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Carina: the quest for the perfect keyboard

This post covers my journey down the rabbit hole that is mechanical keyboards ending with my most current acquisition, the Drop Carina.

My quest first started with the Vortex Gear Race 3 (Rac3). I did not like the color scheme or DSA profile, so I tried the Input Club White Fox (ICWF). I did not like the Cherry MX Clear switches or board layout, so I tried a KBDfans 75 keyboard, which I largely loved but had to give up the Kailh Box Navies due to their loud clicky noises and also did not enjoy the cramped function row. I tried out a Vortex Gear Poker 3 RGB LE (Pok3r), but did not like the missing arrow keys and poorly diffused RGB in the case. I then tried out the Massdrop CTRL. It was great save for some quality control and Massdrop configurator issues. I then tried out an Asus TKL Claymore, which was fine save for the abysmal macro programming. Last, I tried a KBDfans Diamond (5°). It has been great, but the Cherry Reds are still not silent enough for my purposes, and it lacks per-key RGB lighting.

In terms of use-case, I have the Pok3r on my Stream PC, CTRL on my Gaming PC, and Diamond on my workstation. The Pok3r fits nicely there in the limited space, but the Cherry Blues are loud enough to pick up on my stream, which I am not fond of. The Diamond is perfect for work except that the Reds pick up on mic and can be distracting in meetings. The CTRL is perfect for gaming with Cherry Silent Reds, arrow keys, separated function row, etc.

Now, I ordered the Drop Carina kit. It is like the Diamond in size and underglow but it also has per-key RGB. It did not come with keycaps or switches, so I pre-ordered HK white pudding PBT backlit keycaps and acquired Aliaz 60g tactile switches, which were among the absolute quietest on my switch tester and were readily available. I found that the Diamond was the perfect size but at times a bit hard to see in low lighting conditions, so the Carina should fit the bill nicely and the Aliaz switches should solve my noise problem during work.

Keep reading for details on assembly and programming followed by my thoughts on this beautiful keyboard.

The kit assembly

The kit arrived from Drop.com with the PCB, case, cable, stabilizers, screws and standoffs, and a plate. I brought my own switches and keycaps. The kit is beautifully designed. The RGB glows beautifully throughout the case and through the switches and keycaps that I chose.

I had to assemble each of the stabilizers. Drop.com recommended that I clip, lube, and bandaid mod them, but I neglected to at first. They were very noisy. I decided to follow their recommendation, and it made a huge difference.

I had to connect the PCB with the aluminum plate that I purchased with the kit. From there, I had to put a switch in each of the four corners first. After that I alternated between left-most and right-most from row to row when installing each switch so as to ensure even pressure was applied on the PCB. Drop.com has a helpful video (SETTING UP YOUR CARINA | Drop) that I followed.

In just a few minutes, I was up and running, and it was time to create my keymap and flash firmware to the board.

The programming

(I wrote on on a similar experience elsewhere and I refer to it all the time because I don’t have any of this information memorized. You might find it helpful too, and here it is: https://www.reddit.com/r/MechanicalKeyboards/comments/8ct02i/macos_quick_start_guide_for_flashing_kbd75/?st=JKF0BDVY&sh=aca1db0b. Please note that the below information is a historical account for your viewing pleasure but it offers no guarantees as it is not a guide and I will not be able to help you troubleshoot yours if it does not work.)

I had to obtain QMK differently than normal so as to get the Massdrop Carina layout without the GUI configurator at the Drop.com site. I had to have Homebrew installed along with Xcode and Command Line Tools. Then, here’s what I did:

git clone https://github.com/Massdrop/qmk_firmware

I entered this command in Terminal (macOS) and hit RETURN.

It then installed QMK but with a Drop.com iteration that includes Carina. If you try to get QMK to update from the normal QMK fork, it does not yet include Carina (at least as of the time of this writing). As it turns out, as of right now, it won’t ever be added to the official QMK branch due to some coding issues on Drop.com’s side that the QMK contributors are not keen on. Until Drop.com fixes those coding issues, we will not see Carina added to the official QMK branch.

Once I installed QMK, I then navigated to the Keyboards directory, then Massdrop, and then Carina. From there, I found the keymap I wanted to duplicate and modify. I chose the mac_md keymap as it included all of the LED commands to control the Carina’s lighting. I gave it a new name, Phonevon.

Once I used the make command to create my bin file, I knew I was getting close, but I recalled that I needed some extra loading files. I looked it up on my previous blog here (https://iakobou.wordpress.com/2018/09/04/massdrops-ctrl-mechanical-keyboard-my-final-review-including-a-quick-start-guide-how-to-flash-the-keyboard-how-to-modify-the-rgb-and-more/). I also referenced the official documentation from the CTRL on Drop.com here (https://drop.com/talk/9382/how-to-configure-your-ctrl-keyboard). Per Drop.com, the processes are the same for the Carina (https://drop.com/buy/drop-carina-mechanical-keyboard-kit/talk/2740199).

With mdloader saved and made into an executable, I was now ready to flash the firmware to my Carina. Since my keymap was not installed on it already, I utilized a small pin to push the button on the bottom of the PCB to put it into bootloader mode and then ran the following Terminal command:

./mdloader_mac –first –download massdrop_carina_Phonevon.bin –restart

The loading script I used to flash the firmware.

It worked great! My keymap flashed successfully to Carina. I was able to retain the LED RGB functions and add my own macros and configuration.

With the silent switches and customized keymap along with the beautifully dispersed blue underglow and per-key backlighting, I now have the perfect keyboard. This is it. This is the one. This is the one I have been looking for all along. I found it. It’s here. And I’m stoked!

