Update: Photos Added
I’ve added some photos at the bottom of the page; I got the keyboard with the white PBT keys, front printed, black case, no backlight (Gateron Brown switches). Scroll down and check out the pics! I’m thinking about selling this keyboard, not 100% sure but I’m open to offers. Just personally don’t like the feel compared to my Filco, it’s all 100% working as it should be.
Also, updated August 1st, I seem to have been able to un-pair my devices successfully. See pairing below.
Introduction and Review
And so my new-found mechanical keyboard itch has been scratched again. Thus begins the testing of my newly arrived Varmilo keyboard! I’ll make some notes about the keyboard, and then share some function key functionality I’ve discovered.
I ordered a Varmilo VB87M model Bluetooth 4.0 (word is Bluetooth 3.0 computers will not be compatible) keyboard from Massdrop last month, and it just arrived today. When I got home from work, I got it out of the box, charged it a bit, and paired it. (As I type this, the “drop” for this keyboard is available again for 10 more days!) My version of the keyboard has a black casing, white PBT plastic keys with gray lettering printed only on the front face of the keys, and it has Gateron Brown switches with no backlight. There are several different options for coloring, switch type, and backlight available. I might get around to posting some pics at some point.
Once I’d tested it on my Surface Pro 3, I paired it with my iPhone, and it works pretty well there also. Unlike my Filco Majestouch Convertible 2 (and here and here), it seems to have a shortcut for the Home button; but sadly, no way on the keyboard to press Send, for example in the Messages app. Will take some getting used to with the Gateron Brown switches I selected (instead of Cherry MX Brown like my Filco), though I do like the front-printed keycaps that can’t be worn off. Overall the keyboard feels a bit cheaper than my Filco (and it was), but since it’s tenkeyless (TKL), and still Bluetooth (Bluetooth 4.0 only), it should be a bit easier to carry on a daily basis than the Convertible 2. The keycaps are a bit slippery on top compared to what I’m used to, and the keys are a bit shorter and flatter than the ones on my Filco. I already put some spare O-rings on the keyboard and it was extremely easy. Keeps it a bit quieter when typing, as it was louder than my Filco started out I believe.
I may add more later, but I did some experimenting between the instructions, mostly but not entirely in an Asian language that’s completely unreadable to me with a few English words sprinkled in, and several helpful comments on the Massdrop discussion thread with pointers in the right direction, and I think I have most of the controls/features worked out with the keyboard. The things I’m missing so far are:
- How do I know when the keyboard is fully charged?
- How do I un-pair one or all devices to start pairing fresh?
- Can I select a paired device among multiple devices directly, or is it pair-order and based on currently nearby devices only? (I suspect the latter).
- How many total devices can be paired to the keyboard?
Here’s the rest of what I’ve learned so far. I’ve tried to put it in a reasonable order, and this is from experimenting so I’m probably missing something. Feel free to comment if you have some notes to add, or any corrections where I’ve misinterpreted something or haven’t fully discovered all the features!
Besides a small directions/manual pamphlet and the keyboard, in the box was also a USB cord (removable, used for charging ONLY and not to connect the keyboard for typing), and a small keycap pulling tool. The battery is an internal rechargeable keyboard, not AA batteries like the Convertible 2.
Power and Pairing
To pair the keyboard, press Fn+Insert and the blue light under the Insert key should start blinking. It’s in discoverable pairing mode now. (Note, when I say Fn+Insert, I mean press and hold the Fn, or Function, key to the left of the right-hand Control key, and press the Insert key before letting go of both.) Locate the keyboard’s model name, VB87M, in your device’s Bluetooth discovery area, and select it. Type in the numbers indicated on the screen and press Enter. The light under the Insert button will turn solid when paired, the keyboard should be usable now.
OK, so to change paired devices, you press Fn+Right Arrow, then Fn+Insert (or maybe just make sure all already-paired devices are off or out of range) and it will disconnect and go into pairing mode, or if there’s a second device already paired, it will switch to the other paired device if it’s in range and the device is more recently paired. It appears that if the most recently paired device is on, it will always try to reconnect to that device after you disconnect with Fn+>. If that device is unavailable (Bluetooth is off, for example), it will pair with an earlier-paired device instead. Thus, since I paired my computer first and phone second, I can turn off Bluetooth on my phone and it pairs back with my computer. Once paired with my computer, it stays paired unless I disconnect with Fn+Right Arrow and then it will pair with my phone again, if available, every time. If I turn Bluetooth off on my phone while paired, and my computer is on, it will reconnect to the computer immediately with no further action (the Insert light blinks when it loses phone connection, then turns solid when it gets computer connection back).
