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A conversation about Plate Flex

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

When you happen to have a video with over 170K views on YouTube, you’re bound to get all sorts of comments of the good, the bad and the ugly variety. The vast majority of the comments I got from my “GMMK Pro: The ultimate guide” video were positive feedback and questions about specific topics in the video.

But then, I also got, as one would expect, a fair share of criticism on some of the subjects I covered on my long and comprehensive take (as far as I could make it in a 1 hour+ video) on the GMMK Pro. Which is perfectly fine, of course… Afterall, I don’t pretend to know everything about keyboards, PC peripherals or anything else really.

Most of my experience with mechanical keyboards come from the fact that I have been using them since the mid-nineties, when I first used an Alps based Apple Extended Keyboard II (AEKII) in my internship job at A.T. Kearney. Yeap! I know… I’m getting old…

Since then, I have used, collected (my current collection of vintage keyboards is getting seriously out of hand!) and modded a significant number of mechanical keyboards of all types, shapes and sizes. But, despite all of that, I never considered myself a “mechanical keyboard enthusiast” as per the current r/mechanicalkeyboards apparent definition: I’m no Geekhack resident, I don’t line up to every GMK keycap set group-buy I can find, and I definitely don’t spend all my money on luxurious heavy metal keyboards that cost more than my entire computer setup.

For that reason, I don’t perceive all the fickle trends in this up-and-coming hobby the same way most “kids do these days”. For one, I tend to make up my own mind about any new trend that blows up in this community, regardless of what the most popular Twitch streamer of the week says about it (nothing against these, of course… In fact, I do appreciate the work of quite a few of them).

But if there is one particular topic I find myself disagreeing with this community’s “majority” very often lately, is on the whole “plate flex” theme...

The Plate Flex Holy Grail Quest

As I mentioned in my GMMK Pro video, it is hard to pinpoint why, where or when exactly this “plate flex holy grail quest” started. But regardless of how and when the “plate-flex-is-always-good” myth begun, the “Mandela Effect” about it is already so ingrained in this hobby’s hive mind, that arguing otherwise immediately turns you into a “mechanical keyboard heretic”.

So, it should not come as a surprise that when I mentioned in my video that: a) the GMMK Pro’s lack of plate flex is not necessarily a bad thing; b) that its gaskets do work to reduce unwanted noise, vibration and rattle (even though it does not have plate flex out of the box); and c) that there are other ways to soften up your keys bottoming out when typing, triggered all sorts of “plate flex zealots” out there.

As a result, I decided to pick one comment, that I think illustrates this feeling very well, and use it as the basis to explain my position on the subject a bit further and, possibly, turn myself into a lightning rod to attract all the hate these “extremists” have in their hearts:

While I know a lot of people will tell me not to bother with every piece of criticism I get on my videos (I don’t) and that trying to address each one of them is a whack-a-mole-game (it is), I just felt the need to document my opinion on this matter in writing to make it easier to point people to this record every time this theme comes up again.

So, let’s break this comment down and tackle each one of its “tenets”, shall we?

1) “The logic of heavier switch would cushion the force of the typing experience [is] kinda flawed

But is it really? If one leaves behind the “r/mk enthusiasts’ creed” just for a second, and then looks at this problem solely from a physics point of view (we shouldn’t have skipped those physics classes as it turns out), one would conclude that the idea behind “keyboard flex” can come in many different ways, and that flexibility doesn’t have to be only in the plate to achieve such “flex goal”.

Then we have to immediately ask ourselves: what is the main goal of having “flex” in a keyboard anyway? And why do you want flex in your keyboard in the first place?

Despite the fact that most people don’t even know why they want it, I’d say that absorbing excessive kinetic energy when typing is a very safe assumption.

If you see a professional stenographer typing, one thing you’ll probably notice in most of them is that they don’t hammer keys as if they were typing on 1960’s typewriters… And the reason for this is that they are not actually typing on 1960’s typewriters!

Remington Standard Typewriter (Model 19)

As technology evolved pass the fully mechanical typewriters of the time, where you had to hammer down the keys with enough force to be able to imprint the character on paper, typewriters eventually became electric. This meant the key actuation was transferred to the printing mechanism “by wire” (such as in the legendary IBM Selectric Typewriters of the 80’s) instead of through the kinetic force of your arms, hands and fingers.

