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.
Some Things to Look Out For
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.
Now that you know everything you need to know, here are the best hot-swappable mechanical keyboards on the market.
Best Overall: DROP CRTL Mechanical Keyboard
DROP’s CRTL 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 CRTL definitely gets you closest without fully stepping in.
Drop CTRL Mechanical Keyboard — Tenkeyless TKL (87 Key) Gaming Keyboard, Hot-Swap Switches, Programmable Macros, RGB LED Backlighting, USB-C, Doubleshot PBT, Aluminum Frame (Halo True), Space Gray
This keyboard doesn't just stop at being hot-swappable, it has every feature you'd want out of a keyboard---and probably a couple more.
The Compact Pick: DROP ALT Mechanical Keyboard
If saving desk space is your main concern, the DROP ALT has all of the fantastic features and deep customization the CRTL has, but in a smaller form factor. The ALT makes use of a 65% keyboard layout, which means in comparison to the CRTL, 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.
A Mid-Range Option: Glorious Modular Mechanical Gaming Keyboard
If everything but the price of the CRTL 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.
The Simplest Option: Logitech G PRO X
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.