So, this might be controversial but I’m tired of keyboard “influencers” whining about North Oriented LEDs, so I wrote an annoying long article explaining why the LEDs aren’t the problem.
The whole “north facing LEDs” is a fairly recent terminology in my opinion. A decade ago I referred to these issues as having the switch “upside down”. That was an easy way to explain because most keyboards had Cherry switches, so you could see the logo was upside down.
Also remember being told over and over that I was dead wrong and that cherry profile caps had no issue whatsoever with upside down switches.
So at least we’ve come a little way forward
I have to admit, I haven’t encountered the interference issue with any of the keyboards that I’ve built, and all of them have had North Oriented LEDs… So I was skeptical about the issue, even though I did understand it. So I got some thicker keycaps and feeler gauges so I could measure things more precisely.
I think the point here is that there are ways to handle the issue without trying to change the bigger industry which enthusiasts have a pretty symbiotic relationship with. That’s the way forward.
Funny thing…I posted this article on r/mk and immediately got downvoted…
One must not upset the hivemind.
Would probably help to address this picture in your article
Precisely the point of the post.
I do have an illustration of that in the post. I couldn’t find an actual photo to use, so I figured the illustration was a good way to go. (If you didn’t see it, it’s in a carousel with illustrations depicting interference and non-interference…)
Great read. Sheds light on the bigger picture
Thanks. That’s what I was going for, and why I spent so much time detailing the mechanical keyboard market. This issue takes on a different perspective when looked at from that frame of refernce.
Understanding the market
Indeed - there isn’t so much a keyboard market (singular) as a venn diagram of overlapping markets (multiple) - and unless you’re a relatively small business looking to make your money serving a small niche at an equally small scale, the “enthusiast” market likely isn’t even on your radar. The vast majority of keyboards bought and sold these days have no reason to have this considered in their design.
This is exactly why I made a point not to harp in switch orientation on this post linking a new budget gasket keeb. It’s got all the check-box features many gamers-who-watch-keeb-enthusiast-videos want, but ultimately this is a product aimed at those gamers, not the enthusiasts whose videos told them Holy Pandas and Creams are cool. Just as you pointed out, quality shine-through performance is enormously more important to the gaming keeb market than being able to mount GMK caps with no issue, and the gaming keeb market absolutely dwarfs the custom one.
In light of that, it is indeed a fool’s errand to crusade against “upside-down” switches.
When I first ran into this, I simply noticed that the middle row of my CTRL felt off with its new thick-and-chunky PBT Cherry profile keycaps. I knew something was iffy, but I wasn’t figuring out what was causing it - I just knew it felt bad and sounded inconsistent. It would be months before I watched a :3ildcat video that explained it to me.
I think it’s worth talking about in reviews and such in case the person reading might care about that, but unless we’re talking about something aimed at the custom market, it’s just a bullet-point, not a detractor.
So far, I’ve only had the issue with thick Cherry profile caps and a couple other profiles inspired by Cherry. Plenty of Cherry profile caps do clear the housings regardless of orientation, but not GMK, for example.
I’ve never encountered it on OEM profile. On that note…
Now this is just speculation, but I’ve always had the hunch that OEM as a (relative) standard for MX switches came about specifically to accommodate mounting them the “other” way. Even if that’s not the case, I am fairly certain that’s why gaming keyboards use it almost exclusively - it’s tall enough not to matter what direction the switches are facing, even if there’s a big chunky LED soldered in with them. (All LEDs were big and chunky in the late 80s when this profile came to prominence.)
I also think this is the solution, wherever a manufacturer sees need to have one. Both Kailh and Gateron have housing designs that will clear R3 GMK caps in either direction. (The Gats cut it close and only some clear, but Kailh’s tapered housings leave plenty of room.) TTC has also recently debuted an “agnostic” housing shape in the form of their Heart/Love/Honey and Tiger switches.
When MX switches were first designed, they were intended to go a certain direction - but MFRs quickly found reasons not to mount them that way - and these days, “right side up” is the minority configuration thanks in no small part to the popularity of back-lighting.
That being the case, I’d love to see every manufacturer adopt housing shapes that render this nit-pick a non-issue across the board. That way, everybody wins - MFRs don’t have to even think about it, gamers and business folk get their back lighting, and enthusiasts can pull out their luxury keycaps - all on the same board. Just imagine… no one would have to learn, hear, or think about this ever again…
When I think it does make sense to harp on this is when a given keyboard is explicitly aimed towards enthusiasts (or prospective ones), whether or not it’s a “true” custom keyboard. If the product is aiming to include the enthusiast crowd in their sales demographic, it’s a factor worth considering. For just about any other demographic, it’s not even worth thinking about.
There are some products that might be shunned on r/customkeyboards, but still aim for enthusiast sensibilities, if not enthusiast wallets.
