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Hardware NuPhy Gem80 Mechanical Keyboard Review

An exclusively-barebones keyboard, we check out NuPhy’s latest release in the Gem80!
 
 

General Information

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It's been a little while since we've last seen NuPhy on the site. With my last review in October looking at a sleek low-profile design, we now find ourselves pivoting back to a more bulky and customizable tenkeyless design. With a plethora of features under the hood, let's dive into what exactly sets the barebones Gem80 apart.

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What Exactly is a Barebones Keyboard?

For those of you not really in the space of mechanical keyboards, you might be wondering exactly what the point of a barebones keyboard is, or even what one is in its entirety. Essentially what we're looking at here is a mechanical keyboard that's almost fully pre-built for you. You've got your case, your PCB, all stabilisers installed and pre-lubed, and dampening foam inserted. All you're missing is your switches and keycaps. If you've seen a Mini PC before, it's comparable to one coming without an SSD and RAM, and like with those Mini PCs, the real benefit is that you're usually saving money by not receiving parts you might not want to use.

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Often with keyboards like these, users want to use a specific switch for a certain feel, or have specific keycaps to complete a certain aesthetic. By offering the keyboard without these things included you're free to get your own, with the process of installation being remarkably simple, and acting as a great way to dip your toe into the world custom keyboard builds.

Onto the Keyboard!

So with that preamble out of the way, exactly what is NuPhy offering with the Gem80? At its core we're looking at a tenkeyless layout housed inside an aluminum-topped and plastic-bottomed case, accompanied by a metric boat load of RGB lighting. The keyboard as a whole has a great weight to it, staying in place well on my desk as I frantically type. It's worth noting there's no adjustable feet on the bottom of the board, but the body does have a natural slant built into it that I've had no issues using. These elements are relatively standard of a custom keyboard and it does a good job of coming together for a premium look and feel, which is good for the $150 price tag. Where it comes into its own is what's under the hood though.

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NuPhy have absolutely gone to town to give this keyboard a great sound. By default you have a silicone socket gasket mount to give your typing a bit of bounce. Below that you have six layers of foam, sound dampening, and silicone, all coming together for one of the nicest stock sounds I've come to experience. If you do want to tweak how it sounds, you're also free to explore. You've got four different plates you can pick from when buying the keyboard, and all that foam and sound dampening can be pulled out if they're not quite what you're wanting.

Typing on the Gem80

Now usually this would be the point where I start excitedly telling you about how much I enjoyed typing on this keyboard, because make no mistake, it felt great to type on. There is however more to a keyboard than its typing feel, and my initial impressions were actually incredibly negative. The Gem80 shipped to me, and I can only assume early buyers, with a really rough firmware installed. Out of the box (after throwing my switches and keycaps on) I was plagued with constant double inputs, to the point of making the keyboard entirely unusable. Thankfully a firmware update had been released, though at the time it was only accessible via email and unofficial posts on the Discord. It's now live on their site and shouldn't play too much of a part in whether you consider this particular keyboard, but it should serve as a word of caution when it comes to being an early adopter for NuPhy keyboards. History shows they'll get it right eventually, but it might take some time.

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Back to how the keyboard is now though, those complaints really feel like a distant memory. The tactile lemon switches give a fantastic sound thanks to everything going on under the hood, and the force required to actuate them feels just right for me. If I had to pull a word out of my hat I'd call the sound "marbled", but for those not in the keyboard space, and perhaps even for those who are, that may be absolute nonsense. The switches are always going to be a subjective point mind, so it's great that it's so easy to swap them out if you happen to find something better down the line.

A Subtle Light Show

Like NuPhy's keyboards before this one we have a great assortment of RGB lighting for those who enjoy that kind of thing. The lights themselves are south-facing, which means you won't face any compatibility issues with Cherry profile keycaps, with the trade-off that shine-through keycaps with legends at the top will likely look worse. Thanks to this south-facing lighting though, NuPhy have done something unique that really does appeal to me in their "homing bars". The bars on the F and J key are now transparent to allow light to pass through, with them being configurable separately to the larger lighting of the keyboard. This gives you the option for much more subtle lighting that does actually serve a function. It's a great middle-ground for people like me who generally avoid the new year-tier fireworks displays on their desk.

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My only real criticism of the lighting is how impossible it is to remember all the shortcuts for each of the lighting zones. You have the main board, the homing bars, and also the space behind the "GEM" emblem all lighting up separately; it's just a lot to keep track of. It would've been nice to have seen some GEM-specific keycaps available that had some kind of indication of which keys handle which lights on the function layer, but I do accept that creating a keyboard-specific keycap set for a barebones-only keyboard isn't a fantastic fit. In reality this is more of a personal issue, and most will either set the lights up how they want and forget about them, or customise them enough to the point of remembering the buttons.

Driver Software Begone!

Much like the last keyboard I looked at from NuPhy, they've entirely ditched their own driver software in favour of the community-favourite QMK and VIA compatibility. As with any keyboard sporting such compatibility, making changes on the fly is remarkably simple, with VIA working straight from a compatible browser (I believe these are mostly Chromium-based, with Edge being what I used). The slight trade-off to not having their own focused software is that it can make the keyboard slightly less accessible to newcomers when it comes to firmware updates like the one that was required here. There is at least a decent walkthrough of what you should be doing right there on the firmware page though. For NuPhy's keyboards, you do also have to import a json file into VIA for it to properly recognise the keyboard, but once that's done it really is as simple as it gets.

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As you might expect by the lack of dedicated driver software, all changes are saved directly to the keyboard and will persist regardless of which PC the keyboard is plugged into.

A Mechanical Gem?

All in all this really is a great keyboard that does well to justify its $150 price point. Outside of the exclusively-wired option that's been covered here, there is also a flavor available that supports Bluetooth and 2.4GHz connectivity too, with both models coming in five different colors. I obviously can't vouch for how the wireless holds up, but going by past experiences with wireless NuPhy keyboards, I don't expect there to be much in the way of issues.

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It's nice to see barebones being pushed here, as well as NuPhy not using it as an excuse to neglect a matching keycap set. Because you can still buy some genuinely nice keycaps alongside some affordable switches at checkout, you still have the option to get a package that's entirely complete, with a few steps of setup that might well be your first in the world of custom mechanical keyboards. It's a wonderful keyboard and one I can recommend to newcomers and enthusiasts alike.

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