To turn the keyboard off, hold the Insert button by itself for about three or four seconds until the light goes out. To turn back on, press Fn+Insert briefly. The keyboard will connect to the last-connected device if it’s available. You may need to wait a few seconds after turning off before it will turn back on.
When the keyboard is charging, it seems that the Insert light blinks, even when the keyboard is powered off (however, the on/off toggle still turns the keyboard on and off while charging).
If you happen to have one of these keyboard with backlit LED lights (mine doesn’t have this feature, and the light behind the Insert key doesn’t seem to be controllable/dimmable), the Massdrop discussion seems to show that Fn+Up and Fn+Down arrow keys change the brightness between four different levels.
To un-pair the keyboard, I’m not 100% sure how to do this but either holding Fn+Delete down for several seconds until the Scroll Lock LED blinks, or holding Fn+Right Arrow, seems to have prevented the keyboard from pairing with my devices and sent it back into pairing mode. I tried this after reading about a similar keyboard model review on Reddit (of a 60% Varmilo keyboard, the VB660M), even though it’s a bit different and has a wired mode (this one does not appear to go into wired mode, even with Fn+Delete).
iOS Special Function Keys
On iOS, Here’s what happens when you press Fn + Esc and then F1 through F12:
Fn+Esc: Home button
Fn+F1: Reduce screen brightness
Fn+F2: Increase screen brightness
Fn+F3: Open Spotlight Search (returns to Home screen first)
Fn+F5: Show or hide onscreen keyboard (Bluetooth stays connected)
Fn+F6: Lock and power screen off
Fn+F8: Decrease Volume
Fn+F9: Increase Volume
Fn+F11: Back Skip
Fn+F12: Forward Skip
Shift+Arrow Keys select text in any direction, much like you’re used to in Windows. Home/End/Pg Up/Pg Down do not seem to have any effect on iOS. As I mentioned above, I haven’t found a way to activate the Send button in Messages or Mail from the keyboard, if there is one (on my Filco either). I’m using an iPhone 6 with iOS 8.4 for my testing; the manual booklet appears to show that the controls for Android are similar to iOS.
Fn+Delete does NOT appear to switch into a wired mode with the USB cable attached. Holding Fn+Delete (or maybe Fn+Right Arrow, I tried both) appears to un-pair the keyboard, and in fact Fn+Delete makes the Scroll Lock LED blink a few times if held down for several seconds. But I don’t know precisely what this does beyond the Scroll Lock LED blinking!
Windows Special Function Keys
On Windows, here are some Fn key combinations:
Fn+Esc: Open new window of default web browser.
Fn+F1: Screen Brightness Down
Fn+F2: Screen Brightness Up
Fn+F3: Open Search Charm (Windows 8.1)
Fn+F4 and Fn+F5: Unknown
Fn+F5-Fn+F12: As printed on secondary keycap (lower right corner) (same as iOS for these)
The instructions say that Fn+Delete means something, but I haven’t figured it out yet. I wonder if it has something to do with forgetting all pairings, but I haven’t managed to get it to do anything I’ve noticed yet. Also, I mostly haven’t mentioned that if you press the Fn key and several other keys you can activate some of the secondary-printed functions on the key caps. I’ve focused on the things that are unlabeled. But fn+Control (Right) is the Application (right-click menu) key, for example. And there’s a Windows key on both sides of the keyboard, but Fn+Windows says it’s “Lock” but it hasn’t done anything noticeable for me on Windows or iOS. Some of the above key combinations, but not all, are hinted at in the foreign-language directions sheet.
So that’s how to use the VB87M Bluetooth 4.0 keyboard from Vermilo. I’ve still got a few days to see how I like it compared to the Filco (I think I like the Filco better in general), but it seems to be a solid keyboard, even though the multi-device selection seems more on par with the Filco MINILA Air TKL rather than the Filco Convertible 2 (but I wasn’t expecting any multi-device support when I ordered, and what’s here is livable). We’ll see how carry-ability improves with the smaller size of the TKL form-factor.
