Filco Majestouch Convertible 2 review: the quest for a Mac-compatible, wireless, mechanical keyboard
Lately I’ve been a little nostalgic about mechanical keyboards. Yes, those clicky-clacky keyboards that were common in the 80s and early 90s. After comparing various options, I ultimately purchased a Filco Majestouch Convertible 2 to use with my Mac. Strictly speaking, this is a Windows keyboard, but with a few tweaks you can make it (and most other Windows keyboards) Mac friendly. Finding a keyboard which met my needs took plenty of research. I thought it might be useful to others if I pulled my findings together in one article. If you want to find out more about mechanical keyboards, Overclock.net’s Mechanical Keyboard Guide is a great starting point.
This post is much longer than usual, so I’ve broken it into three parts:
- Part 1 covers a bit of history and my requirements.
- Part 2 reviews the keyboard I ultimately selected — the Filco Majestouch Convertible 2.
- Part 3 details how I used Karabiner to remap some keys to make the Filco more Mac friendly.
Part 1: Some history and my requirements
The first PC I owned came with a mechanical keyboard. Of the hundreds of keyboards I’ve worked on, it was the best I’ve encountered. That keyboard outlived several PCs over a period of about eight years. It was only retired because I could no longer connect it to newer PCs when the PS/2 port became standard.
Though its keys made a racket, there was something satisfying about this sound. It was almost as though the accompanying noise somehow made the work better. My family was not so enamoured with the clatter of the keys though.
While I appreciated the relative silence of the more modern membrane keyboards, every keyboard I’ve tried has fallen short of my recollection of my first. I decided it was time for a new mechanical keyboard. I was more concerned about noise this time around since most of my writing happens before the kids wake up, or after they go to bed.
With prices starting around the $150 mark, mechanical keyboards are much more expensive than those shipped with a new computer. While that seems like a lot, the lifespan of these devices is anything from 10 to 20 years. As with my old keyboard, interface changes are a bigger threat than wear and tear. I think the investment is worth it for a tool that gets as much use as a keyboard — especially if it makes the experience more enjoyable and comfortable.
Screening alternatives becomes a lot easier if you are clear about your requirements. These are the main criteria I used for screening candidates:
- Mechanical key switches. I’ve used some good membrane keyboards, but this time I wanted to go mechanical. This keyboard is only going to be used for typing (not gaming) so I wanted key switches with tactile feedback.
- Full-size (101 keys). I don’t use the numeric keypad often, but it’s so much easier when working with spreadsheets and calculations.
- Mac compatible. At the very least I wanted to be able to remap keys to work as they do on the Mac.
- Wireless. This wouldn’t have been a total deal-breaker, but Bluetooth connectivity was very high on my feature list. There are too many cables around my workspace already. If I had to go wired I wanted cable routing options built into the keyboard.
- Non-ugly. Yes, this is subjective. I wasn’t looking for a modern work of art, but I don’t want a hideous looking keyboard greeting me each day.
- Black. All keyboards get grotty, but black keys don’t show dirt as badly as lighter colours. I still have nightmares about crusty beige keyboards from my desktop support days.
- Backlit keys. I didn’t care either way about backlighting.
- Gaming features. The only gaming I do now is the odd Mario Kart race with the kids. I have no need for banks of extra macro keys or n-key rollover.
- USB ports. Extra ports are always handy, but wireless connectivity was more important to me.
Having not seen a mechanical keyboard in use for at least 10 years, I was surprised to discover how many manufacturers still make them. But if you want a Mac-compatible keyboard, there are only a handful of options. Wireless models are as rare as rocking horse poo.
Wireless mechanical keyboards must be an ultra-niche market. I found a few keyboards which looked suitable but had since been discontinued. The KBTalKing Pro looked just about perfect but is no longer available.
- Matias Laptop Pro. Matias make several Mac-compatible mechanical keyboards. The Bluetooth Laptop Pro is only available in a compact layout though. Call me superficial, but I don’t think aesthetics were high on the designer’s priority list either.
- Filco Majestouch Convertible 2. Filco has an excellent reputation in the world of mechanical keyboards. I’d initially dismissed it as a Windows-only keyboard, but Shawn Blanc and Charlie Sorrel’s reviews of the wired version of this keyboard indicated that key remapping was straightforward. I expected this would also work on the wireless model.
If you don’t need Bluetooth connectivity you have more options. This list isn’t exhaustive, but all these keyboards are highly regarded by their users.
