When it comes to choosing keycaps, you need to consider what they're made of and how they're manufactured.
For a while, PBT has been considered the superior material, while ABS was considered low-quality and cheap. But is that the case? Let's find out!iframe title="YouTube video player" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Yo5r2nl-0Nc" height="450" width="100%" allowfullscreen="" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture; web-share" frameborder="0">
What is ABS and PBT?
ABS and PBT are both types of injected polymers. A polymer is a material made up of many small repeating units called monomers. ABS and PBT, although both polymers, behave differently. Now, let's take a closer look at PBT.
PBT, or Polybutylene Terephthalate, is a semi-crystalline polymer with a wide range of qualities. It's commonly used in the manufacturing of electrical and mechanical components such as electric sockets or light switches.
PBT has several advantages, including high resistance to UV degradation, impact, and heat. It can also be combined with other materials to enhance its properties.
However, PBT has some limitations. It can't be made fully transparent, complicating the shine-through keycaps manufacturing process. PBT also requires higher melting temperatures, resulting in thicker and more expensive molds. Additionally, large PBT keycaps can warp during cooling, requiring extensive quality control. This is why some manufacturers use ABS for large keycaps like the spacebar.
Now, let's move on to ABS, which stands for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene. ABS is a versatile material used for various products, from Lego bricks to automotive parts. It can be mixed with resin pellets to create a wide variety of colors and can also be made transparent by adding Methyl Methacrylate, which cristalyzes the plastic.
Because of the cristalyzation, transparent ABS may have reduced impact resistance and is more prone to breaking. That does not affect the keycaps, but might do so with salad bowls or plastic glasses.
ABS is less resistant to UV degradation, impact, and heat than PBT. Nevertheless, the manufacturing process for ABS keycaps is more flexible and cheaper than PBT.
Both ABS and PBT keycaps can be manufactured using single-shot or double-shot methods.
The melted material is injected into a mold to form the keycap in the single-shot process.
The legend is then imprinted using different techniques depending on the material used. PBT keycaps can use a dye-sub technique or pad printing, in which legends are thermo sealed on the keycap with a laser. As a result, legends will last longer than simple prints. The drawback of this technique is the lack of backlight on the keycaps.
ABS keycaps often undergo laser etching. The keycap is painted with a coat of highly durable paint that provides texture. Then, they are engraved with a laser. As a result, it produces very sharp and durable legends while allowing the light to shine.
This term refers to keycaps with two layers of plastic, one for the legend and one for the casing of the keycap.
In terms of manufacturing, "double-injection" is a more precise term. But most people use "double-shot" as opposed to "single-shot," and that works fine.
In the end, it describes a keycap with two layers of plastic instead of one.
Here's an explanation of the process:
The first injection of material (PBT or ABS) goes to the first mold, where you get the inner layer with the legend. If you want shine-through keycaps, this material must be translucent.
Then, inject the second material using another mold, which will compensate for the keycap's missing parts in the previous injection.
As opposed to single-shot keycaps, where you can make multiple legend designs with a single mold, this technique requires a specific mold for each legend's design.
That makes having multiple languages available much more expensive. And as a manufacturer, you have to get the legends right because it can be a costly mistake!
Double-shot is the technique used for high-end keycaps in ABS and PBT. Among other reasons, it provides thicker keycaps which produce better sound. Besides, the legends will never fade.
ABS vs. PBT
Now, let's compare ABS and PBT keycaps regarding texture, sound, cost, and availability.
Due to the material, PBT keycaps tend to have a more matte, grainy texture that provides a better grip and feels less greasy over time than ABS keycaps, which can become shiny and slippery with use.
There are exceptions; some single-shot ABS keycaps can get a similar texture to PBT by applying thicker and rougher paint coatings.
In this department, the point has to go to PBT. 1-0
The sound of a keyboard with ABS and PBT keycaps varies greatly depending on the thickness of the keycap.
Generally speaking, cheap ABS keycaps tend to produce a higher-pitched sound when compared to PBT keycaps. This is because ABS is a softer material than PBT, and it tends to absorb less sound. As a result, the sound of a keyboard with ABS keycaps can be louder and more "clicky" than a keyboard with PBT keycaps.
However, that's only true when comparing cheap ABS vs. cheap PBT. High-end keycaps in ABS sound just fine, thanks to the thickness and quality of the plastics.
It's important to remember that the sound depends on the keycaps and other things like the switches or the keyboard itself.
Although this is a category based on personal preference, and it depends more on the quality of the keycap rather than the material; we're going to give the point by a very slim margin to PBT, the score goes 2-0
Brace yourselves for the shocking truth: there are expensive and cheap options for both PBT and ABS keycaps. But, honestly, ABS keycaps will always be cheaper than their PBT counterparts. That's because with PBT:
The raw material is more expensive.
The manufacturing process demands higher temperatures, which means more energy.
Require more tooling and investment in quality control.
There's high demand and low offer, which pushes the price up.
Though PBT is more expensive on average, it's important to note that high-end ABS sets can go up to 200$.
In this case, the point barely goes to the ABS, 2-1.
Besides the more expensive materials and manufacturing process, you must invest in expensive materials, costly molds, and lots of energy to make double-shot PBT keycaps.
As a result, fewer keycap manufacturers get into it, and the ones who do, go for safer keycap profiles, such as Cherry or OEM. That makes finding PBT keycaps in less-common profiles can be complicated. Not saying you can't find them, but you'll find fewer options.
On the other hand, since the ABS manufacturing process is much easier and doesn't require expensive molds, it's pretty easy to find ABS keycaps for all kinds of profiles and in all sorts of designs.
The range of options in quality and designs is wider on ABS. The score moves to a tie, 2-2.
It's more important to understand each material's advantages when choosing. But the most important in the end is the personal preference.
Factors like the lighting of the keycaps, the profile, or your budget can be more decisive than the material; ultimately, the most important thing is to enjoy the keycaps you choose. To that effect, we want to provide you with the best information and the most exhaustive review possible.