A Stack Overflow-branded keyboard with just three buttons (Ctrl, C, and V) is a great April Fools’ gag that has no business being as neat and useful as it is. And yet designer Cassidy Williams, Stack Overflow, and manufacturer Drop have managed to turn The Key into a surprisingly competent little $29 accessory.
On its surface, The Key looks like it’s only capable of doing two things: copying and pasting. You shamelessly copy your code from Stack Overflow’s thousands (millions?) of helpful contributors and paste it into your own work. Simple.
But The Key is a lot more powerful than that. It draws upon QMK open-source keyboard firmware so that it can be fully reprogrammed to do so much more than just copy and paste. It’s not the most user-friendly process, but it’s enough to turn The Key from a goofy novelty into a great little accessory. And it might actually be worth tracking one down when Drop has more in stock next year.
Right off the bat, I should say that in functional terms The Key isn’t doing anything particularly new or original. Head over to eBay and search for “Macro Keypad” and you’ll find dozens of inexpensive keyboard add-ons with anywhere from a single blank key to nine or more. The BDN9 from Keebio is another option I’ve seen recommended.
But The Key ends up succeeding where another diminutive keyboard I bought a couple of months back did not. And it’s also available preassembled, unlike other boards that are aimed much more firmly at hobbyists.
For starters, The Key is straight up nicely made. Its case is made out of aluminum, and underneath each key is a linear Kailh Box Black switch that’s just a hair stiffer than regular Cherry MX Reds. Press one, and it has a nice thunk to it, like you’d expect from a mechanical switch. It even has a modern USB-C port on its back for connecting to your PC.
More importantly, it’s also got relatively easy-to-follow instructions available on Drop to help you reprogram it. In contrast, the last macro board I bought arrived without any documentation in a plain cardboard box, and its eBay listing directed me toward a chaotic Discord server filled with confused customers and (admittedly) helpful support staff. For all I know, there are much better documented cheap macro boards available, but my experience so far wasn’t ideal.
Before I get into reprogramming The Key, I should clarify that, yes, it’s capable of copying and pasting out of the box… for most Windows users. The key with the Stack Overflow logo acts as your “Ctrl” key, and the C and V keys act as you’d expect. You know the drill, you don’t need me to explain how copying and pasting works.
Obviously this is a problem for Mac users, where the default copying and pasting shortcuts rely on the Cmd key rather than Ctrl, and any Mac users who want to use The Key will have to reprogram their device accordingly. The Key’s layout was also a problem for me specifically because I use the Dvorak keyboard layout rather than QWERTY, which confused The Key’s default layout and caused the C key to register as a “J,” and the “V” to register as a “K.” What I needed was for the “C” switch to be rebound to “I” and for the “V” to be rebound to the “.” (compare QWERTY’s layout side by side with Dvorak and this will make a little more sense).
Fixing these problems forced me to get acquainted with programming The Key, and I’m glad I did. It opened up the full possibilities of this macro pad, which can do so much more than just copy and paste. The amount of commands QMK supports is a little mind boggling, and you can even have one key perform multiple tasks using a modifier key.
So maybe you want to use The Key as a small trio of media playback controls (play / pause, skip forward, skip back) or for volume (volume up, volume down, mute). Or maybe you want to go even further and program each key to a macro, where each key can handle a series of button presses automatically.
That’s where I ended up after I decided to turn The Key into a Zoom shortcut macro pad, inspired in part by the many DIY projects that emerged last year. Two of its buttons could handle turning my camera and microphone on and off respectively, and a third would quit the Zoom call entirely.
What’s nice is that as well as programming simple key combinations (Alt+V for the camera and Alt+A for the microphone), QMK also lets you program multiple stages. So as well as programming a button to hit the Alt+Q command to start the process of exiting a Zoom meeting, I could also program it to follow up with a tap of the “Enter” key. So now my colleagues won’t have to see me stare awkwardly into the middle distance the next time I forget about Zoom’s confirmation dialog box.
There are a lot of keyboards out there that already offer macro keys like this. Companies like Corsair and Logitech have long offered models with extra programmable buttons, and there are much fancier devices like Elgato’s $149.99 Stream Deck which include small displays on each key to let you customize their appearance as well as their function. But The Key costs just $29. It’s an affordable, and yet surprisingly flexible, alternative.
There are some downsides to using The Key like this, but not many. First, as I alluded to above, there’s obviously no way to change the keycaps’ legends when you reprogram their commands. They’re nicely made PBT keycaps with legends printed on using dye sublimation, but whatever fancy functions you program them to perform, they’re going to look the same way. So your options are to commit their functions to memory, buy some more appropriate keycaps, or maybe stick on some ugly Post-it notes to keep track of what each key is doing.
The second problem is that although Drop’s instructions are straightforward, actually flashing the custom firmware to The Key in its current form is a little cumbersome. On my model, you have to unscrew the four screws on the underside of the board to expose the PCB inside, where you’ll find a physical button to press and put the keyboard into flashing mode. However, Drop tells me that future shipments of The Key will have a small hole on their underside to allow this button to be pressed without having to dismantle the keyboard.
Finally, although I found KBFirmware.com an intuitive way to remap The Key, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that it’s technically end-of-life and hence there’s a risk of it being shut down. I tried using a different QMK configurator, Config.QMK.fm, to design a layout and got an error message saying it’s not compatible with the configuration files Drop has provided for The Key. When I asked Drop about this, it said it was actively working to fix the issue, and pointed me toward a complicated-looking community-made fix.
Out of the box The Key is a silly novelty. Copying and pasting is a task so common I imagine every computer user has committed it to muscle memory, and your keyboard’s existing Ctrl, C, and V keys are sitting right there underneath your left hand. Training yourself to reach for a separate keyboard is a pointless waste of time.
Which is why it’s great that Cassidy Williams, Stack Overflow, and Drop haven’t half-assed The Key, despite its silly novelty status. It’s not doing anything particularly new or original, but it’s well made, well documented, and incredibly flexible.
The biggest problem with The Key at the moment is that it’s incredibly difficult to get hold of. Drop tells me it’s already sold out of an additional production run that’s due to ship in December, and although it’s got another run planned for next year, it declined to share more details than that. You can sign up to be notified when Drop has more available, but who knows when that’ll be.
The Key isn’t going to be giving Elgato’s Stream Deck a run for its money, but if you’re craving a couple of extra media keys or macros after downsizing to a super compact Happy Hacking keyboard, it’s a pretty neat option. It just might be a while before Drop’s supply catches up with demand.
Update, November 3rd, 2:12PM ET: Updated to note that future models of The Key won’t need to be dismantled to be reprogrammed.
Update, November 16th, 3:42AM ET: Updated to credit Cassidy Williams with designing The Key.