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Switch Marketing Terms: What to Know and What to Ignore

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If you’re just now stepping into the world of custom mechanical keyboards, or trying to expand your switch catalogue for upcoming builds, all of the phrases you may see on a switch sales page can be confusing. Where more seasoned keyboard veterans might scoff at me for making a claim like this, I can assure you that even after having purchased thousands of switches myself I still come across new, strange ways of vendors trying to sell me switches. While I don’t have the space here to go through every single one of the quirky selling gimmicks I’ve seen over the years, I figure it might be worthwhile to give a loose guide to help people out. So, in this article I’m going to cover the things that you need to both look for and ignore when buying your next set of switches!
Type and Manufacturer
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Image Credit: @BMa1 While this may seem an incredibly obvious suggestion to be made as something to look out for it, it isn’t entirely without merit. To new people coming into the hobby who may have had a ‘gamer’ keyboard of their own prior, they may be used to marketing that is as plain as ‘Red switches’ or ‘Clicky switches’ when it comes to product descriptions. However, in the custom mechanical keyboard scene, who makes the switches and what type of switch they make is often the very first thing marketed to you. This can very much be the difference between buying French’s Yellow Mustard and Grey Poupon Dijon Mustard. Moving away from the food-based analogies before I get hungry, though, let’s look at a real example of two common switches: Gateron Yellows and Kailh Box Whites. The first big difference between these two switches comes at the very start of their names. Gateron and Kailh are both large manufacturers of switches that have been making custom offerings about as long as the modern custom scene has been around. Whereas Kailh is known for producing their Box line of switches as well as the Novelkeys Cream switches, Gateron is known for entirely different reasons as some of the most common Cherry MX alternatives and some of the smoothest switches in recent years. While every manufacturer has different strengths and weaknesses, just knowing who they are can really help narrow down research on your next switch. Other common brands you will see these days include Cherry, Durock and/or JWK, Tecsee, KTT, SP-Star, Outemu, TTC, Aflion, and (somehow) still many more. As for the type differences between these switches, I’ll just end this section off by telling you that Gateron Yellows are linears and Kailh Box Whites are clickies (and if you don’t know what those are, click here to read this article about the three main switch types).
Housing Construction
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Image Credit: @kisx As you might be able to guess given the huge list of vendor names in the previous section, switches can come in many different shapes and sizes. While there are many intricacies of housing designs in switches, the first and most important things to look out for are that your switches are not opticals and whether they are ‘PCB/5 Pin mount’ or ‘Plate/3 Pin mount’. While optical switches are rare, they operate on entirely different technology than almost the entirety of custom mechanical keyboards and they can’t be used to build them. As for the ‘mounting’ type, ‘PCB’ and ‘Plate’ mount are quick ways to refer to how many plastic pins are on the bottom of your switch. While this may seem to be a rather trivial point, if the switches you are looking at are Plate mount, then you must buy a plate alongside the PCB and case for your keyboard as otherwise the switches won’t sit firmly in your keyboard. For a visual comparison of what the difference is between PCB and Plate mounting switches, look below:
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Image Credit: @ThereminGoatMK Continuing on the discussion of housing shapes and builds, another feature which you may often come across is marketing surrounding ‘4 Pin’ or ‘Winglatch’ style top housings. Top housings, as the name implies, are the top half of the enclosure of the switch and connect to the bottom housings via a clasping mechanism. As can be seen below, the ‘4 Pin’ style clasps have only two legs on each side of the switch that grip onto the bottom housings. ‘Winglatches’, on the other hand, have a broad, flat clip that looks like the top housing has wings coming off of each side. While neither of these features will affect how your boards are built, switch openers are often sold being able to open switches with only one type of top housing. So, if you’re modifying your switches in the near future, this is a must know!
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Image Credit: @ThereminGoatMK The final point worth noting about housings is that you will very often see the top and bottom housings listed as being made of x, y, or z materials. While each material supposedly provides different sound to the switches and can affect their feeling, there is no scientific evidence that exists correlating housing material with sound, feel, nor smoothness. Even though there is plenty of sage community wisdom to consider, if a vendor tells you one plastic “thoccs more” over another, just flat out ignore it. Speaking of that sage advice though, I would argue that many people in the community often conflate Nylon (or PA66 for you chemists out there) with deeper sounding, firmer housings and Polycarbonate with higher pitched and thinner housings. Furthering along the marketing woo of thocky plastics, it’s also becoming more common that vendors are announcing “special blends” of plastics with fancy acronyms. Just do yourself a favor out the gate and ignore any marketing hype around new plastic blends with strange acronyms – only you can try these switches out and know for yourself how these blends perform.
