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iQunix A80 Explorer Wireless Mechanical Keyboard Review: Retro Returns

The iQunix A80 Explorer is a blast from the past with modern sensibilities and outstanding quality.

iQunix A80 Explorer
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Tom's Hardware)

Our Verdict

The iQunix A80 Explorer’s retro design is neat, but superior build quality and an outstanding typing experience are what make it great.

For

  • + Delightful typing experience
  • + Unique, retro-inspired design
  • + Multiple connection modes, including 2.4 GHz for gaming
  • + Exceptional build quality

Against

  • - No software
  • - No macros or key remapping
  • - RGB lighting is dim in normal lighting

The iQunix A80 Explorer is a retro-inspired 80% keyboard that marries a vintage design with modern features. Following the company’s last big keyboard, the F96, the A80 has a lot to live up to. It delivers fan favorite elements, such as high-quality, colorful PBT keycaps and quiet stabilizers, and adds to them with a compact form factor and the option to use a 2.4 GHz wireless dongle or Bluetooth connection. 

The A80 comes to market with a price that ranges from $169 all the way to $199, depending on your choice of switches and whether you would like RGB or not. Our unit was priced at $189 and comes with full RGB and Cherry MX Red switches. 

iQunix also offers the board in L80 and M80 versions. The L80 variant is available in three additional colorways and has some minor changes to the function row and indicator light. The M80 is a bigger departure and delightfully cat-themed, right down to the shape of the keycaps and a pair of pointy ears along the top of the keyboard. I was sent the A80 and L80 versions to compare for this review but will be focusing on the A80 as it is the more unique of the two.  Let’s see if it has what it takes to become one of the best wireless keyboards.

iQunix A80 Explorer Specs

SwitchesCherry MX Red (tested), Blue, Brown, Silver, Silent Red; Gateron Red, Blue, Brown
LightingRGB
Onboard StorageNone
Media Keys With Fn
Connectivity USB Type-A cable, 2.4 GHz USB Type-A dongle, Bluetooth 5.0
Cable5.3 feet (1.6m), braided
Additional PortsNone
KeycapsPBT plastic, dye-sublimated
SoftwareNone
Dimensions (LxWxH) 12.6 x 6.3 x 2.1 inches (321 x 159 x 52mm)
Weight 3.5 pounds (1.6kg)

Design of the iQunix A80 Explorer

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The iQunix A80 Explorer is a blast from the past. It’s compact in size, measuring 12.6 x 6.3 inches, making it smaller than your average tenkeyless mechanical keyboard, while still including all of the most important keys. It features a white, yellow and teal color scheme that feels straight out of the '80s without directly copying any single inspiration.

The aesthetic goes beyond the keycaps. The case, which is made of ABS plastic, is mostly the same dark teal as many of the keycaps, but has a yellow bottom that wraps around the back to match the accent keys. There’s also a yellow strip just above the function row that’s decorated with an array of tiny dots. It comes with a matching cable that’s braided in the same teal hue and uses yellow heat shrink to complete the look. The same, highly themed design applies to each of the x80 models in their different color schemes, essentially turning each into its own desktop conversation starter.

iQunix A80 Explorer (top) and iQunix L80 (bottom)   (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The A80 looks even more vintage than its L80 counterparts. Rather than lay completely flat, the function row is angled upward, a bit like the old IBM Model M. It’s a small change that I first assumed was only for looks, but I quickly discovered that it makes the function row more comfortable to use (and faster to access for gaming).

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Between the Esc and F1 keys is a large indicator light encased in frosted plastic. It’s the same length as a keycap and feels much more like a lamp than the tiny LEDs common to keyboards today. It pulls double-duty as a Caps Lock and battery life indicator and will also change colors and flash, depending on if you’re attempting to connect over Bluetooth or the included wireless dongle. On the L80 models, this lamp is a simple plastic piece, and the indicator light is moved to a tiny LED in the center of the keyboard.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

A vintage theme alone isn’t enough to make a great keyboard, so I was happy to find high-points all throughout the A80's design, (in addition to a few disappointments). Taking the keyboard as a whole, it certainly seems that iQunix has paid attention to what enthusiast communities like r/mechanicalkeyboards clamor for.

The keycaps, in addition to being themed, are made of thick PBT plastic with dye-sublimated legends. Typing on them felt solid and satisfying, and there’s a subtle texture to their surface that felt nice under the finger. More importantly, they’re resistant to shining and degrading over time, unlike the standard ABS plastic keycaps found on most pre-built keyboards. Doubleshot keycaps, which use a second piece of plastic for the legends, would have been even better to increase the crispness of the legends, but these are well done and look great.

