Time for a new desktop keyboard: the switches

I just ordered a set of Kailh Box Pink key switches from novelkeys.xyz. And I’m going to order a barebones hot swap keyboard. Why?

First, I spilled some coffee in my desktop keyboard. Maybe 1/4 cup. Which is a lot, though nowhere near what I’ve spilled on some of my buckling spring keyboards. I tore it down, doused it with 99% isopropyl alcohol, cleaned all the switches, the PCB (both sides), the case (inside and out), the keycaps. It’s working again, but it’s a reminder….

It’s my oldest CODE keyboard, Cherry MX blue switches. I like the CODE keyboard. I don’t love the price though, and I also don’t love how difficult it is to disassemble. I’ve had it apart a couple of times. And this time, one of the case tabs broke. It’s not a huge issue, but it’s annoying. If I press on the lower right corner of the keyboard case… “SQUEAK”. It’s likely more the matter that I know it’s broken than it is any sort of real annoyance, but…

I’ve never loved Cherry MX switches. My computing life began when we had some truly delightful keyboards to type on. Before the IBM Model M (very good). Even before the IBM Model F (better). Anyone truly interested in how we got where we are today would do well to do some history homework online before making your next mechanical keyboard purchase. But I can sum it up in two words: cost reductions.

I’m not going to judge that. It is what it is, and the good far outweighs the bad; cost reductions are what have allowed many of us to own desktop and laptop computers for many decades.

But… there are those of us that spend our lives at our keyboards because it’s our livelihood. And there are a LOT of us. And some of us care deeply about our human-machine interface that we spend 8+ hours at each day. And guess what? We’re not all the same. Unfortunately, we’ve mostly been saddled with only two predominant key switches for keyboards for a very long time now: various rubber dome keyboards (pretty much universally considered crummy but inexpensive), and those with Cherry MX (or something similar to Cherry MX). We do still have Unicomp making buckling spring keyboards with tooling from Lexmark (who manufactured the Model M keyboards for the North American market). And we have some new switch types (optical, hall effect, etc.). But at the moment, the keyboard world is predominantly Cherry colored.

Perhaps worse, those of us that like a switch to be both tactile and clicky have few good choices. Unicomp buckling spring is at the top for readily available and reasonably priced. But the compromises for a modern desktop are significant for a large crowd of us. Number one would be that it’s huge (including the SSK version). For some, number two would be no backlighting. And yet others want more keycap options. But it’s a long drop from the buckling spring to any MX-style switch if your goal is clicky and tactile.

I don’t hate Cherry MX blues. Nor Gateron blues. Nor many others. But… most of them feel like just what they’re designed to be. They’re not smooth (including the linears), most of them are not truly tactile, and they’re fragile (not protected from dust or liquid ingress). Most have considerable key wobble. They’re usable, I’ve just been wanting something better for a while. In a TKL (tenkeyless) keyboard with minimal footprint.

Some personal history… one of the reasons I stopped using buckling spring was just the sheer size of any of my true Model M keyboards or any of the Unicomps. The other was the activation force. I wanted something a little lighter to the touch, but still noisy. The Cherry MX blue and similar have filled the niche for me for a while. But… the scratchiness/crunchiness has always been less than ideal to me, and the sound in any board I’ve tried has been less satisfying than I’d like. I’ve not had any of the switches die on me, which is a testament to durability. But I’ve had to clean them on more than one occasion due to a small spill, to get them working again. And over time, despite the fact that they still function, their characteristics change. Some keys lose some of their clickiness. Some get louder. And out of the box, they’re not terribly consistent sound-wise. And while I’ve disassembled keyboards to clean and lube the switches… it’s very time consuming. And despite the fact that I have a pretty good hot-air rework setup, it’s very hard for me to justify spending time replacing soldered switches. I can barely justify time swapping hot-swap keys!

So… I want a more durable switch. And something smoother (less scratch/crunch) than a Cherry MX, but with a nice distinct click. And unfortunately, something that works in a PCB designed for Cherry MX since there are far and away the most options there. The Kailh White or Pink seem to fit the bill. The white are readily available, so I bought the pink just to make sure I don’t miss out on available inventory. I’ll put them in a hot-swap board with PBT keycaps and give them a test drive for a few weeks.

I know the downsides ahead of time. I had an adjustment to make when I went from buckling spring to Cherry MX blue. Buckling spring feedback and activation occur at the same time; it’s ideal. Cherry MX and related designs… most of them activate after the click. The Kailh pink and white appear to activate before the click, and they don’t have the hysteresis of the Cherry MX switches. But based on my own personal preferences which are aligned pretty closely to those who’ve reviewed the Kailh Box White and Kailh Box Pink (like Chyrosran on YouTube), I think one of these switches will make me happier than my MX blues.

Of course I could be wrong. But that’s why I’m going with an inexpensive hot-swap board for this test drive. PCB, mounting and chassis all play a significant role in how a keyboard feels and sounds. But I know many of those differences, and the goal at the moment is to pick the switches I want in my next long-term keyboard.