Custom keyboard enthusiasts find themselves confronted with a myriad of choices when it comes to switches. From clicky to tactile, linear to silent, the selection of switches can be both thrilling and overwhelming. But beyond the switch type itself, there's another critical factor that often goes overlooked but plays a pivotal role in the keyboard's overall performance and feel: the mounting method.
The choice between plate-mounted and PCB-mounted switches is a decision that can significantly impact your typing experience. These mounting methods influence not only the structural integrity of the keyboard but also the way each keystroke is registered and felt by the user. When creating or buying a custom mechanical keyboard, it's essential to understand the differences between the two mounting techniques and how they can influence your typing, gaming, or daily computing experience.
In this guide, we'll explore the intricacies of plate-mounted and PCB-mounted options. By the end, you'll have a clear understanding of the pros and cons of each method, allowing you to make an informed decision when choosing the type of keyboard for your needs and preferences.
Difference Between Plate Mounted and PCB Mounted Mechanical Keyboard Switches
When you're creating a custom mechanical keyboard, you may come across terms like 'plate-mounted' and 'PCB-mounted' while exploring keyboard switches. These terms refer to how the switches are attached to the keyboard's structure.
Plate-mounted switches rely on a plate for stability while PCB-mounted variants are directly soldered onto the PCB.
What is a PCB-Mounted Switch
A PCB mounted switch, sometimes called PCB-mount switch, is a type of mechanical switch that is mounted directly to the PCB, or printed circuit board (PCB) of a keyboard. Unlike plate mounted switches that require an additional plate, PCB mounted switches have special legs or pins that fit directly into holes on the PCB for secure mounting. These pins send electrical signals to the keyboard with each key actuation.
Here are some key characteristics of PCB mounted switches:
Mounting Legs: PCB mounted switches have two additional plastic legs, commonly known as "PCB-mount" or "non-stabilizer" legs. These legs are located at the bottom of the switch housing. They fit into corresponding holes on the PCB and ensure the stability of the switches.
Soldering: Once the legs are inserted into the PCB, the switch is soldered in place to establish an electrical connection. This soldering process helps secure the switch firmly onto the PCB without the need for a separate plate.
Flexibility: PCB mounted switches offer more flexibility in keyboard design, especially for compact or low-profile keyboards. Without the need for an additional plate, these switches allow for a thinner and more space-efficient keyboard design.
Key Feel: Because these switches are soldered onto the PCB, they may provide a slightly different typing feel compared to plate mounted switches. Some users describe PCB mounted switches as having a "softer" or "smoother" feel during key presses.
Verify the compatibility of PCB mounted switches with specific keyboard models and layouts. Not all keyboards use PCB mount switches. Some keyboards may be specifically designed for plate mounted switches or offer adjustable switch compatibility through switch swap sockets or hot-swap keyboard PCBs.
What is a Plate-Mounted Switch
Plate mounted switches, or plate-mount switches, are a type of mechanical switch that is mounted directly onto a plastic or metal plate in a keyboard. The keyboard plate acts as a rigid base that provides stability and structural support for the switches.
Plate mounted switches typically have five pins extending from the bottom of the switch housing. These pins pass through holes in the plate and are soldered onto the printed circuit board (PCB) to establish an electrical connection.
The plate serves several purposes in a plate mounted switch configuration:
Stability: The plate provides a solid foundation for the switches, reducing key wobble and ensuring a more stable typing experience. The additional rigidity can result in a crisper key feel.
Alignment: The cutouts on the plate ensure that the switches are precisely positioned in accordance with the desired keyboard layout. This helps maintain consistent key spacing and alignment.
Protection: The plate offers protection to the components beneath it. It acts as a barrier that prevents dust and debris from getting inside the keyboard and potentially interfering with the switches or PCB.
Aesthetics: Some keyboard enthusiasts appreciate the aesthetic appeal of having a visible plate between the switches and the keycaps. Different materials and finishes used for the plate can add a visually appealing touch to the overall keyboard design.
Not all keyboards use plate mounted switches. Some keyboards, especially smaller keyboards with a compact or low-profile design, employ PCB mounted switches or even proprietary mounting mechanisms.
What is a PCB?