- Das Keyboard Professional 4 for Mac. One of the few mechanical keyboards designed for the Mac. Dedicated media controls and USB ports are nice inclusions, but it’s really big!
- Matias Tactile Pro 3. Another Mac-specific mechanical keyboard.
- WASD V2. If you want to customize your keyboard this is the one. Available with your choice of key switches, layouts and keycaps. You can even supply your own artwork to have printed on the keycaps. Multiple cable routing options will accommodate any desk layout. DIP switches under the keyboard enable Mac compatibility. WASD Keyboards also sell keycap mod packs for command keys and function keys.
- Filco Majestouch 2. The wired sibling of the keyboard I chose. It comes in a tenkeyless version too.
- Unicomp Spacesaver M. The classic IBM Model M keyboard reincarnated for the Mac.
Part 2: Filco Majestouch Convertible 2 review
My Filco has been in constant use for a little over three months. I’ve held off reviewing it before now to see how it performs in a variety of situations, and to discover any quirks which may appear in unusual circumstances.
The black casing of the Filco Majestouch Convertible 2 is big enough to accommodate a full-size keyboard but is no larger than it needs to be. The box includes the keyboard, plastic keyboard cover, USB cable, keycap removal tool, comprehensive manual, alternate keycaps, and a pair of batteries.
This Bluetooth keyboard can be paired with up to 4 devices or connected via a USB cable. 2 × AA non-rechargeable batteries provide power for the wireless connection. The keyboard switches to standby mode after 30 minutes of inactivity to help preserve battery life. Batteries should last for six months with five hours of use per day.
Only a full-size (104 key) option is currently available. You’ll need to look at the standard (wired) model if you want to ditch the numeric keypad. Filco use Cherry MX key switches with a choice of blue, brown, red or black switches. Since my keyboard is intended as a work machine, I opted for the blue switches.
Weighing in at 2.69 lb (1.22 kg) with batteries, the Majestouch Convertible 2 is an incredibly solid device. In vigorous typing conditions my old Logitech K710 was prone to skating around my desk. Not the Filco. It’s weight, together with generously sized rubber feet, means it stays put on your desk unless you deliberately move it.
Different brands and models of mechanical keyboards have their own feel and sound. The tactile feedback of the mechanical keyboard is the major reason many people use them. While you can feel the point at which the key switches actuate, I find the audible click to be a more useful cue. The lack of feedback from membrane keyboards means you need to bottom out keystrokes to be sure the switch has activated. It wasn’t until I started using a mechanical keyboard again that I realized how hard I was mashing the keys.
I can’t help but draw parallels to playing guitar. When fretting notes you need just enough pressure to make the notes ring out clearly. Any extra force is a waste of effort, hurts your fingers, and reduces your speed. As I’ve developed a lighter touch, I’ve noticed small improvements in both speed and accuracy of my typing.
Like a new car (or a new guitar), it takes some time to get completely comfortable and feel like it’s an extension of your body. Once you reach this point, the Filco is a joy to use.
Switching from my old Logitech keyboard to this felt a bit like stepping out of a 4WD and into a sports car. Everything feels sharper and more predictable. The Logitech is by no means a bad keyboard. By comparison though the keys feel spongy and imprecise.
Mechanical switch noise
I narrowed down my key switch choice to either brown (tactile) or blue (tactile and clicky) options. I chose blue switches because these seemed most like the key switches in my original keyboard. The blue switches are geared toward typists.
These switches are much louder than those of the MacBook’s built-in keyboard. I wouldn’t want to be watching television or reading a book in the same room as someone working on one of these keyboards. But at my desk it produces a satisfying sound as the words fly onto the screen. It’s hard to describe, but I feel a more palpable sense of getting work done when I’m using this keyboard.
It’s not the clicky switches themselves, but keystrokes bottoming out that causes most of the noise. I installed rubber o-ring dampeners under the keycaps to reduce noise. These act as a shock absorber and prevent the keys from bottoming out. They also reduce the key travel by 0.2 mm. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s clearly noticeable.
The following video compares the MacBook built-in keyboard with the unmodified Filco keyboard, and then again with dampeners installed. Audio is recorded using the internal microphone of an iPhone 6 suspended approximately 1′ (30 cm) above the keyboard. The Decibel 10th app gives an indication of the sound pressure levels. It won’t be amazingly accurate, but it provides a consistent and less subjective way of comparing sound levels.
With each increase of 10dB, the sound will seem twice as loud. From these results, the Majestouch Convertible 2 with dampeners is roughly twice as loud as the Macbook keyboard, and about three times louder unmodified.
