Recently there has been a lot of chatter about hot-swap keyboards among the enthusiast and gaming communities. The thought of simply swapping in and out switches without hesitation, sounds like a dream come true to many who love the constant experimentation and manipulation of their craft. The benefits are undoubtedly huge as it gives the consumer virtually limitless possibilities to customize their typing experience without having to disassemble and take on the burden of soldering, which let’s face it, is a scary task at hand for first timers or even those with some experience.
So, if the benefits are so big and there is a clear demand in the market, then why don’t we see hot-swap PCB’s in virtually every gaming, enthusiast level or DIY keyboard kit? The simple answer is cost but really that is a cop-out of an answer. Although partially true, it is not the real reason.
We sat down with some of the most respected brands in the market, OEM manufacturers and industry leaders to better understand this ability to hot-swap and the consensus is that hot-swap technology, really isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Everyone in this industry is in agreement that the use-benefit is one that they would love to achieve and offer to the end users who use their products, but it is not worth the cost. But, wait, I thought that we established it wasn’t about the cost? Well yes, it is not about the [dollar] cost of the components but rather the trade off cost of reliability and durability that you are inevitably giving up for this single feature.
To better understand the problem, let’s first run over how hot swap sockets work. Conventional mechanical keyboards connect the switch to the PCB through the process of soldering, which is the process of joining two metal components by melting and solidifying the solder between the two components to fuse them together.
Hot swap on the other hand, completes the connection between the switch and the PCB, not with solder but with sockets that are essentially mini trap doors that the pins of the switch friction fit into. The constant contact that is required to have a stable connection between these two components relies on the incredibly tight squeeze that is so tight it actually scratches and wears on both the pins of the switch and the socket itself. Because these components are so tiny the act of prying and inserting of these switches in and out inevitably does considerable damage to all components involved.
Some of these industry leaders believe that given the number of switches on a keyboard (which increases the points of failure), a hot swap keyboard is likely to break at least one socket after 3 to 6 swaps of the full keyboard. And if one socket is broken, the entire keyboard is essentially deemed defective. This is a major problem for the industry as reliability and durability are on the top of the list and this new threat of defects could see major increases in RMA rates which could kill a business working on small margins.
There are other negatives too that are attributed to hot swapping. The act of prying the switches out from the top requires a special tool which is prone to snapping the housing of the key switch itself [ I have accidently done this multiple times testing an anonymous hot swap board] and the tool also dings up and scratches the plate if you are not extra careful. One industry leader also told us that without the firm solid connection of solder, there is also the possibility of added wobble in the switches, although it is hard to pin down exactly the difference in wobble because there are so many other factors that are hard to isolate such as the flexibility of the PCB, the design of the plate, the switches, and even the keycaps which could all contribute to ‘perceived’ switch wobble.
The lack of solder also has a negative affect on the sound of the keyboard making the keyboard sound less dense than soldered counterparts. Without the solder filling these sockets there is also an increase in reverberation resulting in extended ping which is noticeable to those with keen senses.
There is still hope though that one day hot swap will come out victorious as the technology advances but it is likely not going to happen until switches themselves are designed from the ground up with hot swapping capabilities as a priority. Contact-less magnetic and optical switches for example could be a saving grace for the future of hot swap keyboard and bring a whole new host of added benefits along with them, such as increased lifespan, smoother feel, and more. But until that day comes, good old traditionally soldered keyboards are still king when it comes to reliability, durability and the typing experience many of us prioritize in our keyboards.
A Final Summary of the Pros and Cons of using a hot swap keyboard.
Hot Swapping Pros
- Ability to integrate compatible switches to create a customized typing experience with ease
- Easy replacement of faulty switches
- Ability to upgrade switches to give you flexibility and ease your initial buying decision making
Hot Swapping Cons
- Reduced durability/reliability with a significantly higher likelihood of damaging the PCB, sockets and switches in the replacement process lowering the product lifespan dramatically.
- Unstable electrical connection between switches and PCB can result in misfires and unregistered key strokes.
- Unstable physical connection resulting in a minor increase of switch wobble affecting the typing feel.
- Hot Swap sockets create reverberation and ping without components locked together with solder also making the keyboard sound “less dense”.
- Added cost of sockets which usually results in cost reductions in other aspects of the keyboard.