PCB stands for Printed Circuit Board. It is a flat board made of insulating material, usually fiberglass or a composite material, on which electronic components are mounted. The PCB serves as a foundation for connecting and providing support to various electronic components, such as integrated circuits (ICs), resistors, capacitors, and switches. Here are some key features and functions of PCBs:
Electrical connections: PCBs have a network of copper traces or conductive pathways printed onto the insulating material. These traces serve to connect the different electronic components on the board, forming electrical circuits that allow the flow of electricity between the components.
Component mounting: PCBs provide a platform for mounting and securing electronic components. Through the use of solder pads or through-holes, components are attached to the PCB and soldered in place to establish an electrical and mechanical connection.
Signal routing: The copper traces on the PCB serve as pathways for transmitting electrical signals between different components. These traces are carefully designed to ensure proper routing and minimize interference or signal loss.
Layering: PCBs can consist of multiple layers of insulating material and conductive traces stacked together. The layered construction allows for more complex circuitry and higher density of components on a smaller board footprint.
Design flexibility: PCBs can be designed to accommodate various circuit configurations and layouts. Different shapes, sizes, and component placement can be employed, depending on the specific requirements of the electronic device being built.
Standardization: PCBs follow industry standards for component sizes, mounting hole spacing, and electrical connections. This standardization allows for interchangeability of components and easy integration into electronic devices.
PCBs are used in a wide range of electronic devices. They provide a reliable and efficient means of interconnecting electronic components, allowing for the proper functionality and operation of electronic devices.
Different Kinds of PCBs
There are several different types of PCBs, each designed to fulfill specific needs and requirements in electronic devices. Here are some common types:
Single-sided PCBs: Single-sided PCBs have conductive traces on only one side of the board. Components are mounted on one side, and the traces are on the other. These PCBs are suitable for simple circuits with fewer components and less complexity.
Double-sided PCBs: Double-sided PCBs have conductive traces on both sides of the board. Through-hole plating or vias are used to establish electrical connections between the traces on different layers. Double-sided PCBs offer greater flexibility and can accommodate more complex circuitry.
Multilayer PCBs: Multilayer PCBs consist of three or more layers of insulating material with conductive traces. Internal layers are sandwiched between outer layers, and vias connect the traces on different layers, allowing for intricate and high-density circuit designs. Multilayer PCBs are commonly used in advanced electronic devices and sophisticated applications.
Rigid PCBs: Rigid PCBs are the most common type and are made of rigid materials like fiberglass or composite materials. They provide stability and durability, making them suitable for most electronic devices.
Flexible PCBs (Flex PCBs): Flexible PCBs are made of flexible and bendable materials, such as polyimide. They can be curved or folded to fit specific form factors or to allow for movement in dynamic applications. Flex PCBs are particularly useful in devices that require space-saving, lightweight, or unique geometries.
Rigid-Flex PCBs: Rigid-flex PCBs combine the advantages of both rigid and flexible PCBs. They consist of a combination of rigid and flexible materials, allowing for complex assemblies that have both static and dynamic parts. Rigid-flex PCBs are commonly used in applications that require durability, flexibility, and compactness.
High-frequency PCBs: High-frequency PCBs are designed specifically for applications that operate at high frequencies, such as radio frequency (RF) communications, wireless devices, and radar systems. These PCBs are constructed to minimize signal loss, impedance, and interference at high frequencies.
High-Temperature PCBs: High-temperature PCBs are engineered to withstand and operate reliably in high-temperature environments. They use special materials and construction techniques to ensure stability and prevent heat-related issues.
HDI PCBs: HDI (High-Density Interconnect) PCBs are designed to accommodate high-density components and complex circuitry in smaller form factors. They use microvias and advanced manufacturing techniques to achieve higher wiring densities and miniaturization.
What is a Plate?
A plate is a flat, rigid component that is used to mount the switches and provide structural support. It is located between the switches for your mechanical keyboard and the keycaps.
Here are some key aspects and functions of plates in mechanical keyboards:
Key switch mounting: The plate has cutouts or holes that correspond to the position of each switch on the keyboard layout. These cutouts hold the switches in place, ensuring proper alignment and positioning.
Stability: Plates provide stability to the switches and help reduce excessive key wobble during typing. The rigid nature of the plate minimizes the movement and shifting of the switches, resulting in a more stable typing experience.
Key feel: The plate can influence the tactile and auditory feedback of the mechanical switches. Different plate materials and thicknesses can alter the sound and feel of keystrokes, offering a unique typing experience.