Thanks to Varholiaglimp, NYR99, compuguy, and a few others in the Massdrop Discussion around this keyboard for pointers and tips about some of the above functionality! Also thanks to the instruction booklet, which had some useful pointers even though it had barely any Latin alphabet characters in it.
After switching back and forth between the Convertible 2 and the Vermilo VB87M (just in the last hour or so since I wrote the above post), I’m not sure why but the Filco is multiple times as nice to type on for me. Not sure if it’s just that I’m used to it, or maybe the Gateron Brown switches aren’t as comfy for me as the Cherry MX Brown. Will give the VM87M more of a workout soon to see how it holds up…
I got a request for some photos of the keyboard in the comments, so here’s a few. I didn’t snap any pics of the box or other contents, but it does come with a small key puller and a USB cable with a nice velcro strap for winding it up, and that’s it beyond the small folding manual with very little English.
UPDATE: The Keyboard Company did Keyboard Company Filco Majestouch Convertible 2 Review on April 20th. It’s shorter, but good! Also has some pictures.
Related: In case you missed them, I wrote some blog posts about discovering the things that are mechanical keyboards, and about my decision to purchase this specific one, before I wrote the below review.
I know my previous posts about my keyboard (see links above) weren’t long enough, before receiving it, so I’ll make sure this one is even longer (over 2500 words!) since I now have it and am happy to have something on which to practice typing :-)
My first foray into mechanical keyboards has finally come to fruition! Not thrilled with DHL but not sad the keyboard still arrived only four days after coming in stock! I saw over the weekend that the Filco Convertible 2 Tactile (Tactile means Cherry MX Brown switches) made by Diatec in Japan shipped from The Keyboard Company, but didn’t know what expect of shipping “across the pond.” Not to worry, for under $25 USD shipping, it arrived in two business days; if it had been free I might compare it to Amazon Prime! But with a bit more story than that…
Sunday evening, I got a robocall from DHL Express with a tracking number and the announcement that they were delivering a package “tomorrow” (Monday). Sweet, and insanely fast! Sure enough, the online tracking showed the package in Cincinnati, OH and by around 5:30 am on Monday morning, it checked in to the Indianapolis DHL location. But it never listed Out For Delivery (and showed End of Tuesday as delivery-by), so I called just after noon and asked about it.
They person I spoke with told me that yes, the package was in, but no, the robocalls have been off by a day lately and the package wouldn’t be delivered until tomorrow (Tuesday), like the “end of March 24th” indicated online as well. But, since it was in the local facility, she said, it was fine if I wanted to drive over and pick it up on Monday before they closed at 8pm. So, around 4:30 pm, I drove the half-hour to the DHL Express location and…they didn’t have it. Couldn’t find it, complained up one side and down the other that the person on the phone shouldn’t have told me I could pick it up, and said it didn’t have the proper destination scan to indicate they physically had it yet. She was sorry for the trouble, but it would be delivered on Tuesday early afternoon and she would call me Tuesday morning to confirm it. I was also able to leave a signature release since I had to leave to take my wife to the airport during the day.
I was definitely disappointed, but whatever, it’s one more day, and I had resigned myself to waiting a week or more if necessary, after waiting about two months for stock to order. (For some reason my wife wasn’t as enthusiastic about me driving an hour round trip to try to pick up the shipment arriving the next day, ha! :-)
Finally, Tuesday comes. I worked half a day, took the afternoon off (airport drop off, remember?) and headed to the airport. Of course it would be delivered while I was gone, just after 2 pm, and when I got home I opened it up, looked at it for a couple of minutes, and ran an errand that needed running with the kids. Finally, got back home, and before I made the kids pizza for dinner I got to read the manual and do a little playing!
The Keyboard is Here!
Time to play! I unpacked the keyboard and the Blue O-rings, which were in a bag. Set the O-rings aside for later, popped open the two included AA batteries, and stuck them in the keyboard. Played with the key feel for a few minutes, then unwound the very nice USB cable (Mini USB on the keyboard end) with attached Velcro tie and plugged it into my Surface Pro 3 dock. Blam! It types! Almost like it’s a keyboard, ha! After I’d goofed off typing nonsense into a blank OneNote page for a while, I broke out the manual and read the English part cover to cover (English isn’t the first language in the manual, it starts on page 20, and is 15 pages long). The English isn’t native-good, but it’s a readable translation, if a bit clumsy. I was mainly concerned with the Bluetooth operation and switching between devices, since this keyboard will support four different Bluetooth devices and USB, all switchable on command. It can also use USB for power while typing on Bluetooth (regardless of battery presence; it recommends not keeping batteries installed while using extensively on USB).
