ALPS

ALPS keyboards make it into the list of major switch types, but just barely. ALPS were commonplace in the 1980s and early 1990s, but today, ALPS lives on mainly through the Canadian company Matias, which sells keyboards with ALPS-compatible clone switches. Aside from Matias, the only ALPS keyboards on the market are cheap Asian copies that are generally not worth the plastic they’re made from. However, there are a still a ton of used ALPS boards out there, and you’ll want some basic knowledge if you shop for keyboards on eBay or hunt at thrift stores.

Note that entire volumes could be written on ALPS, and this page is not meant to be a comprehensive account of ALPS. Instead, it aims to give you the basic information and techniques you will need to make informed purchases of ALPS keyboards. If you are looking for a more comprehensive discussion of ALPS switches, see the Resources section for some helpful links.

Also, as a matter of terminology, note that I and other enthusiasts often use the term “ALPS” inclusive of clones and ALPS-inspired switches. Technically, only switches made by Alps Electric and its licensed manufacturers are genuine ALPS, but Matias switches and other copies are also commonly referred to as ALPS. In general, the common features shared by these switches are a spring-and-leaf internal mechanism, and ALPS keycap compatibility. Other features, like the PCB pinout and exact construction can vary.

History

ALPS switches were first designed and produced by the Japanese company Alps Electric in the early 1980s. They were used in many different keyboards, including Apples, Dells, and many now-defunct brands. Apple_IIc_(ALPS_taxi_yellow)_8053557256_2edb8a7843_oOlder ALPS switches are commonly designated “complicated ALPS” or “SKCL/SKCM” because the old switch design had more parts; later switches were simplified and are commonly called “simplified ALPS” or “SKBL/SKBM.” ALPS were made in clicky, tactile, and linear varieties, and operate using a spring-and-leaf design. They are incompatible with Cherry MX switches, having a completely different stem shape, pin configuration, and internal design.

Alps Electric stopped producing ALPS switches many years ago, and the last remaining licensed manufacturer, Forward Electronics, ceased production in 2012. Presently, all ALPS-like switches in production are clones. As mentioned above, the largest manufacturer is Matias, which has developed its own high-quality ALPS clones. In my opinion, Matias keyboards are the only worthwhile ALPS boards on the market today. Batches of other ALPS clone keyboards sometimes appear on Asian marketplaces, but these keyboards are generally of low quality. Larger manufacturers such as Filco and Ducky have produced one-off ALPS clone boards in recent years such as the Ducky 1087XM and the Filco Zero, but all such models have been discontinued in favor of a focus on Cherry MX.

Identifying ALPS Switches

ALPS keyboards can be confusing to research and buy because dozens of variants were produced and documentation was poor. Furthermore, manufacturers sometimes changed the switch type in their keyboards without changing the model number. The abundance of clones only complicates the picture; some are nearly visually identical to genuine ALPS switches, but have completely different internal parts. Therefore, unlike Cherry switches, ALPS switches cannot be conclusively identified by their stem color.

In my experience, the best way to identify ALPS switches is to use a combination of stem color and keyboard model plus Google. For example, a blue-colored ALPS switch alone is inconclusive; the switch could be Blue Complicated ALPS or a clone. However, a blue-colored ALPS switch inside a Leading Edge DC2014 — a keyboard known to contain genuine Blue Complicated ALPS switches — is enough information to tell you what you have. As another example, Apple Extended Keyboards contain either Orange or Pink Complicated ALPS, so simply identifying the keyboard alone won’t tell you what switch you have. You’ll need to pop off a keycap, at which point you’ll have the needed recipe of switch color + keyboard model + Google, and a proof positive identification.

Of course, I don’t guarantee that this method will always work. In some cases, it may be necessary to disassemble a switch to conclusively determine its type. When in doubt, use Google to find information specific to the keyboard in question. And note that when buying ALPS keyboards on eBay, it is often necessary to ask sellers to pop off a keycap and send a switch photo to identify the type of switch in the keyboard.

The big takeaway is that ALPS keyboards and switches are confusing, and it often takes detective work to make an informed purchase.

Some Common ALPS Keyboards & Switches

Below is a short list of common ALPS keyboards and the switches they contain. By no means is this an exhaustive list — just a starting point. 🙂 If you want more in-depth information, remember to check out the Resources page.

  • Dell AT-101W: A very common full-size board, almost always containing Black tactile ALPS.
  • Apple Extended Keyboard: A full-size ADB keyboard, containing either Pink (Salmon) or Orange tactile complicated ALPS.
  • Apple Extended Keyboard II: A full-size ADB keyboard, containing either dampened white or dampened cream ALPS.
  • Focus FK-2001: Can contain a variety of different switches, but most often has complicated white clicky ALPS.

Why ALPS?

For the average mechanical keyboard user, any ALPS keyboards aside from Matias are probably not of interest. ALPS is incompatible with aftermarket MX caps, and unless you’re buying from Matias, you’re buying used, vintage equipment, so there will be no support or warranty.

Furthermore, unlike Topre, ALPS doesn’t offer anything radically different from Cherry MX. Both ALPS and Cherry MX come in the same three basic types — clicky, tactile, and linear. In my experience, ALPS tends to be more interesting once you’ve developed a particular taste for one of those switch types. For example, once you know you like tactile switches, you might want more options than MX Brown and Clear. ALPS gives you that. There are probably more than a dozen different tactile ALPS switches, each with their own slightly different personalities.

That’s how I look at it, anyway 🙂