Fn and Media keys
Media control is supported through extra features on the function keys. For example, fn + f1 increases the volume. All the media functions work without any configuration except for the stop function (f7) for which there is no equivalent on the Mac.
The only downside is that the key mappings are different from the usual Mac layout. For example, f12 normally increases the volume on the Mac. If you frequently switch between a native Mac keyboard and the Filco, this might cause some cognitive overhead.
I was hopeful that the fn key would work as it does on the MacBook keyboard, but not surprised to find that it does not. This fn key is hardware controlled. It doesn’t send a keycode command, so unfortunately can’t be remapped to behave like a normal Mac fn key. More on this in Part 3.
You can pair the keyboard with up to four Bluetooth devices. Bluetooth pairing was straightforward and reliable. Once paired, it only takes a second to switch between devices by pressing ctrl + alt + fn and then pressing the number corresponding to the assigned device (keys 1 through 4, or 5 to switch to the USB interface). This has worked well on both my MacBook and iPad.
USB Connection Concerns
Update: January 24, 2016
It was only when Luke contacted me enquiring about USB connection issues that I even pulled the cable out of the box. Luke reported that when using the USB connection, he experienced erratic behavior such as dropped characters. With different Macs, different cables, direct-connected and via a hub — the results were the same. The keyboard functioned as expected however when connected to a PC.
I experienced the same issues in my testing. When typing at normal speed, characters seemed to drop out at random. Sometimes as many as five in a row just didn’t show up. If I typed at a painfully slow speed all characters appeared.
If there were going to be gremlins, the USB interface is the last place I’d expect to find them. The wired Filco Majestouch 2 obviously works on a Mac so I’m not sure what’s going on with the Convertible model.
The keyboard is unusable on a Mac using the USB port for data transfer. The Bluetooth interface has worked flawlessly whether power is supplied by batteries or through the USB cable. This isn’t an issue for me since wireless connectivity was one of my major requirements. If you need a wired connection, this keyboard doesn’t look like a good option.
A Filco Majestouch Convertible 2 will set you back around $200 on Amazon. If you do some searching you may find it for a better price. I picked mine up on sale from MechKB in Australia for less than $200. Not cheap but a reasonable price for a keyboard of this standard.
- a quality, solidly built keyboard which should provide many years of service;
- one of a handful of wireless mechanical keyboards on the market;
- a wonderful typist’s keyboard once you get past the initial bonding period;
- available with several different Cherry MX switch types;
- no bigger than it needs to be;
- pairs with up to 4 Bluetooth devices;
- stays put on your desk thanks to its substantial weight;
- includes keycap puller, USB cable and dust cover.
- price — this isn’t a cheap keyboard;
- limited availability, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to try before you buy. The keys will feel much like other keyboards with Cherry MX switches. Trying others will give you a good idea about the experience you’ll get with this one;
- noise may be a problem in a shared space — even with dampeners installed;
- if you haven’t used a mechanical keyboard before, it may take a few weeks to get completely comfortable using it;
- no tenkeyless version available;
- key travel is longer than with membrane keyboards, but this can be reduced by installing dampeners;
- Mac users will need to tweak settings to make it work more like a Mac keyboard;
- the USB interface seems to be problematic on Macs.
Most of these cons are true for any mechanical keyboard — it’s just part of the trade-off you make. Overall I’m really happy with this keyboard and would absolutely buy it again.
Part 3: How to make your Filco Majestouch Convertible 2 play nicely with your Mac
Despite being marketed as a Windows only keyboard, it actually works quite well with a Mac right out of the box. There are a few things you can do to make it more Mac friendly.
Swap the OS and Alt keys
The standard Windows keyboard layout has the Alt keys next to the spacebar and the OS keys to the outside of the Alt keys. This is reversed on Apple keyboards. You’ll need to make changes to both software and hardware to reverse these keys.
First, change the behaviour of the keys in the operating system.
- From the menu, select System Preferences…, Keyboard, then click the Modifier Keys… button.
- Select the keyboard you want to remap.
- Change the Option (⌥) Key value to ⌘ Command.
- Change the Command (⌘) Key value to ⌥ Option and click OK.
This will make Alt act as the Command key and Win act as the Option key. Key labelling no longer reflects the function of the keys. Use the included keycap removal tool to pop the keycaps off and replace them to mirror the changes you just made to the software configuration.
I took things a step further by replacing the standard Win key with Mac keycaps. See the section on hardware changes for details.
