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Massdrop ALT Mechanical Keyboard Review: Enthusiast and Gaming Worlds Collide

By Christopher Coke on August 07, 2019 | Hardware Reviews | Comments

Massdrop ALT Mechanical Keyboard Review: Enthusiast and Gaming Worlds Collide

A great gaming keyboard isn’t just about having “GAMING” stamped on the box. It’s about the quality of that keyboard, how fast it responds, how well it’s made, how it feels to use, and that in the heat of the moment, knowing that no part of that keyboard is going to fail. Today we have a real treat for you, straight out of the enthusiast world of mechanical keyboards and colliding with out gaming passion: the Massdrop ALT. This is a review you won’t want to miss.


Specifications

  • Current Price: $180 (Buy here to support MMORPG.com)
  • 67 key, core gaming layout
  • Anodized CNC machined aluminum frame
  • Custom PCB
  • Hot-swap switch sockets
  • QMK firmware (complete programmability)
  • Plate-mounted Cherry-style stabilizers
  • Cherry MX, Kaihua, or Halo switches
  • Doubleshot PBT shine-through keycaps
  • Floating key design
  • Dual USB-C connectors
  • PCB compatible with plate-mount switches only
  • Weight: 24.5 oz (696 g)
  • Dimensions: 12.7 x 4.4 x 1.25 in (32.2 x 11.2 x 3.2 cm)
  • Keyboard Configurator

There’s a running joke here at the MMORPG offices that I have a throne of keyboards, my collection is so big. With over 50 between work and home, I probably could build a own throne. With that many keyboards under my belt, believe me when I say, I’ve seen it all, and do you know what dozens upon dozens of gaming keyboard reviews has taught me? Virtually all of them cut corners in some way. Usually it’s cheap keycaps that wear too soon. Other times it’s a chintzy case or non-detachable cable. Most don’t even lube the stabs. They don’t lube the stabs, people!

(I kid, but lubing stabilizers really is important. Rattly keys are annoying and easy to avoid).

As a gamer, as a writer, and as a daily PC user, I am a firm believer that you should buy the best keyboard you can afford. It’s your main interface to your computer, the key tactile experience to all of your gaming, browsing, and productivity and is one is the core ways that you can make using your keyboard more enjoyable. That’s why it’s worth looking at the wider world of enthusiast mechanical keyboards where quality flourishes, gaming features are pretty much standard, and you get more for your money.

Massdrop, now simply Drop.com, is an enthusiast’s paradise, offering “drops” of limited run, low-cost group buys on products across a huge array of hobbies and interests. Drop Studios, the company’s in-house brand, researches the features their enthusiast communities value most, and then design or collaborate on products that answer exactly what the biggest fans are looking for.

And that’s where we find ourselves with the Massdrop ALT, a custom-designed enthusiast mechanical keyboard that’s feature complete for keyboard junkies and gamers alike. It features a 65% design, which means it’s ultra compact to save on desk space but still provides those all-important arrow keys and a core selection of editing and navigating keys along the right side. Don’t worry, even though it drops the number pad and function row, all of your keys are available on a second layer with the Fn key.

With layer support also comes complete programmability thanks to the ALT’s use of QMK firmware. If that sounds like alphabet soup, don’t worry. If manual programming is too much, Drop also has an online configurator so you can program your keyboard anywhere without the need for extra software. This is a feature I love because the ALT is small enough to take to and from work and thanks to Drop’s tool, I don’t need to worry about getting IT to approve a software install. What’s more, since these changes work in firmware and not software, they’re saved to the keyboard and will work on any PC.

The ALT is also a stunning keyboard. It adopts the floating key design which exposes the key switches and allows the RGB lighting to spill out and create a beautiful light bed. There are a handful of built-in effects and you can also create your own using the online configurator. The LEDs are bright and flow fluidly with no flicker. The case is a light grey without the white panel we sometimes see under the keys to reflect the light, but it still does a very good job of being remarkably eye catching.

A big part of this is the 360-degree light ring that wraps the keyboard. It syncs with the rest of the keyboard seamlessly and is bright enough to create some of the best underglow I’ve seen on a keyboard. That brightness does come at the cost of being able to see the individual LEDs through the frosted diffuser but it’s an improvement over the K-Type, which was a prior Massdrop collaboration.

Finally, when it comes to gaming features, the ALT is just as responsive as any “gaming” keyboard you’ll find. It features the same 1000Hz polling rate for ultra-low latency and N-Key Rollover so you can input as many simultaneous commands as you can muster. In my testing, this worked perfectly, as did the anti-ghosting tech Drop has included.

