PolyCaps Whale PBT Keycaps

ABS vs. PBT Keycaps, What are the main differences? What Are The Best Budget Keycaps in 2022?

PolyCaps Whale PBT Keycaps

PolyCaps Whale PBT Keycaps

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) and Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT) are the two most common keycap materials. ABS keycaps are the more common of the two, while PBT keycaps are rarer and more expensive. However, the increased price is more than justified given PBT’s increased durability and longevity.

Note the notable exception to this price rule is GMK, a German manufacturer of extremely high quality ABS keycaps, which are the most expensive in the market.

PBT vs. ABS Keycaps Comparison Table

Comparison Factors ABS Keycaps PBT Keycaps
Durability Lasts, but not as long as PBT Lasts long compared to others
Cost Less expensive due to lower production cost More expensive due to difficulty molding
Noise Produces more unpleasant sound Produces dull, less unpleasant sound
Comfort Less comfortable to use after wear Very comfortable to type with
Melting Point 105 degrees 225 degrees
Double Shot Keycaps Suitable for double shot keycaps Better for double shot keycaps
Weight Weighs half as a PBT Weighs twice as an ABS
Beauty Sleek and glossy Has a textured feel and less gloss

ABS Keycap Basics

ABS Keycaps on Sierra Desk Mat

ABS Keycaps on Sierra Desk Mat

ABS is a thermoplastic polymer with a low melting point, meaning that it melts down easily and can be remolded over and over again. This ease of recycling is a chief reason for ABS’s popularity in most industries dependent on plastic — it’s easy to recover potential losses from manufacturing errors, and it’s easy to source ABS cheaply. Everything from children’s toys to hard hats is made of ABS.

ABS is also, by far, the most common material for keycaps. Nearly every major computer manufacturer uses ABS keycaps, with PBT reserved for more high-end and niche machines. Most mass-produced keyboards use thin, cheap ABS keycaps, which are fine for most applications, but not the most long-lasting solution.

Pros of ABS Keycaps

Keycaps made from ABS don’t shrink as much during the molding process as keycaps made using PBT, which makes them easier (and cheaper) to manufacture. In fact, ABS holds its shape so well that it’s commonly used in PBT keycap sets for larger keys (like the spacebar). ABS also has a glossy appearance, strong dimensional stability, and solid insulating properties. Thanks to these features, ABS holds up well both functionally and cosmetically.

Cons of ABS Keycaps

There are limits to ABS’s durability, however. ABS keycaps can scratch easily and, while they do insulate well, are still very flammable under extreme temperatures, and can melt at temperatures as low as 105 degrees Fahrenheit. ABS also yellows more quickly than PBT when exposed to UV light, either from lamps or the sun. You’ve probably seen the old off-white-to-beige keyboards of the late nineties. Those were all made with ABS keycaps, and the long hours they’ve spent in brightly-lit offices have, almost universally, precipitated a sickly yellow tint to their once-neutral tones.

The glossy sheen and soft, smooth feel of ABS may seem attractive at first but, over time, that smooth finish takes on a worn, greasy appearance. The tactile bumps on the F and J keys can also get worn down over time, and the letter labels themselves may rub off after just a few years if they were printed using dye sublimation, potentially rendering the keyboard unusable (or, at least, very difficult to use). The keycaps themselves can also thin — every time you slide your finger over the key, an imperceptible layer of the key rubs off. Over time, those tiny layers add up, and can noticeably thin the caps, reducing their durability. Thin key caps are especially likely to break when they’re removed for cleaning or maintenance.

Some premium ABS keycaps are manufactured to be especially resistant to heat, impact, and yellowing, but even premium ABS keycaps underperform in these areas relative to PBT.

Basics of PBT Keycaps

PolyCaps Code PBT Keycaps

PolyCaps Code PBT Keycaps

PBT plastic is also a type of thermoplastic but, unlike ABS, it has a semi-crystalline structure. It’s strong and more heat resistant than ABS, and can be mixed with other materials in the manufacturing process to produce unique traits.

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PBT is a more heavy-duty material, suitable for applications that require high heat resistance, chemical resistance, strength, or stiffness. PBT’s very common in industrial applications and situations in which it may be exposed to high levels of heat or friction. It’s more common that you’ll find PBT inside a computer, where there’s heat and electricity to contend with, than outside a computer.

Mechanical keyboard keycaps made from PBT are thicker, heavier, and stronger than ABS keycaps, leading to an overall improvement in durability and longevity.

4 types of keycaps

Cheap ABS keycaps

These are the keycaps that everyone is familiar with, they’re the default keycaps of pack-in keyboards.  Cheap ABS keycaps are the thinnest caps you’ll find. Thinner plastic will produce a thinner sounding typing sound, a little more hollow. 

