If you’re not a dedicated fan of mechanical keyboards, then Varmilo might make you think somebody just made an experimental new ice-cream flavour. But it’s not. In fact, Varmilo is one of the most well known names in the rabbit hole of mechanical keyboards. It’s a Taiwanese company that builds high quality keyboards for enthusiasts that are no frills and customisable from the factory. The Varmilo VA68M is the smallest keyboard the company makes.
If you’ve ever sat in an office and had to use the full sized wrist destroying membrane keyboards, part of you would obviously wonder at why you have to have a number pad, function row keys and all sorts of stuff that hardly ever gets used. Much like buying a seven seat Land Rover Discovery when you live in a modern city with a concrete driveway and no children, the brains who are responsible are probably thinking “just in case” you need it. But most people won’t need all 104 keys of a full sized keyboard. This is where keyboards like the Varmilo VA68M comes in. It takes some getting used to in a few aspects, but once you get it, you’ll probably never go back. In much the same way you would keep that Discovery, because it’s just a brilliant vehicle.
Before we get to the guts of the review; full disclosure. I bought this keyboard with my own money and I use it as my daily driver.
Varmilo is a semi-custom keyboard company. That means that you can select the types of switches and the colours of keycaps and case when you make an order. On one hand, finding a company representative to take a direct order might be a bit of a challenge, since there’s no online store. On the other hand, there are many reputable retailers, as well as sellers on eBay and Amazon who are able to provide you with the various options Varmilo allows.
Today’s review unit is very similar to the one shown in the picture above. A light grey aluminium case, dark grey PBT keycaps with black dye-sublimated legends and red backlighting. The switches are Cherry MX Browns with red LED backlighting. Did I mention that the Varmilo VA68M has a full aluminium case?
The Varmilo VA68M arrives in a large white textured cardboard box with a magnetic lip that helps to keep the keyboard safe. It feels quite the premium product, and it makes the customer understand they’ve bought something expensive. Let’s be frank, it is expensive, at US$180. Hopefully, it feels special too! Inside, you’ll get an instruction manual for any lighting functions. My specific keyboard allows for all LEDs on and off with some brightness levels in between, or LEDs set to breathing mode, which has adjustable brightness and breathing speed.
Inside, everything is housed in dense foam for shipping. In fact, you’ll realise just how small the keyboard is compared to the box. There’s just so much foam! Included in the bundle is a wire keycap puller, which comes in handy if you’re looking to replace keycaps, or just want to clean the Varmilo VA68M. You also get a detachable plastic coated USB cable (which seems a little cheap compared with the keyboard) with Varmilo branding on a velcro strap to stop cable knots entering an unholy dimension of frustration.
The Varmilo VA68M has, as its name suggests, 68 keys. It does away completely with the number pad and the function row. There are also no Home and End buttons, though there is a full arrow cluster included, with the right hand side Windows key sacrificed to the space efficiency gods. You might think this is an awkward layout, but it’s not. I’ve often wondered why we need two Windows keys anyway. Seriously, why?
The compactness of the keyboard is actually a selling point, and to be honest, how often do you use those keys anyway? Also, pressing the FN key will let you access the buttons that aren’t physically there, but are located in a second layer of the keyboard’s programming itself.
The default keycaps are especially nice. Made from thick, textured PBT, the legends are dye-sublimated, not printed. This ensures the legends won’t fade, and will probably outlast the keyboard’s switches. Compared to the standard keycaps on my Corsair K70, these are a whole different world. It makes the Corsair product look and feel cheap. The keycaps are also in Varmilo’s own proprietary sculpted profile, which is just a little bit shorter than your usual mechanical keyboard height.
As I mentioned at the outset, Varmilo’s goal with this keyboard is to make a high quality product. It’s not the sort of thing you’d take to your local LAN party to show off how cool its LED effects are. In fact, mine are red, they stay red and there’s not much adjustment at all. You can’t even light up just the WASD cluster for when you really need to game in the dark. I’m fine with that, because if I’m looking at my keyboard and not my computer, I’m obviously doing something wrong. There’s a Caps Lock indicator and the Page Up button has a secondary LED shine through to help you orient your hands. Besides those little things, not much can be said about the lights.
