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barebones keyboard

8 Best Barebones Keyboards in 2021

If you’re in search of a barebones keyboard then you’ve come to the right place.

Devoid of any switches or keycaps, a barebones chassis is one of the more economic solutions for keyboard enthusiasts who already have their own parts.

Generally, most include a set of stock stabs, but they’ll probably need replacing down the line, too…

Below, we will cover the best mechanical keyboards that are stripped right down for customization.


What is the best barebones keyboard?

8. Glorious GMMK Full-size Barebones

USB: Left-center
Backlighting: RGB
Hot-swappable: ✓
Wireless: X
Software: ✓

The GMMK Full-size Barebones is a 108-socket mechanical keyboard chassis with a sleek and minimalistic design. Upon its original release, it made a name for itself as the world’s first RGB, hot-swappable board and has since then became a best seller in the gaming community.

Built with a strong, sandblasted aluminum faceplate, the GMMK lacks no quality. Running around the edge of the faceplate is a thin, polished bevel that adds to the aesthetics of the board. Apart from this, you will notice three LEDs indicators for the caps lock, scroll lock, and num lock.

Although the top half of the chassis is entirely aluminum, this clips into a plastic bottom shell. The shell has four rubber feet, plus two adjustable flip-up feet. In addition to the feet, there’s housing for a free keycap puller as well as a USB cable routing channel that runs along the back edge.

Sandwiched between both parts is the boards hot-swappable PCB. This is compatible with plate-mounted switches (3-pin) and features north-facing SMD LEDs. While the LEDs are quite bright, the lighting they produce is not comparable to Drop keyboards, which we will cover further in this list.

All RGB backlighting is controllable on board or with the downloadable GMMK software. Using the software, you can adjust the per-key RGB lighting and assign macros to any key. Personally, we think the software is a little bit unintuitive, though the onboard controls are clearly written in the manual.

All in all, it’s a fantastic entry-level, full-size barebones keyboard.

Pros
  • Aluminum frame
  • Highly customizable RGB
  • Software is easy to use
  • Long, braided cable
  • Flip-up feet
Cons
  • Software only works with Windows
  • 3-pin switches only
  • Noisy stabilizers

7. Drop Shift Barebones

USB: Left and Right
Backlighting: RGB
Hot-swappable: ✓
Wireless: X
Software: ✓

The Drop Shift Barebones is a modern and inventive mechanical keyboard. Significantly shorter than a traditional full-size board, it goes for a space-efficient 1800 layout with 99 keys. This results in the home-key cluster moving above the Numpad for a similar form factor to that of a TKL.

Constructed with a CNC anodized aluminum frame, the build quality is solid and there isn’t any flex. Besides providing plenty of strength, the frame also acts as a built-in switch plate for the PCB. The PCB is entirely hot-swappable and can house a selection of 3-pin mechanical switches.

As this is a barebones board, you will need to purchase your own switches and keycaps, however, a set of plate-mounted Cherry-style stabilizers do come with the deal. The stabs are somewhat decent but can be prone to rattling on some of the larger keys. As a result, you may want to replace them.

RGB backlighting is another prominent feature of the Drop Shift. A diffused light bar wraps around the entire case and north-facing LEDs are soldered into the PCB. Together, they produce a beautiful lightbox effect that shines evenly in and around the case and throughout the floating keycaps.

Using the QMK firmware, all of the backlighting and keys are fully programmable. The configurator allows you to program macros, customize key re-mappings, and set the RGB lighting just as you like. Although we found the software to be a little primitive, it does perform enough functionalities.

Overall, the Shift is a beautiful keyboard for anyone looking to add some flair to their desktop.

Pros
  • Solid construction
  • Bright RGB backlighting
  • Easy to disassemble
  • Two USB Type-C on both sides
  • Magnetic feet
Cons
  • Little documentation
  • Pricey

6. GMMK Compact Barebones

USB: Left
Backlighting: RGB
Hot-swappable: ✓
Wireless: X
Software: ✓

The GMMK Compact Barebones is a versatile and satisfying 60% mechanical keyboard. By having a sturdy aluminum faceplate with sleek bevels and no visual branding; it follows the same minimalist design as the larger full-size model. Similarly, it works with any three-pin switch under the sun.

In terms of the build, the aluminum top frame attaches to a plastic bottom shell. Even so, the board is sturdy, does not flex, or produce any squeaky plastic noises. On the bottom of the shell are four rubber feet, a key-cap puller, and a pair of height-adjustable feet with one level of adjustment.

Just like the full-size, the Compact is hot-swappable with 3-pin mechanical switches and features north-facing LEDs. Being able to hot-swap between the switches without having to do any soldering is a game-changer. Unfortunately, though, it does mean you’ll have to clip any 5-pin switches.

Thanks to the PCBs per-key LED lighting, RGB backlighting is another standout feature. The backlighting provides up to 16.8 million color combinations and is nice and bright. All brightness options, lighting effects, and colorways are all fully controllable onboard or with the native software.

