Tech

Magnets are switching up the keyboard game

The next big thing in mechanical keyboards is magnetic switches.

Mechanical keyboards quickly went from a niche product to a mainstream product during the pandemic, as everyone looked to upgrade their home office — and maybe take up a new hobby, too. Brands like Akko, Drop, Ducky, Epomaker and Keychron have become household names and today’s enthusiasts can choose from dozens of different configurations and purchase parts from even more suppliers.

Since then, things have gotten a bit stale, even as once-premium features have migrated to budget keyboards. RGB lighting has long become the standard, as Angry Miao and others continue to find innovative new ways to use it. The number of switches available seems endless, from the lightest switches for gamers to the heaviest for even the most energetic typists, all in linear, tactile, and clicky variations and an endless amount of colors. A few years ago, a joint-mounted keyboard, which gave you a smoother, bouncier typing feel, was something enthusiasts could only find on high-end boards, but now everyone is basically doing the same thing.

In a way, this is great: the average build quality of mechanical keyboards on the market has never been higher, and prices have come down. But the whole scene also became a bit boring. That’s where magnetic switches come in, with their ability to quickly change the actuation point (the point during the key press where the switch registers your downward stroke).

Image credits: Akko

On a standard mechanical keyboard switch, you physically close an electrical circuit to register a key press. When you press down, the two legs of the stem (the movable part to which the cap is attached) push against two metal sheets which close the circuit.

The shape of this shaft and its feet is what really differentiates a linear switch (think Gateron Red switches on many gaming keyboards) from one that has a more tactile feel (like on a Cherry Brown). Linear switches have smooth stems while there is a bump on tactile switches that provide that slight moment of resistance when you press. The overall design of the switch’s stem, feet, spring, stem, and overall housing can dramatically change the feel and sound of a switch, but also the exact moment the key press is registered by the keyboard. For a standard Gateron Red, for example, the actual key press is recorded after about 2 millimeters of pressure, and the total travel distance before the stem reaches the bottom of the switch is 4 millimeters.

Mechanical switches are very different. They rely on magnets and springs and are activated by detecting changes in the magnetic field. Popularized by Dutch keyboard startup Wooting, these switches rely on the Hall effect and have been around since the 1960s. They still use the same overall design as mechanical switches, with stems and springs, but as it doesn’t there is no electrical circuit to close, there are no tabs on the rod. There is, however, a permanent magnet in the stem and when you press, the sensor on the keyboard PCB registers the position of the switch precisely. And that’s where the biggest change comes in: you can change the distance you have to press to register the keystroke.

Akko

When you’re gaming, you might want to save it as soon as you start moving your finger 0.1 millimeters, but when you’re using the same keyboard to type, you can change it to, say, 2.5 millimeters to avoid incorrect keystrokes. Typically, this is done with a simple key combination on the keyboard itself or in the manufacturer’s software tools. Since these sensors are sensitive to temperature variations, there is usually an option to calibrate the keyboard.

This also allows for some other clever tricks, as you can’t just change where the key is triggered, but also where it’s released. This probably doesn’t matter too much to you when you’re typing, but when you’re gaming, it’s what lets you quickly spam a key if necessary (and most tools that come with magnetic keyboards also have an adjustment rapid triggering), while being at a high degree. customization allows you to experiment with your favorite settings without having to physically switch to another switch.

Image credits: Akko

If you want to go too far, you can even create something akin to a macro by assigning multiple actions to the same key, so that a single key press registers a different action when pressed halfway. stroke, when you bottom out, and when the switch pushes the keycap up again – and maybe another one somewhere in between. I haven’t found a personal use case for this yet, but surely someone will.

However, the only thing you can’t change is the resistance of the switch. For all the talk about magnets, this is still handled by the spring inside the switch, after all.

One problem here is that there is no standard for these switches yet, so not all switches will work on all keyboards. However, depending on the manufacturer, you may also be able to plug traditional mechanical switches into the PCB (but without the customization benefits of magnetic switches, of course).

A trip to Santorini: Akko’s PC MOD 007B

To test all of this, Akko sent me a review unit of its MOD007B PC Santorini keyboard – one of the latest in its World Tour series and also one of the more understated models in this series. Priced at just under $150 (although you can usually get it for around $110 on Amazon), the MOD007B gasket-mount PC comes pre-built with Kailh’s Sakura Pink linear magnetic switches. The PCB also accepts 3-pin mechanical switches.

For connectivity, you get standard Bluetooth and USB-C connections, as well as a 2.4GHz multi-host option (which requires the included dongle). For wireless operations, the card is powered by a 3,600 mAh battery.

Image credits: Frédéric Lardinois/TechCrunch

The 75% case isn’t anything too exciting, with its rather plain polycarbonate casing, but unlike some high-end keyboards, it lets you adjust your typing angle using its dual-position feet .

Akko used a good amount of foam inside the case to shape the sound of the board, which is quite smacky. I prefer a slightly more muted sound, but that’s 100% personal preference. The stabilizers are well tuned, but there is a noticeable amount of case ping. A few small mods should take care of this, but right off the bat it’s the most obvious negative of this card and I’m surprised that after several generations of MOD007 cards the company hasn’t fixed this problem. A few small tweaks should fix this, but even at this price point, buyers shouldn’t have to.

As for the software, Akko’s proprietary software tool is competent enough and easy to use. It does what it’s supposed to do and gets out of your way. That’s one thing with magnetic switch cards: they tend to favor proprietary software over open source solutions like VIA.

Image credits: Akko

However, this board is only for magnetic switches. I really enjoyed experimenting with them and although I didn’t win a single chicken dinner in PUBG while testing it, I felt that with the right setting it allowed me to react a little faster. Your mileage may vary in Valorant and other shooters where quick release features may be more important. Either way, it’s a fun board to play with.

The switch is a Khailh Sakura Pink magnetic switch with a ground strength of 50 gf. This matches many standard linear switches, although perhaps a little heavier.

For everyday typing, it took me a while to find the right setting. I experimented with a few, but ultimately ended up with Akko’s default comfort setting, which sets the actuation and release points at 2mm. The default clearance setting is 0.5mm, which seems more than enough.

While not the most premium card on the market, Akko has created a card that, with the right settings and a few minor tweaks, feels great to type on (if you like linear switches) and also makes a nice gaming platform. What matters most here, however, is that this card allows gamers and non-gamers alike to jump into the magnetic switch market without major additional costs. Is this the best board on the market? Not by a mile, but at this price it’s hard to beat.

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