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Return of the Mac (mechanical): Vissles keyboard for fans of keeping a low profile
A little bit more QWERTY never hurty
Review The mechanical keyboard space is teeming with competition. If you're a gamer, a coder, or simply type a lot, there's something for you. But asterisk, dear reader: that's only true if you're wedded to the PC.
Mac mechanical keyboards are fewer and farther between. And so, when one crosses our desk, it automatically catches our attention. The Vissles LP85 is one such specimen, and it aims to strike a balance between portability and typing comfort.
In true Jony Ive style, it is remarkably slim. Mechanical keyboards are naturally chunky beasts. That's part and parcel of owning a keyboard with several millimetres of travel and aggressively protruding keycaps.
By contrast, the Vissles LP85 – which sounds a bit like a piece of Cold War-era military hardware – has a very low profile: just 1.5cm from top to bottom, including the footpads and svelte keycaps. To put that into perspective, my daily driver (the ironically named Unicomp Spacesaver M), stands 5cm high.
That slim frame means you can throw it in a backpack without really noticing it. And its small dimensions, measuring 12.1 inches by 4.6 inches (30.7cm x 11.7cm), means it doesn't occupy much in terms of desktop space. The electronic accessories vendor (whose keyboards we've written about before) is presumably expecting a resurgence in business travel. Let's hope another Covid variant doesn't rear its ugly head, eh?
So, it's thin. But as the debacle of the defective keyboard mechanisms in Apple's Butterfly gear reminds us, thin doesn't always mean good. What's it like to type on?
The writing experience
If you approach it with the right expectations, the Vissles LP85 is pretty decent. Remember, this is a slimline keyboard, so forget about the kind of travel you'd get from a conventional model. Another caveat worth mentioning is that it uses the relatively novel optical keyswitch technology, which has yet to gather much momentum.
This needs a bit of explanation. Optical keyswitches can have the same characteristics as their traditional brethren, like the Cherry MX series. They can be linear (like the Cherry MX Red) or tactile (like the Cherry MX Blue). But they differ in how they register keypresses.
Rather than use metal pins, which physically connect with a metal contact on the PCB, optical mechanical keyboards use an array of light beams. When the user actuates a key, the keyswitch blocks the beam. The keyboard then says: "Hey, the light has been terminated at this specific point, so I'm going to send this character to the key buffer."
There are a few advantages to this approach. First, it allows for more effective waterproofing, although Vissles hasn't made any claims to this point. Additionally, since the keyswitch doesn't hit anything when "bottoming out" (defined as when the keyswitch can't depress any further), durability is improved. They've also got fewer moving parts, which boosts longevity further.
Another major point: optical mechanical keyboards typically have lower latencies than conventional mechanical keyboards, lending themselves well to competitive gaming where every millisecond matters. For obvious reasons, this point is unlikely to sway many Mac users.
Typing on the Vissles LP85 is interesting, to say the very least. On one hand, travel measures just 1.2mm. That's roughly on par with what you'd get with a normal slimline keyboard, like the Apple Magic Keyboard.
Yet it's weirdly tactile, with satisfying levels of noise. It doesn't "crunch" like a Cherry MX Blue or a buckling spring keyswitch, but it's definitely audible.
The Vissles LP85 walks a difficult tightrope. On one hand, it offers the visceral noise that makes it easy to immerse yourself in the writing experience. On the other, it's not too loud. I can imagine using this in a crowded office without earning a stern word from my manager.
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In terms of form factor, the Vissles LP85 uses a 75 per cent keyboard layout (or, put simply, includes everything except the number pad). It's compact, but not too crowded, and the keycaps are large enough that you won't have to adjust your muscle memory all that much.
The Vissles LP85 offers both wired (via USB-C) and Bluetooth connectivity, with the latter supporting up to three simultaneously connected devices. It comes with a 2,000mAh battery, which should last a few weeks between charges, although we haven't been able to benchmark this independently.
Predictably, it comes with RGB backlighting, even though the Vissles LP85 isn't aimed at the gaming crowd. It's fairly tasteful, though, and doesn't feel garish and overdone. Less Tron, more mood lighting.
Keyboard reviews are always a bit tricky because personal preference plays a huge role. It's totally subjective. I wouldn't cross the road for a whisper-quiet linear keyboard, but give me an ultra-clicky keyboard with oodles of travel and I'll be a happy camper.
Vissles nonetheless deserves some credit here. The LP85 strikes a balance between portability and performance, but doesn't feel especially compromised. The inclusion of optical keyswitches is a nice touch, particularly at the sub-$100 price point. In this territory, you're more likely to encounter keyboards equipped with Cherry MX clones, like those made by Gateron and Outemo.
If you're already wedded to a full-fat mechanical keyboard, this isn't likely to replace your daily driver. Its compact laptop-style layout and limited key travel will feel like a downgrade. And there were a few minor annoyances, including the lack of height-adjustable kickstands to let you choose the elevation and orientation of the keyboard.
Arguably, where it shines is as a replacement for a normal membrane or scissor-switch keyboard, like the Apple Magic Keyboard. That's where the superior tactility of the Vissles LP85 becomes apparent. In that case it'll feel like a genuine upgrade and you won't feel like you're losing anything in terms of build quality or design. It feels seriously robust, but still looks quite stylish.
And it's a decent travel keyboard, too. Thin and flat, and weighing half a kilogram, you can throw this in a rucksack and barely notice it. As an added bonus, the chiclet-style keycaps are less liable to come loose compared to the larger raised keycaps typically found on a mechanical keyboard.
The Vissles LP85 also wins points for its competitive pricing. Tempted punters can pre-order the keyboard from the project's KickStarter page, where it costs $99 (or roughly £74). At the time of writing, the company had raised $166,000 from almost 1,400 backers. Vissles expects the first units to ship in February of next year.
Obviously, given the ongoing shipping and supply chain turmoil, not to mention the risks involved with crowdfunded products, this could slip. The only certainty in crowdfunded products is there is no certainty.
We also note that Vissles offers a version of the LP85 with a Windows layout, although we haven't tried this one yet. We imagine it will be largely the same experience. ®