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Behold, The Rise Of The Optical Mechanical Keyboard Switch

Every year at the large tradeshows we attend, trends in the industry emerge, and without a doubt, the dominant innovation in keyboards these days is optical switches. Although they are currently on few shipping products, some keyboard makers are planning to release optical switches on devices in the near future, and many more are exploring the idea.


MORE: What Are Optical Keyboard Switches, And How Do They Work?

In The Offing

There are presently only two companies--Adomax and A4tech--that are definitely making optical switches. Neither Cherry nor Kailh is currently pursuing optical switch technology. Gateron is at least experimenting with optical switch technology--we saw a prototype keyboard with Gateron optical switches at Tesoro’s suite at Computex--but we have been unable to substantiate anything further with Gateron (or Tesoro).

To my knowledge, the A4tech Light Strike “LK” switches are presently available only in the company’s own Bloody line of gaming keyboards, but that may change soon. Instead of making its own retail keyboard(s), Adomax is actively working to get its Flaretech switches onto other companies’ keyboards.

One of the more promising upcoming optical switch keyboards is the Wooting One (Flaretech switches), which we’ve written about extensively. Ducky, maker of the popular Ducky Shine keyboards, has also publicly shown that it’s planning to use Flaretech optical switches on a keyboard soon. BenQ is planning a keyboard in its Zowie line that will have optical switches, although the company would not divulge any further details.

The Bigs

It’s not just a miscellany of keyboard makers looking into optical switches, either. Sources with knowledge of the situation tell me that major keyboard makers including Corsair, Razer, Cooler Master and SteelSeries have all been investigating optical switch technology.

According to one source, both Corsair and Razer are actually in “phase two” of discussions with A4tech about using its LK switches. Another source indicated that Adomax (Flaretech switches) had been in talks with Razer, but they couldn’t agree on sufficient terms, so it’s likely that potential partnership has fizzled.

Razer has declined to comment. Corsair, Cooler Master and SteelSeries all demurred on official responses, but representatives from each told me that their respective companies have no plans for an optical switch keyboard at this time but are always investigating possible emerging technologies. Specifically, Cooler Master said that it is looking into optical switches but stated nothing further.

We must be careful, though, not to assume too much here. Aside from the few reported deals that are in the works, the fact that these major players are looking into optical switch technology means only that they’re doing their homework on emerging technologies that are germane to their business. They would be foolish not to investigate optical switch technology, even if they eventually decide not to implement it.

Market Forces At Work

To be clear, even if all the major keyboard makers decided to roll out keyboards equipped with optical switches instead of standard mechanical ones, users may notice little change in keyboard performance at first. The idea of increased speed is a sexy marketing tidbit, but in real life, most users won’t be fragging n00bs much more effectively than they already are. The analog input feature that Wooting is developing is an exciting potentiality, but that will be available only with Adomax’s Flaretech switches, not A4tech’s LK switches.

That, however, brings up the more important possible development in the switch market: The current dominant switchmakers could see their market share drop.

Cherry and Kailh are, of course, the two titans of the switch market. There are numerous others--including TTC, Greetech, Matias, Gateron, Topre, and so on--but both Cherry and Kailh are presently completely dominant in terms of sheer volume and market penetration.

But what if users suddenly begin clamoring for optical switches?

Make no mistake, although there are plenty of sharp product managers developing keyboards, market demands shape many product decisions. For example, we’ve had more than one product manager tell us that they chose Cherry switches for their keyboard not because they’re necessarily better or worse than any other, but because they’re simply more popular with consumers.

The logical conclusion, then, is that if consumers want optical switches, they will get them. And presently, the only two companies that are definitely making them are Adomax and A4tech. (As we’ve mentioned, Gateron may be experimenting with them, as well. We have been unable to reach the company for comment on the matter, though.) That means if demand spikes, Cherry and Kailh could be in for some difficult market challenges.

The next six months to a year should be telling, as it appears that the biggest keyboard makers in the world are looking into optical switch technology, and the biggest switch makers in the world are not.

  • emccalment
    But how do they feel? How loud are they? I would love a mechanical keyboard for work purposes, but I can't imagine everyone in the office wouldn't try to behead me shortly after it's arrival.
    Reply
  • captaincharisma
    18352695 said:
    But how do they feel? How loud are they? I would love a mechanical keyboard for work purposes, but I can't imagine everyone in the office wouldn't try to behead me shortly after it's arrival.

    mechanical keyboard are meant for gaming segment so why would you bring a gaming keybord to work?

