Germany-based Cherry effectively consumed the entire market for mechanical keyboard switches in the 80s and 90s, but its patents expired almost a decade ago. Faced with competition from numerous inexpensive Cherry clones, the company has now debuted its new Viola switch design at CES 2020. The company hopes this budget-oriented switch will give rise to a new generation of mechanical keyboards that could replace dirt-cheap membrane boards.
Cherry’s classic mechanical switch design was patented in 1984, giving rise to iconic switches like the Cherry MX Black, MX Brown, and MX Blue. With that patent now long since expired, companies like Gateron and Kailh have borrowed from Cherry’s designs to create less expensive and more varied “Cherry-style” switches. That’s a big part of why the mechanical keyboard world has become so innovative in recent years.
Cherry switches still command a premium price, but the new Viola switch was designed from the ground up to be less expensive to produce. The switch housing is less intricate than standard Cherry switches — it’s made of POM plastic, which is a “self-lubricating” material. The inner surface holds a new larger stem in place, allowing it to glide up and down. The outer surface holds the switch securely in the keyboard plate. While the stem looks much different than a conventional MX switch, it has the same standard cross-point connection for keycaps. However, the wall around it means some thicker high-quality caps might not fit.
The Viola switch has several features aimed at modern keyboards. For example, the stem is transparent. That means boards with SMD LEDs on the circuit board will be able to shine upward unimpeded. There’s also a new V-shaped contact that meets up with two contacts on the board. Other switches have pins that go through the board and need to be connected either with additional “hot swap” sockets or more commonly with soldering. Viola switches will make hot swapping much less expensive to implement. However, they won’t be compatible with boards designed for MX switches.
The only version of Viola on display at CES was a light (45g) tactile switch similar to the MX Brown. Cherry expects partners will begin making keyboards with Viola that cost between $50 and $100. That’s cheap for Cherry switches, but there are already boards with cheaper switches in that price range. Viola could still be a good option if it can outperform those Cherry clones.
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