Cheap ABS keycaps often come with printed legends, meaning along with these caps getting shiny over time, the legends will also rub off.

Budget PBT

Budget PBT is slightly more expensive than ABS. Budget PBT is largely the same feel as premium PBT. It’s a similar thickness due PBT manufacturing requirements. The material between budget PBT and premium PBT is also largely the same, you can expect the same sound and texture properties from Budget PBT.

Where budget PBT cuts corners is on design, not a lot of detail will go into colour vibrancy or accuracy.

You can find pad-printed, dye sublimated and double shot keycaps in this PBT price range.

Budget PBT is likely to skimp on QA. PBT has a tendency to warp as it cools, resulting in bent keycaps, space bars can be noticeably warped. Luckily, you can un-warp a keycap by heating it up with a blow dryer and setting the cap against a straight edge.

Good places to find budget PBT: Tao Bao, AliExpress, Amazon, Mechanicalkeyboards.com

Premium PBT

Premium PBT is similar to budget PBT but they pay more attention to quality assurance, colour and design.

You’ll be able to find more unique designs and colours with premium PBT sets. Premium PBT keycap makers also make caps in multiple profiles, notably Cherry and SA profiles.

Premium PBT will come with dye sub or double shot legends with more unique flourishes and accents.

Higher quality standards will also result in fewer warped spacebars and caps in general with premium PBT sets.

Good PBT keycap manufacturers to note: enjoyPBT, Hammerworks, Signature Plastics, Infinikey

Premium ABS

Premium ABS uses the same base ABS plastic as the budget stuff. Premium ABS is known to have a ton of design choices, limited runs by GMK have produced several iconic keycap sets.

Premium ABS is thicker than the cheaper ABS keycaps, resulting in a fuller, more satisfying typing sound.

Premium key caps are still prone to shine and discolouration over a long term, the legends are usually double shot so you won’t find those fading.

Pros of PBT Keycaps

PBT keycaps are much hardier than ABS keycaps. They’re more heat resistant, with a melting point of around 225 degrees Fahrenheit, and much less likely to yellow from exposure to UV light. They’ll also hold up to tens — or even hundreds — of millions of key presses without displaying signs of wear. PBT keycaps have a sandy, textured, matte feel and appearance that keeps them from developing the greasy look and feel that’s nearly universal among ABS keycaps. PBT keycaps are heavier than ABS keycaps and produce a more crisp sound, providing a smoother, more responsive typing experience.

They’re also easier to clean and replace than their ABS counterparts, since they’re less likely to snap or crack when pried from the keyboard itself.

Due to the durability of PBT, it’s commonly used in the manufacture of double shot keycaps. Double shot keycaps are more difficult to make, and require a strong plastic in order to avoid manufacturing errors. First, two separate piece of plastic are made. Then, the letter label is placed or printed in between them, and they are molded together. That way, light can pass through the letter label, often to show off custom colored lighting. One added benefit of double shot keycaps is that your finger never makes direct contact with the letter labels, so they’re not vulnerable to rubbing off.

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Cons of PBT Keycaps

PBT is much more durable than ABS and, as a result, more expensive and difficult to mold. The increased difficulty in manufacturing PBT is the main reason for ABS’s popularity over PBT in the current market. Most commercial keyboards just don’t need to last all that long, and are often replaced with more modern keyboards before they’ve reached the true end of their functionality. It doesn’t make sense for manufacturers (and consumers) to incur increased expense for a product they’re not really going to put to the test. PBT is a truly industrial material, and often considered too expensive for non-industrial applications that won’t take full advantage of its durability.

The Best Keyboard Keycaps

For mechanical keyboard enthusiasts, there isn’t a better option than PBT. It doesn’t just hold up to years of heavy use but, in many cases, decades. If you’re shopping for custom keycaps for a mechanical keyboard, you care enough about the look and feel of your rig to invest in PBT keycaps that will continue to deliver a consistent experience for years to come.

The names ABS and PBT come from the chemical constituents of the plastics. The chemistry is boring for those who just want to choose between ABS and PBT keycaps, so we’ll shun much of it in favor of concentrating on a few qualities that set ABS and PBT keycaps apart.

Although keycaps are essential to the functionality of a computer, not everyone appreciates just how important they are.

There are several materials from which keycaps are made, ABS and PBT plastics being more common. The difference between ABS and PBT keycaps makes one more suitable than the other for certain preferences.

To appreciate keycaps, imagine typing on your computer without it. That means your fingers will hit the key-switches directly.

