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What Even Are "OEM" Switches?

The secret bedrock of any technology-heavy hobby is a whole bunch of slang and jargon that makes it feel borderline like a second language to outsiders listening in on discussions about the hobby. Mechanical keyboards are, much to your surprise I’m sure, no exception to that rule. Unfortunately, having been around for as long as I have been, I’ve become a bit of the problem and have found myself casually shooting acronyms and concepts way above my friends and coworkers heads as I talk to them about keyboards. Equally as disappointing of me is that this has also seeped into my content, as well. In fact, as I was looking through some of my old writing the other day, I realized that I have eternally used one phrase - “OEM” - without ever actually elaborating on what explicitly I mean by such in the broader context of mechanical keyboard switches. While I get that it feels really basic and easy for many people who have been deep in the hobby for some time to kind of understand what I am referring to when saying  ‘OEM switches’, a good chunk of the community has only really started their journey since 2018, stepping into a world already flush with custom switches being released each and every week. So while I can empathize with their assumed confusion for the sake of premise for this article, I think it’s probably long overdue that I correct for that and actually detail what I mean when I talk about ‘OEM switches’.  In the broadest sense, “OEM” is an acronym which stands for ‘Original Equipment Manufacturer’ and is typically used to refer to the origin of the parts something was originally constructed with. For example, this would refer to the brand or company that makes the tires that come with a car that you might purchase fresh off of a dealership lot. (e.g. OEM tires from Goodyear) Narrowing this in a bit towards mechanical keyboards, a newer individual could probably then make the assumption that this is referring to any switches which come in a prebuilt, mass market keyboard, right? Well, not exactly. See, while newer Akko switches could be considered ‘OEM’ by this overarching definition since they come preinstalled in some of Akko’s entry level keyboards that they’ve sold in recent years, this phrase has been loosely defined long before Akko, or any of the manufacturers that make their switches, began producing stuff. Specifically, ‘OEM’ is used to refer to the common, basic introductory switches which (almost) all keyboard switch manufacturers started out by making. As a result of being some of the first switches these companies ever made, these were also thus the first switches that prebuilt mechanical keyboards had installed in them as the hobby was still in its infancy between 2010 and 2014. These switches often have either all black or clear over white housing constructions and come in a very limited set of stem colors including red, blue, brown, and black most commonly. With the exception of the most recent and newest switch manufacturers, almost every legacy brand that you can think of like Cherry, Gateron, Kailh, Outemu, etc. all started out by producing switches which fit these descriptions.
Figure 2: Some common OEM switch offerings including Gateron Blue and Yellow G Pro 3.0, Gateron KS-3 Black, Gateron KS-1 Red, and Cherry MX Brown.
In addition to being a common design trope amongst these early switches, OEM switch colorings also used to carry a sort of implied standard, in which the specific stem color would always indicate the type of switch as well. Red and Black switches were always linears. Switches with Brown stems were always tactiles. Blues? Almost always clicky switches. And this sort of patterning was consistent both among releases by a single manufacturer as well as across all brands of switches. Now, like all good things in switches, even this pseudo-standard for switch types by color wasn’t entirely consistent. Some manufacturers had their own, specific OEM switch color offering that was different from everyone else in addition to the common set of red, black, blue, and brown switches. The most famous example of this is, far and away, that of Gateron’s Yellow linear switches - a color scheme and switch which is still available and highly competitive as a budget switch offering even to this day. Other popular but not nearly as lasting examples include Cherry’s White clicky switches, Cherry and Gateron’s heavier-than-Blue clicky switches which were colored Green, and then more interesting offshoots from Outemu including Purple, Silver, and Teal as well. In fact, of all of the oldest and largest manufacturers, Outemu has historically had the largest set of OEM switches throughout their production history, though it still has never been truly figured out what combinations of housings and stem colors were ever released onto the market. 

Figure 3: Odd colors of Outemu 'OEM' switches include Teal, Purple, and Silver.
While the era in which OEM switches were first introduced was much more simple and less competitive in terms of quality, that is not to say that OEM switches still don’t have their place in today’s market. In addition to introducing many people into the hobby, as these switches still populate a large amount of prebuilt boards out there on the market today, these often offer the most affordable and easily accessible loose switch offerings for those dipping their toes into customizing their keyboards as their super low cost is directly tied to the high volume which these factories produce these switches. As well, some brands like Gateron have continued to push innovations year over year into their OEM offerings and continue to offer Red, Black, Blue, Brown, and Yellow switches to date in their incredibly well toleranced, nearly perfectly lubed G Pro 3.0 line of switches. (What makes it better is that they’ve even retained their budget friendly price point in spite of these changes too!) If not for direct, across the board improvement of these originally released switches, companies like Cherry continue to market their OEM switches around phrasing like the ‘Gold Standard’, updating only the internal technology over the years without straying from their iconic all-black housing construction. So while OEM switches may not be the shiniest, newest, or best performing switches out there to the most dedicated custom keyboard enthusiast, this style of switches still plays a massive role in the broader mechanical keyboard community, even if it is just outside of the ultra-niche territory most of us reside in.  
Curious to learn more about mechanical keyboard switches? Consider checking out some of my other strangely in depth articles discussing things like ‘The Who’s Who of Switch Manufacturers’ or how ‘We Know Nothing About Switch Materials.’ I’m sure those articles will help clear up some other confusing statements about switches I’ve made along the way…  

Dec 15, 2023
OEM switches => switches supplied by default on earlier keyboards by the various switch manufacturers. I know you mean well but that's the answer to the question you posed if I read your lengthy article right.
Dec 15, 2023
good post, very informative for someone who doesn't know much about switches; my partner learned a lot.
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