A couple of pictures of the keyboard itself, and the keyboard plugged into my docked Surface Pro 3:
I know USB to Surface Pro 3 works, so let’s give Bluetooth a try. There’s a very nice, subtle Bluetooth power button at the top-middle of the keyboard, not hard to press but easily to ignore otherwise. Power it on, hit the Bluetooth Clear button above the number keypad’s minus symbol (first time only) and then press Ctrl+Alt+Fn followed by the 1 key (keys 1 through 5 above the letters function in concert with the key combo just mentioned to switch between the four Bluetooth devices and USB functionality). At around the same time, I opened Change PC Settings->PC and Devices->Bluetooth and it located a “Keyboard” device (since the keyboard was in discovery mode from the above key combo), which I tapped and it prompted me to type a numeric code and press Enter on the keyboard. Done and Done. Now renamed the Majestouch Convertible 2 and listed as Connected, I can now type equally as well via Bluetooth, sans cable. This is great!
Test number two, let’s try my iPhone. Ctrl+Alt+Fn, 2 enables discovery mode to pair device 2. Enable Bluetooth on iPhone, go to Settings->Bluetooth, tap Keyboard, enter code and Enter, and it’s Connected now as well. Just like other iPhone keyboards I’ve used, this also works great! I will not use this keyboard primarily with my iPhone, but I’ll definitely use it occasionally. Now, switching between the two is as simple as Ctrl+Alt+Fn followed by 1 or 2, for Surface Pro 3 or iPhone, respectively.
The media keys on F1 through F8 (Volume up/down/mute, Skip Track forward and back, Play/Pause, and Stop) seem to work fine in limited testing on the computer and on the iPhone which is nice. The Fn+Sleep (F12) key puts my Surface to sleep and even wakes it up from a light sleep. The only things I miss a little from other iPhone keyboards is the ability to press the home button, which I can’t find a way to do from the Convertible 2, and a way to press “Send” (such as in Messages or Facebook where you’d normally tap the Send button on-screen). Enter goes to the next line, and Ctrl+Enter either does nothing or also inserts a newline, but neither triggers a send. No huge loss, I can reach up and tap the screen, but so far it’s the only thing this can’t do (typing-wise).
Light-wise, the Num and Caps lights double as Antenna and Battery Indicator lights, but other than status while in pairing mode or switching modes, the lights remain entirely off (even with Caps Lock or Num Lock enabled) during Bluetooth use, regardless of whether powered via USB or battery. When in USB-connected mode, the lights indicate Num Lock (blue) and Caps Lock (red) continuously like most keyboards, when those are on. They’re pretty bright if you look at them straight-on, but are fine from typing position.
It feels so good, like I knew that it would! It feels so nice, like sugar and spice…ok, enough of the slightly modified song, this keyboard feels great! The key travel is so much better than the Surface Pro 3, and comparable (maybe a bit farther) than my Microsoft Natural keyboard, but definitely less resistance and very speedy. I did try out the keyboard without the O-rings first. The sound is much as I’d imagined it, having tried the Cherry MX Blues and opting for Browns with just one sample key. Definitely some key-striking sound to it, and the tactile “click” is there but it’s not audible (most of the sound is either from the sound of my finger on the key or from the key itself bottoming out). Just as described, but it’s really hard to imagine without trying it! I think Brown was the right choice. I would definitely enjoy Blue as well, but as I’ve said before, I think I would slow my typing to make the Blue “clicks” sound like a nice rhythm, whereas the Browns sound great as fast as I can go. They’ll also cause less irritation to anyone around me; sometimes this won’t matter and people won’t care, and sometimes it might be a big deal, but this isn’t really louder than my Microsoft Natural keyboard and might be quieter sometimes.