Remapping other keys
Mac function keys normally control media, brightness, Mission Control and Launchpad. Since this is a Windows keyboard, F1 through F12 behave as standard function keys. You can change this behaviour with a free application called Karabiner (formerly KeyRemap4MacBook).
Karabiner is the Swiss Army knife of key remapping. You can remap your keyboard to behave almost any way you like with this software. There are hundreds of predefined mappings you can apply with the tick of a box. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, Karabiner lets you create your own custom mappings.
Here’s a list of the remapings I’ve made to my keyboard. I’m still tweaking some settings, but these are generally working well.
- Function keys. These now behave just like a MacBook keyboard.
- Insert → fn. The default behaviour of Insert is that of the largely useless Help key. I remapped Help to fn as it appears on the Apple Keyboard with Numeric Keypad. Holding down Insert with one of the function keys now makes them work like standard function keys. For example, I can use Insert + f11 to show the desktop.
- Windows-like Excel keys. Having used Excel on Windows for so long, I’ve had a hard time unlearning f2 to edit a cell and f4 to apply absolute referencing. I’m not going to bother fighting it anymore.
- Application key → fn. The Filco’s hardware fn key can be used with the right Windows key to activate the Application key. This is the keyboard equivalent to a right-click on the mouse. I’ve remapped the Application key to be a second software fn key. This has the added bonus of a fn lock. Now when I tap Fn + the right Alt key it activates Fn lock. When this is on the function keys revert to their original behaviour (ie. before I applied the first keymapping change). This can be useful particularly in Microsoft applications which make heavy use of the function keys.
- Pause/Break key → Eject. I haven’t been able to use this to eject media, but I frequently use cmd + opt + pause to enter sleep mode.
- Use PC Style Home/End #2. Without this remapping, Home and End scroll the view to the beginning and end of the document respectively. Now they take you the beginning or end of the current line as they would on a Windows machine.
- Use PC Style PageUp/PageDown. The specific behaviour varies between applications, but in most cases it now scrolls up or down by a page at a time.
These changes are not essential but have made the keyboard more like an Apple keyboard. It might not seem like a big deal, but I’d prefer my energy to go into what I’m creating rather than thinking about the differences between one tool and the next.
Mac specific keys
The Mac function keys usually control media, screen brightness and other operating system functions. I missed having markings for these functions on the keys themselves. The popularity of Cherry MX keyboards means that several after-market keycap suppliers make keycaps that can be easily swapped. Keycaps are available in a range of colors and you can even order custom keycaps with your own artwork. Check out WASD Keyboards’ gallery to see what’s possible.
I ordered two keycap sets from WASD keyboards:
- a Mac media shortcut set to replace f1 through f12; and
- an OS set to replace the Win keys with Command keys.
Replacement keycaps are available in a range of colors, but I stuck with black to match the rest of the keyboard. Replacing them was a simple matter of using the included keycap puller to remove the keys and pushing the replacement keycaps into position.
The WASD keycaps have a more textured surface than the originals, but it’s not something you’d notice at a casual glance. The Filco keycaps use pad printed lettering while the replacements are laser etched. The WASD replacements use a smaller, lighter font, but it’s still very readable.
In the interests of family harmony, I thought it better to install o-ring dampeners on my keyboard. WASD Keyboards provide two options: red o-rings reduce key travel by 0.2 mm, and the blue o-rings by 0.4 mm.
The shorter key travel is noticeable, even with the red o-rings I installed. There is plenty of key travel after the key switches actuate so I view this as a positive.
Bottoming out is now less abrupt thanks to the cushioning properties of the o-rings. There is much less noise when bottoming out and I’d recommend o-rings if you type with a heavy hand. Since using this new keyboard I’ve developed a lighter touch and don’t bottom out keys anywhere near as often as I once did.
Filco’s keycap remover makes installation straightforward if a little tedious. The whole process took me about 40 minutes. The larger keys with stabilizers are a little tricky to remove, but if you follow the process in this video you shouldn’t have too much trouble.
If you’re concerned about noise, o-rings are well worth the investment and will help keep the peace with your co-workers or family.
The Filco Majestouch Convertible 2 has been an excellent performer and, with the aid of Karabiner, is working well on my Mac. It is a little pricey, but justifiable given the amount of time I spend at the keyboard and an expected lifespan of between 10 and 20 years. O-ring dampeners are worth a look to help tame noise, reduce key travel and act as a cushion when you bottom out. If you’re looking for a wireless mechanical keyboard that works with a Mac, make sure this one is on your shortlist.
Question: Have you got a keyboard you love using? Let me know what your go-to keyboard is in the comments below.