IBM Selectric electric typewriter

As a result of this "electrification" process, the fastest and most efficient typists out there today, barely cross the point of key actuation of the computer keyboards we use nowadays. Meaning they rarely bottom out keys when typing (at least when typing in keyboard switches that don’t require bottoming out for actuation). In other words: bottoming out can be considered a bad habit people developed either by learning to type on old style Typewriters (as was the case in the 80’s) or by using cheap membrane computer keyboards that require bottoming out for key actuation (as was the case with people who started using computers in the late 90’s and early 2000’s).

So bad a habit in fact that when IBM and Cherry developed their first mechanical keyboard switches in the late 70’s and early 80’s (the ones we call “IBM beam springs”, “IBM buckling springs” and “Vintage Cherry MX Blacks” today), they decided to use very heavy springs in them --for today’s standards at least (with their 55 to 60 grams of actuation force and 80 to 90 grams of bottom out force) to counter the excessive force most Typewriter trained typists used back them.

IBM's Model F's "Beam Spring"

By doing so, they reduced the excessive force and vibration exerted on the keyboard itself (which increased their operational life span), as well as prevented office workers from long term physical injuries derived from high impact and repetitive motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome (which I’m sure reduced the chance they’d get sued by injured computer users and their employers).

Vintage Cherry MX Black switches (WYSE Terminal)

Considering that the “enthusiast hobby” of mechanical keyboards wouldn’t exist for at least another 30 years (and that gasket mounted springy/bouncy keyboard plates also didn’t exist), it is fairly easy to see that the heavy switch springs of that time had one clear goal in mind: cushion the excessive force of old school typists (coming from the world of fully mechanical Typewriters).

As it turns out, bringing some historic context to this subject can also help one understand this topic a bit better (skipping the history class was also a bad idea!) and without any biases derived from what “keyboard influencers” out there (many of which might also lack such historical context) might say.

2) “If you are [using] tactile switch[es] you would be bottoming out constantly despite what spring weight you are using

But are we (tactile switch users) really constantly bottoming out? Well, I’d say it would depend on the tactile switch we’re using. If we’re talking about a relatively heavy IBM buckling spring, there is a good chance you’ll bottom out on every press unless you learn that the tactile bump is there precisely to let you know when the switch actuates. That means it is possible to use heavy tactile mechanical switches and not bottom out, but that would require the user to train him/herself to stop pressing the key at the point where the resistance peaks (before the spring buckles)… Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No.

On a second example: when typing on my Realforce R2 TKL keyboard with 55g Topre switches, which are one of the most tactile switches I have ever tried, I can absolutely type without bottoming out, since these 55g electro-capacitive switches offer enough resistance that I can actuate keys without completely collapsing their rubber domes.

On a third example: when typing on my Vintage Apple M0116 outfitted with lovely SKCM Orange Alps and its mild 48 grams of actuation force, I can most certainly avoid bottoming out as the light spring and soft tactile bump is easy to feel midway through key travel and to let them go before they bottom out if I want to.

Apple M0116 with Orange Alps

But Sam, you’re only giving non-MX switches examples… Yes! And there is a reason for that: to show that before one can consider him/herself knowledgeable about mechanical keyboards in general, one should try as many different types of switch mechanisms and weights as possible for better context, before taking just one mechanism (even if it is the most popular one these days) and claiming that his/her only experience is the absolute truth.

At any rate, even in the MX compatible switches world, there are plenty of tactile switches that you can use without bottoming out. In fact, there are tactile switches out there that were designed with the specific goal of helping you to avoid bottoming out, such as the Halo True and the Halo Clear with their progressive springs with 100 and 78 grams bottom out force respectively. As someone who has tried both of these switches, I can assure you that anyone can type on these and not bottom out unless they really want to!

And to finalize beating this very dead horse, the most common type of MX tactile switch out there, the “browns”, are perfectly usable without bottoming out, since, just like the Orange Alps I mentioned above, Cherry Browns have light springs and small tactile bumps that are easy to let go midway through (right after actuation) with no bottoming out.

