Keyboard Terms EXPLAINED – A Guide to Switches, Stems & More!

Keyboard Terms Explained

In this blog post, we will talk about mechanical keyboard terms to help you buy the best keyboard for your needs. These are some definitions, explanations, and examples of commonly used mechanical keyboard terminology.

Basically, this is a compilation of an entire keyboard terminology that is often referenced in keyboard reviews and marketing of both entry-level keyboards gaming keyboards, and beyond and this way you know what things mean and eliminate any confusion.

Hot-Swappable (Replace Switches With a Switch Puller)

Hotswap Keyboard

This is a hot term that gets spread around, which means the switches are removable from the PCB and can usually be swapped for other flavors of switches.

This is desirable because you can install your favorite switches into a hot-swap keyboard and enjoy some variety in the future as well or potentially replace a broken switch etc.

Fast Gaming Switches

We hear the term fast gaming switches or something else that is related to speed, all this means is the actuation point on the switch is high usually around one millimeter so registration happens faster than the common two millimeter actuation point.

cherry mx speed

It started with the Cherry MX Speed switches that had an actuation point of 1.2 millimeters, so you lightly tap the keys and be “sort of speedy” with your inputs.

Switch Specs (Travel Distance / Actuation Point & Force / Reset Point)

  • Travel Distance – Movement Range (0mm to 4mm)
  • Actuation Point – Registration Range (0.1mm to 4mm)
  • Reset Point – Reset Position
  • Tactile/Clicky Position – Point Where You Feel Actuation
  • Actuation Force – Force Neccessary to Register The Click (cN/g)

Understanding the switch specs are pretty simple, we have the total travel distance of the switch, an actuation point where your input is registered, a reset point where the switch is reset and is ready for activation again, a tactile or clicky position that if not at the same as actuation point it’s very close.

The actuation force is measured in centinewton or grams which is how much force you need to apply to pass the actuation point.

And usually, these values are associated with light, medium, and heavy switches.

  • Light Switches <55 cN
  • Medium Switches 55-75 cN
  • Heavy Switches > 75 cN

Key-Rollover (NKRO / Anti-Ghosting)

This is usually presented as N key-rollover or NKRO or a specific number indicated as key rollover, this tells you how many keys can be registered at the same time.

So in the early days, we saw 8 or 16 key rollover for fancy gaming keyboards but now the processor on keyboards is powerful enough to register all the keys at once, so you can literally press all the keys and they will all be registered.

Keyboard ghosting interactive demonstration (Click to Test which key combinations work on your keyboard)

Stabs / Stabilizers

Hardware Canucks

Stabs or stabilizers are receiving a lot more attention lately and that’s the metal wire that holds the larger keys in place on each end so your spacebar for example is stabilized regardless of where you press on it, otherwise without the stabilizer, the key will be very unsteady.

Polling Rate

Polling Rate
Hardware Canucks

Polling rate is very interesting as we are finally going beyond the 1000-hertz, that’s the measurement of how many times a second the keyboard is sending the signal to your computer.

Polling Rate

So a thousand hertz is measured as one millisecond response time and we now have 8000-hertz keyboards or 0.25 millisecond response time which is absolutely insane and questionable in terms of its usability.

Optical Vs Mechanical Swicthes

Optical versus mechanical is also a common question, so optical switches are also considered to be mechanical in a sense but use a laser for the actuation so it’s an instant registration with usually much longer life span, while standard mechanical switches use a metal contact and have a slightly lower response time and debounce-delay.


debounce delay

Now debounce delay is necessary to remove the unwanted signal from the two metal contacts literally bouncing off each other unlike with an optical switch where you have this on and off-state with mechanical contact that signal is not very clean and needs to be filtered out by the controller on the keyboard otherwise the balancing effect might introduce additional keystrokes which are not intended.

Bottoming Out (Go All The Way)

Bottoming out is when the switch is pressed all the way down, bottoming out also refers to the sound profile of keycaps hitting the top of the switch or the plate so interestingly different keycaps because of their material produce different bottoming out sound characteristics.

Switch Stem (Keycap Best Friend)

Types of switch stems

Switch stem is the part onto which the keycap gets mounted, so you’ll often hear MX style stem as that is by far the most common throughout switch’s world with kale, Gateron, and of course Cherry.

But there are different style switches and the stem part can also be different and require specific types of keycaps.

Box style switches are becoming a little bit more popular now that stabilize the stem when you press it down because of the box housing eliminating the keycap wobble.

North / South Facing (Light or Space)

North Facing
Hardware Canucks

This refers to the orientation of the led on the switch, very common is a north-facing mount to allow better illumination of the keycap text.

South Facing
Hardware Canucks

While south-facing mounts have better clearance for all types of keycap sets but at the compromise of less shine through text because the LED is at the bottom so it acts more like as a backlight underneath the keycaps and not shining through.