You can get the keyboard with RGB or, for $20 less, with no backlighting. The RGB version uses per-key lighting, so lighting animations flow smoothly, and reactive typing responds to every key press. There are seven lighting modes: static, wave, per-key reactive typing, rippling, spectrum cycling, breathing and a per-key rainbow that reminds me a bit of a jar of jelly beans. You can control each effect's brightnes and speed, and most are color-customizable across nine different colors. There's no per-key customization, however, so you’re stuck with these presets. Since the switches aren’t backlit, the lighting takes on an underglow effect and isn’t very bright. It looks great in a dim room but doesn’t stand out much in daylight. 

Wireless Experience on the iQunix A80 Explorer

Despite its vintage look, the A80 is actually quite modern with its connectivity options. You can connect via the USB cable (the keyboard uses USB Type-C to USB Type-A) or wirelessly with Bluetooth 5.0 or a 2.4 GHz USB-A dongle. 

For work or gaming at the PC, the 2.4 GHz dongle performed perfectly and was just as responsive as the wired connection, even when gaming. 

Using Bluetooth, the A80 connected reliably to my phone or laptop. Unlike the F96, which supported three Bluetooth devices, the A80 only supports one; (although, you could wirelessly pair it with 2 devices if you use the dongle). You’ll be stuck clearing the last connection and re-pairing every time if you plan to use it with multiple Bluetooth devices. There’s also no place to store the USB dongle on the keyboard itself, so you’ll need to take care not to lose it in transit.

On the plus side, the A80 supports a large 4,000 mAh battery that iQunix claims is good for 200 days over Bluetooth and 60 days over 2.4 GHz with no backlight. I left my backlight on the rainbow wave setting for a full week of testing and only managed to drain 30% of its battery, thanks to a quick-acting sleep mode that turns off the lights after several minutes of idle. There’s no software to see a battery read-out, but holding the Function button and pressing “B” will cause the indicator to flash in 10% intervals to indicate remaining battery life. When you’re below 10%, the indicator light will turn red, prompting you to plug in.

Mechanical Switches in the iQunix A80 Explorer

The A80 Explorer comes your choice of Cherry MX or Gateron key switches. From Team Cherry, you can choose from Red (linear), Blue (clicky), Brown (tactile), Silver (speed) or Silent Red ($10 upcharge). From Team Gateron is the standard Red, Blue or Brown. It’s a plentiful array and a nod to the enthusiast community that often prefers Gateron switches to Cherries, due to their increased perceived smoothness.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

If you’d rather use different switches, you can do that too, thanks to the A80’s hot-swap functionality. Rather than switches soldered to the keyboard, you can simply unplug each of the A80's switches, using the included switch-puller tool. This is an excellent feature, especially for newcomers looking for a way to change their mechanical keyboard switches and try new ones without needing to invest in a new keyboard. It also means broken switches can now be pulled and replaced in the event of a spill. The A80 supports both 3-pin and 5-pin switches, so is compatible with both PCB-mounted and plate-mounted types of switches.

Pulling the switches out, I was surprised to find that iQunix went so far as to add sound dampening foam underneath the switch plate. This is a common practice with custom keyboards to reduce the hollowness in the chassis and unwanted switch noise but isn’t often found on production keyboards. This enhanced the typing experience and reduced the overall volume of the keyboard.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Below the larger keys, the Explorer uses Costar-style stabilizers. Instead of using dummy switches, like most keyboards, the A80 uses plastic inserts that attach directly to the wire under each longer keycap. This type of stabilizer is harder to remove but short of lubing the switches or changing keycaps, there's no reason to. The stabilizers are well-lubricated out of the box and have virtually no rattle. They are, without exaggeration, some of the best stabilizers I’ve found on a pre-built keyboard and made the typing experience sublime.

Typing Experience on the iQunix A80 Explorer

iQunix A80 Explorer

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The A80 is available with both Cherry and Gateron switches. Depending on your choice, the specs of each will vary. My unit came with Cherry MX Red switches, which  feature a lightweight 45g actuation force and smooth, linear travel. They actuate at 2mm and have a total travel distance of 4mm, both of which are very standard and should feel familiar to anyone who has used a mechanical keyboard before. 