I purchased the Blue O-Rings with my keyboard not knowing how much I’d like them, but knowing it would quiet the keyboard a little and reduce overall travel, potentially making it easier to type lightly and adding some padding to reduce finger fatigue (so they say). They’re a bit thicker than the Black O-rings I got with my Max Keyboard sampler (as advertised), but barely (I say barely, but the whole key travel distance is 4mm with activation at 2mm, so we’re already talking tiny here!). I installed the O-rings on a few keys and it was hard to tell how much I liked them, so I went ahead and installed it on all standard-sized keys from Q down to /. I left all numbers, function, and special keys alone, those weren’t my main concern anyway. If I did any others, it would be Space, Shifts, and Backspace. I’m not sure yet how much I like with vs. without the O-rings. It’s quieter, a bit “softer” sounding. Not tremendously, so, but it’s noticeable. Definitely less “clacking” except when I tap Backspace (which is O-ringless); that one clacks pretty loudly when I rapid-fire a correction!
I’m going to give the O-rings a try for a couple of days (I think). I do mostly like the slightly shorter travel, though my left hand, being my weaker one, seems to feel a bit more tension (which is does on my really short-travel Surface Pro 3 as well) when typing with the shorter travel. Hard to tell for sure as I used the keyboard without the O-rings for such a short time. I’ll probably take them out at some point and give it a workout without them. The keyboard comes with a Filco Key Puller tool, and it took some time to put the rings on but it wasn’t bad. A toothpick came in quite handy for getting the rings pushed all the way down; my fingers are too big to fit into the keys!
Typing is very fast and comfortable. A typing test I randomly found online pegged me as high as 99 words per minute (as low as 80 with more complex material) with some brief tests and between high and perfect accuracy. That seems about right; I’ve hit that sort of speed before on my Keytronic Lifetime Designer keyboard in my teens (I still have it but it’s PS/2) and have only intermittently tested myself elsewhere, on keyboards I don’t recall, since then. The words flow fast and free, is my point, which was of buying this keyboard, the point! Here I surpass 1800 words in this post and I’m still enjoying myself, so we’ll see how much more I subject you to (hey, I’m not forcing you to read this! My wife would agree, but it’s doubtful she’ll make it this far).
Tag It and Bag It
Bluetooth keyboard. Remote work locations. Portable computer, large keyboard (heavier than the computer). What does all this mean?!?!? I need a case! Keyboard cases for traveling with full-sized mechanical keyboards are not the most common thing to find online, but with a bit of searching I managed to track down some Reddit posts with a few links, and after some further research, I ended up ordering a Grifiti Chiton Fat 17 sleeve that looks about the right size and is only $15 with Prime shipping. There’s also a manufacturer’s page and the Massdrop discount page with 3 days left on a discounted version. I almost bought it at Massdrop, but it doesn’t ship until April 10th and with shipping it’s $13.74, so the savings wasn’t worth it for me. If I were buying multiples and could combine shipping the $8.99 pre-shipping price was pretty nice. While at Amazon, I also picked up Anker phone/tablet stand to make it simpler to use the keyboard with my iPhone when the need (ok, want) arises.
Quick Note on the MINILA Air
Just a quick aside about another Filco keyboard that I almost bought and why I didn’t. There exists a Filco MINILA Air (MINI LAyout) model keyboard that supports Bluetooth and USB, in a very small, 60%-sized form-factor (there’s a non-Air version without Bluetooth, also). See the Diatec manufacturer’s page and the Keyboard Company Blog Review. I was very tempted by this prior to finding the Convertible 2, especially since the Convertible 2 hadn’t been released when I was doing my research. It would certainly be more portable. However, the main thing holding me back (besides the fact that I like the tenkey decently well and really like my navigation keys!) was the Bluetooth setup. It could pair with three devices, but it paired in an oldest-first manner, so whichever of your devices was on, if more than one, it would pair with the one you’d paired with the earliest. So you could have a “preference order,” but couldn’t easily change it, nor specify which device to connect to from the keyboard itself. The Convertible 2 fixes this very well as I detailed above. However, if you’re only going to use one Bluetooth device, or just one at a time, and you want a very small, tenkeyless keyboard, the MINILA Air is probably worth a look. I did like all the options available with the special function keys they added! Even if I would have preferred a simple tenkeyless layout, leaving the arrows and Delete/Home/End etc. alone.
