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Magnets are changing the keyboard game

The next big thing in mechanical keyboards are magnetic switches.

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

Things have gotten a bit stale since then – even if the once high-end features have migrated to budget keyboards. RGB lighting has long since become the standard as people like Angry Miao continue to find innovative new ways to use it. The number of available switches feels endless, ranging from the lightest switches for gamers to the heaviest switches for the most energetic typists – all of which come in linear, tactile and clicky variants and endless colors. A few years ago, enthusiasts could only find pad-style keyboards on high-end motherboards, which gave you a softer, bouncier typing feel, but now everyone basically does it.

In some ways, that’s great: The average build quality of a mechanical keyboard on the market has never been higher, and prices have dropped, too. But the whole scene also became a bit boring. This is where magnetic switches come in, with their ability to quickly change the actuation point (the point during a key press where the switch registers your downstroke).

Image Source: Arco

On a standard mechanical keyboard switch, you physically close the circuit to register key presses. When you press, two legs on the stem (the moving parts the keycaps are attached to) push against two metal blades, closing the circuit.

The shape of the stem and legs is what actually differentiates linear switches, like the Gateron Red switches on many gaming keyboards, from more tactile switches, like the ones on Cherry Brown. Linear switches have a smooth stem, while tactile switches have a bump on them that provides slight resistance when you press it. The overall design of the stem, legs, springs, stem seat, and entire switch housing can drastically change the feel and sound of the switch, but also how accurately the keyboard registers key presses. For example, with the standard Gateron Red, the actual key press is recorded after about 2 mm of press, while the total travel distance before the lever hits the bottom of the switch is 4 mm.

Mechanical switches are very different. They rely on magnets and springs and are activated by sensing changes in magnetic fields. These switches rely on the Hall effect, popularized by Dutch keyboard startup Wooting, and have actually been around since the 1960s. They still use the same overall design as a mechanical switch, with a stem and spring, but since there is no circuit to close, there are no legs on the stem. However, there is a permanent magnet in the lever, and a sensor on the keyboard PCB accurately registers the position of the switch when you press it. This is where the most important change comes in: you can change how far down you need to press to register a keystroke.

Arco’s

When you’re playing a game, you might want to register it when you start moving your finger 0.1mm, but when you’re typing on the same keyboard, you can change it to 2.5mm to avoid erroneous keystrokes. Typically, this is done via a simple key combination on the keyboard itself or in the manufacturer’s software tool. Since these sensors are sensitive to temperature changes, there is often the option of calibrating the keypad as well.

This also allows for some other smart tricks, as you can not only change where the keys are triggered, but also where they are released. This may not matter too much to you when you’re typing, but when gaming, this allows you to press keys as quickly as you need (most magnetic keyboards come with tools that also have a quick trigger setting) while being highly customizable feature allows you to try out your favorite settings without actually changing to a different switch.

Image Source: Arco

If you want to take it too far, you can even create something like a macro by assigning multiple actions to the same key, so that when you press halfway down, the single key registers a different one when you bottom out Operating the switch pushes the keycap up again—perhaps in another position in between. I haven’t found a personal use case for this yet, but someone certainly will.

One thing you can’t change, though, is the resistance of the switch. Despite all the talk about magnets, this is still handled by the spring inside the switch.

One problem here is that these switches are still not fairly standard, so not every switch will work on every keyboard. However, depending on the manufacturer, you can also plug traditional mechanical switches into the PCB (though without the customization benefits of magnetic switches, of course).

Santorini Trip: Akko’s MOD 007B PC

To test it all out, Akko sent me a review unit of the MOD007B PC Santorini keyboard—one of the newest keyboards in its World Tour series, and one of the more restrained designs in the range. The spacer-mounted MOD007B PC sells for just under $150 (though you can usually buy it on Amazon for around $110) and comes pre-installed with Kailh’s linear Sakura Pink magnetic switches. The PCB also accepts 3-pin mechanical switches.

For connectivity, you get standard Bluetooth and USB-C connectivity, as well as a multi-host 2.4Ghz option (requires included adapter). For wireless operation, the board is powered by a 3600mAh battery.

Image Source: Frederic Radinos/TechCrunch

There’s nothing too exciting about the 75% case, with its fairly plain polycarbonate shell, but unlike some high-end keyboards, it allows you to adjust the typing angle with the help of dual-position feet.

Akko uses a lot of foam inside the shell to shape the sound of the board, in terms of rattle. I prefer a slightly muted sound, but that’s 100% a personal preference. The stabilizer is well adjusted, but there are noticeable instances of pinging. Some small mods should fix this problem, but out of the box, this is the board’s most glaring shortcoming, and I’m surprised that, after multiple generations of MOD007 motherboards, the company hasn’t fixed this issue yet. Some minor modifications should fix the problem, but even at this price point, buyers shouldn’t do it.

As for software, Akko’s own proprietary software tools are powerful and easy to use. It does what it’s supposed to do and stays out of your way. That’s one thing for motherboards with magnetic switches: they tend to favor proprietary software over open source solutions like VIA.

Image Source: Arco

This board is mostly about magnetic switches, though. I enjoyed trying them so much that even if I didn’t win a chicken dinner in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, I would be testing it out and I do feel that, with the right settings, it makes my reactions a little faster. Your mileage may vary in Valorant and other shooters where quick trigger functionality may be more important. But regardless, this is a fun game board.

The switch is a Khailh Sakura Pink magnetic switch with 50gf bottoming force. This is consistent with many standard linear switches, although perhaps a bit heavy.

For everyday typing, it took me a while to find the right settings. I tried a few, but ultimately I settled on the Akko’s default comfort setting, which sets the actuation and release points to 2mm. The default gaming setting is 0.5mm, which seems fast enough.

While Akko isn’t the most premium motherboard on the market, it has created a board that with the right setup and a few minor modifications is comfortable to type on (if you like linear switches) and is a decent gaming platform as well. The most important thing here, though, is that this board allows gamers and non-gamers alike to dip their toe into the magnetic switch market without having to pay a fortune. Is this the best motherboard? It’s less than a mile off, but at this price point, it’s hard to beat.

#Magnets #changing #keyboard #game

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