If you love mechanical keyboards, you’ve no doubt at least glanced at the deep world of custom builds. Custom mechanical keyboards can be amazing pieces of tech, but they are also expensive and complicated to build. And, one part of the building process that, for many, can be intimidating is the soldering of switches. This is where hot-swapping comes in.
A keyboard being hot-swappable means the PCB (which, simply put, is the circuit board inside the keyboard) has special sockets so that you can click switches into place and pull them out without ever needing to touch a soldering gun. Meaning, when it comes time for a change, you don’t have to spend hours desoldering switches.
So, if you’re looking for a hot-swappable keyboard to get a taste of the custom mechanical keyboard world, these are your best options.
Update, 6/28/21: Added four new picks, including two wireless options.
While the market surrounding hot-swappable keyboards right now is limited, it doesn’t mean you should settle for just any board.
- Layout: Once you start looking into mechanical keyboards, you’ll quickly realize how many layouts are out there. All of the boards on this list use either the Full, tenkeyless (TKL), 75%, or 60% layouts. TKL and 75% boards have most of the keys of a full board, minus the numpad. And, 60% boards are ultra-compact, usually cheaper, but lose a lot of keys in the process (such as the dedicated arrow keys). You’ll need to decide what layout works for you.
- Switch Compatibility: All of the boards on this list are compatible with any MX-style switch (brands like Cherry, Gateron, Kailh, and Outemu).
- Additional Features: RGB lighting, macros, or even just adjustable kickstands can go a long way to making your keyboard better—both in looks and functionality.
- Build Quality: Mechanical keyboards aren’t cheap, so you’ll want to make sure the case that surrounds the PCB and the keycaps are worth the price tag. When it comes to keycaps in particular, you’ll want double-shot keycaps for maximum longevity—there are also the different plastics like ABS and PBT that can be used, with PBT generally being the better (but more expensive) option.
- Connection: If you decide to go wireless your options are a lot more limited. There are only two boards here with wireless support (the Keychron K6 and K8), meanwhile, every board here supports a wired connection. As time goes on more wireless boards will likely release, but for now, the choices are few and far between.
Now that you know everything you need to know, here are the best hot-swappable mechanical keyboards on the market.
DROP’s CTRL keyboard has been praised for its deep customization options, and for good reason. It has fully programmable macros, a detachable USB-C cord, RGB backlighting, and—most importantly for this list—hot-swappable switches.
You also have quite a few options when ordering the keyboard. You can choose between a low or high profile and six different key switches (Cherry MX Blue, Cherry MX Brown, Halo Clear, Halo True, Kaihua Box White, and Kaihua Box Silver). You can also get a barebones board, which is just the body without switches or keycaps, if you’re planning on replacing those immediately anyway.
As far as build quality goes, the body of the board has a slick aluminum (with an RGB strip beneath it) frame to keep the board feeling sturdy, and the double-shot PBT keycaps look and feel great. It also has magnetic rubberized feet that help angle the board and keep it in place.
To customize the RGB lighting and program macros, you’ll need to go to DROP’s online keyboard configurator, which will allow you to customize everything and then flash it directly onto the keyboard’s memory. (Meaning, the customization will be saved regardless of what computer you plug into.)
For those looking for a taste of the custom mechanical keyboard world, the CTRL definitely gets you closest without fully stepping in.
If saving desk space is your main concern, the DROP ALT has all of the fantastic features and deep customization the CTRL has, but in a smaller form factor. The ALT makes use of a 65% keyboard layout, which means in comparison to the CTRL, it’s missing the dedicated function keys and five of the navigation keys.
All the remaining keys are grouped together, which can appear to be too cramped, but if you take the time to adjust to it, you’ll never think about that again.
If everything but the price of the CTRL and ALT sounds great to you, the Glorious Modular Mechanical Keyboard (GMMK) gives you a lot of the same for less.
The keyboard is hot-swappable and you can get it in three sizes: full, TKL, or 60%. The actual board has a sandblasted aluminum plate, keycaps that are made out of doubleshot ABS plastic, fold-out feet to help angle the board, and you have the option of 13 different key switches, not including the barebones version.
You also get full RGB lighting and the ability to program macros if you install the GMMK software.
If you want a safe and simple route to hot-swapping, Logitech is your best bet.
The G PRO X has many of the same features we’ve already seen: fully customizable RGB lighting, programmable macros (although it’s oddly limited to the Function keys), and the choice between three switch types (GX Blue Clicky, GX Red Linear, or GX Brown Tactile). While those are the only options out of the box, it’s worth noting that the board is compatible with any MX style switch.