What does this imply? Your typing becomes slow, hard, and dreadful. Keycaps indicate the functions of each key-switch and guide you to punch the right one for a desired reaction from the computer. Their absence makes you prone to making too many errors.

The absence of keycaps will make using a computer very costly.It may result in frequently changing damaged key-switches as a result of pressure from keystrokes or external factors like humidity.

Keycaps can be made from a variety of plastics which may undergo different manufacturing processes. The differences in material and production processes are more than what you think. They can go a long way to determine how long a keyboard will last before you need to replace it.

That’s why I think it’s super important to know the stuff a keyboard’s keycaps are made of and what the implications are before purchasing one.

Unlike ABS keycapsPBT keycaps are less common and much tougher. They take forever to wear out, and that’s why they don’t change color like ABS over time. The downside of PBT keycaps is the price tag, brittleness, and scarcity.

Anything that’s more expensive than its peers most likely becomes scarce as more people shy away from expenses. Expenses are a significant source of stress.

Manufacturers who saddle people with overly expensive products often struggle to persuade consumers. It’s happening with keycaps, too. Both ABS and PBT do the job well, but the manufacturing process for each plastic differs. PBT is more difficult and less cost-effective.

Not all ABS plastics have inferior quality. Some inferior ABS keycaps can have faded legends in a matter of two years, depending on the frequency of use. Others made with a greater determination can last over a decade.

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Different chemical substances combine in certain percentages to form both ABS and PBT plastics. The specific percentage of each substance contained is what results in quality differences.

ABS keycaps will also start to thin over time. Its smooth surface makes it easier for your fingers to glide across the keycaps. This greasy and shiny development on the surface is due to exposure to conditions that gradually change the color of the keycaps to yellow.

They tend to be thinner than PBT keycaps, though there are good quality ABS keycaps that are as thick as any PBT. Being thick has the advantage of added strength.

At times, when a particle of sand or some object gets stuck under your keycaps, you have to remove the keycaps to get rid of the object. At this point, thin keycaps are far more likely to break than thick ones.

– Weight

Irrelevant as it may seem, the weight of keycaps matters plenty provided typing experience is of importance. The heavier a key, the smoother and more reliable its response. Lighter keys are slower in response to key strikes.

Compared to PBT, ABS keycaps are typically lighter—about half as heavy. If you prefer a smoother and more enjoyable typing experience, PBT is the keycap for you. For some reason, if you prefer a light keycap, then go for ABS.

– Noise

If you don’t like noisy keycaps, steer clear of ABS keycaps, especially the thin ones. The materials from which ABS is made, the keycaps produce clicking noises as you type.

This can be a distraction or even an embarrassment, particularly when working in a quiet environment like libraries. Both keycap types produce some kind of noise, but PBT typically produces less noise than ABS keycaps, even for thin PBT keycaps.

– Durability

Whoever is spending money on a product wants it to last. As PBT is made from a more reliable material, it is sturdier and lasts longer than ABS. The keycaps maintain shape for longer. ABS keycaps get dents and wear comparatively faster.

Because ABS is less resistant to pressure, it’s more vulnerable to cracking from keystroke pressure. This makes the likelihood of early replacement is higher than that of PBT keycaps.

– Melting Point

This is important because there are people who make their own keycaps. The melting point of materials for keycaps is important.

ABS plastics are known to melt at about 105degrees, while PBT melts at 225 degrees, making ABS keys easier to mold. Due to a high melting point, molding your own PBT takes longer to cool and is more likely to warp.

– Double-Shot Keycaps

The double-shot molding method is a leading tech skill in the formation of keycaps because key labels aren’t likely to wear off.

These are formed when two separate plastic pieces are molded into one, allowing for the legend to be printed on the inside of the keycaps and unlikely to wear off while typing.

Double shot ABS keycaps still produce shiny surfaces, but the legend never wears off. On the other hand, double shot PBT keycaps have the added advantage of a protected legend and consistent surface. It makes even more interesting clear PBT keycaps.

Conclusion

Overall, your choice of keycaps will greatly depend on your personal preference, as higher-end keycaps from both options are bound to deliver excellent performance.

However, from what we’ve seen so far, PBT keycaps are better than ABS keycaps despite some disadvantages in cost and molding. Unlike the ABS keycaps, they have a stronger, textured build that enhances durability, longevity, and overall performance.

PBT keycaps also show remarkable resilience in the presence of UV lights, heat, and other chemical substances.

While the predominant choice of keycaps favors PBT, some people prefer ABS for one reason or another. What matters most is for you to get a first-quality keycaps set, whether ABS or PBT.

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