Build Your Own Light Show
Drop has long been a mainstay in the mechanical keyboard world. Its CTRL, ALT, and SHIFT keyboards have all been top choices for PC users and gamers looking to take a step up from their dusty gaming keyboard. Recently, the company has begun expanding its line-up, including high-profile keyboards, themed keycap sets, signature boards, switches, and an array of other components to build your own keyboard from scratch.
And, of course, the Drop Carina DIY kit, which I’ve had the pleasure of trying out first-hand. It’s a compact 60% keyboard, which means it doesn’t have a function row or number pad, and comes in a frosted acrylic case to turn the entire keyboard into an RGB showcase. In this review, I’ll walk you through what’s included with the kit, how I built it myself, and whether or not it’s worth picking one up for yourself.
- Form factor: 60%
- Layout: fixed, ANSI (61-keys)
- Case type: High-profile (frosted acrylic CNC case)
- Mount type: Tray
- Typing angle: 6 degrees
- Custom PCBA
- Hot-swap switch sockets
- QMK firmware
- Stabilizer mount: plate-mounted Cherry-style only
- Switch mount: plate-mounted (3-pin) or PCBA-mounted (5-pin) MX-style
- Plate: 1.5mm thick aluminum, brass, or copper switch plate (must be added to purchase)
- Dual USB-C connectors
- Dimensions: 11.5 x 4.1 x 1.5 in (29.2 x 10.4 x 3.8 cm)
- Weight (no switches or keycaps): 16.4 oz (465 g)
- Included with Kit:
- Acrylic case
- USB cable
- Assembly hardware
- Rubber feet strips
$120-160, depending on plate (Drop link)
“Fashioned with a frosty acrylic case and programmable LED lighting, the 60% Carina mechanical keyboard kit comes together in minutes, and shines bright for years to come.”
Drop Carina Overview
The Carina is a unique product from Drop and in more ways than one. It’s the company’s first 60% board and its first self-branded keyboard to feature a fully acrylic case. That said, it’s not exactly surprising that Drop would release such a kit either. They’ve sold DIY versions of their pre-assembled keyboards for a long time as well as kits from many vendors they work with. Slowly but surely, the company has eeked its way into being a one-stop shop for everything a customer might need to build their own custom mechanical keyboard.
Thus far, the 60% form factor has been noticeably absent from their line-up. That much is surprising given its popularity in the enthusiast community, but among the mainstream it’s been a harder sell. The lack of function keys, a number pad, arrow keys, and a navigation cluster make it an intimidating proposition for many keyboard users.
Thankfully, the Carina is completely programmable and features multi-layer keymaps to maintain all of the functionality of a tenkeyless keyboard. This is accomplished through a mix of Drop’s online Configurator which allows you to program your keymaps and custom lighting and then download that as firmware just like Drop’s other keyboards. I’ll admit, it’s not the most user friendly process since it uses a QMK and loads through a command line prompt, but it’s not difficult and stores settings directly on the keyboard so they can work with any machine, regardless of IT software policies. Drop (blessedly) also allows you to save your configuration online to edit, download, and refer back to any time, which is very useful as you first get used to it.
But, back to the keyboard itself. The PCB features a plethora of LEDs for all of your RGB goodness. There are LEDs under each key, like most backlit keyboards, but also 26 additional downward firing LEDs along the bottom sides. It’s more than enough to completely illuminate the entire case in a gorgeous flow of diffused light. The circuit board also includes hot-swap sockets for quickly changing out switches and saves the need to solder when assembling it. It also supports 5-pin switches, so you won’t need to clip the legs on any expensive switches to install them here. Finally, it features two USB Type-C ports on the left and right side of the back edge, but these are only for the convenience of routing the wire to your PC, not passthrough.
Let’s take a look at the parts that came in my kit and how I put it all together.
Building the Drop Carina
When you order the Carina, you receive the acrylic case, PCB, and your choice of aluminum ($20), brass ($30), or copper plates ($40). That means that the $120 price listed on the product page isn’t exactly right since you’ll also need to factor in the plate. The kit also includes all of your mounting hardware and stabilizers, but you’ll need to bring your own switches and keycaps. I went expensive with mine, opting for the copper plate and Drop’s Holy Panda switches, both of which I’d heard about but never tried myself. I also asked Drop to try their new Skylight Horizon keycaps, which looked to be a good match for the frosted white of the case.
First, a word on the Holy Pandas. Within the community, Holy Pandas are a bit notorious. Coming in at $85 for a set of 70, they’re quite expensive but are regarded as one of the best tactile switches you can buy. Originally a community creation made by combining stems and housings of two different kinds of switches, Drop has commoditized the switch and removed that hassle — for a price. Compared to the cheaper Glorious Panda switches, I found Drop’s to be the better choice with less spring noise out of the box. They have a noticeable tactility right at the top of the press and are heavier than Cherry MX Browns at 67g of actuation force.
I’m not usually one to lube my switches, but since I recently invested in a lube station to speed up the process, I took on the challenge here. I lubed each switch with Krytox 205g0 and can say that it was completely worth the two and half hours it took to complete the job. With lube, the switches are incredibly smooth, much quieter, and feel almost like typing on bubble wrap. They are easily my hands-down favorite tactile switch after modding, while still being very good without.