Wobble / Rattle / Pinging (Negative Terms)

Common terms used to describe negative switch feel include wobble, either switch wobble inside the mount or the stem wobble that is more evident with keycaps.

Scratchiness refers to the lack of smoothness when you press the switch usually felt on poor linear switches and can be audible too.

Then we have ticking so this is a less used term but still something to know about when talking about stabilizers

So Ticking is when one side of the larger keys produces a ticking noise when you lightly tap it and it’s caused by the uneven wire of the stabilizer that moves within its mount and is not firmly held in place.

Rattle is also common among mainstream keyboards where the stabilizers hit the plastic housing and produce unpleasant sounds that are different from pinging.

And pinging is also a common term used to describe resonance inside the keyboard frame that might be hollow or a switch that is particularly loud because of the spring and this is solved with either foam inside the keyboard for better sound or lubing your springs.


Lubing refers to applying special sort of grease to components inside the switch or the stabs to improve both how they feel and how they sound.

Glorious Lube Station
Glorious Lube Station

You can buy these full lubing stations to help you take apart the switch and streamline the entire process.

It is fairly time consuming but the end result is always worth it as long as you don’t over lube.

Lubing is also generally done for linear switches or tactile and not on clicky switches because that will turn the clicky point into a mushy tactile point and we don’t want that.

Thock / Silky Smooth (Positive Terms)

Common terms used to describe positive switch characteristics include the thock where the sound characteristics of the switch and the entire keyboard conveys a high quality and pure satisfaction in the keyboard community.

Switches that are referred to as silky smooth, buttery smooth, extra smooth or some sort of variation of smooth indicate the lack of scratchiness and kind of perfect consistency all the way along the travel distance.

Crispy is a term used to describe high quality clicky switches where the clicky point has definition unlike some clicky switches that are soft and almost feel like they should be tactile switches instead.

Keycap U-Size

keycap u-sizes
Hardware Canucks

So now let’s talk keycaps, the first keycap in the above image is a 1u size keycap your standard alphabet / number square, the second one is a 1.25 u key cap, the third is a 2 and so on.

Hardware Canucks

The only time this is important is when we talk about the standard bottom row layout which means the three keys to the left of the spacebar, the spacebar itself and all the bottom keys to the right are standardized to a particular you size format so if you buy a custom keycap set it should fit to that keyboard without any problem.

But you should be careful with shorter right shift keys on a 65% layouts and some brands even make smaller space bars so that they could fit a standard 1.25u size keys to the side of it, so keep that in mind.

Standard Sizes on ANSI Keyboard

PBT Vs ABS (Doubleshot Vs Dye-Sub)

keycap material is also very important today, we hear the term double shot PBT get into more gaming keyboards, so the PBT part is the durable plastic with a nice coarse texture for extra grip that does not reveal finger oils.

Doubleshot PBT
Hardware Canucks

The doubleshot part tells you how the keycap legend is produced, so by molding two sets of plastics, the writing on the keycap is its own separate plastic layer and will not fade or scratch off.

The PBT texture and molds used to create them vary from one brand to another and are not all made to be equal.

Dye-Sublimation PBT
Hardware Canucks

Then we have dye-sublimation PBT or dye-sub PBT where the printing material is applied on top of the PBT keycap in its own shape cavity of sorts, it’s still really durable and clear but unless the keycap itself is somehow transparent or translucent you won’t have any options for a shine through the keycap.

Hardware Canucks

ABS keycaps are the cheap and smooth plastic material that we all have grown up with and despite PBT becoming more popular ABD keycaps are still very common.

Doubleshot ABS
Hardware Canucks

Doubleshot abs keycaps are about half the price to produce so keyboard companies can do more languages, more layouts plus you can still get all sorts of cool colorways in ABS plastic because it is cheaper.

Pudding Keycaps

Pudding keycaps
Hardware Canucks

Pudding keycaps are pretty sweet, they refer to the translucent bottom half of the keycap or the skirt of the keycap to help illuminate the keyboard.

Phantom Keycaps

Phantom keycaps
Hardware Canucks

Phantom keycaps will become a bit more popular maybe in 2022 that have this almost invisible legend until there’s light shining through.

Side-Printed Keycaps

Side-printed Keycaps

Side-printed keycaps offer a similar stealth look but with clear legends facing you instead of being on top.

I’m sure there are plenty more keyboard terms that you’ll come across in your search for the next keyboard so share them below.

Also, Check Out

How to Choose the PERFECT Keyboard Size (60%, 65%, TKL, 100%)

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How To Improve Your Gaming and Productivity Setup With These 10 Simple Steps!

Wireless Vs. Wired Keyboard, Mouse, Headphones: Which Is The Best For Your Need?

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