold and is a better material that lasts longer than ABS plastic.
Choosing the Right Keycap
Honestly choosing a keycap style really comes down to personal preference. Both ABS plastics and PBT plastics have cheap versions as well as high-quality expensive versions.
If you can’t stand the slipperiness of the ABS keycap that also develops that greasy shine to it more quickly, then you may want to opt-out of this type of cap.
On the other hand, if you can’t stand the textured feel of a PBT cap then you may choose to steer clear from that one.
I’ve heard arguments from both ends of the spectrum. Some people love one style while others hate it, and vice versa.
The good news is, whichever style you prefer, there is the option of having that style and still having the quality too. Just make sure you do your research beforehand to make sure you get the exact keycap you want.
ABS vs PBT Comparison Table
This table is a general overview. Keep in mind that these descriptions aren’t ALWAYS the case for every cap. For example, an ABS keycap can sometimes be more expensive than a PBT keycap.
However, This table compares the two caps with the characteristics that they are most commonly known for.
|PBT Keycaps||ABS Keycaps|
|Less Common||More Common|
|More Durable||Less Durable|
|Lettering Fades Slowly||Lettering Fades Quickly|
|Hard to Mold||Easy to Mold|
|Deeper Tone||Lighter Tone|
|Examples on Amazon||Examples on Amazon|
Other Types of Keycaps
There are a couple other types of keycaps, mostly these refer to the process used to create them.
What are Doubleshot Keycaps?
Double shot keycaps are injection molded with two separate plastics. This is a much more advanced process for making keycaps than the standard.
The reason for this type of manufacturing process is to create a way for light to pierce through the legends. Keyboards with lighting usually use these types of keycaps.
Both PBT and ABS keycaps can be created through the double shot process.
What are Pudding Keycaps?
Pudding keycaps are very similar to double shot keycaps. In fact they are created through the same manufacturing process.
The difference between pudding keycaps and double shot keycaps is that the pudding caps not only shine through the legends but also through the sides of the cap as well.
As you can see, there are many things to consider when comparing PBT keycaps vs ABS keycaps. From the look and feel to the texture and thickness. Even the sound they produce is a determining factor.
Quality may also be a thing to consider when comparing ABS to PBT plastic. However, with enough research, you will find that there are high-quality versions of both types.
At the end of the day, when choosing which cap style to use, it really comes down to personal preference. I suggest going to a shop and testing them out for yourself and deciding which one you like best!