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What are hot-swappable keyboard switches?

Many of us who use keyboards every day know the benefits of having a good keyboard. We care about how the keyboard feels. How responsive is it? Does it make the right kind of noise when a key is activated? How hard do you have to press, and how easy is it to sense key activation?

A lot of that detail is determined by a keyboard’s switches, the base that’s doing the activating for each individual key. Most switches are soldered in place on a keyboard during manufacturing and can’t easily be changed, but there’s an important exception: hot-swappable switches and their accompanying keyboards.

Keyboard showing switch colors.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What are hot-swappable switches?

These are specially designed keyboard switches made to work with swappable keyboards so you can easily change the current switch for a different switch using a basic switch-puller tool.

“Wait, I pop keys off my keyboard all the time,” you may be thinking. That’s true, but that’s only the cap, the top covering of the switch, which can be removed when cleaning the keyboard, etc. Most switches aren’t designed to be removed at all — not unless you want to do some soldering work.

But swappable keyboards allow you to change the switch itself on demand without taking the keyboard apart (that’s what makes it “hot”), choosing which kind of switch you prefer, key by key.

What’s the advantage of this design?

It allows for highly specific customization for how each key responds. You can experiment with different switches for all keys or swap switches for just a few keys that you use most often. Or you can place different switches to identify certain important, remapped keys just by how they feel when activated.

All this customization is often offered by the best gaming keyboards, but they’re not the only ones, and you don’t have to be a gamer to benefit. Anyone else who likes to control their keyboard’s feel and uses plenty of specialized commands may enjoy hot-swappable switches, too.

What are the different switches you can swap to?

Swappable keyboard sockets are designed to work with standard switches, particularly those in common styles like Cherry MX, Alps, or Topre, so you have lots of options. Many switches are color-coded to show their particular forte: blue switches are very tactile and produce a classic, loud, clicky sound, while red switches are smooth, speedy, and quiet. Brown switches are somewhere in the middle, with a focus on clear feedback with a tactile bump in the actuation. Switches can also be defined by travel distance, actuation force, and other specs buyers can review.

Switches can also be either three-pin or five-pin, referring to how many points of contact the switches have with the keyboard socket. Five-pin designs are more stable but are otherwise the same as their three-pin counterparts.

Keyboard with switches out.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What kind of keyboards have hot-swappable switches?

There are mechanical keyboards specifically designed for swappable switches. Your average keyboard won’t have this capability, nor will alternative designs like Apple’s Magic Keyboard. Hot-swappable keyboards are more likely to be offered by gaming brands or keyboard makers that specialize in customizable mechanical keyboards. They are also available in compact sizes.

Should I look for hot-swappable switches when buying a new keyboard?

Do you like mechanical keyboards? This design is strictly for a mechanical keyboard setup. If a mechanical keyboard is on your list, do you want a version that’s customizable? Some people like the mechanical design but prefer the keys don’t make so much noise, so they can swap to quieter switches. And as we mentioned above, others may want to customize certain frequently-used keys so they feel just right.

That makes hot-swappable switches a good choice for a variety of serious PC gamers, as well as anyone who wants to plan out a keyboard with a very particular feel.

A switch puller for keyboards.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

How do I switch keys with this design?

You’ll want a switch puller, a fairly simple grabber tool that’s made to lock onto the switches so you can lift them out. Otherwise, switches are a bit too compact to remove them by hand. Then you can insert the replacement switch, making sure the pins line up, and lock the switch in place. Many hot-swappable keyboards are made to support multiple switch replacements, although this will increase wear and tear.

What brands offer these kinds of switches and keyboards?

A number of brands that specialize in mechanical keyboards will have hot-swappable switches you can buy, as well as compatible keyboards. That includes MK, Keycron, Camisyn, KPRepublic, Royal Kludge, and quite a few others. The Logitech G Pro X is an example of a more mainstream keyboard with hot-swappable switches.

How much do hot-swappable switches cost?

The keyboards themselves can range in cost from $30 to $200 depending on the size and features. An additional set of switches can cost $20 to $50, depending on the number that you get and their features.

Tyler Lacoma
Former Digital Trends Contributor
If it can be streamed, voice-activated, made better with an app, or beaten by mashing buttons, Tyler's into it. When he's not…
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