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m loving this keyboard! I’ve used it while writing this review to compose iMessages on my iPhone by switching back and forth between devices. I’m having fun on speed tests. I’m guessing, though I haven’t used it for that yet, that typing time entries for work will become more fun as well, as long as the fun holds out :-) Maybe I’ll even have to take up blogging again regularly? It’s unlikely, but possible. If you want one yourself, The Keyboard Company now has “Lots in stock!” of the Cherry MX Brown, Blue and Red varieties, and I couldn’t be happier with their service, even if I wish the exchange rate were a bit better at the moment. Other than that, it was as simple and easy as ordering from a US-based vendor! They answered my research and pre-order questions via Twitter in a timely manner (and their blog is informative), but I never had any personal contact with their team during or after the order (they did email me a tracking number). For now I’ll keep on typin’ in, just not in this blog post!
UPDATE Sunday 3/22: DHL called to let me know they will be delivering tomorrow! Those planes move overseas pretty fast, woohoo!
UPDATE Monday 3/23: DHL’s tracking website shows that the keyboard arrived locally at their distribution center, but hasn’t shown Out for Delivery yet, and the tracking site says delivery by end of day Tuesday (tomorrow). So, maybe they’ll make it to me to today, but it looks like I may have to wait until tomorrow despite their phone call’s robo-statement.
I finally picked one. A mechanical keyboard with Cherry MX switches. You’d think it would be easy given my last post, where I said I wanted the Filco Convertible 2, and that’s the one I ordered, so that part was decided, if not originally easy. But the switches! So hard to decide between the Cherry MX Blue and Cherry MX Brown switches!
A coworker has a Das keyboard with Blues that I tried for a few minutes. I like it, but my concern with Blues is that I actually like the clicking sound enough that I think I would slow down typing in order to hear the rhythm of the clicking at a more pleasant pace, plus they would be less pleasant for family (wife) and coworkers to listen to in certain circumstances (not all the time, but they would tend to be a bit louder).
So my first thought was Browns, then I wavered back to Blues, and after trying the Das Blues, I’m back to Browns. I also purchased a Max Keyboard Sampler Kit to see if I could tell which I liked best (it has Red, Black, Blue and Brown sample switches). It also has O-rings that shorten the travel and dampen the sound a bit, which at first I figured would be good on the Blues but it turns out I think I like on the Browns. It also turns out that it’s really hard to tell from a set of four keys how switches will be on a full-sized keyboard! Another coworker has a keyboard with Browns at home, but I haven’t been able to coordinate having him bring it in so I can test it.
But I made a decision and I’m getting the Filco Convertible 2 with Cherry MX Browns (aka Tactile Action) and a pack of Blue O-rings in case I want them! The Browns should be a bit quieter and I think that trumps the clicks of Blues in more situations than I’d prefer Blues. My Microsoft Natural Keyboard 4000, while not mechanical, has a deeper “thunk” sound vs. a click and I’m relatively happy with it’s sound. The O-rings I got are the blue ones that are a bit thicker than others; if I don’t like them and want another size I’ll buy more from Amazon or something. Literally the only place the keyboard was in stock was in the Keyboard Company store, located in the UK. But wait, it wasn’t in stock! They actually were expecting stock yesterday (Friday, March 20th) and have been for about a month, but nowhere else even knew when they might get stock (only two sites listed the model at all, and I called one to confirm they didn’t have any idea when stock would arrive).
So I downloaded the XE Currency Converter app on my phone and checked the US Dollars to British Pounds Sterling exchange rate for a couple of weeks and when it went down a bit earlier this week and then just barely went up (Monday I believe) I placed the order for the keyboard and O-rings (Keyboard Company charges at purchase, not shipping, for back orders–best for my currency timing attempt!). With the credit card’s currency fees of $2.10 on top of the $210.44, the cost was $212.54 USD based on my credit card charges. Considering that includes shipping and the O-rings on the only mechanical keyboard that has both USB and Bluetooth, it’s not actually that much higher than the many USB-only keyboards in the $150 to $200 range, and since I’m going to be using it with my Surface Pro 3 (because the keyboard is all I hate, even though I’m using it now!) which is portable and only has one USB port, the Bluetooth portion is going to make me happy even though I’ll probably keep a USB cord ready to plug in on my desk attached to the Surface Pro 3 dock. The price also seems reasonable since I’ll use it in portable and wired modes, versus purchasing a separate keyboard for mobile Bluetooth use and a nicer mechanical for desk only.
