There are many things that consumers have to consider when building a custom keyboard. However, the one component that they should spend most of their attention on is the PCB. More specifically, they should pay attention to the switch orientation/the position of the LEDs on the keyboard.
North-facing keyboard switches will illuminate the keycaps better since the LEDs are found directly under the legends. However, they will interfere with Cherry profile keycaps such as the ones found on GMK sets. For this reason, mechanical keyboard enthusiasts prefer South-facing switches over North-facing switches.
The orientation of the switches will largely determine what kind of keycaps are compatible with the keyboard. This is extremely important, especially since the keycaps play a huge role in the custom keyboard build. Making a wrong decision here may result in having to build an entirely new keyboard.
In this article, we will be diving deeper into the difference between north and south-facing switches. We will also be discussing concepts such as mechanical key switch interference. And by the end of this article, consumers should know which switch orientation works best for their intended use case.
What are North and South Facing Switches?
The terms north and south-facing switches refer to the orientation of the LEDs on the PCB. The LEDs on north-facing switches are found on the top, while the LEDs on south-facing switches are found on the bottom.
These terms may seem quite straightforward at first. However, there is a clear reason why these LEDs are found in these two positions.
Why Do Mechanical Keyboards Use North-Facing Switches?
The most iconic element of any gaming keyboard is its backlight. This was largely popularized by brands such as Razer through their Chroma RGB technology.
To achieve the vibrant RGB found on most gaming keyboards, the LEDs on the PCB must be positioned on the top of the switch. This allows the legends of the keycaps to be directly illuminated, making the backlight shine brighter.
North facing switches have since become the norm for gaming keyboards and most pre-built keyboards. However, they have slowly become less desirable with the rise of custom keyboards. This is because of the phenomenon known as switch interference.
Why North-Facing Switches Have Become Less Desirable
Before we talk about switch interference, let us first talk about why it matters. In recent years, custom keyboards have broken into the mainstream market. More brands have entered the market, and there are now more options.
Other custom keyboard-related accessories have also boomed in popularity. One of them is high-end keycap sets.
With brands such as GMK and ePBT, consumers have become more interested in great-looking key sets rather than RGB. However, this caused a big issue with most of the existing mechanical keyboards.
All GMK key sets, as well as the majority of popular keycaps, use the Cherry profile. This causes major issues with the majority of north-facing switches. This is due to mechanical keyboard interference.
What is Mechanical Keyboard Switch Interference?
In a nutshell, switch interference occurs when the keycaps hit the top of the LEDs. This prevents proper bottoming out and will negatively affect both the sound and feel of the keyboard.
To combat this issue, custom keyboard designers have started utilizing south-facing switches or no LEDs at all. As for the mainstream market, only a couple of brands have switched to south-facing switches. The majority of gaming-focused brands are still prioritizing RGB over keycap compatibility.
Does Mechanical Keyboard Switch Interference Matter?
Interference is serious enough to be noticed by the majority of the custom keyboard community. However, it is arguably a minor issue compared to the other issues that can be encountered in a keyboard build.
In our experience, we didn’t have too many issues using the GMK Red Samurai keycaps with the KPRepublic BM65 that had north-facing switches. While interference was quite obvious on some rows, it wasn’t too much of an issue with the alphas and other major keys.
Doing some mods, which we will be talking about later in the article, may even solve these issues. Other issues, such as stabilizer rattle, will more likely be a bigger issue than switch interference.
With that said, some users can easily detect interference. And for those people, this issue can be very annoying. So to answer this question, interference may matter to some, but not to all enthusiasts. We highly suggest checking out YouTube sound demos and deciding for yourself if it is a big deal.
Are North Facing Switches Still Usable?
Almost any enthusiast will tell you to avoid north-facing switches when building a custom mechanical keyboard. However, this is not always possible.
Most budget-priced mechanical keyboards (priced $100 and below) are still utilizing north-facing switches. So unless you have a higher budget, then you will most likely have to deal with north-facing switches.
But with that said, having north-facing switches isn’t the end of the world. There are various remedies to fix key switch interference.
The easiest fix is to purchase a mechanical keyboard switch that has a longer stem. The most notable example of this is the Boba U4T. The selection is more limited compared to regular switches, but the number of options is rapidly increasing.
The second option is to insert a piece of paper in the area where the stem of the switches attaches to. This method isn’t encouraged by enthusiasts since it can potentially damage the keycaps. However, if switch interference annoys you, then this is one of the quick fixes that you can apply.
Additionally, there are tons of other keycap profiles out in the market. Some of the popular ones include DSA, XDA. SA, and M3T.
Also, GMK isn’t the only high-end keycap brand out there. There are tons of brands offering other keycap profiles at a similar price point. So if you have a north-facing PCB, then it is recommended to also consider these other keycap profiles.
Which Switch Orientation is Better?
When talking about north and south-facing switches, the better one entirely depends on the user’s preferences. Those who want to have bright and vibrant RGB should certainly opt for north-facing switches. And those who want to have the best keycap compatibility should go for south-facing switches or no LEDs.
But again, the majority of the members of the keyboard community will more likely recommend south-facing switches. They will still have some sort of RGB but will maintain maximum keycap compatibility. If you are building a custom keyboard and envision yourself using it long-term, then we also highly recommend south-facing switches.
The KBE team is dedicated to sharing our knowledge and creating useful resources about computer keyboards. This article was written as a team collaboration, combining our knowledge and years of experience using, building and modding keyboards. Meet the team here.