Designing the GMK UNIQEY C70 Custom Keyboard - A True Community Custom
Drop Page: https://www.massdrop.com/buy/gmk-uniqey-c70-mechanical-keyboard
Finding a company that recognizes the importance of community is rare these days. For Christoph, the Managing Director at GMK, finding ways to better serve the community is just something that comes naturally to him.
When asked about the community, Christoph stated "Due to the increased number of keycap group buys, we are in contact with a lot of community members. From day one we were impressed by their creativity and love for details which matches perfectly with GMK's corporate mission. It was just the next logical step to team up with the people who really care about the community. "
Teaming up directly with the community is precisely what Christoph did in early 2016 when he invited me, T0mb3ry, Wodan, Zambumon, and Photekq to join a Think Tank to assist in creating a brand new GMK keyboard.
Meet The Team
Before going any further, let me introduce everyone that worked on this project!
Wodan - Master builder of keyboards and defender of the ISO realm. Wodan is a walking keyboard dictionary and currently owns my favorite keyboard of all time. (https://deskthority.net/photos-f62/round-6-the-cappening-t15386.html I'll let you guess which one ;)
Photekq - Designer of multiple cases with a strong engineering background and way of thinking. He has an immense technical knowledge of keyboards that we put to use constantly.
T0mb3ry - Designer of Yuri and Carbon, and someone that has a very clear of idea of what defines a custom. Saying he pays "attention to detail" would be the understatement of the year.
Zambumon - Designer of Chocolatier and Nautilus, multiple cases, and a master of rendering keyboards and keycaps. I personally bounce a lot of things around with him just because he also has a very good grasp on the community and what the community likes/dislikes.
Livingspeedbump - "We just needed someone with a beard." - Zambumon. "The octopus of the mechkeys community (because I have hands in so many projects with so many people at any given time)" - Christoph. I designed Jukebox and Honeywell as well, but really just supported the other brilliant members of the team!
Christoph - Managing Director at GMK, drinking buddy, dear friend, master of keycaps, community supporter, community pillar that nobody knows by name or sight (proven by the fact that he flew all the way to the Norcal meetup and nobody knew who he was!).
In reality, there were no assigned roles. We all gave input and feedback on each aspect of the keyboard, and naturally seemed to let people that were very passionate or knowledgeable about certain features or details take lead on those parts. For being such a diverse group of people from all over the world we worked together seamlessly, making the whole project an immensely enjoyable endeavor.
Introducting the C70
The idea behind the C70 is actually quite simple: design a fully custom keyboard with enthusiasts directly aimed at enthusiasts. One big difference between the C70 and others custom boards is that we wanted to offer a fully assembled board, allowing people that may not want to build their own board the chance to get a custom board for a decent price. Of course there were a million considerations that came up during the design process, many of which I’ll go over here. First, let's take a look a all the features of the final product:
• Rugged aluminum housing, CNC milled, one piece design, high quality anodization
• Angled design (8 degrees)
• Bezel integrated LED indicator lights
• Aluminum plate with cut-outs to allow switch-top removal
• Cherry PCB Screw-in Stabilizers
• Custom GMK double-shot keycap set (ABS)
• Swapable Connector PCB for switching from USB-C port to Micro USB (no soldering required)
• Additional Accent keycaps included
• Weight: approx. 1,200g (without cable)
• Scope of supply: C70 keyboard, Accent keycaps, USB-C to USB 3.0 cable, key puller
• Kit and ISO versions will be available directly from UNIQEY in the first quarter of 2018
Layout - A Brand New 70%
The basic idea for the layout of the C70 was to design space saving keyboard with a brand new layout. In today’s market that is easier said than done, as new layouts seem to appear overnight and keeping track of them all can be difficult.
We started the project by creating a philosophy to back up the new keyboard. Wodan summarized our ideas well, stating "For the layout we wanted to deliver the smallest possible layout with a dedicated navigation cluster. We also wanted to bring a full custom quality keyboard to people that have previously been too afraid to touch keyboard kits."
We started with a 60% layout, which is the by far the most common compact layout, and then slowly starting addressing issues we each had with that layout. Zambumon mentioned “For the 60% side of the keyboard, we all had something very clear: 1.75U shift and Fn. There's really no justification for a 2.75U key on a 60% keyboard, where space is a premium and a function key is needed. The placement of the function key right under the Enter key, is way more comfortable than any other, as it allows you to reach almost the same keys that you'd reach normally. Additionally, and this is a personal preference, it reduces the amount of stabilized keys on the keyboard.”
In regards to the layout T0mb3ry stated, " Its an elegant solution for a small layout. It looks similar to 65% layout but i would rather compare it with 75% layout. The C70 layout comes very close in its functionality to TKL layout. However C70's layout features small details which separates it from other compact layouts with arrow cluster. Those details are the stepped caps lock and the right split shift. My favorite feature is definitely the balanced Winkey bottom row, which is derived from the vintage winkeyless layout, but includes the winkeys for additional utility. Given these details it's clear the layout was designed by enthusiast for enthusiast. "
A notable difference between the C70 and other space saving keyboards are the dual columns on the right hand side of the keyboard. Another feature that may not be immediately noticed is the SSK/Realforce style numpad layer, which allows for quick number input.
