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The Three Categories of Prebuilt Keyboard Switches

While many people joined the mechanical keyboard hobby over the course of the past couple of years, I’ve been lucky enough to have been around to see all of the changes that have followed this surge in popularity. One of the undeniably best changes that has come about as a result of the COVID-based surge in mechanical keyboards is the sheer quality and number of prebuilt options that are available on the market today. Whereas back when I first started the hobby, you’d pick up something like an Obins Anne Pro, DAS Keyboard, or maybe even a Leopold, there are now at least a dozen different brands I can think of off of the top of my head besides these three which are still around as well. However, it’s at least evident to me that not all of these mechanical keyboards are created equally. Knowing full well that the hobby can be daunting to those just now joining, I suspect that the nuances between some of these brands may not be the most evident. So, let’s go through a quick rundown of the three main categories of prebuilt boards you will likely come across on your search for your first keyboard.
Figure 1: My Anne Pro is still here in all its dusty glory.

True 'MX Style' Keyboards/Switches Starting off with by far the most common and ubiquitous of keyboard designs, standard “MX style” prebuilt keyboards rely on the same style of switches and circuit boards that the vast majority of the custom scene does as well. Coming with switches that most often have a cross-shaped stem and metal pins sticking out of the underside, true ‘MX Style’ switches work by connecting to pieces of metal within the switch when a key is pressed down, which completes a circuit that registers a keystroke with your keyboard. These are also almost always the types of switches which are used in keyboard kits which offer either ‘hotswap’ or ‘soldered’ options, allowing you to either plug and play different types of switches directly or more permanently affix your endgame choices. Given that these are the most common type of prebuilt keyboard options out there, there’s almost too many brands that fit this category, though some include: Razer, Keychron, Glorious, as well as Drop’s CTRL, ALT, and SHIFT keyboards!
Figure 2: True 'MX style' switches - Drop Holy Panda X.

Semi-Mechanical Keyboards/Switches While true ‘MX Style’ keyboards above and Topre keyboards below are fairly well-established categories, “semi-mechanical” boards are still a bit of a wild west space for keyboard design. The two most common types of keyboards which you will see in this space have what look to be normal ‘MX style’ switches, though instead of operating solely on two pieces of metal contacting internally, they operate via electrostatic capacitive circuits or optical paths and lasers. Known as ‘EC’ and ‘Optical’ switches, respectively, these two types of prebuilt keyboards have very little aftermarket support and can only use switches from the true ‘MX style’ or Topre categories in very rare circumstances. The most popular brand to use the ‘EC’ style design in their prebuilts is that of Varmilo, who currently has a good handful of different weights and designs that they offer for their EC-style switches. Optical switches, on the other hand, are most notably found in boards from Flaretech or Wooting, the latter of which has their own custom Gateron-made optical switch known as the ‘Lekker’.
Figure 3: Example of what an optical switch design looks like externally. Another type of semi-mechanical keyboard design which you may encounter uses what are known as ‘hammer over membrane’ style mechanisms. While much more rare than either EC or optical style switches, these have occasionally caused some drama in the past when users discover their presence in some HP Gaming branded keyboards. While hammer over membrane style mechanisms may have a similar style of appearance as EC, optical, and ‘true MX’ style switches, instead of mechanism of action lying within the switch, the stem is pressed completely through the housing during a keystroke and depresses a rubber dome underneath it. This rubber dome compression then, in turn, completes the circuit which registers a keystroke. Given that there is very little analysis of this type of mechanism out there, my suggestion would be to just consider these as a sort of hybrid between mechanical and non-mechanical keyboards.
Figure 4: Underside of 'hammer over membrane' switch showing the hole where the stem would poke out.

Topre Keyboards/"Switches" Topre, specifically, refers to the Japanese company which designed and popularized the electrostatic capacitive “switch” that relied on a thick rubber dome and slider to actuate a keypress rather than the traditional concept of a switch. Nowadays, however, Topre is used to refer to all manner of keyboard mechanisms which have this thick rubber dome and EC style design to them. While there is some manner of aftermarket modifications and variability available for Topre-style keyboards, the availability and accessibility of these modifications pales in comparison to true ‘MX style’ keyboards. (As well, it’s worth noting that there is no cross compatibility between Topre-style keyboard mechanisms and true ‘MX style’ mechanisms.) However, many users who enjoy Topre-style keyboards as a result of their significantly different feeling and sound characteristics often stick with what is available in prebuilt options, opting to tune them by breaking them in with usage over time. Popular prebuilt keyboard brands which use either genuine Topre or Topre-style mechanisms include HHKB, Realforce, Niz, and even some Leopold boards as well.
Figure 5: Example of what Topre "switches" look like - Image credit to @Vira There you have it! While this list is far from comprehensive in both types of mechanisms discussed as well as brands underneath each type, this should be enough of a starting point for you to help navigate your way around the prebuilt mechanical keyboard scene. Thinking of something that you will want to customize and upgrade later? Chances are you should probably stick with the ‘true MX’ style designs. Wanting to go one-and-done or find something a bit off of the well tread path? Perhaps semi-mechanical and/or Topre-style keyboards may be in the cards for you. Regardless of what your choice ends up being, though, know that what you prefer and will enjoy using on your desk is what matters the absolute most, even if it isn’t what some users would refer to as a “true mechanical keyboard”. (I’m looking at you, Topre users.)

Mar 30, 2023
Where's the info on buckling spring? We can't forget the power-house clackers from IBM. Damn, they defined "office environment" for years with that orchestra of keyboards under the control of experienced typists.
Mar 29, 2023
Very helpful. Now about that cherry mx blue drop….
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