Flexibility: The plate can also impact the flexibility of the keyboard. Some plates offer more flexibility and give, allowing for a slightly softer and cushioned typing feel, while others provide a more rigid and precise key response.
Protection: The plate acts as a barrier, protecting the keyboard's internal components, such as the PCB, from potential damage caused by dust, debris, or accidental spills.
Aesthetic appeal: Plates can play a role in the visual design of the keyboard. Different plate materials (such as brass, aluminum, stainless steel, or polycarbonate) and surface finishes can add a decorative touch and enhance the overall aesthetics of the keyboard.
Different Plate Materials
Plates in mechanical keyboards can be made from various materials, each offering different characteristics and affecting the typing experience. In addition to metal and plastic, here are some common materials used for keyboard plates:
Aluminum: Aluminum plates are popular in mechanical keyboards due to their lightweight nature and durability. They offer a balance between rigidity and flexibility, resulting in a satisfying typing feel. Aluminum plates also provide a sleek and premium aesthetic to the overall keyboard design.
Stainless steel: Stainless steel plates are heavier and stiffer compared to aluminum plates. They offer a more rigid typing experience, reducing any potential flex in the keyboard. Stainless steel plates also provide a more robust and substantial feel to the keyboard.
Brass: Brass plates are heavier and denser compared to aluminum and stainless steel plates. They provide a very solid and firm typing feel. Brass has a unique acoustic characteristic that can enhance the auditory feedback of keystrokes, resulting in a deeper and more resonant sound.
Polycarbonate: Polycarbonate (PC) plates are a popular choice for those seeking a softer and more cushioned typing experience. PC plates offer more flex and give, resulting in a more flexible and bouncier feel to the keys. They can provide a softer sound profile compared to metal plates.
Carbon Fiber: Carbon fiber plates offer a good balance between rigidity and lightness. They provide a firm typing feel with minimal flex. Carbon fiber plates are known for their high strength-to-weight ratio, making them ideal for those seeking a lightweight yet sturdy option.
FR4: FR4 is a type of fiberglass-reinforced epoxy laminate commonly used as a substrate material for PCBs. Some keyboard enthusiasts create custom plates by using FR4 material. FR4 plates offer a balance between rigidity and flex, resulting in a versatile typing experience.
Different plate materials can significantly affect the overall typing feel, key response, and sound profile of the mechanical keyboard.
Pros and Cons of PCB-Mounted Switches
PCB-mounted switches have several advantages and disadvantages that should be considered when choosing them for a mechanical keyboard.
Space efficiency: Because the switches are directly attached to the PCB, PCB-mounted switches eliminate the need for an additional plate, allowing for a more compact and space-efficient keyboard design. This makes them suitable for thin or low-profile keyboards.
Simplified construction: PCB-mounted switches simplify the construction process as they do not require a separate plate. This can reduce manufacturing time and costs.
Cost-effective: Since PCB-mounted switches eliminate the need for an extra plate, they can be a more cost-effective option compared to plate-mounted switches.
Customization and flexibility: PCB-mounted switches offer more flexibility in terms of customizing the keyboard layout. The absence of a plate allows for more freedom in designing unique and unconventional layouts.
Potential for hot-swapping: Some PCB-mounted switch designs, such as those with hot-swappable sockets, allow for easy switch swapping without the need for soldering. This makes it convenient to try different switches or replace faulty ones.
Reduced stability: Without the additional support of a plate, PCB-mounted switches may be less stable than plate-mounted switches. They can exhibit slightly more key wobble or movement during intense typing.
Limited options: PCB-mounted switches may have fewer options compared to plate-mounted switches. This is because some switches are not designed to be compatible with PCB mounting and may lack the necessary legs.
Soldering required: To ensure a secure connection, PCB-mounted switches require soldering onto the PCB. This can be a disadvantage for those who are not familiar with soldering or prefer the convenience of switch hot-swapping. However, advanced keyboard builders with experience will like this feature also they love to experiment with different switches.
Key feel differences: The direct connection of PCB-mounted switches to the PCB can slightly influence the feel of key presses compared to plate-mounted switches. Some users may perceive a softer or smoother feel with PCB-mounted switches.
Pros and Cons of Plate-Mounted Switches
When considering plate-mounted switches for a mechanical keyboard, it is essential to consider these pros and cons in relation to one's preferences, desired key feel, layout requirements, and budget.