With aesthetics out of the way, let’s get down to what really sets this keyboard apart: it’s build quality. While most gaming keyboards skimp on features they hope you won’t notice, the ALT sacrifices nothing. It features an all-aluminum body, not just a thin top plate. At 696 grams, it also feels quite heavy for its size and stays in place very well on your desk. The metal build and solid body do wonders for the typing experience, killing any reverberation or hollowness and giving your key presses a satisfying solidity you rarely find outside of the enthusiast world.

The keycaps are also outstanding. They’re double-shot PBT with shine-through legends. Most gaming keyboards use thin ABS which shows unsightly oils from your fingertips almost immediately. After a couple of months, they’ll begin to shine and leave your fancy new keyboard looking old and worn. The keycaps here are much more resistant to shine and the legends will never fade away since they’re made from a whole separate piece of plastic. They’re also thicker, which adds extra solidity to your keypresses.

Trying to explain the value of PBT keycaps is a difficult thing. It’s a case of really needing to use a set to feel the difference, but I’ll try. Imagine slamming your car door. It’s nice and solid, has a good weight to it. Not imagine that door was completely empty, nothing inside of it, and it was made of thin tin. It wouldn’t feel as solid, right? How about this - imagine your game controller and the weight you feel in your hand when you pick up to play. The electronics, the rumble motors, they all give it that familiar heft. Now imagine everything inside was removed and you were left holding the empty shell. That’s the difference between the thin ABS keycaps on most gaming keyboards and the thick PBT on the ALT. You feel it immediately and once you do, it’s hard to go back.

Technologically, the ALT is also feature rich. Around the back, you’ll also find dual USB-C ports so you can choose which way to route your cable. You can use one to connect your keyboard and the other as a functional USB port, changing whenever you want.

The switches are also hot-swappable, which is a feature all mechanical keyboards should have it’s so good. If a switch dies and a key stops working, sticks, double taps, etc, you can simply pull that switch out and press another one in. You don’t need to be a technical whiz to do this; it really is as simple as pulling the old one out and pressing the new one in. This feature also frees you up to try brand new switches whenever you want. Curious how Cherry Reds feel when your bought Browns? Order a set and try them out. I’ve found this to be one of the most fun features you can find in a mechanical keyboard because with less than $50, you’re able to completely change the feel of your keyboard. With a little digging, you’ll also quickly find that there are far more types of switches than come pre-installed in mainstream keyboards. In fact, my favorites (NovelKeys x Kailh Jade and Navy) are completely unavailable in pre-builts.

It is just plain fun but, more importantly, it adds a tremendous amount of value to the keyboard. If you ever get tired of what you’re currently using, you don’t have to buy a new keyboard to try something new. You just change switches, which could save you lots of money over years of use.

Usage Impressions and Final Thoughts

It’s clear that Drop put a lot of time into honing the feel of this keyboard because it feels amazing to use. The sample I was sent came with Cherry Brown switches and whether I’m gaming or writing, the lightweight tactility of the switches and the solidness of the board makes it a joy to use. I was initially worried that it would be too light; simply having an aluminum case doesn’t guarantee much, but I had no reason for concern. The ALT is as heavy as it needs to be to feel great to use and stay in place but not so heavy that it’s difficult to travel with it.

QMK turned out to be too much for me. I do plan to go back to it and learn but it’s not the most user friendly to program with. I found myself very thankful for the online configurator for the few small changes I wanted to make since the GUI made it much easier to work with. I like the idea that I can really dig in if I choose to, though, or even take some of the programming more skilled users have accomplished and apply it to my own board.

Overall, I’m extremely impressed. I love the 65-percent form factor. I find it to be perfect for gaming. While some people might miss the function row, I don’t mind using a Fn combination to access those keys. The tradeoff in having a smaller keyboard I can position exactly how I want without bumping into other things on my desk is worth it. Plus, having arrow keys and quick navigation buttons on the right is a god-send for when I’m writing.

At $180, the Massdrop ALT isn’t for everybody and the small size can easily lead you to wonder what you’re paying for. Factoring in the exceptionally high build quality, excellent PBT keycaps, gaming-grade responsiveness, completely software-free programmability, and hot-swap switches so you won’t be stuck buying a new keyboard until you want to buy another keyboard, it’s honestly feels completely fair.

And folks, once you go 65-percent, you don’t go back.

Find out more at the official product page.

Pros

  • One of the best form factors available
  • Stunning RGB lighting with full wrap-around light bar
  • Dual USB Type-C ports
  • Full metal case (not just the top plate)
  • Hot swap switches make trying new switches a fun hobby and save you from needing to replace the whole keyboard if a single key goes bad
  • PBT double-shot keycaps

Cons

  • Very slight incline even with the magnetic tilt feet

The product discussed in this article was provided by the manufacturer for the purpose of review. Purchasing through our link will help fund the site; however, no editorial direction was received and Drop made no request to see this copy before going live.


Christopher Coke / Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight