You might have heard the terms “PCB-mounted” and “plate-mounted” while researching mechanical keyboards. Let’s take a look at what these terms mean and why they matter.
We’ll use Cherry MX keyboards for illustration in this article, but the concepts apply to all mechanical keyboards with individually mounted switches (e.g., ALPS keyboards).
In a PCB-mounted mechanical keyboard, the switches are soldered directly to the circuit board (PCB) with nothing in between. Here’s what it looks like:
In a plate-mounted mechanical keyboard, there is a metal plate sandwiched between the switches and PCB. The plate is effectively “locked” between the switches and PCB, and cannot be removed unless every single switch is desoldered first. Here’s what it looks like (click to enlarge):
Why it matters
All other things being equal, a plate-mounted keyboard is sturdier than a PCB-mounted keyboard and has a firmer typing feel. Of course, the overall quality of the keyboard and its case play a role too, but it’s the difference between typing on a laminate sheet (PCB) vs. a slab of aluminum or steel. (It is possible, but very rare, for a mechanical keyboard to feature a plastic plate.)
In contrast, PCB-mounted keyboards usually have a bouncier key feel and more case flex and creakiness.
It’s safe to say that plate-mounted keyboards are generally higher quality than PCB-mounted keyboards, though not everyone prefers their feel. Some people like the extra bit of give in PCB-mounted keyboards.
Update 2/12/2015: A great point from /u/Atredl on reddit.
“[Also remember] you can’t open up the switches [on plate-mounted boards] and change the internals without desoldering the whole thing.”
He’s completely right–another advantage of PCB-mounted boards is that you have access to the plastic closure tabs on the sides of the switches, so you can pop them open and modify springs and/or stems without desoldering. In contrast, most plates (with the exception of a few custom-made plates with extra notches) block effective access to these tabs and stop you from opening switches without desoldering first. The takeaway? If you get tired of your, say, MX Blues on a PCB-mounted board, you can change them out to MX Browns, MX Blacks, or any other type of switch without desoldering. If you have a plate-mounted board you’ll have to desolder everything first.
Most current mechanical keyboards are plate mounted, including CM Storm keyboards, Filcos, KULs, Vortex Poker IIs, and so on. You can use the KeyChatter mechanical keyboard buyer’s guide to filter keyboards by their switch mounting type.
I hope this short guide was helpful. Have questions? Let me know in the comments. If you’d like to get more information like this, check out my Mechanical Keyboards 101 guide.