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Selecting Your First Mechanical Keyboard

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If you recall the first time you got into custom mechanical keyboards, or if you're on your first custom keyboard, you know there’s a LOT of info you wish you had going into your first board purchase and build.  While there’s great info out there these days, it can be easy to get confused on what you should be looking out for and doing, so let’s distill that down to the basics of selecting and building your first mechanical keyboard.  Selecting your board carries the rest of your purchase decision, so making sure you understand the board as much as possible will help make sure everything you pick is compatible and will feel and sound the way you want it to.    For this article we’ll be focusing on hotswap keyboards, as they are far more accessible these days, and tend to be a popular choice among newcomers to the space.  The most important things to focus on are, in no particular order:
  • Socket orientation (North or South-facing)
  • PCB Layout
  • Plate Mounting Style
  • Stabilizer Type
  • Case And Plate Materials
  • Typing Angle and Height


Socket Orientation

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Socket orientation refers to the position of the LED in the socket: if it’s at the top of the socket, that makes it North-facing. If it’s at the bottom, it’s South-facing. This orientation for your socket determines where RGB lighting comes from, as well as whether or not you can use Cherry-profile keycaps.  North-facing sockets will cause Cherry profile keycaps to hit the top of your switch housing along certain rows, making a thin, plasticky sound on bottom-out; South-facing sockets will prevent that from happening. For folks who prefer to have a shine-through legend on their caps, North-facing sockets may be more desirable for slightly better shine-through, however it’s important to note that North-facing sockets are becoming less and less common in the custom space. PCB Layout

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PCB layout determines the kind of cap kitting you’ll need for your build. Different form factors and PCB’s require different kitting, and not all cap sets are created equally.  Pay attention to the kinds of caps required, and be sure your keycap set supports them; this info is typically presented in diagrams for barebones keyboards, with the caps labeled with a number followed by the letter “U” (which stands for unit) to indicate their size.  For reference from typically used keycaps, a normal letter or number is considered a “1U” keycap, and grows in size from there.   If you don’t have the exact keycaps needed for your board, you can technically still use whatever keycap will fit in the space without interference, but you may not have the correct legend or profile for that cap, or in some instances may be forced to use a cap that’s smaller than what’s needed until you can get a cap set that works properly… but we want to avoid that as best we can, so pay attention to your board’s layout! Plate Mounting Style Plate mounting style refers to the way the switch plate is installed in the case for your keyboard. The main thing to note about this is it will impact the typing feel and sound of the board, as well as the assembly process, ease of maintenance, and choices you can make. The most common mounting styles you’ll encounter are, in order from most stiff to least stiff: Integrated plate Tray Mount Sandwich Mount Top Mount Gasket Mount
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An integrated plate, for example, won’t allow you to change your switch plate because it’s… well… integrated into the top case, not unlike the Drop Alt and the original GMMK.
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Tray mount retains an overall stiff typing feel, but also gives you a choice of plate materials for different acoustic properties and a relatively simple assembly process by having a separate plate that attaches to standoffs in the case; the KBDFans Tofu and Drop Carina are great examples of this style, but keep in mind some tray mount configs may vary slightly from vendor to vendor.
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Sandwich Mount stacks the switch plate between two different sections of the case, and is typically seen in stacked acrylic keyboards like the Stellar65, and custom boards from vendors like SM Keyboards and Switch Couture.  It’s important to note that depending on the switch plate material you select for these boards, you can occasionally yield a softer typing experience; more on that later.  
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Top Mount sees us mounting the plate to just the top of the case, and provides a more airy acoustic profile as well as a bit of flex, depending on the plate material chosen and overall implementation; contemporary examples of this are the Akko ACR TOP 75, and the Mode Eighty, which adds rubber tabs to the plate to control acoustics and take flex a bit further.
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Gasket mount can offer the potential for the most flex of these options as it sets the switch plate between two squishy gaskets, however not all gasket mounting is created equally.  Some boards, like the original GMMK PRO and KBD67 Lite, have a gasket mounting system that focuses more on acoustic tuning than flexibility, while the Tiger Lite offers a gasket mount implementation that lets the entire PCB and plate assembly flex effortlessly and creates an overall softer switch bottom-out. Stabilizer Type You’ll also want to pay attention to the kind of stabilizers used, and how they’re installed.  The three main types of stabilizers are:
  • Cherry Plate Mount
  • Cherry PCB Mount
  • Costar

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Most keyboards these days, at least in the North American market, are using Cherry-style stabilizers, mounted in one of two ways: Plate mount, or PCB mount.  As the names imply, plate-mount stabilizers (henceforth referred to as “stabs”) mount to the switch plate, and PCB stabs mount directly to the PCB.  There are pros and cons to both, and ways to address tuning both that will result in excellent stabilizers, but it’s important to know and understand which your board needs as they are not typically interchangeable.  In rare cases, boards will accommodate both kinds of stabs, but there may be other compatibility issues to consider with that, like PCB stab housing width.
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The third kind, and far less common in the states, is referred to as a Costar stab.  These have been around for a while, and in some markets and enthusiast circles are still quite popular.  They differ dramatically in construction from Cherry-style stabilizers of either kind, but have wire clamps that mount to the switch plate similarly to the way Cherry Plate-mount stab housings do.  Brands like Filco and Iqunix sell boards with Costar stabs.  It’s important to note: all three styles can be tuned to feel and sound really good, they just require slightly different approaches. For more on how to tune stabilizers, check out my stab tuning guide on YouTube. Case and Plate Materials For more focused reading on case materials, we have an excellent article detailing the different options you may see out there.  Like the case, your plate material will also impact your acoustic profile and, depending on the mounting system, typing feel.  The most common materials used are, in order from most to least stiff:
  • Steel
  • Aluminum
  • FR4
  • Polycarbonate

