For most users, 60% keyboards are probably the smallest mechanical keyboards they’ll ever see. But there’s a small, vibrant market for even smaller boards, the most prominent of which is the 40% keyboard. These keyboards eliminate the number row for an even smaller footprint that relies on multiple layers to access all the usual keys.
These tiny 40% keyboards excel when you need an ultra-compact keyboard for portability or aesthetics. They will take some getting used to, but the effort’s probably worth it if you’re after something different. Let’s get started.
- Best Pre-Built 40% Keyboard: Vortex Core RGB is one of the few pre-built 40% keyboards available, offering four layers and a standard staggered layout that’s relatively easy to get used to.
- Best Custom 40% Keyboard: Drop + OLKB Planck V6 is a full-featured ortholinear 40% keyboard with hot-swap PCB, a CNC-milled aluminum case, and full programming via QMK.
- Custom 40% Keyboard Alternative: YMDK Air40 sports an angled aluminum case and a stabilizer-less layout for a slightly lower price than the Drop.
Our Favorite 40% Keyboards
|Switch Type(s)||Cherry MX Black/Blue/Brown/Red/Clear/Silver/Silent Red|
|Keycap Material||Dye-sub PBT|
|Dimensions (W x D x H)||9.84 x 3.14 x 1.12 inches|
The Vortex Core RGB is possibly the most accessible 40% keyboard you can get and is one of the few pre-built 40% boards available right now. That alone merits a place on any list, but it’s also a solid board in its own right.
Unlike many custom and barebones 40% boards, the Core RGB sticks with the standard staggered key arrangement we’re all familiar with. This lowers the barrier of entry, as you can focus solely on getting to grips with the frequent layer switching you’ll have to do with a 40% keyboard.
You get four layers with the Vortex Core RGB: one fixed base layer and three fully-programmable custom layers. The Core RGB uses a combination of layer switching and the Fn1 key to give you access to the extra layers. You remap these layers on the keyboard itself through a series of key commands (available in the manual).
On-board remapping is a bit more hassle than remapping with a drag-and-drop or click-based software interface. However, the upside is that you can remap your Vortex Core anywhere, provided you remember the right key commands.
The Vortex Core RGB comes with nice PBT keycaps in the uniform DSA profile. All the extra commands are printed on the keycaps, with helpful color-coding to remind you which keys are on which layers. It’s all wrapped up in a narrow-bezel, CNC-milled aluminum frame that adds weight and a premium feel to the board.
Overall, the Vortex Core RGB is a solid choice for those looking to dip their toes into the 40% keyboard world. It’s not the most advanced 40% board, but it’s a great first step for those who just want to downsize without too much of a headache.
Note that stock levels are slightly limited, and some variations (notably the non-RGB version) are selling on a pre-order basis at the time of writing.
|Switch Type(s)||Hot-swappable Cherry MX, Alps|
|Dimensions (W x D x H)||9.21 x 3.18 x 1.29 inches|
If you’re after a deeply customizable 40% keyboard and don’t mind the effort and extra cost of building from a barebones kit, check out the Drop + OLKB Planck V6.
The Drop + OLKB Planck V6 is an ortholinear barebones keyboard that comes with two case styles in various colors. You get to choose between a plain translucent acrylic case, or CNC-milled aluminum cases in anything from eye-catching yellow to a more sedate Space Gray.
Your options don’t stop there, either. The Drop + OLKB Planck V6 supports hot-swap Cherry MX switches and soldered Alps switches, giving you a wider variety of switch options than usual.
Since you’ll have to buy your switches separately anyway, this gives you even more room to build the perfect Planck for you. Note that the included plate only supports MX switches, so you’ll have to run a plateless setup if you go with Alps or Matias switches.
The Drop + OLKB Planck also supports a few different bottom row layouts to suit your needs. You can go for a grid layout with all 1u keys, a single 2u small spacebar like in the image above, or a bottom row with two 2u spacebars. Of course, you can set these keys up however you like via QMK, which the Planck V6 supports natively.
One major benefit of QMK support is that you get many more layers than a pre-built like the Vortex Core. QMK supports 16 fully-customizable layers, unlike the 3 available on the Vortex. If you feel your perfect 40% keyboard will need a bunch of layers, the Drop + OLKB Planck V6 is definitely the better option.
Overall, the Drop + OLKB Planck V6 is the 40% keyboard for anyone who wants a thoroughly customizable keyboard that they can set up exactly how they want. It’s a pricey keyboard once you factor in the cost of switches and keycaps, but we think it’s worth it.
3. YMDK Air40
|Switch Type(s)||Hot-swappable Cherry MX|
YMDK’s Air40 is a custom 40% keyboard that packs in all the essential features you want from a custom offering at a more budget-friendly price than the Drop + OLKB Planck.