3) “Flex is about giving room for the plate to move[.] [A]dding more [O-]ring[s] does not necessary make it flex more. Removing [the] middle part gasket and removing the bottom piece of foam does

While “plate flex” in this context is indeed about giving room for the plate to move, the main goal of adding flexibility to a keyboard is, as we already stablished above, to absorb typing kinetic energy. And because there's more than one way to skin the “kinect force absorption cat” in a keyboard, such as using heavier switch springs as we have also established before, the whole plate flex discussion can be less important than most people tend to believe. But let’s indulge in this specific topic for a little longer just to clarify what this commenter probably misunderstood about my O-ring mod.

If “Flex is about giving room for the plate to move” then adding more O-rings (or any other material for that matter) to increase the space that the GMMK Pro’s plate has to move between the two halves of its case, by definition, gives the plate more room to flex! The only case where someone wouldn’t understand that aspect of using O-rings in this keyboard the way I did, would be if such person does not fully understand the GMMK Pro’s case and plate design:

The area of the GMMK Pro’s case where I added the O-rings doesn’t even touch the plate (since the plate is isolated by the gaskets).

The role the O-rings play here is precisely to increase the distance between the top and bottom halves of the case which, in turn, give more space for the gaskets in both top and bottom sides of the plate to expand and contract (the gaskets are the parts that do touch the plate).

To sum it up: by increasing the distance between the two parts of the case (with O-rings in this case), you increase the vertical space for the gaskets to work (expand and compress) and, as a result, you give the plate more room to move up and down. In other words, you give more room for the plate to “flex”.

As for removing the gaskets in the middle “wings” of the plate, I prefer not to incur the chance to have metal touching metal while typing (which defeats the purpose of using an isolation gasket design such as this). While this solution could allow the plate to flex a bit more in the center, it could also generate the noise of metal parts hitting each other, which I don't appreciate.

And finally, as for removing the bottom foam, while it increases the distance between the PCB and the bottom of the case (which should theoretically also help with flex), this can only work if you increase the space for the gaskets to compress and decompress, which is exactly what the O-rings do here (if the gaskets remain crushed between the case’s parts, the plate cannot take advantage of the additional space under the PCB for moving downward). I also showed this very clearly in the video and that is why I replaced the included foam with a thinner 1 mm silicone sheet that is more effective in reducing ping while giving the plate + PCB more room.

4) “If you needed more flex, take a saw and make some flex cut on the plate helps too

Here he is referring to the method Scott K. (A.K.A. Keybored) did to improve the plate flexibility of his GMMK Pro. While adding flex cuts to plates will always help to increase the amount of flex you can get out of a keyboard plate, I usually prefer to go with non-destructive mods whenever possible (my GMMK Pro mods are easily reversible in case you want to resell your keyboard in stock form for example).

While I’m sure one could compound all of these mods (mine and Scott’s) together to have a super bouncy GMMK Pro, I was happy enough with the amount of flex I got out of mine without cutting the plate. But at the end of the day, that is the beauty of this hobby: there are endless combinations of mods one can make to achieve the results he or she is looking for.

5) “I know you are not the crazy enthusiast kind. But I do hope you at least understand how things really work

I think I already stablished that I am not “the crazy enthusiast kind” (by whatever definition one might chose to use here) and I am not trying to be "that guy". I am just someone who loves keyboards of all types (including those not considered “Mechanical” by some people out there, which is another discussion for another day), collects them and have been playing and modding them for the best part of two decades now.

As for “understanding how things really work”, I guess that is the kind of wording that illustrates very well the worst type of toxic behavior we unfortunately have to deal with in this (or any other) hobby: The people who think they (and their cohorts who happen to agree with them) are the gatekeepers of truth… Hard to think of something more immature and foolish to say to anyone who thinks differently than we do!

Sometimes I think people should remind themselves that all we are doing here is discussing rectangles with a bunch of buttons on it… While these peripherals can have so much meaning in our day-to-day lives and bring so much joy at work and gaming, no one should use this subject to build mutually exclusive tribes and sow discordance. It is something just too inconsequential in the grand scheme of things to warrant that type of behavior! Whenever we feel like “lording over” someone on something as mundane as this, maybe that’s the cue we need to know it’s probably time to go outside, breathe some fresh air and interact with real people for a change. 😉

At any rate, as a channel who intends to help people (specially newcomers) to better enjoy their PC peripherals, I think this is an important conversation to have. If for nothing else, to show my viewers and readers that there is no right or wrong way to do anything in this hobby (or in almost anything else in life really!). There is only the right or wrong way for you, based on what you like and don’t like!

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