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3 or 5? How many pins does your switch really need?

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One of the oldest questions, albeit one you don’t see very often anymore, is about 3-pin and 5-pin MX switches. Early in the custom switch scene, budding enthusiasts would need to determine whether their keyboard needs 3-pin or 5-pin switches. Today, the question doesn’t appear as often as it used to, but it is still important to know the difference and when one is a better choice.  The difference between these two types of switches is in the name, the number of pins. As seen in the pictures below, 3-pin switches have two metal legs for the contact leaves and registering of switch presses as well as the stem pole. These switches were traditionally called plate mount switches, as they relied on the plate to align the switches on the PCB. 5-pin switches have the same contact pins and stem pole but are also accompanied by two additional alignment pins on the left and right of the stem pole. These were called PCB mount switches, as they could be used without plates as the PCBs would have holes to accommodate the alignment pins. 
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When talking strictly about prebuilt mechanical keyboards, you would find that the majority of large keyboards would feature thick heavy plates and 3-pin switches. Some smaller keyboards wouldn’t have plates as there was less PCB flex to worry about and you’d see 5-pin switches. Today prebuilt keyboards still use 3-pin switches as even if they don’t use plates, advances in production technology allow for these switches to be placed and soldered perfectly straight by machine. In today’s custom mechanical keyboard market, you won’t find as many options in the 3-pin variant as most MX-style switches are 5-pin. Likewise, the majority of custom mechanical keyboard PCBs support 5-pin switches. It’s very uncommon for a custom mechanical keyboard today to only support 3-pin switches. Mass manufacturers of switches like Cherry and Gateron will produce switches in both 3-pin and 5-pin variants. You may still find 3-pin switches in more budget prebuilt keyboards that offer hotswap capabilities. If you have your heart set on a switch that only has a 5-pin variant unlike Drop’s Holy Panda X, which features 3-pin and 5-pin variants for all color and lube options, fear not, as you can modify any 5-pin switch to fit into a 3-pin PCB. Using a pair of flush cutters, you can snip the homing legs off a 5-pin switch, effectively making it a 3-pin switch. 
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While you can permanently modify 5-pin switches for use in a 3-pin keyboard, 3-pin switches can be freely used in 5-pin keyboards. However, there are times that I would not use 3-pin switches in place of 5-pin switches. One instance would be when building a keyboard with a half plate, or plateless setup. Without the alignment pins, it becomes nearly impossible to keep the rows of your keyboard straight using 3 pin switches with no plate. Even with alignment pins, you may find that you have to go back and adjust some switches to obtain perfectly straight rows. The other case in which I prefer not to use 3-pin switches is in hotswap builds in which the switches’ friction with the PCB is what keeps the plate and PCB together. The alignment pins in this case offer another source of friction to keep the PCB and plate held together. 
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With custom mechanical keyboards advancing so much in the past decade, the question begs to be asked, “Is there a place for 3-pin MX switches in mechanical keyboards?” In my opinion, for custom mechanical keyboards, the answer is no. The custom mechanical keyboard hobby is built on preference and customization. We enjoy the ability to use different mounting styles, plates, switches, stabilizers, and keycaps to meticulously build keyboards that fit our typing style and preferences. Being limited to 3-pin switches removes options for customization such as plateless boards like Geon’s F1-8X. It takes away the ability to use a half-plate, which has become increasingly popular due to its unique feel. I’m currently using a half-plate in my Cruel World 88 with a set of broken-in and lubed Cream switches. Without the support for 5-pin switches, it wouldn’t have been possible to use this plate and switch combination, which has been a delight to type on since originally building it. We can see that the market also recognizes the importance of 5-pin switches in the hobby, as almost all new switches are exclusively released as 5-pin switches. I do think that there is a place for 3-pin switches, and that comes with repairability. Many prebuilt keyboards, both vintage and modern use 3-pin switches. As a keyboard enthusiast, I see the value in being able to maintain these pieces of typing history in original working condition, which means having the correct replacements to repair these devices. I’ve repaired Wyse keyboards from the 1980s that used Cherry Black mechanical switches, I’ve also specifically purchased these keyboards solely for their hard-used switches, lovingly referred to as ‘Vint Blacks’. In cases where restoration is the goal, it’s important to have the correct switches to replace. Even though you could just slice off the alignment pins of a 5-pin switch, there is something to be said about properly restoring a keyboard, not unlike the feeling of properly restoring a vintage computer or car. Bringing these items back to their original condition is a rewarding endeavor and to do that, 3-pin switches are still a necessity.  In, conclusion, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a condition in which you can’t make a 5-pin MX switch work in a mechanical keyboard, you may just need to cut the alignment pins off of it. When you have a PCB that has support for 5-pin switches, it’s a tough argument to choose a 3-pin switch over a 5-pin switch. As always, there are outliers to the status quo.  I wrote this article on my Safa TKL using Gateron Oil Kings which have become one of my favorite switches of all time. Down in the comments, let me know what some of your favorite switches are, and whether they are 3-pin or 5-pin! 
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Keyboy
8
Apr 14, 2024
Definitely 5 more stability some 3 pin sockets are very wobbly
artnude
0
Apr 7, 2024
I have really just started getting into custom keyboards and haven't really tried a lot of switches but right now I am enjoying hand lubed Kailh Box White switches with PBT caps in a Drop Sense75 with the brass base weight, POM plate and several simple mods. I am mostly a gamer but the linear switches just didn't have the sound and feel I liked.
Keyboy
8
Apr 14, 2024
artnudeIf you are looking to try new switches check out divinikey
artnude
0
Apr 18, 2024
KeyboyThanks
2214
1
Apr 5, 2024
thank you
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