The fact that it switches to up to 4 Bluetooth devices (selectable–the only other mechanical Bluetooth keyboard I even considered didn’t have USB and automatically chose which device to connect to based on order of pairing; stupid when I’m using a laptop and phone at the same time!) is probably not something I’ll use every day, but having a keyboard capable of typing on my phone in a pinch is going to rock! Yes, the fact that the keyboard is 2.65 lbs and my Surface Pro 3 is 2.41 lbs (WITH its keyboard! It’s 1.76 lbs without) is kind of…weird, shall we say? “I love carrying my lightweight tablet/laptop so much that I also carry a keyboard almost twice its weight along with it!” Whatever, I’m going to enjoy typing on the darn thing and it’ll probably go with me mainly anywhere I plan to work for a half-day or more at my computer. I doubt I’ll tote it on-site to every customer, though I might for a week or two so people can get their jokes about the keyboard weight out of the way :-) I do wish a bit that the Convertible 2 was available in a tenkeyless format, and maybe it will be at some point, but I actually do enjoy having the number keypad available at times, and even if it lost that, I would want the Home/End/Del/PgUp/PgDown keys in their usual places as I use all of them (well, the first three at least) quite heavily by muscle memory, so it would need those. Only some tenkeyless keyboards still have those keys in the “right” place, so there’s no guarantee that a tenkeyless version would appeal to me. So, the smaller size would be nice but it’s not going to save that much weight, and the full-size version will probably make me happier most of the time.
So, since I’m typing this on my Surface Pro 3 keyboard and I’d like to stop that now, I will quit here. Keyboard Company lists the keyboard as in stock now, though I haven’t gotten a shipping notification and their web tracking function doesn’t list my keyboard as shipped yet. I’m sure that will change soon; I’m just happy I don’t have to wait much longer now that they’re in stock!
Oh, I have done a bit of thinking about the new Apple MacBook with the shorter keyboard key travel, since it was just announced. I’m curious to play with one at the Apple store sometime so I can compare it to the Surface Pro 3 keyboard. Obviously it will be rigid and likely better than the Surface version, but I think the short travel is one of the things I don’t like about the Surface keyboard (that, and the ease of mis-typing, whether due to my own fingers or possibly even defective/sticky actuators occasionally), so I’m curious how Apple did with their new offering. Not going to end up with one any time soon, however :-)
I tend to type a lot. I don’t write for a living (though sometimes when making time entries it starts to feel like it), but I am verbose (ask anyone I know, but make sure I’m not around or you may not be able to get a word in edgewise!) and I like to type. I’m not the fastest typist but I’m pretty darn good. Well above average, at least. After several tries I managed to hit more than 100 Words Per Minute (WPM) on a test in my teens, but 50-80 WPM is relatively normal.
When you type a lot and are decent at it, you can usually type well on most keyboards, but it’s a lot more pleasant and causes fewer mistakes (and possibly more speed, even if just from fewer mistakes) to use a high-quality keyboard with a good “feel.” Most laptops have really bad keyboards, most desktops come with cheap keyboards, and you can get a better-but-not-great keyboard for $20 to $40 if you want one. Some laptops have nicer keyboards as well, the pricier ones anyway, and especially business models. IBM’s old desktop keyboards from the ’80s (that’s when they started) were awesome (people still refurbish and sell them today! Also, Lexmark was an IBM spinoff originally formed to make their keyboards), and the IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad series is known for having excellent keyboards, for example, though that hasn’t been as true lately. Dell Latitude keyboards are ones I’ve generally been happy with, though they’re middle-of-the-road. Any keyboard on a sub-$500 laptop will probably feel like junk.
That brings me to the Surface Pro 3. I already pointed out in my review that the biggest shortcoming of the SP3 is, in my opinion, the Type Cover keyboard. It’s a marvelous feat of engineering and it’s bearable compared to, well, any other keyboard that thin, but compared to nice keyboards, it’s total junk. Keys occasionally type when they’re not supposed to, the travel is super short (for obvious reasons), and it’s on the cramped side of full-sized for a laptop. (And that’s just the keys. The trackpad is miserable as a mouse, though I generally dislike them except for Apple trackpads.)