Frankly, that’s alright. Having an RGB keyboard is great, if you’re twelve, but in actual fact, you’re most likely just going to stick those LEDs on to a colour and leave them there. Anything fancy is just distracting.
Simply stated, the Varmilo VA68M oozes quality and style. Actually, I’m not sure how solid aluminium can ooze, but there it is. The case is milled out of two solid pieces of aluminium, which are screwed together. If there’s any flex in the case, I’m certainly not strong enough to wring it out of the keyboard. Underneath are some thick, juicy rubber feet which anchor the keyboard in place on your desk. It will not slide around and affect your typing accuracy.
The LED lighting is especially consistent. Mounted with the LEDs towards the user, it’s used to give a backlighting only, since the default keycaps are there completely opaque. However, if you have shine through keycaps, or you are considering buying some, consider that the colour red may not suit every kind of keycap set you buy. Also, the LEDs are bright enough to actually shine through some keycaps.
I can’t state just how nice it feels to use the keyboard. The aluminium is, of course, cool to the touch. Though there’s no wrist rest, long periods of use don’t tire your wrists out. That might have to do with Varmilo’s special keycap profile, which is slightly lower than the typical OEM profile. Either way, it’s just a nice unit to type on, no matter what you’re doing.
How it fares in use
In terms of the typing experience, this is a strange one for me. Both my Corsair K70 and the Varmilo Va68M have Cherry MX Brown switches. But typing feels completely different. The Corsair feels like you’re pressing down on a cheap sponge cake from Coles with quite a hollow clack at the end of the stroke. Sometimes, it’s quite hard to actually distinguish there’s a tactile bump in the key stroke. On the other hand, the VA68M has really consistent key feel, and the tactile bumps from the Cherry MX Brown switches are really noticeable. In fact, the keyboard feels far more consistent in use than its bigger Corsair cousin.
On top of that, the Varmilo VA68M is actually quieter to type on than the K70. This may be because the keyboard is better at giving that crucial tactile feedback from the Cherry MX Browns, but I don’t feel like I need to try and be quiet. It could also be because the keycaps are thicker and can damp the noise down that much better. Whatever the reason, it’s just quieter, though it’ll still be louder than your typical membrane keyboard. We all have to make some sacrifices, right?
Also, because the keyboard is far narrower than a full sized unit, your shoulders are straighter and there’s less strain on your body. Extended typing sessions on this keyboard don’t make you feel like you need to complete one of the twelve trials of Hercules to get the work done.
One other sacrifice would be if you were a gamer that relied on the function keys for certain…well, functions. Because the keyboard misses out completely on the function row, you’ll have to press the FN key plus a number to get to that particular layer of the keyboard’s programming. However, if you’re not really playing anything other than shooters, you won’t be affected at all.
One other great thing about this keyboard is that it’s really portable. Because of its detachable USB cable, you can literally take it anywhere and set up a mobile office. It’s not the lightest mechanical keyboard out there. There are options like the Vortex Poker series, but you certainly couldn’t go wrong with this out in the field somewhere, and its all metal construction lends it a certain sturdiness that a plastic bodied keyboard wouldn’t be able to boast. You can even turn most of the LEDs off to save power.
The Varmilo VA68M is a beautiful keyboard. It’s solid, a pleasure to use and full of quality. It’s not got the full gamut of RGB lights (though there is an even more expensive version that does), but what it has is timeless elegance. Yeah, I said it, the keyboard is elegant. In the same way that Audrey Hepburn is elegant and timeless. However, this keyboard will cost a lot of money. It’s not for the faint of heart at all. But what you will get is a solid companion for your troubles. Much like a Labrador, but with a lot less drool.
- Very sturdy due to the full aluminium frame
- Small and relatively light
- Excellent default keycaps
- Wonderful typing experience
- Perfectly mobile, for those on the go
- Takes a little while to remember that the bottom right most key is an arrow, not the familiar Enter
- Your wallet will cry when you buy this, due to the aluminium frame.
- There’s no wrist rest