That is, people either getting into the custom market, or interested in it without being motivated to spend custom prices. Let’s call boards that would fit in this category “custom-likes”. I think this category is the one where the “North/South” decision isn’t always 100% clear like in most other cases. (Gaming keeb? North. 'Spensive custom? South. Middle-market custom-like? That depends…)
In these cases, I do think it’s worth taking the time to consider who you’re trying to sell the keyboard to and why. If your goal is to sell as many of the keyboard as you can, chances are “South-facing” isn’t the way to go. If your goal is to sell keyboards at a higher price to customers that care about aesthetics, well - it might be worth considering, especially if back-lighting isn’t a factor. Are you wanting to draw some gamers into a more expensive hobby ecosystem where you sell them accessories and tools to go with their boards? South-facing is probably a good idea.
The keeb I first experienced the issue on was a Massdrop CTRL - maybe one of the earlier keebs to try straddling the mass/gamer and enthusiast markets at the same time. If I were selling that model, I’d have at least a little trouble deciding and probably ultimately just offer two PCBs with a markup for South-facing to offset the higher production costs associated with a smaller production run. I wouldn’t blame most businesses for just skipping that headache, but with Drop specifically I think offering an optional “5-pin South-facing” PCB for their alu boards makes sense because of their enthusiast-aesthetic marketing.
Don’t get me wrong - I know most of the CTRLs sold didn’t go to “enthusiasts” and it was almost certainly a financially benecficial decision to only make the “3-pin North-facing” PCB - but enthusiasts did shovel plenty of coal into its hype train, and I do think that’s something at least some keeb companies are thinking about.
I seem to remember HipyoTech making one such complaint about one of the earlier Idobao boards, and in that particular instance, I think it made sense because the board was aimed at folks entering the enthusiast space. It would make absolutely no sense to complain about switcheroo’d switches on something like a Ducky or [ insert Best Buy’s keyboard selection ], as the LED-up orientation better serves their intended functions.
Where I think it gets a little more tricky are those products that in one way or another try to straddle that line, aiming for customers all along the spectrum of “I WANT TFUE KEEB” to “I am obsessed with aesthetics, haptics, and audio”. Keebs like the CTRL, or maybe some of Durgod’s higher-end cast metal keebs, for example. I can think of reasons to go either way with ones like that, but I think a simple heuristic of demographic questions should sort that out for a given product.
I agree with almost everything you’ve written here, but this last part is a little bit on the sticky side… I considered a similar idea but considered that history has shown that the concept of trying to clearly delineate markets doesn’t work.
Markets that are are closely related tend to have a symbiotic relationship. It’s not at all uncommon for a smaller niche market to develop ideas, only to have those idea adopted and adapted to a larger market. Heck, just look at the history of the PC. It started out as a small enthusiast market back in the 60’s and 70’s building kit computers, then it migrated to home computers from companies like Commodore, Amiga and Apple, and then changed again when IBM entered the field to make a Personal Computer that straddled the line between home and business use…
It’s rare to see this done from the other side (ie, the larger market influences the smaller / niche markets), but it does happen sometimes. Consider the Compact Disc. It was developed specifically to replace vinyl records, and was largely ignored / shunned by audiophiles initially until there were devices that were specifically designed to address the issues that audiophiles found objectionable.
So, a simple heuristic to define which market segments a product should be marketed to isn’t all that clear. Look at the keyboards I am building now: anodized aluminum housing, brass accents, lubed stabilizers, aluminum plate, plate and PCB foam, 5-pin hot swap sockets, etc. The only things that make this a “non-enthusiast” grade keyboard are the firmware and North Oriented LEDs. And yet, this is marketed to gamers, and no enthusiasts. Why? Because the gamer market is so much larger.
The features that these things have is always fluid, markets tend to influence each other. I think the changes to the switch houses we are starting to see mark the progress of the market. And we are now starting to see some mass-produced keyboards moving towards using QMK for their firmware.
The things that would be nicer to push the larger market towards are things like different mounting options, and different plate and foam options. Those are certainly going bring a lot more value to the larger markets over complaining about LEDs.
While I agree with practically your entire article, I think it’s fine to still attempt to push the south-facing agenda. I doubt many gamers are coming to the keyboard enthusiast market to make their decisions, and that video of the GAS67 was definitely intended for those that were already in the custom keyboard scene. While I think “fatal” may be a bit excessive, I do think it’s definitely a downside worth mentioning to the audience it is pandering to as a disclaimer rather than an attempt to get manufacturers to change their product.
But yes, I am still hoping more switches adopt the shape of the top housing that Gateron is using on their Oil Kings or something similar to avoid this interference. Unfortunately, I do think it’ll be a long time before this becomes the norm as well. (Especially with Cherry switches).
One side note, while I know it is unlikely, the hobby is definitely gaining traction, and my slight hope is that if the hobby keeps growing at this pace, the companies that try to attract attention from both gamers and hobbyists may start prioritizing Cherry profile compatibility over maximizing shine-through LEDs. Just to satisfy my own peace of mind.