One of my personal favorite design features of the C70 is the utilization of a stepped caps lock key and a winkeyless style bottom row. Some of the most beautiful keyboards ever made like the Kishsaver, Cherry 1800, and SSK utilize variations of the Winkeyless bottom row and stepped caps key. These physical layouts have been adorned by enthusiasts since the very first custom keyboards came out, with many including the stepped caps and true winkeyless bottom row. In regards to the C70, the larger 1.5u mods help to break up the bottom row a bit and provided cleaner look, than say, shoving four 1u keys to the right of the spacebar.
Some people may be wondering “well, what about the right Windows key?” Fear not, because the next major feature of the C70 has you covered.
Fully Programmable with UNIQEY Control
One of the few things that we never had heated discussions about was the need for this keyboard to be fully programmable. That was a must feature right from the start. Even though this was something decided on very quickly after the project started, it has taken the longest to implement. Creating a user friendly, yet powerful GUI was extremely hard and time consuming. I believe we have done just that with UNIQEY Control - GMK's new custom keyboard configuration software.
Spending the time to get the GUI right was extremely important because making a programmable keyboard where it is difficult to create layouts or buggy to flash is one of the most frustrating experiences a consumer can have with a keyboard. We also wanted to make sure no programming knowledge would be needed to take full control of the C70, making the keyboard accessible to as many people as possible.
There are huge benefits that will come from the creation of the software beyond the C70. For starters, the Q100 will be able to use the software and will become a fully programmable keyboard (I have already tested this, it is awesome!). Any future GMK keyboards will also utilize the software. Finally, just the fact that the software will be designed, maintained, and utilized by GMK specifically for UNIQEY boards means the user experience should be much more streamlined than some third party programs that try to work for numerous keyboards by numerous makers.
Case - 1,200g of Awesome
Designing the case was not a feature we were all in agreement with from the start. In fact, we probably had more arguments over the case than any other design element of the keyboard. Getting the angles correct, the bezel the correct width, the height correct took hours of discussion.
One of the big hurdles was getting the status indicator lights incorporated into the case without making the bezel too large. We ended up with very subtle RGB indicator lights that are more functional than flair, visually allowing users to easily see what lock keys or layers are activated without making it look flashy or overwhelmingly bright.
Getting the case angle right was also a bit of a challenge. Case angle not only affects aesthetics, but the way the keyboard feels. We settled on an 8 degree angle because it works so well with cherry profile caps, though it also works well with many other profiles.
Keycaps - Custom Doubleshots (Naturally)
Having a GMK custom keyboard that didn’t come with a custom set of GMK caps would be ridiculous, so naturally the C70 ships out with a custom set of keycaps that includes additional accent keys. The simple dark/light contrast of the keys works brilliantly with the two case colors, giving both a cohesive and understated appearance.
Many of us in the Think Tank have designed run successful keycap sets. Carbon, Chocolatier, Nautilus, Honeywell, Yuri, Jukebox, are all sets that were designed by Think Tank members, so naturally we had a lot of strong opinions about what the included keycap set could/should be. Surprisingly, we ended up at the included set relatively quickly, agreeing that simplicity should reign king for the design.
The included keycaps also include front printed legends of the built in numpad layer. If you look closely you’ll realize that the integrated numpad actually very closely resembles the Realforce 87u’s integrated numpad layer. The IBM SSK was a clear trailblazer for having an integrated numpad like this, but we all agreed that the Realforce perfected it.
Switches and Stabilizers
The C70 comes stock with Cherry’s fantastic screw in stabilizers and has the option to ship with Cherry Red, Black, Brown, Blue, or Clear switches. These switches can be further refined by having QMX-Clips installed. The clips help silence the plastic-on-plastic bottoming out sound that normally happens when the bottom of the cap hits the top of the switch.
We recognized very early on that many hardcore enthusiasts like to build their own keyboards, including many of us in the Think Tank, and we knew there was simply no way to have options for all the switches that everyone would want to use. Because of this, a kit version will be available directly from the UNIQEY store in early 2018, allowing people to use the switches and stabs of their choice.
It is worth mentioning that the plate on the C70 does allow for switch-top removal, so you can easily swap springs and stems on any C70, including the pre-assembled ones.
At it's heart, the C70 is tangible proof of how much GMK really loves our community. We had so much artistic freedom during the creation of the C70 that I was honestly shocked at how few restrictions were looming over us with this project. The only limitations in place were ones that may compromise the quality of the product. Working with each and every one in the Think Tank was an absolute pleasure, but I think we would all agree that Christoph is the real hero of this project as none of it would have been possible without him.
The C70 is not the cumulative end to GMK working with the community, in many ways it is just the beginning. As Christoph stated " We are definitely thinking about bringing even more variety to our keyboard product range. While the Q100 and it's full-size layout caters to users which enjoy a very capable out-of-the box keyboard made with German workmanship, the C70 follows a different approach. It is the very first product of the new C-line, community inspired keyboards. The idea is to combine the visions and requirements of keyboard enthusiasts with GMK's engineering expertise and production know-how. The C70 may be our first product of this kind, but it probably won´t be our last. We are looking forward to many exciting years to come with tons of new ideas. "
If you have any questions regarding the C70, please feel free to reach out to us here, on the drop page, or via any of our social media accounts!