System76 is best known for selling Linux laptops and developing the Ubuntu-based Pop!_OS distro, but keyboards?
Today (May 13) is launch date for the System76 ‘Launch’, a compact and highly configurable mechanical keyboard which — fact fans — is entirely open source. Schematics for the PCB and chassis, and firmware code are all freely available. This is fairly unusual but encouraging to see!
Naturally System76’s first keyboard offers tight integration with Pop!_OS and its the distro’s novel tiling features. But don’t think that you need to run Pop!_OS to use it: you don’t. This keyboard and its desktop companion app work on Linux (naturally) but also macOS and Windows too.
And while the Launch works fine as a ‘plug and play’ keyboard the real appeal is in its flexibility.
For instance, the device comes with a set of extra keycaps (and a convenient keycap puller tool) that means you can swap keys around based on your needs, so you can put the keys you care about most literally at your fingertips.
System76 use just 3 different key sizes Launch. This expands the options available when tweaking the staggered keyboard layout.
Talking of keys the System76 Launch uses Kailh MX hotswap sockets and Kailh Box Jade or Kailh Box Royal switches, depending on your clackiness preferences. Now, I’m not a keyboard connoisseur but I’m told these are solid alternatives to the iconic Cherry MX switches you can find in other high-end mechanical keyboards, like the Moonlander.
A signature features, the Launch uses a split spacebar. This is somewhat unusual but System76 has its reason for doing it: their research reveals that most of us only use our right or left thumb for the spacebar but “rarely both”. So, since there’s half a key going to waste, you can swap it out for something else that you will use.
You also notice from the images peppered throughout this post that the Launch uses a compact 84 key layout. This lack some common keys you find on full-sized keyboards. While this might look like a deficiency at first blush it’s here where the Launch gets interesting.
Why? Because you can create different “layers” for the keyboard. This lets you switch between different keyboard mappings at the push of a button, as this video from System76 ably demonstrates:
For instance, your first layout is what the you see on the keycaps, but your second mapping might trigger your favourite video editing shortcuts, while a third layout lets you hammer out in DVORAK, and a fourth has kin bindings for your code editor.
Any time you want to switch between a layout you can just hit a key on the keyboard, or use the configuration app. And since you may move between devices with the Launch all of these additional layouts are stored on the keyboard itself.
System76’s idyllic input item also includes another novel features: a USB hub. But we’re not talking any old hub, but one that’s capable of 10 gigabit speeds on all 4 its USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports (2x Type-A and 2x Type-C).
Fancy features, decent materials, and all made in the USA. Is this keyboard overkill for most people? Absolutely — but so is anything in the post-$20 price bracket!
True keyboard ninjas, as well those who value a quality typing experience, are the key market here. It’s those people who’ll find the Launch’s bespoke, malleable nature super appealing.
If there’s any downside to this highly-configurable keyboard it’s the price: it costs $285. This is more expensive than some other mechanical keyboards out there, many with similar features. But keep in mind the indie nature and relatively lower production runs. This isn’t some off-the-shelf item but bespoke and custom engineered.
Key (heh) features at a glance:
- 84 key semi-staggered layout
- Per-key RGB backlighting
- Wired (USB)
- ANSI US QWERTY layout
- Firmware based on Qmk (upgradeable through LVFS)
- 10 gigabit USB hub
- Spare key caps
- Key cap switching tool
- Magnetic incline bar included
Buy the System76 Launch Keyboard
If you’re looking to save space on your desk then switching from a traditional full-size keyboard to a compact layout like the Launch is an easy way to do that. You can still access any “missing” keys through software mapping.
The Launch is small enough to slip in to your backpack when you head off to work or another place you’re highly productive. And the high-end materials should mean it’s sturdy enough to take a few knocks in your back.
You can pre-order the System76 Launch Configurator Keyboard from today, and it begins shipping in June.