Edit: Take for instance, Akko. They have long used north-facing sockets on their boards, but did announce that they would be moving to south-facing for future products on their Discord.
Thanks for the well-reasoned response.
I think it’s okay to mention that south facing LEDs would be better, but what has been getting under my skin is the exaggeration, such as the videos I mentioned. Those were only two recent examples, but I’ve noticed statements like those quite frequently.
I got into a debate with someone on Reddit about my article. He seemed to miss a fair chunk of the point: I was not advocating for custom/artisan enthusiasts and keyboard makers to adopt north oriented LEDs. Instead, I feel it’s more important for influencers to be aware of the larger audience when covering mass-produced products. If they maintain that awareness, and use it as an opportunity to educate people who are less knowledgeable, that would be far more beneficial.
I think it’s great that Akko can make this move, they have seemingly been closer to the custom market than the gaming market with their keyboards. So it makes sense for them to announce these plans.
I guess you would call me a northfacing fan, i enjoy rgb and use “gamer” pudding keycaps, i see northfacing as just better than southfacing, there are multiple ways to mitigate interference as i will explain and the lighting benefits outweigh that con for an overall net positive.
With that out of the way, i can understand why people are upset when an obviously enthusiast board is northfacing, however i only see this as an issue if they don’t have rgb in any form, in that case, yeah its just dumb.
I think you didn’t mention enough solutions for interference and that its a much more localized problem than some think. Its usually only the third row of certain brands of thicker cherry profile keycaps with switches that are full travel.
If the stems of the switches peek above the tops by even less than 1mm, its gone, and now because long pole switches seem to be the new hotness in enthusiast circles, this “peeking stem” feature is becoming more common. Another soIution is using something so the caps sit that less than 1mm higher. these can be found in the form of “northfacing washers” but I’ve also heard of someone just balling up small pieces of paper inside the r3 cap stems, something similar could probably be easily done with 3d printers. The last idea is on the board designers to implement, though i haven’t seen this idea in a pcb yet, simply make the third row southfacing. maybe because it would give an uneven lighting effect but hey, if the hypetrain keebtubers don’t complain, it might be worth it.
I haven’t heard of oem interference ever but i guess if they’re thick enough then it could happen, but thats technically an issue with all profiles and southfacing too i assume at some point.
Peeps point their finger at the switches or northfacing in general, while the small group of keycaps that get interference is seen as the victim. Instead of trying to get the large number of large switch companies to change their tops design or asking board designers to abstain from using the more versatile and arguably superior northfacing mount, why not fix the problem keycaps? Its not even a case of thinner or worse quality keycaps, just smarter design. Cut out a little stepped bit where the caps interfere, now you can use even thicker keycaps! Plus keycap companies that do this can use “interference free” in their marketing.
Yes, peeps complaining about northfacing like its a dealbreaker are wrong in my opinion, but also its such an easy fix that we shouldn’t be looking at it as this eventuality because of the lowest common denominator of gamers.
Wow - I think it takes a brave person to admit this on site with a lot of Keyboard enthusiasts.
Well, first I didn’t want to get into complicated solutions for the issue. I was looking for the most simple solutions that could be easily adopted by the industry and by enthusiasts. As for pointing out that it’s a more localized issue, yeah I should have explained that in the article.
I’m not certain I follow the wording on this. Are you suggesting that the stems need to increase or decrease in length by less that 1mm? From the points you make after this it sounds like you are suggesting the stem would increase in length by something like .1-.5mm. That would seem to be a decent solution too. Especially if it doesn’t mean that the travel would decrease like it does with speed switches.
I wonder why it isn’t the solution that companies like Tecsee are going with? They are one of the companies that are advertising SMD compatible switches.
I think that would (potentially) make for a more complicated PCB. If you think about how the traces are arranged on the PCB, having one row require a different layout could make things a bit trickier. And anytime you complicate something like this it has a cost that has to be handled somewhere.
I didn’t reference the specific times I saw it mentioned, I think it was only a few. I couldn’t decided if (a) the person might have been wrong about the profile of their key caps, or (b) there was a different factor that caused the issue. I might update that part of the article to put the OEM and DSA keycaps in the “In a few cases…” sentence.
Probably because that requires having different sets of molds for different types of key caps. IE, stepped and non-stepped variants. And that could, potentially, make for keycaps with a different sound profile (not that I think keycap makers really pay too much attention to the sound). It might also be more complicated for making ABS vs. PBT caps – but I don’t know enough about that to be certain.
So, I like the solution of making the stems a bit taller. I think that’s a solution I should have thought of and included in the article, alongside the changing the switch housing. I don’t know about the other solutions, I suspect they would add complication to the design and production process, and possibly have some other drawbacks.
Thanks for the well written comment. Definitely some ideas to think about. And, I will update the original article to reflect the point that OEM keycaps are less frequent reported as having this issue.