Or so I thought at first.

Thoughts on the Carina

Carina

The Carina is beautiful. I do wish the case were thicker so as to show off more underglow, but it is overall quite stunning. I’d give it an 8 out of 10 on aesthetics.

It uses QMK, so I can create macros as I did with my DZ60 and CTRL. I really appreciate this part.

However, while it uses QMK, it does not use the QMK RGB Matrix. Instead, it opts for a custom matrix. It uses special LED instructions in the keymap to configure the RGB lighting on the keyboard, and it is very confusing. There is a LED madness/insanity spreadsheet floating around on the internet to help generate bitwise values for assigning RGB colors or patterns to specific keys, but I have yet to see it update with the Carina configuration; it only has CTRL and ALT. This difference matters because the Carina does not have the same total LED count as its siblings, so the maths are not identical to determine the bitwise numbers. I tried setting up key-specific custom RGB assignments, but the values were slightly off the further down the board I got because I was having to guess a bit as the LED insanity sheet did not include Carina. As a result, some keys lit up correctly and others did not. Plus, I realized that, if I were to create additional macros or custom functions in the future and then want to set up specific per-key RGB assignments to account for those new key-combos, then I would have to recalculate the bitwise numbers from scratch–which would be a huge pain. It would be far easier to use the QMK RGB Matrix index system to assign values.

Furthermore, QMK RGB Matrix has 32 animations whereas Drop.com’s custom matrix has 10. In short, the custom matrix pales in comparison, which is ironic given that Drop.com says the keyboard will “brighten up any space”.

The stabilizers on the Carina are quite loud and rattle a lot. I did not clip, lube, and bandaid mod the stabilizers at first because they were not bad on the CTRL, but they are significantly louder on the Carina. Once I made those modifications later, they were quite subdued and pleasant.

If you are content on using the Drop.com Keyboard Configurator to setup your keymap and RGB lighting, this keyboard is great. If you were hoping to customize to your heart’s content within QMK itself, well, you can and you can’t–so it can be totally fine or can completely frustrate you, depending on what you want to do.

I will note that the flag-based LED instructions that Drop uses works pretty well for layer indication. I have six total layers and used the following LED instructions for setting a different color for the entire keyboard depending on the active layer:

led_instruction_t led_instructions[] = {

    { .flags = LED_FLAG_USE_ROTATE_PATTERN | LED_FLAG_MATCH_LAYER, .layer = 0, }, // blue base

    { .flags = LED_FLAG_USE_RGB | LED_FLAG_MATCH_LAYER, .layer = 1, .r = 0, .g = 255, .b = 0 }, // green

    { .flags = LED_FLAG_USE_RGB | LED_FLAG_MATCH_LAYER, .layer = 2, .r = 255, .g = 255, .b = 0 }, // yellow

    { .flags = LED_FLAG_USE_RGB | LED_FLAG_MATCH_LAYER, .layer = 3, .r = 250, .g = 100, .b = 0 }, // orange

    { .flags = LED_FLAG_USE_RGB | LED_FLAG_MATCH_LAYER, .layer = 4, .r = 255, .g = 0, .b = 0 }, // red

    { .flags = LED_FLAG_USE_RGB | LED_FLAG_MATCH_LAYER, .layer = 5, .r = 0, .g = 190, .b = 255 }, // sky blue

     { .end = 1 }

};

LED Instructions

The LED instructions work well for the whole keyboard, but trying to come up with individual key color assignments is painful and near impossible due to bitwise numbers as explained earlier. It was easier just to assign a color to the entire layer—but that’s not what I really wanted to do.

Another thing to note is how light the Carina is. It does not shift a whole lot, but it does not stay planted either. I wish it were heavier and more solid.

End-Game?

The Carina is a good keyboard, but it is not my end-game. It cannot be end-game unless it has full QMK RGB Matrix functionality among other things.

After trying out so many boards, I realize that these are the non-negotiable items for my end-game keyboard:

  • Per-key RGB backlighting
  • RGB underglow
  • PBT doubleshot keycaps, shine-through
  • 60% ANSI, standard rows
  • QMK (with RGB Matrix)
  • Acrylic case
  • Cherry MX Silent Red RGB switches
  • Clipped, lubed, and bandaid modded stabilizers

I have had a keyboard or two without backlighting. In low-light conditions, it is hard to see what keys I need and have found this feature to be necessary.

I have had a keyboard or two without underglow. While unnecessary, it is nice to have, especially for layer indication.

I have had a keyboard with ABS keycaps, and, it was almost mushy.

I have had TKL, 75%, 65%, and 60% keyboards, and I definitely am stuck on 60%.

I have had QMK, IC, Poker. I have found that QMK has been the easiest to deal with for macros and, while Poker was the easiest for handling RGB, QMK is sufficient. Overally, I really like QMK for all of its features and cannot imagine working with a keyboard without it.

Acrylic. It is beautiful. It combines with RGB underglow magnificently. As far as aesthetics are concerned, I must have it. So far, I have yet to see a better acrylic case than the 5°.

The Aliaz 60g are silent, sure enough, and, although they do have a slight tactile bump, they feel mushy. I do believe that the Cherry MX Silent Red RGB switches on my CTRL feel much better. As such, I am sticking with the Cherry switches from here on out.

So, between the Rac3, ICWF, KBD75, Pok3r, CTRL, 5° with DZ60, and Carina, I’d say the closest to end-game that I have come is with the Carina, but it still leaves me wanting more. I think my next build will be my true Northstar, and I shall name it Polaris. It must have all of my aforementioned non-negotiables. Do you have any suggestions?

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