Computers & Laptops | December 31, 2023
OnePlus is a brand that, until recently, was entirely dedicated to producing mobile phones, like the OnePlus Nord 3; it was more than just their top priority, it was their sole focus. That’s why readers might understandably be skeptical when they find out that the brand has launched a computer keyboard, the Keyboard 81 Pro, priced at 249 euros. Are we witnessing a mere attempt to make easy money using a recognized brand?
I’ll admit, that was my initial instinct when OnePlus announced that it was expanding its brand into different types of devices. The excuse was that their own fans had asked for more products beyond smartphones. As part of this shift in direction, the company also introduced its first tablet, the OnePlus Pad, with more products expected in the near future.
For these new devices, where OnePlus lacks both experience and manufacturing capability, the easiest route for the company would have been to acquire the rights to a Chinese white-label brand and simply slap their logo on it. That’s what I feared, and hence my hesitation to get excited about this first keyboard. But that changed very quickly, just upon reading a word in the press release announcing the launch: “Keychron.”
Keychron isn’t just any brand. It’s the manufacturer of some of the finest pre-built mechanical keyboards available on the market; at least, in my opinion. To provide some transparency, I’d say I’m somewhat of a fan of the brand, with two models already in my possession and the intention to buy a third when this OnePlus model was announced. Do I need three keyboards? Probably not, but that’s just how much I fell in love with their build quality, feel, and capabilities.
Keychron offers pre-assembled mechanical keyboards in various configurations and styles; therefore, it serves as an entry point into the complex world of mechanical keyboards that doesn’t require assembly knowledge. They represent a significant leap in quality if you’ve only used conventional membrane keyboards like those on laptops or the ones that come with towers. Suffice to say, my opinion of OnePlus’ venture took a complete 180-degree turn.
In practice, the Keyboard 81 Pro is essentially a keyboard that Keychron already sells, the Keychron Q1, with some modifications in design and materials used. But far from being criticism, this is the best compliment I could give it because that means this keyboard, by default, is already above many of the alternatives on the market.
For instance, the build quality reaches astonishing levels, resulting in a premium touch and feel that’s hard to come by. The chassis is a single piece of CNC-machined aluminum that translates to a substantial weight of 1887 grams; that equates to significant stability, even if you’re one to be a bit rough with your keyboard.
However, that doesn’t mean OnePlus merely took a Keychron Q1 and slapped their logo on it. They’ve made more changes than I expected, both in design and in the actual typing experience the keyboard provides. In fact, the biggest change is an aspect not found in other Keychron keyboards, and it might be the main reason to buy this keyboard: the new keys and switches developed exclusively by OnePlus and Keychron.
Buyers of a mechanical keyboard usually have to choose between different switches (distinguished by color), which offer different sensations when pressed. Some are clicky, some are quiet, some offer resistance when pressed, and some are linear and go all the way down.
OnePlus offers the Keyboard 81 with two different switches. The unit tested uses the “Winter Bonfire,” red in color, which offers a tactile and relatively quiet sensation (quiet enough not to disturb); there are also the “Summer Breeze,” which offer a linear and completely quiet feel.
In my tests, I found the Winter Bonfire switches to be more akin to Keychron’s and other brands’ brown switches (confusingly, they have nothing to do with Keychron’s red switches), though they’re not exactly the same. Once you reach the resistance when pressing, which comes a bit later, the key sinks further. The result is a great experience for typing documents, although the tactile sensation also makes it suitable for gaming without issues.
The most striking element of this keyboard lies in the keys themselves. OnePlus calls them ‘Marble-Mallow’ and they’re made from the same material used in products like bracelets and cables. They’re the strangest keys I’ve seen because when you pick one up and press it, it bends.
The material is much softer than usual, resulting in a very different feel when typing; it’s more pleasant on the fingers and I prefer the tactile response, but it might take some getting used to if you’re accustomed to conventional keys. OnePlus also claims they have a longer lifespan due to increased wear resistance.
The keyboard’s design has also been adapted to a ‘OnePlus style’; interestingly, while it doesn’t remind me of any of their phones, I can see how it fits the brand image. The most striking detail is the metal bar that extends from the top; it’s actually used to adjust the keyboard’s height, instead of the typical tabs used on the Keychron Q1. The volume control wheel is also quite attention-grabbing, providing a luxurious feel with transparent plastic. And of course, there’s RGB lighting, though it’s much more subtle than in other keyboards, in part because the keys are opaque.
The partnership with Keychron is the best decision OnePlus could have made to launch a mechanical keyboard, as demonstrated by the Keyboard 81. It starts from a strong foundation and makes the necessary changes to offer an excellent experience, especially for those who’ll be typing documents for extended periods; its gaming performance has also been good, though that will depend on the switch you choose during purchase.
The Keyboard 81 is a great example of how a brand can expand without losing what makes it unique and appealing both to its fans and to people who simply want a good product. However, that doesn’t make it perfect. I was expecting something that would make it more distinctly OnePlus, like some exclusive feature when connected to one of their phones or tablets.
The weight is both a plus and a minus, depending on how you intend to use it. But it’s certainly versatile: the Keyboard 81 can be used both wirelessly thanks to its built-in battery and with cables, with a switch on the top to activate Bluetooth. It can be used with Android phones and tablets via Bluetooth, as well as on Windows and Mac, both wired and wirelessly. The necessary keycaps and tools for the switch are included.
The OnePlus Keyboard 81 doesn’t lack alternatives, and some are very close. As we’ve established, this keyboard is based on the Keychron Q1, which is much cheaper; however, it needs to be imported from the United States and lacks some of the features that make this keyboard special.
There are also plenty of brands offering mechanical keyboards; recently, even Razer entered the market with the new BlackWidow V4 75%, a direct competitor priced at 219.99 euros. Still, if you can afford it, the OnePlus Keyboard 81 is a great choice to transition to mechanical keyboards in the best possible way.