Stems and Lubrication
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Image Credit: @ThereminGoatMK Stems are a bit of a complicated one. The reason that this is due to the fact that they pull bits and pieces from both of the previous sections in that the manufacturer, type, and construction all play a distinct role in how a stem performs. While the feeling and type of a switch is predominantly controlled by the shape of its stem, the next feature which people often consider when buying switches is their smoothness. When you’re trying to gauge smoothness from the check out screen, look to see if factory lubrication is mentioned or if the switch stems are unlubed. Broadly speaking, unlubed stems tend to have more friction with their housings and may require modifications after you receive them, whereas some prelubed stems are usable smooth out of the box. However, knowing how heavy or light factory lubrication actually is based on how it is marketed is unfortunately something you will have to look further into than what I can provide here. Gateron factory lubing, for instance, may be heavier in their recently produced switches than that of ”heavy” factory lubing for Kailh. As for another feature to consider about stems, make sure that you are buying switches which match the keycaps for your keyboard or vice versa! Unless you’re buying a low profile keyboard, in which case you probably don’t need to be told this, you should be making sure that your switches are MX footprint and can mount MX-style keycaps. If this isn’t explicitly written out, MX-style switches are ones that have the cross on the top. (Double rectangular holes, singular rectangular holes, or any other crazy patterns are not what you want here.) Additionally, you may see MX-style switch mounts which have extra walls around them known as dustproof stems. While the name implies this helps keep dust out, you can feel free to ignore this marketing point for anything other than aesthetic choices. (Unless you have a dust bunny infestation, of course.)
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Image Credit: @ThereminGoatMK

Springs
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Image Credit: @ThereminGoatMK For being such an underrepresented component in mechanical keyboard switches, the springs in any switch carry a surprising amount of impact on overall switch feel. While I can’t go over every single type of spring here, and will instead point you to our article on different spring types (Coming Soon!), there are a few key points to look for in how switches are marketed. The first and often only things marketed with switch springs are that of the ‘actuation force’ and/or ‘bottom out force’. Surprisingly untechnical in nature, these terms respectively just tell you how much force you have to apply to a switch to register a stroke on your keyboard and how hard you have to press to push the switch in all the way. Beyond these marketing points, the only other features you might see listed are that of the spring material, such as stainless steel, gold, etc. Feel free to ignore this point entirely as there is no scientific proof showing a difference in performance between steel, gold, or any metal springs in keyboard switches.
Dang, that sure feels like a lot to go through. For marketing of switches which may only be a few sentences on a screen next to the big, glowing ‘Add to Cart’ button, who could have thought there were so many useful and useless details in those sentences? While finding the right switch from a sales listing, alone, is more of an art than a science, know that it will come with practice and with the more experience you pick up with switches. I’d be lying if I said it was an art that I, myself, have mastered even. Whenever you are in doubt about any marketing phrase when it comes to switches, the first thing to do is to always reach out to people in the community to ask or to look up some more information on your own. Chances are that if you have a question about it, some of the other hundreds of thousands of people with mechanical keyboards will also have had them as well!
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great write up, thank you
Aristarco
147
Dec 15, 2022
Very informative! Thanks a lot. For a n00b like me, this info is gold.
Incredible write up, lovely photos!
2-bit_Joe
8
Nov 30, 2022
You may have an uprising on your hands from the Alps enthusiasts.
ThereminGoatMK
154
Nov 30, 2022
2-bit_JoeHey now, I like my Alps as much as the next guy and still need to build a 60% with my SKCM Browns. Let's just be honest and know that my focus has been trying to pin down the chaos that the current state of MX switches over the past few years. I know I should do Alps content eventually.
ThereminGoatMKIsn't Matias really the only supplier of new Alps switches? You'd have to focus a lot on vintage Alps, and there's a lot of snake oil with vintage switches of all sorts (sorry vintage switch fans, I love you 😶‍🌫️).
Very Interesting...
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