Typing on both the A80 and L80 was a pleasure, though I give the edge to the A80, due to the improved ergonomics of its function row. Cherry switches have a tendency to generate spring noise, but the keyboards' damping foam reduced this greatly while also adding a feeling of solidity. The slight texture to the keycaps felt nice under my fingers, and their thickness resulted in a satisfyingly thick sound when bottoming out. The stabilized keys, like Backspace and Spacebar, offered absolutely no rattle and made typing on both keyboards extremely nice in feel and sound profile.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The A80 was comfortable to use and felt natural to me, even without a palm rest, but it might be too tall for some . The bottom chin on the A80 stands just over 0.5 inch tall, and the L80 increases that to almost 1 inch. Both keyboards are built with a gentle angle to the keyset, even without the tilt feet engaged, but you can increase this further by flipping out either to one of two angles. 

 My average typing speed hovers around 110 words per minute (wpm) with 95% accuracy. Using the A80, I averaged 113 wpm with 98% accuracy across 10 Monkeytype tests. This is an improvement but close enough that it better reflects how easy the keyboard is to adapt to versus any advantage in the responsiveness of its switches.

One small, but meaningful, consideration is the angle of the keyboard. The case is designed with a gentle incline to improve typing ergonomics, even when laying flat. This can be increased further with two sets of tilt feet on the bottom of the keyboard, small and large. I found the natural angle to be enough, but the added customization is a welcome addition.

Gaming Experience on the iQunix A80 Explorer

The iQunix A80 and L80 keyboards aren’t gaming keyboards but you can certainly use them to play games. The biggest difference is that they don’t offer the level of programmability and customization promised by the best gaming keyboards. Since there's no software or onboard programming, creating macros, custom remaps and shortcuts aren’t possible. If you don’t need those things, the A80 is able to deliver a responsive gaming experience over its cable or dongle connection.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

For gaming, keypresses need to be registered instantaneously. iQunix promises 1ms response time whether you’re connected over USB or using the A80’s wireless dongle. True to the claims, I wasn’t able to perceive any difference at all. Even in twitch-heavy first-person shooters, like CS:GO, the A80 performed impeccably using its wireless connection.

Bluetooth was more laggy during testing. The response time increases to 8ms over Bluetooth, which is enough to be perceptible. It’s not a good fit for games that require fast reaction times, but if you’re a fan of playing turn-based strategy or card battlers, it’s perfectly serviceable. I was able to play several hours of Total War: Three Kingdoms using Bluetooth, and the added latency was barely noticeable. In Call of Duty: Warzone, it certainly was, so it's best to stick to slower-paced games.

While I missed being able to remap keys and have different profiles for multiple games, gaming on the A80 still felt great in the same way that typing felt great. The keys were smooth and consistent. And if you like linear switches but don't like overly sensitive ones, such as the Cherry MX Speed Silvers offered in the Corsair K100 RGB gaming keyboard, the A80 is a natural fit. Moving my character and sending commands was smooth and reliable.

Features and Software

The biggest limitation of the A80 is its lack of programmability. Unlike the F96, there’s no software, so custom macros, remaps, and customized RGB schemes are out of the question. 

iQunix does include the ability to swap the Caps Lock and Ctrl keys with a key combination and offers built-in Mac support with another, but if you’re a gamer, you might be better-suited looking at a dedicated gaming keyboard instead of one designed around typing like the A80. 

You do have access to media controls and a few shortcuts built-in around the F-row and arrow keys with the Fn button.

Bottom Line

iQunix A80 Explorer

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The iQunix A80 is an exceptionally good keyboard. (The same can be said for the L80, which is very similar in its overall design.) There’s a remarkable attention to detail here, from the bold, retro design and matching cable, to the use of damping foam and outstanding stabilizers. The result is a keyboard that's truly unique and offers a typing experience that competes with a custom-built mechanical keyboard.

Still, that bold design and relatively expensive price isn't for everybody. If you like the form factor but can’t afford the A80, the Keychron K2, while less premium in build, starts at $80 for the version with RGB. If you don’t mind losing a few keys, the Ducky Mecha SF Radiant trades the function row for an iridescent all-metal chassis and keeps the hot-swap functionality and PBT keycaps but isn't wireless. You could also consider building your own custom mechanical keyboard and tailoring every piece unique to your taste.

If you like the A80's unique sense of style and don’t need advanced programming features, it's one of the best pre-built keyboards for typing available today. It’s a winner in feel and responsiveness, and the inclusion of enthusiast favorite features, like hot-swappable switches and high-quality, themed keycaps make it a viable option for years to come. It doesn’t come cheap, but the A80 delivers an outstanding experience.