There are quite a number of different parts to consider when you’re building a custom mechanical keyboard, and one of the most debated options is the choice of PCB: should you go with a hotswap or a solderable PCB? Is one better than the other?
To that end, we will list out the advantages and disadvantages of the two PCB options in this article. The short answer is, there is no “superior” PCB – it all comes down to preference, which really defines the custom keyboard hobby.
Advantages of Hotswap PCB
The biggest advantage of going with a hotswap PCB is the ease of switch installation, making it very beginner-friendly. All you need to do is just ensure that the two pins of a switch are straight, install it to the PCB, and…you’re good to go! You don’t have to go through the trouble of soldering each individual switch to the PCB.
Another reason why a hotswap PCB is ideal for those who are new to the hobby is the fact that it allows beginners to try various switches seamlessly. It’s important to figure out what kind of switch you like and don’t like when you’re new to the hobby, and a hotswap PCB facilitates this stage of…discovery, if you will.
Other than that, a hotswap PCB makes keyboard tuning and maintenance much, much easier as well. Say you’ve been using your keyboard for a couple of years now, and you need to relube your switches – yes, you need to relube your switches after some time.
With a hotswap PCB, you can just pull the switches out of your keyboard without the need to desolder them.
Tuning your stabilisers is not quite as difficult with a hotswap PCB either, assuming you’re using screw-in stabilisers. The thing is, in order to access the screw-in stabilisers on your keyboard, you usually need to completely disassemble it. That requires you to remove every part that is connected to the PCB, including the switches and plate.
Trust me, while you may have tuned your stabilisers very well in the initial assembly, they could start ticking somewhere down the road. Granted, you can inject lube directly into the stabiliser housing to try and solve this, but sometimes – most of the time, in my case – this doesn’t solve the ticking.
Disadvantages of Hotswap PCB
Right off the bat, if you go with a hotswap PCB, you’re stuck with only one layout. Of course, certain keyboards – such as the Ikki68 Aurora – does offer slightly more layout options, but it still doesn’t compare to the sheer flexibility of a solderable PCB in this regard.
On top of that, you cannot do half plate builds with a hotswap PCB either. As the switches are not “attached” to the PCB as well as soldered switches are, it’s not recommended to use a half plate with a hotswap PCB.
Basically, a half plate (as its name suggests) does not cover the alphas of a keyboard. So if you’re using a hotswap PCB with such a plate, the switches in the alphas portion are basically “suspended” without any support from the plate – you risk damaging a hotswap PCB by doing so.
Advantages of Solderable PCB
As mentioned in the previous section, a solderable PCB allows you to set your layout to your liking with almost no limitations. Want to use a longer 7u spacebar instead of a 6.25u spacebar? No problem. Prefer a split backspace instead of a full one? Done.
Of course, you can also use a half plate with a solderable PCB, which gives you a softer typing experience. As the alphas portion of a half plate is exposed, you’re typing directly on the PCB itself. If the PCB has flex cuts, you’ll get an even softer, less harsh typing experience – you don’t get such flexibility with a hotswap PCB.
Aside from that, a solderable PCB doesn’t cost as much as a hotswap PCB either. The price difference isn’t particularly big – it’s about $10 more in most cases – but it’s definitely something worth pointing out. However, that’s not the whole picture; I’ll get to this in the next section.
Disadvantages of Solderable PCB
Even though a solderable PCB doesn’t cost as much as its hotswap counterpart, you need more items to assemble it, including a soldering iron and desoldering tools. Depending on whether or not you have such items already, these do drive up the “cost of ownership” of a solderable PCB.
That also means it requires more work to assemble a keyboard with a solderable PCB, as you need to solder each individual switch to the PCB. If you’re inexperienced with a soldering iron, you may even damage the PCB in the assembly process.
But in my opinion, the biggest disadvantage of a solderable PCB is its inability to easily swap out switches. This makes a number of keyboard maintenance much harder, including stabiliser tuning, relubing switches, or even troubleshooting any issue with the keyboard.
So there you have it. Depending on your preference, you may prefer a hotswap or solderable PCB. Personally, I always go with a hotswap PCB for the ease of installation, even if that means I’m limited to a single layout or I can’t do a half plate build.
Besides, I review keyboard switches on a regular basis too – having a hotswap PCB makes this process a lot easier.