Drop’s original CTRL used to be easy to recommend as an accessible entry point into the world of premium mechanical keyboards. The retailer was a relatively early adopter (by mainstream standards) of hot-swap switches, making its own brand keyboards great for hobbyists who wanted to be able to swap out their switches without having to do any soldering. It was solidly constructed, QMK-programmable, and packed to the gills with RGB lighting.
But the world of mechanical keyboards moves fast, and the CTRL V2 (along with the more compact ALT V2 and larger SHIFT V2) is Drop’s attempt to catch up. It has hot-swap sockets that are compatible with a wider variety of switches, upgraded hardware that makes it sound and feel much better to type on, and more programmability options.
It is, in other words, a great update to the original CTRL design. But it also costs $200 fully assembled, which brings it slap-bang into competition with Keychron’s excellent and fan-favorite Q-series. Drop has its work cut out if it wants to compete with a company firing on all cylinders.
Drop’s new lineup of V2 keyboards consists of five models across three different layouts, which are either available barebones (i.e., without switches or keycaps) or fully built at a total of 10 different prices. The three layouts are the compact 65 percent ALT V2, the larger numpad-equipped SHIFT V2, and the numberpad-less (also known as tenkeyless) CTRL V2. Then, the ALT and the CTRL are also available in additional high-profile case options, which effectively conceal the switches inside of the case rather than leaving them exposed. All told, this means prices range from $140 for a barebones ALT V2, rising to $250 for a fully built SHIFT V2.
The specific model I’ve been testing sits right in the middle of the lineup. It’s the fully built CTRL V2 with a low-profile case, which has an MSRP of $200 — though, as of this writing, Drop is taking preorders for it at a discounted price of $179 (orders are due to ship later this month). It’s available in a choice of either black or space gray (I have the former) and comes with either tactile Holy Panda X Clear or linear Gateron Yellow switches (I have the latter).
The CTRL V2 has a simple, solid construction. Its aluminum case is sturdy, with very little flex to it, and there are a couple of magnetic feet included in the box to prop it up at a six-degree angle. You can flip these feet around to get a little more lift, remove them entirely to use the keyboard flat on your desk, or even arrange them so the keyboard tilts downwards away from your hands (aka “negative tilt”).
The fully built version of the keyboard ships with a fairly understated set of two-tone gray keycaps made from durable PBT plastic, with doubleshot lettering that’s both resistant to wear and also does a great job letting the keyboard’s RGB lighting shine through. It’s not the most colorful or exciting of color schemes, but it works well as a default option.
Around the top of the keyboard, there’s not one but two USB-C ports. You can use either one to connect to your PC (nice for cable management) and use the other to connect an additional accessory. The additional USB port was able to charge my phone or output audio to a headphone DAC. Although opting for USB-C is good for future-proofing, it does mean you’ll have to use an adapter if you want to plug in a USB-A accessory. Drop says the port supports a maximum data transfer rate of 480Mbps and between 2W and 4W for charging, so don’t expect this to fast-charge your phone or instantly offload all your photos from a thumb drive. This is a wired-only keyboard, with no wireless capabilities.
Drop has optimized the design of the CTRL V2 to make the most of its RGB lighting, and there’s both good and bad news here. The good news is that through a combination of north-facing switches, the aforementioned shine-through keycaps, and a case with additional lighting on its sides, the RGB lighting is far more visible than on Keychron’s competing keyboards, where you’re effectively just seeing whatever light bleeds around the edges of the opaque keycaps.
Getting this quality of RGB lighting comes with a slight compromise. North-facing switches (where the RGB light is on top of the switch, right underneath the shine-through legend) might be better for RGB lighting, but they can also have compatibility issues with some aftermarket Cherry-profile keycaps. If you’re after good RGB lighting, it’s a tradeoff you might be willing to make.
More annoyingly is that under certain circumstances, the keyboard’s lighting can emit a faint, high-pitched buzz. I experienced this when plugging the keyboard into the external Thunderbolt dock I use with my laptop, and how audible the buzzing was varied based on how brightly the LEDs were shining and even what color they were set to (saturated colors like red were worst, but a pure white was silent). The buzzing completely disappeared when I plugged the CTRL V2 directly into my MacBook using a third-party USB-C-to-USB-C cable.
