The best 40% keyboards are something of an enigma. Coming in at roughly 40% the size of regular keyboards, these sleek and stylish peripherals are unlike anything you’ve seen before. At the same time, they feature a familiar QWERTY layout that’s fully capable of replacing your 104-key giant.
Although the 40% keyboard craze is still heating up, a few manufacturers have already released fully realized options for writers and typists on the cutting edge of technology. These models boast all the bells and whistles necessary to replace or augment your existing setup, including top-tier switches, programmability, even backlighting!
While we don’t necessarily recommend going all-in on 40% keyboards, early adopters may enjoy making the switch or just checking ’em out. In this article, we’ll showcase today’s top options and view the tech underneath the keys.
The Best 40% Keyboards
Without further ado, let’s jump right into the list of best 40% keyboards.
The best 40% keyboard overall
- Color-coded layers
- Individually programmable keys
- Cherry MX switches (your choice of color)
First on our list is the Vortex Core, the most feature-rich plug-and-play 40% keyboard on the market. This model offers individually programmable keys, intuitive built-in layers, and top-of-the-line craftsmanship for a writing and typing experience unlike any other.
How’s this possible on such a compact keyboard? Everything starts with the Core’s CNC aluminum frame, which provides the durability necessary to house all the pro-grade components. Next comes a meticulously designed PCB to run the darn thing, followed by Cherry MX switches for best-in-class typing performance. Capping it all off, the Core boasts dye-subbed PBT keycaps that sing as your fingers glide across their surface.
In terms of aesthetics, the Vortex’s white and beige keycaps blend beautifully with the metallic gray of the keyboard’s frame. This muted color scheme feels like the perfect complement to a modern office or writing setup, and offers few distractions from your work.
My favorite part about the Vortex Core? Hands down, the intuitive layering. Nearly all the keys boast secondary functions, with colorful lettering indicating the additional functionality. The different colors denote different layers, and it’s a simple matter of pressing the blue FN key to activate the blue layer or the red FN1 key to activate the red layer.
Still, I’d be lying if I said this keyboard is easy to use right from the get-go. Like other compact keyboards, it’s not easy swapping to a 40% from a traditional full-size model. And though the Vortex Core does come with a great deal of functionality out of the box, you can’t customize it the way you might a similarly priced 60% or TKL.
The best 40% keyboard on a budget
- Affordable, under $50
- LED backlighting in blue or white
- Choose from several switch manufacturers and styles
Next on our list of best 40% keyboards is the Qisan Magicforce 49-Key! Unlike the Vortex Core, this one is a full-fledged gaming-oriented keyboard with ice blue or snow-white backlighting that plays in several different patterns.
The Magicforce 49-Key comes with several different customization options. Starting things off, you can choose from three switch manufacturers — Cherry, Gateron, and Outemu — and over half a dozen switch colors. You can also choose between the aforementioned blue and white backlighting configurations, as well as the color of the shell itself (white or black).
The downside of the Magicforce 49-key? Despite its impressive appearance, this keyboard isn’t as feature-rich as other top options. While it does offer access to all the essential keys, there’s no programmability. What you see is what you get. Not only that, but the layout feels a bit off, even for a 40%. This is particularly true for the spacebar and right shift configuration, which takes some time to get used to.
Is it worth it to learn the layout? If you don’t mind the learning curve, absolutely! With all the keys so close together and easy access to the keyboard’s layers, you could potentially improve your typing speed several-fold. The responsiveness is on-par with any other $50 keyboard on the market, and the overall feel is top-notch.
How can you get started with this budget 40% keyboard? The Magicforce comes with a quick-start guide and connects via a MicroUSB to USB cable (included in box) that’ll get you going in minutes. Although this one is no longer actively manufactured, you can easily find it on secondhand sites like eBay or Mercari (that’s where I got mine). You can also find a clone on websites like Aliexpress.
The best 40% keyboard for DIY enthusiasts
- Ideal for DIYers
- Symmetrical ortholinear design
- Kaihua hot-swappable switch sockets
While this list is primarily built around pre-built 40% keyboards, we couldn’t help but include the OLKB Planck Keyboard Kit. This badass kit stems from the keyboard community’s quest to create the perfect 40% keyboard in a style that fits with our hectic lives. And boy, does it live up to the hype.
The OLKB Planck is an ortholinear 40% keyboard. This means that each of the keys (except for the spacebar) is the same size. Not only that, but every key on the keyboard is within just two units of your fingers! If you take the time to learn the ortholinear layout, your typing speed can easily increase to 100+ WPM.