Lastly, you’ll appreciate the extra accessories you get in the box. Besides the key-cap puller, the board comes with a few replacement feet and a nice, thick braided USB cable. The cable is six feet in length, which should be more than long enough for the majority of people.

Overall, with the GMMK Compact you can expect a superb, 60% chassis that’s easy to tailor.

Pros
  • Aluminum frame
  • Highly customizable RGB
  • Software is easy to use
  • Long, braided cable
  • Flip-up feet
Cons
  • Software only works with Windows
  • Hot-swap with 3-pin switches only
  • Noisy stabilizers
  • Micro USB

5. Drop ALT Barebones

USB: Left and Right
Backlighting: RGB
Hot-swappable: ✓
Wireless: X
Software: ✓

The Drop ALT Barebones is one of the best 65% mechanical keyboard chassis on the market right now. As a streamlined version of the CTRL model, it packs 67 keys into a tight, compact space. This includes a full set of arrow keys and numerals that so many gamers prefer.

Apart from the noticeable size difference, the design of the ALT is almost identical to the CTRL. The build features the same solid aluminum construction with curved rounded edges and an acrylic diffuser wedged between the middle. Underneath are four rubber feet, plus two magnetic raisers.

Just like the CTRL, the frame also acts as a built-in switch plate. This supports the majority of 3-pin mechanical switches as well as the plate-mounted stabilizers that come with the deal. Due to using the same set of Cherry-style stabs, the stabilizers are however one area that may need fixing up.

Thanks to the light pipes that ring around the sides and LEDs beneath each switch, the RGB looks magical. Both sets of LEDs are incredibly vibrant, syncs together beautifully, and produce an excessive amount of light. Until you see it with your own eyes, you won’t realize how nice it really is.

All RGB effects are controllable onboard or via the software. The onboard controls let you perform quick and simple actions like changing the brightness or customizing the colors. Alternatively, more complex customizations can be programmed using the QMK software.

Pros
  • Solid construction
  • Bright RGB backlighting
  • Easy to disassemble
  • Two USB Type-C on both sides
  • Magnetic feet
Cons
  • Little documentation
  • Pricey

4, Glorious GMMK TKL Barebones

USB: Left-center
Backlighting: RGB
Hot-swappable: ✓
Wireless: X
Software: ✓

The GMMK TKL is the tenkeyless version of the popular full-size Glorious GMMK. This board stands out for its minimalistic, raised key-cap design with almost no visible branding. It also happens to be one of the best hot-swappable mechanical keyboards that money can buy.

Similar to the GMMK full-size, the GMMK TKLs construction is in two parts: a gorgeous, sandblasted aluminum frame and a plastic bottom shell. The frame acts as the top plate and covers the sides, while the bottom plastic shell has four rubber feet and a pair of height-adjustable feet.

The large, steady, frame provides a superb modding platform. All 87 sockets are fully modular, which makes it easy to drop in and install a selection of 3-pin switches into the PCB. For stock switches, it comes with Gaterons; however, you can also use Kailh’s, Cherry MX’s, and clones.

While the board is nice and solid, you might want to perform a few mods out of the box. For starters, the stabilizers are quite rattly, so you’ll probably want to replace them with a quality set of GMK plates or genuine Cherry stabs. Furthermore, the stock keycaps only use thin ABS plastic.

With a high polling rate, anti-ghosting, and a 16.8 million-color RGB backlight, the GMMK features everything you would expect with a premium product. Customizing the RGB backlight is possible onboard or via the software. The software is super basic but still good enough to get the job done.

To sum up, the TKL is an all-round, outstanding barebones keyboard.

Pros
  • Aluminum frame
  • Highly customizable RGB
  • Software is easy to use
  • Long, braided cable
  • Flip-up feet
Cons
  • Software only works with Windows

3. GMMK Pro Barebones

USB: Center
Backlighting: RGB
Hot-swappable: ✓
Wireless: X
Software: ✓

The GMMK Pro is a luxurious, 75% barebones kit that’s ideal for custom keyboard builds. It features a fully modular, 83 key layout (including a clickable media control knob), 16.8 million per-key RGB, and two acrylic panels on the sides of the case for some signature accent lighting.

Built from aluminum, the quality of the Pro is second to none. With rounded bezels and an engraved Glorious logo on the back, you can tell that no manufacturing costs were cut. This attention to detail follows through into the interior of the case where you will find two foam dampeners inside.

To further reduce vibration and naturally dampen keystrokes, the GMMK Pro goes for a gasket-mounted plate design. Essentially, this is where two strips of silicon sit on either side of the plate to prevent it from contacting the case. This results in an even more cushioned and quieter clamp.

The south-facing PCB is hot-swappable and supports both plate mount and PCB mounted switches. In addition to this, it supports both clip-In or screw-In stabs. You’ll be glad to know that the board comes with its own “GOAT” screw-in stabilizers that are factory pre-clipped and pre-lubed.

