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What Is a Hotswap Mechanical Keyboard?

What Is a Hotswap Mechanical Keyboard?

Hotswap = changing switches without soldering

Hotswap (also hot-swap or hot swap) is an acclaimed feature that Kono Store and Input Club adopted early. It describes keyboards that allow switch replacement without soldering. Kaihua (Kailh), a premier switch manufacturer in China, created the market-dominating hotswap socket design pictured below.

How can that get confusing?

Many sites say that hotswap keyboards have “hotswap switches,” which is rarely the case and can cause mild confusion. Switches from Cherry MX-style hotswap keyboards are usable in keyboards with the same hotswap socket pinout / plate design, but they were not specifically designed for hot-swap usage. Those switches can even be soldered into a regular keyboard. The real innovation resides on the PCB (Printed Circuit Board) or, if there are actual hotswap switches like our contactless SILO / Keystone line, in the underlying technology.

What are the benefits?

Hotswap keyboards are preferred by typists and quality-oriented manufacturers. They make switch repairs easy (resulting in longer keyboard lifetime) and allow for personalization, but those are just the base benefits. The ease of installation also makes smaller production runs possible — manufacturers can install exotic switches with a lower MOQ (Minimum Order Quantity), dodging big automation costs.

If a keyboard doesn’t have those hotswap sockets, its modification options are very limited. In standard keyboards you must solder and / or add Holtite sockets to change switches. Holtites aren’t super reliable and can only handle a few switch changes. Those issues disappear with better hotswap socket designs like Kaihua’s.

Why are so few hotswap keyboards available?

The most important reason is profit reduction — both long and short term. Hotswap sockets cost a little bit more per keyboard. Most mass market keyboards are incredibly cheap to make, and produced in batches of several thousand or more, so companies don’t like the added cost eating into their profit. They also make repairs very easy; when switches wear out people are much less likely to buy a new keyboard instead of doing the repair themselves.

Hotswap sockets also require some engineering expertise to implement. They take up extra room on the PCB so component placement and routing must be precise. This limits international layout support at the PCB level, especially if a keyboard has LEDs. If you want a European enter key or split space bar for a hotswap keyboard, separate PCB designs are usually necessary. Keyboards like the Minivan, which is no longer available, achieve partial all-in-one success by reducing LED functionality.

Do you need a hotswap keyboard?

If you know how to solder and have an absolute favorite keyboard switch, hotswap might not be necessary for you (even if it does offer quality of life improvements). For people who like easy repairs and variety, however, hotswap keyboards are unbeatable. It’s hard to justify making anything other than a hotswap keyboard as a premium keyboard manufacturer; expect to see more and more mechanical keyboards with hotswap options on the market over the next year or two.

Currently, Kono Store offers the hotswap Kira and Gemini Dawn / Gemini Dusk.

Input Club's upcoming Keystone Analog Keyboard also offers hot-swap design, but is not compatible with Cherry-style switches as it is designed with a new architecture for analog input.

Next article The Silo Beam Switch