Understanding Keycap Heights: Cherry, OEM, XDA, MDA, SA and So On.
Regarding mechanical keyboards, when it comes to key switch types and keycap materials, I believe most enthusiasts within this circle have some understanding. Mentioning Cherry, TTC, Kailh, ABS, PBT, POM… probably sounds familiar. However, there’s another crucial aspect that significantly impacts the mechanical keyboard experience: keycap height specifications. Are you familiar with them?
CHERRY profile refers to keycap heights aligned with Cherry’s customary keycaps. Arranged from top to bottom as R1-R1-R2-R3-R4-R4, it offers a comfortable typing experience over extended periods. This particular design is among the most favored shapes and heights in the custom keycap market due to its association with Cherry’s dominant position in key switches.
These keycaps boast chamfered edges, providing distinction between different rows. They tend to be slightly lower than commercially available OEM standard keycap heights and often come at a higher price. If you’re accustomed to using mechanical keyboards, adapting to this height should be easy, taking only a few weeks even if you’re transitioning from lower-spec keycaps. This design represents Cherry’s years of experience in developing keycap heights and shapes that complement their switches, ensuring an optimal typing feel.
OEM height refers to keycaps produced by manufacturers other than Cherry. These keycaps are slightly taller than Cherry keycaps and have a slightly larger curve. Generally, OEM height standards are considered one of the most affordable options for custom keycaps of the same material. Adapting to the OEM height is usually straightforward, unless you’re transitioning from an extremely low-profile product, which might take a few weeks to get used to.
The sound of OEM keycaps is quite similar to Cherry’s, a bit rugged. However, you might notice more sound variations between different materials and thicknesses of OEM keycaps.
MDA profile keycaps tend to be slightly taller compared to Cherry’s keycaps, offering a larger contact area, potentially leading to a more comfortable typing experience (depending on personal preferences). However, using MDA for gaming might increase the likelihood of accidental presses due to the increased contact area. While the distance between Cherry keys is about 6mm, MDA reduces this to only 4mm. This seemingly small difference can lead to accidental double key presses, especially when paired with light-pressure linear switches. MDA is better suited for desktop typing tasks rather than gaming due to this tendency for accidental presses.
SA profile keycaps are almost twice as tall as Cherry keycaps, featuring a rounded design with a significant concave curvature underneath. However, the smaller contact area between fingers and keycaps might cause fatigue if used without a wrist rest. Being the tallest among these keycaps, adapting to SA keycaps might be challenging, especially if transitioning from lower-profile keyboards.
SA keycaps are renowned for their unique and resonant sound, a preference among many enthusiasts. Recognized for its retro aesthetics, numerous vintage-style mechanical keyboards adopt this keycap height and design standard. While this height might not be the best choice for gaming, it offers an exceptional typing experience and sound. Although other keycap heights might potentially increase typing speeds, the satisfaction derived from SA keycaps remains unmatched.
DSA keycaps, unlike the taller SA profile, are notably shorter and lack the R1-R4 height distinctions, ensuring uniformity across all keys. DSA stands as one of the most popular low-profile keycap types.
It’s easily adaptable unless you’re transitioning from taller keycap products like SA, as the smoother and rounder design might feel unfamiliar.
With consistent row heights and a rounded appearance, DSA’s sound profile is favored by many, offering the lowest tones in this lineup. While angular keycaps are often preferred for their aesthetic appeal in gaming, choosing DSA actually yields better results; it’s not only responsive but also less fatiguing during prolonged use. However, for typing, adjusting to the rounded design might require some adaptation.
XDA profile keycaps represent China’s first independently designed keycap profile, introduced in 2016 by Chinese gamers. This profile evolved from the DSA profile with shorter keycaps, featuring uniform heights across all keys. Similar to DSA, XDA offers a sleek and minimalist aesthetic. It’s relatively user-friendly, especially if transitioning from extremely tall keycaps like SA, although adapting to its perfectly uniform row heights might pose a challenge.
In terms of sound, XDA keycaps are quite similar to Cherry keycaps but with a slightly lower pitch.
Overall, XDA keycaps offer reliability for both gaming and regular typing. However, gamers might face challenges due to the uniformity of XDA, making it more difficult to find specific keycaps.
Apart from the previously mentioned keycap heights, there are other variations, such as ASA height, slightly taller than OEM. OSA height, taller than ASA with a wider top for more comfortable typing. MG height is slightly lower than SA, providing a smaller contact area. MIX height is a modified version of SA, lower with a flatter surface for increased contact, belonging to a very niche range. ARC height is a completely new height based on XDA, with consistent heights across rows, slightly taller than XDA with increased contact area. There are numerous other height standards, not all listed here, for readers interested in delving deeper.
Angular or Rounded?
Beyond the major difference in keycap heights, the most significant variance among these mainstream keycap height standards lies in their shapes—angular or rounded and smooth.
Smooth keycaps have a flat surface with no angles, while angular keycaps feature a slight angular shape, enhancing comfort during typing. Each row has its unique angularity.
Angular shapes often offer a smoother typing feel, whereas the rounded ones like XDA and DSA cater to the preferences of many gamers. Rounded keycaps are commonly found in enthusiast keycap sets with unique designs.
Needs Dictate Your Choice
Choosing a specific height and shape standard for keycaps aims to find the perfect elevation, creating the most satisfying sound and tactile experience during typing or gaming.
Of course, sound is also influenced by factors such as keycap material, base material, keycap thickness, lubrication of switches, customizations to satellite switches, and the keyboard’s surface.
For gaming predominantly, OEM or Cherry might be the most suitable keycap choices as angular shapes reduce the distance your fingers need to stretch.
For typing, while Cherry and OEM remain top choices, users prioritizing tactile feedback might find particular pleasure in the larger SA keycaps.
Players seeking quieter keyboards can opt for not only silent switches but also lower-profile DSA and XDA keycaps to further reduce sound levels.