When I asked Drop about this, spokesperson Jyri Jokirinta told me that the keyboard passed Drop’s own quality control tests as well as third-party testing. “With an average noise level of 17 dBa, the V2 keyboards should be imperceptible when used at most typing positions in a typical home or office environment. Most room noise levels sit between 30 - 40 dBa,” Jokirinta said.
I wouldn’t say the buzzing I experienced was a dealbreaker, especially since it only cropped up under such specific circumstances. But it’s something to be aware of and listen out for.
One of the most consequential upgrades for hobbyists that Drop has made to its V2 keyboard lineup is that its PCB now has an extra two holes per switch to support 5-pin switches (the most common pin layout). While it was possible to use 5-pin switches on previous Drop keyboards, you had to snip off their two extra plastic legs to get them to fit in its 3-pin sockets, a tedious process. There’s not really much else I can say about this upgrade — you get a switch puller along with a keycap puller in the box, and swapping out the switches is as easy as ever.
The other customizability upgrade Drop’s keyboards have gotten is upgraded QMK programmability, including official support for the powerful VIA configuration software. Weirdly, despite Drop’s marketing for its V2 keyboards making a big deal of their support for VIA, the option to use the software is a little buried. To use it, you first have to download Drop’s own configuration software (available for both Mac and Windows) and use that to flash the VIA-compatible firmware to the keyboard. To Drop’s credit, it’s a seamless process once you know what you’re doing, but it would be nice if Drop’s configuration guide made the process clearer. Once the firmware is flashed, VIA works great for all your layout tweaking, macro making, and brightness customizing needs.
Although these are all welcome changes, the upgrades Drop has made to the sound and typing feel of the keyboard are the ones that you’re going to feel on a daily basis. Thanks to a combination of better stabilizers (the structure installed underneath longer keys like the spacebar to stop them from wobbling) and more sound-dampening foam, the CTRL V2 feels much more premium to type on compared to Drop’s previous keyboards. There’s no metallic pinging or excessive rattling, just a pleasant, crisp and clear typing sound, and the Gateron Yellow switches in my sample had the right balance of smoothness and weight.
The Drop CTRL V2 feels better to type on compared to the company’s first-generation keyboards, but for my money, it’s not the best-feeling keyboard at its price point. Drop’s keyboard uses an integrated plate construction, which arguably provides a less premium typing feel than the gasket-mount approach used in the likes of Keychron’s tenkeyless Q3, which can be had for $184 (though given that Drop offers free shipping on US orders over $99 and Keychron doesn’t, it’s likely that the prices of the two keyboards will be roughly equivalent for many US buyers). I haven’t personally used the Q3, but it uses the same construction as the Keychron Q1, which I think is fantastic to type on.
In terms of typing feel, I think Keychron has the edge at this price point and matches the CTRL V2’s other features like 5-pin hot-swap, VIA programmability, and an aluminum construction. Drop’s CTRL V2 has the slight edge in the RGB department thanks to its shine-through keycaps, but it doesn’t quite take the price-to-performance crown.
That said, the price-to-performance ratio gets more appealing if you’re an owner of either of Drop’s existing SHIFT, ALT, or CTRL keyboards. For between $55 and $75, the company will sell you just the upgraded circuit board for its new keyboards (which will get you support for VIA and 5-pin switches), and there’s also the option to buy the sound-dampening foam and upgraded stabilizers. If you’re not afraid of a little keyboard DIY, it’s a more affordable way of getting a much higher quality keyboard and one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend if your existing Drop keyboard is feeling a little long in the tooth.
Compared to Drop’s first-generation keyboard, the CTRL V2 is a much more modern and competitive proposition. Support for 5-pin switches is, at this point, a feature that you should be able to take for granted on hot-swappable keyboards, and programmability using VIA gives you a huge amount of control over how the keyboard functions. Aside from the LED buzzing I experienced (which really is a pain if it crops up with your setup), there’s really little to fault the CTRL V2.
The only issue, really, is the competition. At the CTRL V2’s premium price, it’s competing against Keychron’s very capable gasket-mounted Q-series lineup, which I think has the edge in typing sound and feel. But if better RGB lighting and a handy additional USB-C port are important to you, Drop’s CTRL V2 lineup is well worth considering.
Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge