This tiny mechanical keyboard started out as a joke, but it captured our heart

The Key
(Image credit: Future)

When we first heard about The Key, a miniscule mechanical keyboard with just three keys, we resolved to get our hands on one.

Imagined into existence by coding forum Stack Overflow with the help of designer Cassidy Williams, The Key has just one purpose: to copy and paste. A noble calling, if ever there was one.

The only problem was that The Key didn’t actually exist. It was all just a cruel joke, an April Fool’s stunt par excellence.

However, sensing the team had inadvertently come up with a rather good idea, Stack Overflow secretly commissioned Drop to manufacture a small number of boards. And in September last year, The Key eventually went on sale for the first time, priced at $29.

The Key

(Image credit: Future)

Joke’s on you

The core philosophy behind The Key is simple: everyone copies sometimes, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

“They say good artists copy, but great artists steal. They were wrong. Great artists, developers, and engineers copy. Then they paste,” wrote Stack Overflow, when The Key made its debut.

“Every day, millions of innovators and creators across the globe move society and industry forward by copy-pasting code. But for too long, this process has been stuck in the past. Say goodbye to cramped fingers, sore wrists, and wasted movement. Say hello to The Key.”

The Key is first and foremost a joke at the expense of developers, who regularly steal code snippets from Stack Overflow to use in their own projects, but for whom being called a “copy and paste programmer” would be a mortal insult.

On April Fool’s Day itself, Stack Overflow threw up a pop-up every time someone tried to copy material from the platform, telling them they had run out of free copy-pastes and must purchase The Key to unlock more.

The Key

"Good artists copy. Great artists steal. Greatest artists copy, then paste," reads the box. (Image credit: Future)

Separately, though, The Key is also a joke about gadget culture. Stack Overflow knew all too well that people like you and I wouldn’t be able to resist a piece of kit as eccentric as this one, even if we had no real use for it. That’s why there were plans in place to manufacture the device from the beginning, even before the April Fool’s joke went live.

The fact that The Key went out of stock almost as quickly as it came on sale is testament to the unhealthy thirst for gadgetry, especially when it comes to novelty products on a miniature scale.

“Not only can it copy, but it can also paste!” exclaimed one delighted customer. “It’s just great at what it does,” wrote another.

Surprising depth

Although it may look like The Key is good for one thing only, it’s actually relatively easy to reprogram for functions beyond just copy and paste, courtesy of its QMK firmware.

It’s not the most straightforward process ever for the novice, but if this writer can do it, you certainly can too. And Drop provides an excellent walkthrough that holds your hand the whole way.

There are plenty of possibilities, when you start to think about it; you could reconfigure the three keys to act as mute, volume up and volume down buttons, or play/pause, previous track and next track. The real power users, meanwhile, may want to set up each key as a macro, whereby a series of commands are executed with a single keystroke.

In other words, while The Key is a perfect copy-and-paste machine straight out of the box, there’s more to this little board than meets the eye, especially for anyone clever enough to figure out how to tap into its full potential.

The Key

(Image credit: Future)

As for the build quality, we were pleasantly surprised. Sure, the keycaps feel a little cheap, but they look great and the Kailh Black Box switches deliver a pleasing “thunk”. The machined aluminium case has a nice weight to it too, so the keyboard won’t slide around your desk when you get carried away with your copy-pasting.

The only obvious design problem is that you have to remove the backplate with a tiny screwdriver to access the button that lets you load up new key bindings, and some people were disappointed there’s no opportunity to change the switches themselves, even if the keycaps are easy enough to swap out.

But otherwise, Drop has done a stellar job. We doubt anyone would have expected so much care to have gone into a product that is, essentially, a joke.

Frivolous, but intentionally so

To be clear, we’re not here to argue that anybody really needs The Key. When we were testing the board, we forgot to use it half the time. If anything, moving the hands over to another keyboard to perform a quick copy and paste took longer than it would with a normal setup.

However, asking whether The Key is useful enough to warrant a purchase is rather missing the point. This keyboard is a celebration of hobbyism, meme culture and novelty, not reason and pragmatism.

In any case, those who discover they can’t find a way to integrate The Key into their workflows will find it makes for an excellent shelf ornament for the home office, or gift for a nerdy loved one.

The greatest shame is that The Key is so difficult to get hold of at the moment. It’s unclear when Drop will make another batch available, so we had to ask Stack Overflow very nicely for a loaner. But this year’s April Fool’s Day, in three weeks’ time, would be as good a time as any for a relaunch, wouldn’t it?

Joel Khalili
News and Features Editor

Joel Khalili is the News and Features Editor at TechRadar Pro, covering cybersecurity, data privacy, cloud, AI, blockchain, internet infrastructure, 5G, data storage and computing. He's responsible for curating our news content, as well as commissioning and producing features on the technologies that are transforming the way the world does business.