The world of mechanical keyboards can be complex but can be very fun and satisfying. On keyboards, switches are attached to a PCB, printed circuit board. Switches can be attached in one of two configurations. This often causes confusion as people bring up terms like interference or switch orientation.
When looking to buy a mechanical keyboard, especially if you are looking to modify or build one, understanding what north-facing and south-facing switches are can be important to help you make the best decision for you.
Today we are going to clarify the difference between north-facing and south-facing switches and help you understand everything you need to know to make a better decision when buying your next mechanical keyboard.
North-Facing vs South-Facing Switches: What Are They?
Before we understand what north-facing and south-facing switches are we must first understand switch orientation. The term switch orientation refers to which direction a mechanical keyboard switch is placed on a PCB.
North-facing switches refer to when a switch’s LED hole faces toward the top of the keyboard while placed in the socket of the keyboard’s PCB. North-facing switches are typically seen in budget keyboards but are also seen in older custom keyboards.
South-facing switches refer to when a switch’s LED hole faces toward the bottom of the keyboard or where the user of the keyboard is while paced in the socket of the keyboard’s PCB. South-facing switches are typically seen in custom keyboards but due to consumer demand are starting to be put in some beginner kits and even a few prebuilts.
Typically we hear the terms north and south-facing the most but east and west-facing switches exist too. East and west-facing switches have the same pros and cons as south-facing switches. They are used very rarely and are usually only implemented in PCBs that support multiple layouts and must maximize all space on the PCB available.
Problem With North-Facing Switches: Interferance
The biggest problem that faces north-facing switches is keycap interference when using Cherry profile keycaps. On some rows of the keyboard, Cherry profile keycaps will come into contact with the top of the switches before the switch is able to bottom out. This will change both the sound and feel of the typing experience.
Although using Cherry profile keycaps are still usable, interference can remove a lot of the satisfaction from typing on a mechanical keyboard. Part of what makes this issue annoying is also that it affects certain rows of keys more than others so the feel becomes inconsistent between keys too. Some don’t face the issue while other rows do.
This makes north-facing switch orientations quite unpopular among keyboard enthusiasts who often use Cherry profile keycaps from high-end manufacturers.
Problem With South-Facing Switches: RGB Shine Through
Although south-facing PCBs are highly popular because they don’t face the issues of interference, they still have their own issues. South-facing switches have some issues for fans of RGB and shine through keycaps.
With north-facing PCBs the LEDs lie directly below the legends on the keycaps. This creates a brighter and more consistent look on the legend. With south-facing switches, the LEDs are on the bottom side of the keycaps. This means a lot of the light does not shine through the legend of shine through keycaps.
Note switch orientation has no effect on keyboard underglow or LEDs on the side of the keyboard.
This issue faces fewer enthusiasts because typically enthusiasts aren’t using shine through keycaps. On the other hand, because RGB is very popular for gaming keyboards we most likely will see large gaming brands continue to use north-facing switches in their keyboards.
Can You Change Switch Orientation On Your PCB?
So maybe you are really set on a keyboard or you have already bought a keyboard and now you want a different switch orientation to suit your preferences. The question becomes can you change switch orientation?
Unfortunately no, you cannot change the direction in which the switches are placed on the PCB. Holes were drilled in a specific way from the factory so the pins on the bottom of your switches only can fit in one direction.
There are a few solutions though. One thing you can do is get a totally new PCB. You can buy one that supports a different orientation and use that in your case instead. With this solution, not all cases accept all PCBs so you would need to research what PCBs your board supports. Some mechanical keyboards have a proprietary case design to the manufacturer or have such a unique design that it is very hard or even impossible to find a different PCB that fits the case. It is especially hard to find PCBs for high-end boards that feature north-facing sockets.
Buying a new PCB can also be very expensive so there are a few other options. If you are using a keyboard with north-facing switches but you would like to use Cherry profile keycaps you could get a few of the “box” switches that don’t face the issues of interference like Novelkey Box Cream switches. Another solution is to get special washers to raise up your keycaps so the keycaps don’t make contact with the top of the switches until the switch has been depressed all the way.
There are also switches advertised for having a long pole stem which may not have interference on some cherry profile keycaps. This is because the switches bottom out sooner so the keycap doesn’t come as close to the top of the switch. Some famous long pole stem switches include Drop Holy Pandas or Durock Pom Linears.
If you are looking for more light to shine through your keycaps and you have south-facing switches, then buying some transparent switches like some Aqua King V3 switches might give you a better experience.
Which One Is Better?
There is not necessarily a better option overall however depending on your situation, there is a better option for you.
In most cases, we would recommend keyboards with south-facing switches. The main instance that we would suggest a north-facing keyboard is if you plan to use shine-through keycaps. South-facing keycaps still allow RGB to pass through although just it doesn’t look as vibrant as it may look on a north-facing board.
If you start to get into custom keyboards odds are you will most likely use keycaps that are not shine through. There are also plenty of keyboards that have RGB underglow or on the side of the board and are south-facing.
In most cases, south-facing switches are better as they are more versatile but boards with north-facing switches still have a use case and north-facing switches aren’t the end of the world, especially if you don’t even plan to use Cherry profile keycaps.
There are two main types of switch orientation that can give you the best experience depending on what you are looking for. South-facing switches support more keycap profiles, especially ones that are popular among enthusiasts, while north-facing switches can provide the best experience for shine through keycaps.
Even if you have a keyboard where the switches are oriented in a way that doesn’t suit your preferences or inhibits your options, there are still some possible solutions like getting certain types of switches, changing your PCB, or adding washers that allow you to enjoy your keyboard as much as possible without needing to get a new keyboard.
As enthusiasts ourselves we would recommend buying a keyboard with south-facing switches unless you plan to use shine through keycaps.