Enhanced stability: Plate-mounted switches offer a higher level of stability compared to PCB-mounted switches. The rigid plate prevents the keyboard from flexing and provides a sturdy base that prevents excessive key wobble during typing. This results in a more stable typing experience.
Precise alignment: The cutouts on the plate ensure precise alignment of the switches, maintaining consistent key spacing and positioning. This can contribute to a more satisfying and accurate typing experience.
Wide selection of options: Plate-mounted switches are typically more widely available with a broader selection of switch types, brands, and models. This allows for greater customization to suit individual preferences in terms of actuation force, tactile feedback, and switch characteristics.
Key feel: The presence of a plate can affect the tactile feedback and sound produced by the switches. Some users find that plate-mounted switches offer a crisper, more pronounced key feel, and a satisfying sound profile during keystrokes.
Reduced flexibility: The use of a plate restricts the layout customization options compared to PCB-mounted switches. The fixed cutouts on the plate limit the possibility of unconventional or non-standard keyboard layouts.
Increased thickness: Adding a plate to the keyboard assembly can increase the overall thickness of the keyboard. This may be a concern for those seeking a thinner or more compact design.
Manufacturing complexity: The inclusion of a separate plate in the manufacturing process adds complexity, as it requires an additional layer of assembly and alignment.
Potential for rattling: In some cases, plate-mounted switches may produce more rattling sounds due to the switch housing contacting the plate during key presses. This can be mitigated by using compatible switches and adding measures to minimize plate-to-switch contact, such as adding foam or sound-dampening material between the plate and switches.
Higher cost: The inclusion of a separate plate adds to the manufacturing cost of the keyboard, making plate-mounted switches typically more expensive than PCB-mounted switches.
Greater difficulty in switch replacement: Plate-mounted switches require desoldering and resoldering to be replaced, which can be more time-consuming and require advanced soldering skills compared to PCB-mounted switches that support hot-swapping. It is also difficult to remove the plate.
Frequently Asked Questions
Let's answer some of the frequently asked questions regarding these two types of switches.
What are some indicators to identify plate mounted vs PCB mounted switches?
You can determine if a switch is plate-mounted or PCB-mounted by the number of pins. A PCB-mounted switch has five projecting pins while plate-mounted ones support 3-pin switches. Look for these indicators to confirm the type.
How does the process of converting a 5-pin switch to fit a 3-pin board work?
A number of people asked if 5-pin and 3-pin switches can be interchanged. You can convert a 5-pin switch to fit a 3-pin board by clipping the two extra plastic legs off. It's a simple tweak, but just be careful not to damage the switch's central stem.
How do I decide which type of PCB is best for my needs?
You'll decide based on your skill and preference. Soldered PCBs require soldering skills but offer better stability. Hot-swappable PCBs are easy to use since you can remove the switches without any desoldering involved. Through-hole PCBs that are meant for PCB-mounted switches need advanced soldering but provide unique customization options.
Are there any specific care or maintenance requirements for different plate materials?
You'll need to regularly clean your keyboard, regardless of plate material. However, brass plates may tarnish over time, so they might need occasional polishing. Always handle with care to avoid scratches or damage.
Can the sound and feel of a keyboard be adjusted by changing the plate material?
Absolutely, you can alter your keyboard's sound and feel by switching the plate material. Different materials, like aluminum, brass, or polycarbonate, each provide unique typing experiences due to their varying levels of rigidity and resonance.
The choice between plate-mount and PCB-mount switches in mechanical keyboards depends on various factors and personal preferences.
Plate-mounted switches offer enhanced stability, precise alignment, and a wide selection of customization options. Switches that are mounted to the PCB offer space efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and flexibility in design. They eliminate the need for a separate plate, allowing for thinner and more compact keyboard designs.
Keyboard enthusiasts and users should consider factors such as desired key feel, typing experience, layout customization, manufacturing complexity, and budget when making a decision. Assessing the pros and cons of each type of switch will help determine which option aligns best with one's needs.
Chris Greiner, a Mechanical Keyboard specialist, boasts a solid educational background with dual bachelor's degrees in Computer Science and Business Management from Lewis University. His additional certification in Mechanical Keyboard Design showcases his dedication to staying on the forefront of keyboard technology. Chris primarily writes for keyboard enthusiasts and has been featured on platforms like Jestik, solidifying his reputation as a thought leader in the mechanical keyboard community.
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