Mechanical Keyboards have really taken off in the past few years, and I’ve reviewed a few and in the last two years I’ve gone from buying off-the-shelf boards to building my own. They’re highly customizable and can fulfill a specific need or just look nice and supply you with a chance to test out your soldering skills.
The Alice layout by the designer TGR is designed to be something like a Microsoft Natural keyboard in form but using standard sizes of keycaps while also taking up less of your deskspace. Add a few arrow keys to the lower right to this more ergonomic split layout and you’ve got something more similar to the open-source Arisu layout and this is the layout of the YMDK Wings keyboard I’m reviewing today, with some changes.
This isn’t the first Arisu-layout keyboard I’ve owned, but it was the easiest to build. I’ve had two Gothic 70 keyboards, they’re made of layered acrylic and surprisingly cost about what the Wings cost even though the Wings is made of aluminum (and a thin strip of acrylic for under glow.)
I’ve had Alice layout boards before, but without arrows it’s not super fun to use and it doesn’t look as nice because the arrow keys provide an accent I appreciate. Believe it or not, there are mini-Alice layouts in the form of 40% boards that lack even the number keys and some characters like brackets, those are awesome little boards but brutal to learn.
So here we have the Wings by YMDK, it has arrow keys, it’s aluminum and it only costs $135 plus shipping if you get it without switches. Shipping was a bit more expensive because that came close to $30 for me, but even with that I knew this was a deal. Similar boards have cost upwards of $300 and compared to other boards made out plastic this was an absolute steal.
Still, I wondered how good the Wings could be. I’ve had trouble with value boards in the past. The Gothic 70 keyboards I had included the most beautiful PCB with a wonderful latticework design but that same design also caused electrical shorts that rendered my last one useless. An error with the USB-C connector in the revision 2 board caused it to only work with USB-C cables connecting to USB-C on the computer if the connector was in a certain orientation.
YMDK was upfront about the USB situation and say right on the product page for the Wings that it doesn’t work with C-to-C connections at all. Disappointing, but with a metal board I’m a little less concerned about portability.
One benefit to the Wings is that it isn’t a group buy, most custom mechanical boards are sold where people get together to make a bulk purchase to make the cost more affordable for everyone. That bulk purchase usually includes a wait of anywhere between a few months and at the maximum a year or more. However with the Wings you can get it right away. Shipping was quick and the Wings got here from YMDK in China less than a week after I ordered it and only two days of actual shipping time. Most things from mainland US take more longer to get here.
Upon receiving the Wings it was clear where it was a bit cheaper. The box was a simple black box without any branding. Inside you are immediately greeted by a small resealable bag that contained a USB-C to USB-A cable, optional aluminum and rubber coned feet, parts to assemble a few stabilizers, screws, and black rubber stick-on dots for a simpler foot option. It is very unusual for custom boards to include the stabilizers, cable, and aluminum cone feet but I appreciated it.
Unpacking the actual board revealed the aluminum shell, circuit board, and acrylic underglow layer. Everything was screwed together using typical cross-head screws, and I disassembled the case so that I could solder switches in.
No instructions were included for assembly, what instructions YMDK does make available online are mainly focused at programming the board using their online configurator.
Disassembly revealed that the acrylic layer is incredibly thin. It only lets a little bit of accent lighting through and doesn’t do much to diffuse that lighting, so it is very easy to count the WS2812B LEDs included with the board.
The thin acrylic also has a protective paper backing on either side, this is typical with any acrylic parts to protect them during shipping. I’ve seen warnings about delicately removing that protective backing on much thicker pieces of acrylic in the past so as not to accidentally break the plastic and so I took a lot of time to do that right.
The Wings’ aluminum shell feels sturdy, and the silver anodization on mine came out well. I haven’t noticed any imperfections in the finish. Soldering the PCB with the switches I chose, Boba Silent Tactile U4 switches from Gazzew was fast and easy. I did notice a few things about the circuit board that were odd.