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Steel is more commonly seen in entry-tier board designs, like the FL Esports MK870 and Skyloong GK67; depending on the board and quality of the plate, these can exhibit strange acoustic properties like a thin-sounding Backspace or an overly sharp spacebar.   It is often colored to match the keyboard.
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Aluminum is the most common plate material, and probably one of the most versatile: it carries reasonable stiffness for those who want it, but depending on plate design and mounting style, it can also provide a reasonable amount of flexibility.  Acoustically it tends to lean towards being more pronounced and sharp, an excellent choice for those who want a more expressive keyboard.
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FR4, the material PCBs are made out of, provides a bit more flex than Aluminum while also providing a deeper acoustic profile that starts to lean into a more plasticky sound.  Like other materials, it can be made in a multitude of colors, depending on the board.
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Polycarbonate is one of the most flexible materials to use for a switch plate, and can provide a very deep, occasionally muted acoustic profile, though it will sound the most plasticky of the lot.  Polycarbonate tends to usually be milky transparent in nature, but can be made in other transparent colors. There are other plate materials out there that will err towards either end of the spectrum in terms of stiffness, but they are far less common to see in most mainstream keyboards, including materials like Brass (stiff), Copper (stiff), Carbon Fiber (between FR4 and Aluminum), and POM (between Polycarbonate and Carbon Fiber, many colors), which is the same stuff many switch stems are made out of. Typing Angle and Height

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Ever thought to yourself, “Man, this board is killing my wrists”?  Apart from your typing technique, that could be a result of the typing angle and height of the board.  Most custom keyboards will list the dimensions of the board, including height and angle, and should be serious considerations for your board of choice.   Steeper typing angles and tall board heights don’t necessarily make them impossible to type on, but they do warrant consideration for the kinds of keycaps and switches you put on them.  A board with an aggressive typing angle (7 degrees or greater) may not be the most comfortable experience with something taller than OEM profile keycaps and a heavy switch spring, but then again maybe your specific typing setup makes sense for a board like that.   Consider the boards you’ve used that you like and don’t like, what specifically you liked or didn’t like about them, and use them as reference points for determining what you want to look for in your custom keyboard.  For reference, the Tiger Lite I use carries a 7 degree typing angle and 17.5 mm front height, and with Cherry profile keycaps feels extremely comfy to type on.  The GMMK PRO (non-FlexKit) I use carries a typing angle of 6 degrees and 20 mm front height, and with Tai Hao Cubic Profile keycaps (similar to OEM profile) ALSO feels very comfy to type on. Now that you understand the basics of your keyboard choices, you can start the process of getting all of your parts together for your very first build!  If you’re still confused about your purchase, places like the Drop Community forums, YouTube videos, and Discord servers for different keyboard content creators are often great resources to help you understand what you’re buying before you buy it.  While this may seem like a lot to focus on, after your first board these things become reflexive to look at, especially once you land on your own set of personal preferences.  
Remember: this hobby has a TREMENDOUS amount of options available at all price points, so what you end up with as your ideal board may not be what someone else ends up with, and that’s absolutely okay!  That’s part of what makes this hobby so great in the first place! What other things do you consider when selecting your keyboards?
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Excellent writeup! Took me 100 hours of YouTube to understand most of the details on those things when I was thinking of building my first keyboard. It is a nice reference tool for those getting into the hobby or just wanting to build their 1 special keyboard that goes with their PC build.
SummerRayneGrlExactly why I made this in the first place! The less time people need to spend figuring out WHAT to build, the more time they have to build and enjoy it. Thank you for the feedback, much appreciated!
Nice article!Thanks for sharing!
sicheadphones.comYou're welcome, glad you liked it!
Jaypher
77
Dec 8, 2022
Great article, TMG!
JaypherThank you, glad ya liked it!
Thank you for reading! I'll be posting more articles like this to help make sure your first keyboard experience is the best it possibly can be, or to at least refresh you on things if it's been a minute since you did a custom keyboard. If you have any questions or require a bit more clarity, please don't hesitate to ask!
SherwoodForest2
1
Dec 14, 2022
The_Manic_GeekOnce I figure out the elements that I want, what are the best ways to source and order what I am looking for?
The_Manic_Geek
214
Dec 15, 2022
SherwoodForest2Sometimes it's a matter of patience; trends will come and go out of vogue, even with in-stock boards, so there's a chance sourcing your specific board might take a minute. For instance, the likelihood of finding "that perfect O-ring mount, winkey-less, F-row-less TKL with a copper plate" might take a minute, but that's not to say it won't ever happen. Typically though, either through a group buy or a new in-stock option, the board may have several options for things like plate materials and colors. Nowadays there's even boards with multiple mounting options: Tofu Jr, a new 65% KBDfans has a pre-order for, has both gasket and top mount options, as well as four different plate options, which you select before adding everything to your cart all at once. Past that you may be looking at custom work, potentially from someone like SM Keyboards, the folks who helped me make the sandwich mount keyboard I used for this article: I sourced the PCB myself, and SM sourced the plate file needed for him to get the custom plate cut, then we settled on pricing from there. It tends to beore expensive going that route, but at that point you're asking yourself the question, "How much is this all worth to me, and does this even make sense for my budget"? Things can get stupendous expensive REALLY fast, and for not a lot of tangible gain.
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