You also get to use Logitech’s G Hub software to customize RGB lighting and program macros, and to create program-specific shortcuts all with the easy-to-use drag-and-drop design. It also means you can sync RGB lighting with any other Logitech products you own.
The USB-C cord is removable, and the rubber feet have three angles from which to choose. The board uses the TKL layout, with the only thing of note being two additional buttons above the Print Screen and Pause keys, which enable a gaming mode and allow you to adjust brightness.
This is definitely a case where you are paying a premium for simplicity, but if you want the advantages that come from buying from a more established company, it could be worth it for you.
RGB lighting is by no means a rare feature on mechanical keyboards, but the Womier K87 is looking to take things up a notch.
Thanks to the K87’s acrylic body the RGB lighting really steals the show here, pouring out of every part of the keyboard. There are 18 preloaded lighting effects to choose from, which is good because the lack of software means that’s all you’re getting. The keyboard also includes double-shot PBT keycaps, a detachable USB-C cable, and a variety of options when it comes to the pre-installed switches.
There are five switches available: Gateron Blue, Gateron Red, Gateron Yellow, Gateron Brown, and Gateron Speed Silver (notably, the Speed Silver model is the only one that comes with black keycaps instead of the white keycaps seen above). You can also pick up the Womier K61 or K66 for the same features seen here but with a 60% or 65% layout respectively.
This acrylic keyboard ensures the lighting is the main focus.
Keychron was already known for making some quality wireless mechanical keyboards, but the K6 was its first attempt at something with hot swapping. This 65% keyboard packs a Bluetooth connection, 72 hours of battery life (with RGB on, off it can last for around a week), and a ton of options to ensure the board matches your needs.
You can choose to get this board with either Gateron Brown, Blue, or Red switches, white backlighting or upgrade to full RGB , and a plastic or aluminum body. These options make sure the K6’s hardware fits your tastes, but it is disappointing there’s no software for the K6 to reprogram keys with. Keychron has stated it’s working on software to be released within the next year, but for now, you’ll just have to make do with how the keyboard is out of the box.
Fortunately, Keychron programmed a ton of alternative functions into many of the keys, which makes the lack of software hurt less. All of these alternative functions are printed on the ABS keycaps, so you don’t need to memorize the manual just to pause a video. It’s a nice touch and ensures despite the compact layout, the K6 can still do everything you need it to.
While we have a lot of the same to say about the Keychron K8 as we did the K6, this is still a special keyboard. Because on top of the 72-hour long battery life (with RGB lighting on), Bluetooth/wired connection, and a multitude of hardware options, the K8 uses the highly desirable TKL (tenkeyless) layout. This is great if you’re transitioning from a full-sized keyboard, as you still get to save some desk space while keeping most of the keys. There are also plenty of alternative functions for many of the keys, and they’re all printed on the corresponding keycaps (still ABS).
Besides that, you can choose between white backlighting or upgrade to full RGB , a plastic or aluminum body, and Gateron Blue, Red, or Brown pre-installed switches. The K8 packs hot swapping and wireless into one of the most desirable layouts around, and for that, it definitely deserves special praise. Unfortunately, there’s no software for the K8, but Keychron has stated it’s working on one to be released within the next year.
The final board we’re mentioning today is very different from the others. Instead of giving you a completed keyboard you can use right away, the GMMK PRO is more reminiscent of a keyboard kit that gives you a foundation you can build upon. Which is great because this can give you a taste of custom mechanical keyboards, without the effort that goes into researching and building a custom keyboard.
While a lot of kits like this already exist, they’re typically very expensive and aren’t easily accessible—two things Glorious has mostly addressed with the GMMK PRO. You need to reserve this kit in advance, and you’ll get it whenever the next batch is released (Glorious keeps the store page updated with estimated shipping dates). It is annoying to an extent, but in comparison to the alternatives, Glorious has made this an extremely straightforward process.
So what are you getting with this kit then? Well, the GMMK PRO is a high-quality, 75%, full aluminum keyboard (available in either “Black Slate” or “White Ice”) with RGB backlighting. There’s also a dial (for volume control and zooming) which, alongside the keys and RGB lighting, is reprogrammable in the GMMK PRO software. What it doesn’t come with are keycaps and switches, which is where you come in.
You have to provide the keycaps and switches yourself, which will likely add another $50 to $100 to your final bill. You can buy switches and keycaps from a variety of sources, including Glorious itself, along with websites like The Key Company and MechanicalKeyboards.com.
If you’re interested in something a little bit more custom, the GMMK PRO is by far the easiest option. All you need to do is install the switches and keycaps in the same way you would for any hot swappable keyboard, but you can easily disassemble the keyboard if you want to modify it further. While you’re not truly “building” a keyboard, this is close enough to give you most of the advantages of a custom board without all the headaches.