    Reply
  • emccalment
    18352729 said:
    mechanical keyboard are meant for gaming segment so why would you bring a gaming keybord to work?

    They have an excellent feel to them and allow me to type considerably faster. Compared to mechanical keyboards, the keyboards that usually float around an office feel like mush. Truthfully, while gaming I don't notice the improvement from a mechanical keyboard nearly as much as I do when just typing quickly.
    Reply
  • g1abhi
    UHmMMMM A big NO . Mechanical keyboards are meant for typing. The are just marketed for gaming , since they can be sold for 5 times the price of its manufacturing cost. Mechanical keyboards were dropped due to its heavy nature , too much noise and no water resistance . How it ended up as gaming gear is pure marketing genius.
    Reply
  • serendipiti
    Probably with optical switches, noise, travel distance and feel can be customized to customer's needs without affecting the behaviour of the switch.
    If they can find more uses for the key's pressure detection, not only in gaming (scroll keys that go faster depending on key's pressure...) that are really useful for office work the situation might change.
    Anyway, office work is usually done using the OEM keyboard that came with the computer, the most keyboards that are sold today as a separate part, aren't keyboards meant for office work.
    Reply
  • Sloblo
    Analog switches seem like they may reside entirely within the gaming segment ~ Although there are probably a slew of specific work related uses, I personally cannot see myself using pressure sensitive buttons in any capacity other than playing games.

    That being said, to the person above me who claims that all mechanical keyboards are meant for the gaming segment is flat out wrong. I would even argue that the Non-gaming keyboards are superior to the gaming branded ones 99% of the time.

    (this can be seen in some of the brands made for programming, POK3R and DAS keyboards are all focused on workflow and still make fantastic gaming boards)

    I personally use a Ducky YOTH, a TT eSports fullsize, and a TKL Coolermaster Rapid
    Reply
  • anbello262
    I totally agree with the first comment.
    I'm really looking forward to silent keyboards that offer the advantages of m3chanical ones. And of course, analog input would be a great plus.
    Reply
  • KaiserPhantasma
    Then we can safely say in 2-3 years time we have optical switches then? and RGB ones at that? god I'm glad I didn't bite this RGB craze for the last 2 years and am actually buying new technology.
    Reply
  • alidan
    18352803 said:
    UHmMMMM A big NO . Mechanical keyboards are meant for typing. The are just marketed for gaming , since they can be sold for 5 times the price of its manufacturing cost. Mechanical keyboards were dropped due to its heavy nature , too much noise and no water resistance . How it ended up as gaming gear is pure marketing genius.

    No, playing games I got so sick of 'did i mess up or did the game' that when i got my keyboard, i found out, my god, i wasn't as crappy a typer as i thought i was, and yea, it was the keyboard screwing me in games. barring switch failure itself, a mechanical keyboard itself will never not register a key, where as a rubber dome, or at least the ones i used, would not register a key around 20% of the time unless i used extreme force, my hands went to crap a bit before i got the mech keyboard, but i'm able to use the keyboard with a lighter touch then the rubber dome so it has to count for something.

    18353525 said:
    Analog switches seem like they may reside entirely within the gaming segment ~ Although there are probably a slew of specific work related uses, I personally cannot see myself using pressure sensitive buttons in any capacity other than playing games.

    That being said, to the person above me who claims that all mechanical keyboards are meant for the gaming segment is flat out wrong. I would even argue that the Non-gaming keyboards are superior to the gaming branded ones 99% of the time.

    (this can be seen in some of the brands made for programming, POK3R and DAS keyboards are all focused on workflow and still make fantastic gaming boards)

    I personally use a Ducky YOTH, a TT eSports fullsize, and a TKL Coolermaster Rapid

    from what i remember when i sourced some cherry keys a while ago, it was something between 50-75 cents a key which on a full keyboard is 106-110 keys so there is around 50-78$ right there, then you also have the backplate, the circuit board, and the fact these keyboards ARE that much better then rubber dome, along with some keyboards being made of full metal.

    there are some off brand chinese mechanical keyboards that hit 40-50$, but normal cherry keyboards start at around 70 and can go up to 120$, funny thing is, the gaming keyboards can come in cheaper then the non gaming counterparts.
    Reply
  • koga73
    Optical switches are interesting.. but how do they feel? I'm a programmer and the reason I use mechanical switches is because the feel good. What I really want is the Cherry Blue typing experience with zero noise. Brown doesn't cut it. I want a "break" on the switch almost like a gun trigger. Where you get some tension and then it breaks like glass
    Reply