Custom Keyboard Spotlight: Massdrop CTRL Keyboard

By Ryan Whitwam

Fully programmable and no waiting.

To get a powerful custom keyboard, you usually need to do some legwork in the form of waiting through long group buys, soldering switches, and tediously configuring firmware. Massdrop is making the whole process easier with the re-release of its popular CTRL keyboard. Last time, this board was run as a traditional group buy—you paid, waited a few months, and finally got your device. Now, the CTRL is coming back as a regular retail product.

This is a big deal for several reasons, not least of which is the CTRL is a hot-swappable board. It uses the Kailh hot swap sockets we've seen on recent devices like the M6-A and Minivan Kumo. It will come with a full set of switches, but you can change them out with any MX-style switch of your choice. The PCB doesn't have holes for the mounting pegs on "PCB-mount" switches, so you have to either use plate-mount switches or clip the mounting pegs off your switches.

The CTRL is a tenkeyless board, which is a fairly common form factor. It's a nearly full-sized keyboard with standard key sizes, but there's no number pad. I'm wary of stabilizers on retail boards, but these don't make any unusual racket when typing. The standard key sizes also make it easy to find custom sets to swap for the stock keycaps, but the stock ones aren't bad. They're double-shot PBT with shine-through legends. The LEDs shining through the keycaps are another distinctive aspect of the CTRL.

This keyboard has per-key RGB lighting via SMD components on the circuit board, which means your switch choice should take advantage of that. If you want to see the lights, you'll want to use switches that are either transparent (eg. Zealios) or have light pipes for SMD LEDs (eg. most newer Kailh switches). The keyboard includes several pre-programmed LED effects, but you can make tweaks to everything thanks to the powerful firmware.

What truly sets the CTRL apart from the other retail keyboards out there is the powerful QMK firmware. You can adjust the layout and function layers of this keyboard to suit your needs, and Massdrop even has a handy online configurator that allows for reasonably deep customization. One of my favorite QMK tricks is setting the caps lock key to toggle a function layer when held down, but it acts as a standard caps lock when you press and release. You can do that in the online configurator, but you can go even deeper by building your own layout in QMK on your computer. However you do it, the layout file you flash to the CTRL ensures it will work the same way no matter what device it's plugged into. There's no desktop control software.

You can order a CTRL from Massdrop (and only Massdrop) for $200, and it'll ship in 1-2 days. The CTRL comes with a USB Type-C cable (it has two Type-C ports) keycap puller, switch removal tool, and optional magnetic feet that attach to the underside. I think the feet give the board just the right angle.