Like the Planck, the Air40 has an orthogonal layout with all the keys arranged in a grid. The bottom row supports all three common bottom row configurations: all 1u, a single 2u (pictured below), and two 2u “Spacebars.”
So far, so standard, but one of the more interesting features of the YMDK Air40 is that it uses a totally stabilizer-less design. That makes it even quicker to assemble and reconfigure if needed and gives it a slightly different feel, at the cost of slightly reduced stability on the 2u keys.
Another differentiator is its angled aluminum case. I think it makes the Air40 look a bit bulky, but those who prefer steeper typing angles will likely appreciate the case regardless of its aesthetic appeal. The Drop + OLKB and Vortex Core are both flat, which some of you may not enjoy.
The Air 40 supports VIA natively, which is great for anyone who wants to dig into 40% keyboard layouts and customize it to their preferences. Flashing QMK is also an option, although some users have had issues doing so. If you don’t have a pressing need to import QMK configurations, we suggest sticking with VIA to avoid any issues there.
One nice bonus with the YMDK Air40 is that the price includes switches and assembly, although you’ll have to contact YMDK after purchasing to select your switches and preferred layout. That makes it a solid deal compared to the Drop + OLKB Planck, as you’ll only have to spend a bit more for keycaps.
Overall, the YMDK Air40 is a great custom 40% keyboard that ticks all the right boxes at a relatively affordable price. If you prefer stabilizers on your 2u keys, check out YMDK’s YMD40 V2 instead.
Before You Buy
40% keyboards are a significant departure from even 60% keyboards, so you won’t want to jump into getting one without a bit of preparation. Let’s run through a few important topics you should know before buying one.
40% keyboards rely entirely on rapid layer switching whenever you need to access keys that aren’t on the base layer. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, think of it as toggle-able Fn layers, where you don’t have to hold down the Fn key to access the different keys.
So, for instance, your base layer on a 40% keyboard could be the standard QWERTY as seen on the keycaps, but the next layer up could let you access F1 – F12 and your number keys. The layer after, then, could be for all the navigation cluster keys. The sky’s the limit, really, as almost all 40% keyboards are programmable to some extent.
Pre-built 40% keyboards like the Vortex Core will usually give you three custom layers (for four layers in total), which should be enough for most users. If you need more, then you’ll want custom keyboards that run QMK or VIA, as they support up to 16 layers for complex configurations.
The biggest challenge will be getting used to having to switch layers to access the keys you need. It’s not impossible to get used to, but it’ll take time. That said, those who need to use numbers regularly will probably be better off with a larger layout that gives you direct access to them.
Staggered vs. Ortholinear
For most of you, a 40% keyboard might be the first time you see an ortholinear layout on a mechanical keyboard. Ortholinear keyboards arrange the keys in a square grid, which supposedly minimizes finger travel and helps improve typing efficiency.
This is likely one of the most significant factors to consider when shopping for a 40% keyboard. It can be challenging to adapt to the layer-switching 40% philosophy while grappling with a new layout. If you’re not interested in dealing with both at once, you want a staggered 40% keyboard.
But if you’re feeling adventurous and don’t mind learning a new layout, an ortholinear 40% keyboard might just be right for you. The learning curve will be even steeper, but you might find it worth the hassle in the long run.
The main appeal of 40% keyboards is the small size and reduced footprint. If you work on the go a lot and need something tiny you can just throw in your backpack, then the learning curve of a 40% mechanical keyboard might be worth it.
Of course, you could also just want a small keyboard for the aesthetics of it, which is fine too. A 40% keyboard will round off a minimalistic gaming setup brilliantly, at the cost of that same learning curve. But if you think it’s worth the visual payoff, be our guest!
FPS gamers might find 40% keyboard gaming worth checking out, especially if you don’t use any number keys and only really need WASD. The smaller size means you can bring your mouse hand closer to your keyboard hand, improving ergonomics and potentially reducing arm and shoulder strain. Check out our guide to keyboard sizes for some information about ergonomics and keyboard size.
A staggered 40% keyboard like the Vortex Core is probably the best option to minimize muscle memory issues. Still, I know a few people who game on ortholinear 40% keyboards and seem to enjoy it a lot.
Buying a 40% keyboard is a niche choice with its own challenges and rewards. The restricted layout and heavy reliance on layer switching mean they’re not the easiest boards to get familiar with. Still, the payoff is an ultra-compact keyboard that’s at home in backpacks and space-constrained setups alike.
If you’re merely curious about 40% keyboards, we suggest starting with the Vortex Core RGB. It’s ready to go out of the box, and the staggered key layout means you should be able to get to grips with it relatively quickly. But if you’re interested in diving into the deep end with a barebones keyboard kit, the Drop + OLKB Planck V6 is a great premium option.
Want a compact board but not quite ready to commit to the 40 percent keyboard lifestyle? Check out our list of the best 60% keyboards for some more conventional options.