Drop Signature Series Islay Night hands-on: A $349, arrow-free experience

Drop Signature Series Islay Night hands-on: A $349, arrow-free experience

Scharon Harding

You can often tell a custom-made mechanical keyboard when you see it. The keycaps have a selection of colors, shapes and/or heights that you haven’t seen united before. The owner swears the mechanical switches are something special, and they’re all housed in a chassis of their favorite color, topped off with the perfect level of stabilizers, lubrication, and sound dampeners that you can’t handpick with a prebuilt alternative. Drop, which sells parts to keyboard enthusiasts, knows that not everyone has the time, patience, or even skill to make something like this. Its line of prebuilt keyboards—from its $500 Paragon Series to its more attainable Expression Series and, in the middle ground, Signature Series—seek to bring that hand-assembled custom keyboard experience without requiring you to DIY.

The Drop Signature Series Islay Night keyboard is, arguably, the most unique option among the seven added to the series last week, because it’s a 60 percent keyboard. No function row, no numpad, and, especially, no arrow keys are a no-go for many. And its $349 price tag will get it kicked off even more buyers’ lists. But if you’re willing to splurge on a tiny keyboard like this, the Islay Night is a premium way to take part in hot mechanical keyboard trends like hybrid switches, diffused RGB, and a detachable USB-C cable without having to do any building. And you get to pay subtle tribute to Scotland as well.

Use arrow keys? This isn’t for you

Named after the Scottish island Islay, this keyboard is on a bit of an island itself. If it’s not obvious by now, you’re not paying for key count with the Islay Night. It doesn’t have a numpad, but if you don’t spend a lot of time with numbers or spreadsheets, this may be perfectly tolerable. By dropping the numpad, you also get extra desk space, a win for minimalists, small-desk owners, and gamers with frantically moving mice, alike. But 60 percent keyboards take the small keyboard thing to a different level by dropping all navigation keys, including the arrow keys.

Arrow users need not apply.
Enlarge / Arrow users need not apply.

Scharon Harding

You can still enter arrow keys by holding the diamond key on the right side, which serves as Fn, and [, ;,, or /. The placement is actually intuitive. I couldn’t tell you which keys do double-duty as arrows off the top of my head but can find them without looking down at the keyboard for more than a second. But in no way will this ever become as simple or intuitive as having dedicated arrow keys. If you still insist on them, I don’t blame you. Sixty-percent keyboards aren’t just ‘not for everyone,’ they’re not for most. Drop’s other prebuilt keyboards are tenkeyless with arrows (but no full-sized options).

You also get access to F1-12 and the other navigation keys by holding down the diamond/Fn. You can even toggle RGB presets and control volume with the all-powerful diamond key. But you’ll have to memorize the settings or bookmark this page, (which wasn’t as easy to locate as it should have been). The keycaps don’t have handy side-printed legends, like some 60 percent keyboards do.

By default the one-and-only Ctrl key is where you’d expect Caps Lock, though Drop includes a Caps Lock keycap in the box should you choose to reprogram. Additionally, “Command” is written proudly where Windows users expect Ctrl, but it works the same way.

Take your pick.
Enlarge / Take your pick.

Scharon Harding

But Drop isn’t operating off pure anarchy here. The keyboard’s layout is based on the Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB) layout, which was made specifically for coding. The HKKB form factor is meant to eliminate “every unnecessary, difficult to reach key. The near-symmetrical layout, cylindrical step design and the relocation of the ‘Control’ key help your fingers feel at home on the ‘Home row’ and reduce travel distances for your fingers and hands, reducing finger and wrist fatigue or stress related injuries.” But “unnecessary” is in the eyes of the beholder. I, for one, find arrow keys pretty imperative for navigating across and editing long documents. And I can say from experience that some shortcuts I use often—like Ctrl + Shift + V— felt unnatural on the Islay Night.

The whole keyboard is reprogrammable, though. You just have to work with it. QMK open source firmware isn’t as simple as dedicated peripheral apps, like Razer’s Synapse or Corsair’s iCue, for example. It has a less-polished UI, and you’ll have to flash the keyboard yourself. Again, the keyboard further pushes itself onto an island of exclusivity. But to make the transition less painful, the Islay Night comes with a Caps Lock keycap in the box.

DIY-worthy design

Drop’s Islay Night is built inside the Drop + Tokyo Keyboard Tokyo60 case, a union of two pieces of CNC-milled aluminum pieces angled at 5 degrees. The whole thing is surprisingly heavy and dense. Don’t worry about this tiny clacker shifting about during aggressive typing sessions. Dark-emerald-green chamfered edges make for a pristine and unique finish. With the anodization, that should last, too (the keyboard has a one-year standard warranty, but you can add three years for $50).

Detachable, but boring rubber.
Enlarge / Detachable, but boring rubber.

Yet, the quality of the case does make the simpler but detachable rubber USB-C to USB-A cable seem like an afterthought.

It’s all amplified by an acrylic diffuser that adds a contained amount of RGB. Preset RGB settings cover static and moving effects that are either red or multi-colored schemes that go well with the case’s dark green. Unlike some gaming keyboards, where each key and even the base and wrist rest are coated in RGB, the LEDs here emphasize the keyboard’s natural beauty rather than drown most of it out with a blinding glow. There’s a space on the north and south sides of the perimeter, however, that interrupts the stream of lights.

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