Usually if you’re going to include a split-backspace option, where you can have two 1U keys (1U is the size of a standard letter or number key) instead of a full-size 2U backspace key, you’ll support that with the case. But the Wings‘ case only supports a split-backspace layout, despite the PCB very clearly having a space for a stabilizer under the backspace key. I’ve seen one other user who dremel’d their case to allow for a 2U backspace but I would not buy the Wings expecting that will work.
Single-color, in-switch, LEDs are also supported, but I didn’t know that in advance so I used switches with opaque tops. I might still install some white LEDs later-on but they’re not necessary or even supported by the default firmware. Oddly, the PCB has the cathode leg marked for each LED through-hole solder point but the printing isn’t great so it wasn’t immediately clear if the marking was half of a plus marking the anode or a minus marking the cathode leg of the LED. I confirmed with YMDK that it is in fact a minus for the cathode leg.
Typically a custom mechanical keyboard is built of a few pieces for the top and bottom and then a plate inbetween the two that the key switches pop into and those hold the circuitboard in place. The YMDK wings has what is called a superplate where that plate and the top of the keyboard are one piece. A superplate is easier to assemble in some ways, but it eliminates options for people who prefer to choose a separate material for the plate. Instead of getting to choose brass, fr4, or another material for the plate, you’re using aluminum because that is what the case is made out of. The fit of my case was also a little off, the cutout for one switch above the arrows didn’t match my key switches and it really took some work to get the switch to fit into the superplate there.
Once that was resolved, soldering the switches on was as easy as it should be. No beautiful lattice-work PCB to get in the way. Sadly the cone feet that came with my copy of the Wings included the wrong size of screw and couldn’t be used, but I had another set of feet and screws and they are a standard size. The screw hole for the feet is nicely counter-sunk and if I grab another set of screws I’m sure they’ll work fine.
One thing you’ll notice with the Wings is the incredibly odd default layout of the bottom row:
Practically every Alice or Arisu-layout keyboard has the most designer influence in the default layout in that bottom row, I’ve seen odd choices like backspace on either space bar, but this one is very wacky. The control key belongs on the left, not next to space where the Alt key is. There is also no Windows/Command key at all in the default layout which makes the board practically unusable under macOS.
Visiting the configurator linked in the Wings manual is not at all reassuring. The site is very much not intended for an English-speaking audience and takes a while to load the keyboard options before you can select the Wings board and begin choosing options for the board. If I hadn’t been more familiar with programming keyboard firmware via my own fork of QMK and QMK’s online configurator, I imagine this one would be very daunting to get used to if it is your first and the default layout in the configurator doesn’t match the default layout the keyboard ships with. Compile that by default and you won’t have access to the LED controls at all.
My hope is that someone gets the Wings into mainline QMK and then people can use the stock QMK configurator. However, the main QMK configurator is missing some of the features included in the configurator YMDK points you to. In order to set up LED options you might have to configure those things via manually editing a config.h and compiling on the command-line.
(Update: since this review was written support for the Wings has gotten into mainline QMK and thus the QMK configurator. Support is on the way for Via.)
I rebound the capslock to be the modifier key that accesses the extra layer of controls and put the Windows key onto the key between the spacebar and put the other missing keys back into the secondary layer. Programming the board wasn’t hard after that, but QMK Toolbox can be daunting for anyone new to mechanical keyboards. Via is preferable due to not requiring the Toolbox step and including the configurator right on the desktop program, but getting a board into Via can be a real pain.
Overall, I’m very happy with the YMDK Wings. I’ve been typing on the Wings for a little over a week now and I still appreciate the split layout, and having the arrow keys without having to resort to layers is exactly how it should be. For $135 plus shipping you’re getting a fantastic ergonomic value that looks great and has room for your choices of keycaps. YMDK does have options that include switches for a fair price if you don’t want to solder anything and don’t mind that they aren’t silent. Some might not be happy with the superplate design, but the YMDK Wings is a win for me.
The Wings is available now directly from YMDK in Black, Gray, Silver, Red, and Blue.