I should also mention that the Planck is totally programmable, allowing you to customize your layers and access each of them via the arrow keys next to the spacebar. This makes it even easier to create a better workflow, as you can tailor the experience to your particular style of typing.
As for style? The OLKB Planck is iconic, with a charming design that’s easy to read and looks great on any desk. The CNC aluminum body comes in several different colors, and the USB-C connector finishes it off for a modern touch that’s also zippy as can be.
Now for the downsides. The OLKB Planck isn’t a finished product — it’s a kit. In other words, you have to assemble it yourself, and the $100 kit doesn’t even come with switches. Fortunately, you can slide in whatever type of MX switches you like, and there’s no soldering required! That’s right — the OLKB boasts Kaihua hot-swappable switch sockets that make assembly (and even disassembly for you tinkerers out there) a cinch.
40% Keyboards FAQ
In this section, let’s talk more about 40% keyboards, what makes them tick, and what you should look for when selecting your model.
What is a 40% keyboard?
Before we dive any further, let’s quickly answer one of the most frequently asked questions. That is, what is a 40% keyboard, exactly?
A 40% keyboard is a typing peripheral with anywhere between 40 to 50 keys, or roughly 40% of the standard 104 keys found on a full-size model. This form factor is the smallest layout to retain all the essential functions of standalone keyboards.
True to form, 40% keyboards are often quite simple, with clean designs that complement minimalist aesthetics. They feature everything you need to perform everyday functions and nothing more.
How do 40% keyboards work?
If 40% keyboards only have 40 or 50 keys, how the heck do they manage to offer all the functionality of a regular keyboard?
It all comes down to layers.
What are layers, you ask? Layers are the secondary and tertiary key functions of your keys. While this concept might sound strange at first, it’s actually one you’re already familiar with.
Think about it. How do you type an exclamation point on your current keyboard? By holding down shift and the ‘1’ key, right? 40% keyboards work much the same, only they integrate more layers into more keys.
These layers are programmed into your keyboard by the manufacturer, though some keyboards allow you to customize your keys even further. Doing so requires more effort on your end, but the customization lets you make your keyboard (and workflow) your own.
What are the benefits of 40% keyboards?
What are the benefits of a 40% keyboard? Aren’t they challenging to use, with a steep learning curve?
Yes, 40% keyboards are a niche item, and there’s definitely a learning curve — especially if you’re trying to use a 40% keyboard to replace your standalone model. But they do feature a few unique qualities that you won’t find elsewhere:
Portable. First of all, the best 40% keyboards are incredibly portable. The Drop Planck measures just 9.2 x 3.2 x 1.3 inches! Slip it in your bag and take it with you on the commuter train to use alongside your laptop or writing tablet. Or, if you’re a frequent flyer, take it in the air to enjoy a full mechanical keyboard that fits comfortably on the seat tray (with room left for your ginger ale)!
Speedy. If you take the time to get used to them, the best 40% keyboards can actually increase your typing speed, as all the keys are smaller and closer together. It’ll take some tinkering, but there’s only one way to learn, and that’s to get started! Once you have a 40% keyboard in hand, practice typing like you’re just starting out. It’ll be tricky, yes, but you can get the hang of it.
Minimal. Why is the iPhone so successful? Well, there are probably a million reasons. But one of the most noteworthy is its minimalism. Everything is small, compact, and simple, with intuitive interfaces and little clutter. The best 40% keyboards provide the same type of experience, reducing unnecessary bulk and keeping your desk free and clear.
When should you use a 40% keyboard?
Although 40% keyboards aren’t always the most practical option, there are a few areas where they excel:
Learning. Given their small size, the best 40% keyboards are an excellent way to dive deeper into the wonderful world of mechanical keyboards! An option like the Drop Planck will teach you about keys, switches, PCBs, programmability, and much more. And, you’ll have a snazzy new keyboard!
Gaming. Like their 60% cousins, 40% keyboards make excellent gaming peripherals, as all the essential gaming keys are within easy reach. Combine with a small gaming mouse, and you’ve got a simple setup that’ll perform perfectly in games like League of Legends and Fortnite. Bring to the next tournament or LAN event, and you’ve got it made.
Word Processing. Believe it or not, the best 40% keyboards are also ideal for simple word processing and jotting down thoughts. Think about it. All you need when word processing is access to the alphabet and standard punctuation. These compact keyboards cut out the fluff, leaving a precise instrument that gets the job done just fine, sans the clutter.