For software, the GMMK Pro gives you a few different choices. It’s compatible with its own native “Glorious Core”, or QMK and VIA open-source firmware. VIA is a configurator app that allows you to tweak the keymap in real-time so you can quickly program any keyboard keys via the QMK firmware.

Pros
  • Aluminum case
  • Rotatory knob
  • Side RGB accent lighting
  • Gasket mount design
  • Dampening foam
Cons
  • Non-GOAT stabilizers may not fit well
  • Gaskets are very tightly compressed
  • Need to update the firmware

2. Keychron Q1 Barebones

USB: Left
Backlighting: RGB
Hot-swappable: ✓
Wireless: X
Software: ✓

The Keychron Q1 Barebones is a highly customizable mechanical keyboard chassis that closely rivals the GMMK Pro. Similarly, it features a 75% layout with 83 keys (including a vacant socket for a rotary knob), a gasket mount design, and is fully programmable via QMK and VIA.

Made from CNC aluminum, the board is solid and has plenty of strength. Underneath are four rubber feet that help to raise the case just above the ground. Moreover, on the back left of the case is a USB Type-C port as well as a toggle switch for swapping between a Windows and macOS layout.

Due to having a gasket mount design, the plate provides up to 2.5mm of generous flex. This makes it considerably more flexible than the GMMK Pro, which has a reputation for being quite stiff. As a result, you can expect an even softer typing experience with a slightly more satisfying sound.

The hot-swap PCB is compatible with 5-pin mechanical switches and has south-facing RGB LEDs. As this is a barebones board, no switches are included but you do get a nice pair of screw-in stabs. These are silver-plated Gateron stabilizers that are factory lubed and sound decent out of the box.

In contrast to the GMMK Pro (that can also be used with Glorious Core), the Keychron Q1 relies solely on QMK and VIA support. Nevertheless, this still allows you to program/ remap each key and configure the backlighting with ease – so it’s not really a deciding factor.

When it comes to choosing between the two 75% barebones keyboards, personally, we think the Keychron Q1 is the one to go for. This is due to having a slightly cheaper entry price and a better-implemented gasket mount.

Keychron Q1 Barebone Version Unboxing
Pros
  • Aluminum case
  • Optional rotatory knob
  • Gasket mount design
  • Screw-in stabilizers
  • Dampening foam
Cons
  • No wireless connectivity
  • Case has a slight pinging sound
  • No height or angle adjustment

1. Drop CTRL Barebones

USB: Left and Right
Backlighting: RGB
Hot-swappable: ✓
Wireless: X
Software: ✓

The Drop CTRL Barebones is a premium mechanical keyboard chassis that simply has it all. As a scaled-down version of a full-size board, it packs 87 keys into a compact TKL design. Even so, it still has room for a full set of function keys, arrow keys, and navigation keys.

When compared to the Drop Shift, the sleek, low-profile design of the CTRL is practically the same. This consists of an aluminum top and bottom frame that has plenty of strength and rigidity. Wedged in between is an acrylic diffuser that provides LED illumination from all four sides of the board.

Underneath are six rubber feet that allow the CTRL to sit completely flat. If you want to give the board a slight inclination (or decline), a nice little bonus is that it also includes two magnetic rubber feet. These simply clip into the holes in the bottom and provide a 6-degree typing angle.

Similar to the Drop Shift, the aluminum frame also acts as a built-in switch plate for the PCB. The PCB is completely hot-swappable and can house a large selection of plate-mounted (3-pin) switches. Although the switches aren’t included, you do get a “mediocre” set of Cherry-style stabs.

Lastly, RGB backlighting is another standout feature of the CTRL. Each switch on the PCB has an individual LED and LEDs run evenly along the diffuser sides. Together they produce a beautiful rainbow effect that shines evenly in and around the case and throughout the floating keycaps.

To sum up, the CTRL Barebones is an awesome mechanical keyboard that comes in one of the most popular form factors.


Frequently Asked Questions

What does a barebones keyboard mean?

A barebones keyboard ships without any switches or keycaps. Instead of receiving the whole package, the buyer will just recieve the case (with the PCB), the stabilizers, and any accessories. This allows the buyer to customize the build just as they like.

What is a barebones keyboard?

A barebones keyboard is a semi-made mechanical keyboard that ships without any switches or keycaps. Although they are required to complete the keyboard, they are not included with the deal. This lowers the cost of the unit and allows the user to complete the build the way they like.

Does GMMK barebones come with stabilizers?

Yes, all GMMK barebones boards come with pre-lubed stabilizers. The GMMK Full-size, TKL, and Compact boards feature plate-mounted stabs while the GMMK Pro uses PCB mounted, screw-in stabs.



We hope you found a barebones keyboard on this list.

Click here for the 17 best Mechanical Keyboard Kits!

Click here for the 23 best Hot-Swappable Keyboards!








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