Exploring Varmilo's Many-Splendored Keyboard Delights

Update, 8/11/17, 6:44am PT: Added layout information.

One of the most fun companies we visited while at Computex 2017 back in June was Varmilo, a Chinese keyboard maker that offers a variety of form factors (20%, 60%, 80%, 100%, and 110%) as well as switches, DIY kits, and custom keycaps.

Varmilo stands out for multiple reasons. First, the fact that it makes both keyboards and the delightful baubles you can use to trick out your keyboards is somewhat rare. It’s also buddying up with popular enthusiast keyboard outfit Ducky. But most importantly, instead of offering a range of keyboards that are just slight variations on one another, the company is trying out a variety of interesting and sometimes oddball ideas.

These include a wired/Bluetooth dual mode mechanical keyboard, standalone keypads, Mac-focused keyboards, and a musical keyboard. (Yes, a musical keyboard. No, not like the ones that look like pianos.)

All of the above, plus Varmilo’s range of keyboard things that come in a variety of pretty colors, made for a delightful booth visit. Let’s dig in:

Friends With Ducky

First, there’s the partnership with Ducky. Simply, the company has loaded up a Varmilo keyboard with Ducky keycaps and legends. Then, of course, there’s a bit of synergy there in terms of cross promotion. Anyway, the result is the Miya, a keyboard that’s coming in a variety of color combinations. It will come in an ANSI 68-key layout, ISO 69-key layout, and a Japanese 73-key layout.

Wireless, Wired

One of the perhaps less sexy but more sensible ideas Varmilo’s developed is the VD104M, a keyboard that works via Bluetooth 3.0 or standard wired USB. The built-in rechargeable 1,200mAh battery promises 170 hours of use, and it recharges automatically when it’s in wired mode. It’s a full size keyboard, with legends placed on the front of the caps instead of the top, where they’d normally be. It features dye-sub PBT keycaps, and the chassis also has a faux wood finish, which is a little odd given that it isn't actually made from wood.

There’s also a more compact version--the VB87M--which features Bluetooth 4 instead of Bluetooth 3. Varmilo promises just 3ms of “response period” and a range of over 10 meters.

A Calculator Mode?

The VA104Ms has a calculator mode. It’s a full-size keyboard, so it obviously has a “calculator mode” in that it has a numpad and is presumably connected to a PC that has, you know, a calculator on it. But this device takes the concept further (or perhaps just more literally?) by adding a simple 206 x 36 resolution display that shows your calculations. It functions independently from the PC if you want, so you could ostensibly use it without having it connected to a powered-up PC. To switch from calculator-only mode, just press Fn + Enter, and the calculations will appear in whatever program you have open on the PC (eg, Excel).

The model Varmilo had on hand at its Computex booth also had a faux (black) wood finish and charcoal gray keycaps with black legends.

Mac Attack

The VA87Mac is compatible with...Macs, per the name...but that is to say, it was built with macOS in mind. If you look closely, you can see that the keycaps have Mac legends by default (sort of), with Windows-specifics legends printed on the front of a few of them as secondary characters. It also recognizes Mac shortcuts. By default, it has 6KRO, which is typical of a mechanical keyboard connected to a MacOS machine, but you can toggle on NKRO as well.   

To enable Windows mode, press Fn + W; to switch to Mac mode, press Fn + A.

Varmilo noted that it’s supposed to be compatible with iOS devices, which doesn’t make sense unless the VA87Mac offers Bluetooth connectivity or you have a USB to Lightning adapter. (Apple seems to hate ports in general, let alone USB ports.) For now, the VA87Mac is wired only, but we imagine that will change.

Detached Numpads Galore

And then there’s a crowd favorite: detached numpads. Anecdotally, this is one of the items we end up discussing the most when we’re talking with people about mechanical keyboards. So many people love more compact TKL (and smaller) keyboard designs, but they can’t or don’t want to miss out on the extra capabilities of numpads. Another angle for some users is that they don’t care for the numpad but would use the extra keys for macros and other controls. A few keyboard makers--notably Asus and Tesoro--have solved this problem by building keyboards with detachable numpads, but you can also solve it by using an external numpad in the first place.

Varmilo has both wired and wireless (Bluetooth 3.0) 21-key numpads. The wireless version is the VB21M, which promises 190 hours of juice on two 750mAh AAA batteries. It sports dye-sub PBT keycaps with an ABS chassis. You can see that the layout is a little different than a standard numpad; there are four additional keys along the top row: Esc, Tab, “=”, and a backspace key. The wired (VA21M) and wireless models are the same other than the connectivity.

Unfortunately, the standalone numpads are not programmable at this time. That, of course, severely limits their usefulness, but Varmilo may enable programmability later on.

Making Music

Our personal favorite keyboard that Varmilo had to show off Computex was a version of the MA108C. With a special set of keycaps and some accompanying software, you can play music on it. Thus, it’s a musical keyboard, but it’s not a facsimile of a piano.

Instead of letters and the standard numpad characters, the keycaps all have numbers, and the dots appear to indicate octaves. Simply, when you tap a key, it plays a note. You can press multiple keys at a time to create chords. We didn’t have time to dig into the layout extensively on the show floor, but it seems that the keys offer other musical features, as well.

Outside of the niche use case of inputting notes into music notation software or fun and casual live music making, we’re not sure there’s any reason for this to exist. But it sure is delightful to play with.

Delights

Finally, there’s this smorgasbord of fun aftermarket and DIY gear. Have a look at the photos below, and listen: If that all-pink keyboard doesn’t bring you at least some small amount of joy, you are dead inside.

Note especially the PBT, dye-sublimated keycaps. They don’t come cheap, but they’re maybe less expensive than you might think. You can special order them for $2 per keycap with printing on top. If you add printing on, say, all five sides, it will cost more. That spectacular-looking spacebar with the city skyline, for instance, costs about $15 to make.

The English-language version of the Varmilo site is still sort of under construction, but you can find Varmilo keyboards available from outlets, including MechanicalKeyboards.com, Massdrop (sometimes), Amazon, and elsewhere.

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  • shrapnel_indie
    Interesting. If they are of quality, they just might be worthy of checking out much closer... if the prices are are good too. But... I guess, from what I just saw, those prices are definitely more in the custom build range of other keyboards out there.
  • Thrawn_42
    Put that calculator function into one of the detached numpads and I know a lot of my clients would buy one.
  • Paul Andrew
    i like this innovation with mk keyboards, is this exlusive in asian part? never seen this release in north america