The Skylight keycaps are a new product for Drop, but not exactly an unknown commodity. Drop’s keyboards featured good keycaps all along and these seemed to be the same in different color schemes. Now that I’ve seen them for myself, I can say that’s true. They’re doubleshot PBT and backlit. There’s also a slight texturing on the surface of each. They feel great to type on and the legends are excellent. This set avoids the “stencil” found on cheaper doubleshot backlit sets from inferior injection processes. Since this is coming from Drop, you can also be confident that it will fit everything from a full-size keyboard to a 65%, even with it’s several reduced-size keys, since their catalog spans most major form factors.
Since there’s no soldering, building the Carina is easy. You set the PCB in the case, install the standoffs, screw in the plate, install the stabilizers, and then press in switches and caps. The most complicated part is putting together the stabilizers since they arrive like this:
Doing so just requires you put the stem (the small bit with the MX cross on the top) into the housing and then slide the wire into the appropriate slot, snapping into place. Repeat with each half and install by sliding the wire under the plate and pressing the plastic bits into their cut-outs. Easy-peasey.
But, of course, modding is always the better way to go when it comes to stabilizers. There are several easy mods you can do to completely eliminate rattle — and believe me, you’ll want to. The achille’s heel of all Drop-branded keyboards is their stabilizers, which are just plain too loose and rattle like the worst gaming keyboard you’ve ever heard. So, I lubed both the stem and housing with Krytox, clipped the feet, and painted the wire in dielectric grease. This goes a long way to eliminating the rattle and making even these stabs sound decent. That said, I did wind up replacing them with a genuine Cherry stabilizer set for about $12 on the aftermarket and repeated this process.
Another quick and easy mod I did was sticking small pieces of bandaid underneath each stabilizer and coating it with a small amount of dielectric grease. This dampens the sound of the stabilizer hitting against the PCB and takes only a few minutes to apply.
With that out of the way, the switches could be installed. This was as simple as pressing them into place since the hot-swap sockets act like outlets for the pins on the bottom of each switch. Then came keycaps and plugging everything in to make sure it worked — it did. Usually, I’ll find a few dead switches because pins were bent during installation. That’s a simple fix (pull it out, straighten the pins, and re-insert) but it wasn’t necessary here. Everything went in straight the first time.
Behold, the finished product:
For the cost, I am extremely impressed at the quality of this keyboard. I was initially worried that the acrylic case would feel like cheap plastic but that’s not the case at all. It’s dense and solid with a nice heft to it and no reverb whatsoever. The copper plate deadens out sounds nicely while offering a fairly stiff typing experience — aluminum should be a bit softer if you prefer more flex in your typing experience. Combined with the lubed Holy Pandas, it really does feel like typing on bubble wrap, which is a very strange way to describe a keyboard, I know, but also true.
Historically, I’ve never stuck with 60% keyboards but the Carina has officially converted me. The problem has been accessing the secondary commands. As a writer, I use Home and End, Page Up and Page Down all the time. Having to hold the Fn button with my right pinky and cramp my hand into some awkward position to hit these keys has always been uncomfortable and slow. Using Drop’s Configurator, I was able to turn the Caps Lock key into an Fn button only when held down but remain Caps Lock when tapped. That small change completely removed all of the acrobatics and allowed me to have all of my commands right under my right hand where they belong. The Carina isn’t the only keyboard to offer this, of course, but it’s the board where I discovered it and it has completely changed the game for me.
Of course, the downside here is that QMK just isn’t user friendly nor as powerful as full software suites from the likes of Corsair or Logitech. You can easily remap keys and program shortcuts, as well as custom lighting schemes, but advanced macros (more than a modifier and key combination) are out of the question. Then, applying it to your keyboard requires downloading a flashing tool, opening up the command line, navigating to the right directory, and running the flash tool the a typed in command. None of it is hard if you can follow basic instructions, but it’s more than what the average user is going to want to do. That said, it’s worth repeating that this is loading firmware, rewriting the keyboard’s brain, so it will function the same on any computer without software. I personally find it worthwhile, but would still love to see VIA support or another standalone GUI option.
And then, of course, there’s the biggest reason you would buy this kit: the RGB.
Simply put, it’s beautiful. The acrylic case completely lights up and diffuses the colors into a gorgeous flow of light. If you’re not sold on RGB, you’ll hate this keyboard, but if you enjoy it, this is next-level aesthetics.
It has absolutely become the centerpiece of my desk, right alongside my tower. There are 10 presets available and the ability to make each breathe, but I think it looks best with the rainbow, personally.
Apart from the still-cumbersome backbone of QMK and lackluster stabilizers, the Drop Carina is an excellent kit. It has a prerequisite of loving RGB, but the typing experience and aesthetics are top notch (if it fits your taste). The total cost, as configured here, was $290. You can go much cheaper with a different plate, switches, and keycaps, but this is what I landed on and have really enjoyed it.
The Carina is a keyboard for mechanical keyboard enthusiasts and one that gamers will likely find too expensive, but if you fall into that camp of PC users who like showy RGB and nice custom keyboards, this is a great option. That describes me, and after a week with this keyboard, I ordered a second kit one to use at work. As someone who owns more keyboards than I can use, that surprised even me.