So, this past week, the Woot deal site had a nice deal. A premium keyboard company called Das Keyboard (not only does a coworker have one of their keyboards, I’m kind of partial to the name being my initials!) makes mechanical keyboards that are very high quality with various Cherry MX brand mechanical switches (a company that’s been making keyboard switches since before I was born and is the main supplier of this kind of clicking mechanical switch). And Woot had one of their very nice keyboards, the Das Keyboard 4 Professional (and Ultimate) (Das sells it on their site as well and also has sample sounds of the various switch types available). Woot also had a secondary sale on a slightly different model keyboard of theirs, the Das Keyboard Professional Model S, for less but with a different key feel and sound (Cherry MX Red Quiet Key version).
Now, I didn’t buy these deals because I wasn’t ready to spend that kind of money on a keyboard I’d not really researched or tested, and I wasn’t planning on a keyboard purchase, even though the Surface Pro 3’s keyboard’s lack of quality has bugged me lately. I only work at my own desk zero to two days per week; if I was constantly at the same desk a nice keyboard would be a no-brainer (I currently have a Microsoft Natural Keyboard 4000 that’s served me well for years but is a little mushy). But the deals got me thinking, so I did some research today while procrastinating on my Ham radio license upgrade testing study, and I think I’ll probably get a mechanical keyboard soon, even if I don’t use it 100% of the time.
A quick aside; I’m not going to go into detail about the various mechanical switch types in nice keyboards (or the rubber switches in cheaper ones), that’s been done to death elsewhere. Das has a good guide, and The Keyboard Company has good details about Cherry MX switches in specific (Cherry MX switch types vary and are differentiated by color as to the feel and sound).
I could pick up one of the Das models, they do look nice and they get awesome reviews. And I was tempted, after ending up looking for cheaper options and finding mostly some knockoff brands along with some accessory makers that put Cherry MX switches in gaming keyboards, for in the $80 to $150 range (Corsair, Rosewill, and Cooler Master seem to be the big players in this game). I just want a keyboard that types, I have no interest in gaming, and the backlight options and macro keys many of the gaming keyboards have don’t interest me. That’s one reason Like the Das options so much, they’re for typists.
But, I did find that there’s another brand that appears to have nice Cherry MX-based keyboards, on par with the Das options but different. That’s the Filco brand of keyboards from Diatec, a Japanese company. I’m pretty sure I want the Cherry MX Brown switches, rather than the Blue, because it still has a nice tactile feel but is quieter, which my wife will appreciate (I reserve the right to change my mind after I find a way to try the various Cherry MX switches in person more rigorously), but there are Filco keyboard models with four different Cherry switch types. But I’m focusing on Brown here. Anyway, they have a keyboard called the Majestouch 2 that looks very nice, basic, and has the switches I want. It gets good reviews but is hard to find stock in the Brown switch version, though I could probably track one down. It’s in the Das Keyboard 4 Pro price range.
And I was leaning towards that Majestouch 2, when I saw in the Diatec product list the Majestouch Convertible 2 keyboard. Earlier, I had searched Amazon.com for wireless mechanical keyboards, almost just for fun since most serious typists wouldn’t rely on wireless when they’re more concerned about how many keys you can simultaneously press and if USB is even capable of transmitting enough of them (usually only 6 keys can send a once unless the manufacturer works around it at the driver level, which the Filco and Das keyboards generally do to allow up to all keys at once to be pressed and work, called N-Key Rollover or NKRO–and if they don’t do this via USB they usually have an alternate PS/2 connection option where this works). But recall I have a Surface Pro 3, and although I do now have the dock, I also use the system around the house, and I’m typing this on my couch in fact. And, taking a Bluetooth keyboard in my car to work in one of our company offices, of which we have several, wouldn’t be out of the question for longer days with fewer appointments. So as I said, this Convertible 2 keyboard popped out at me, model number FKBC104M/EB2, and it supports both wired USB and wireless Bluetooth with battery operation, with up to 4 devices! So I could dock it, I could Bluetooth it with my Surface on the go, and I could even potentially Bluetooth it with my iPhone if I felt the need to type faster on it (although my thumbs are faster than many and I even do a decent job without looking at the screen, it’s no full-sized keyboard!).
So, I’m now relatively sure which keyboard I want, and I’m somewhat sure I want the model I mentioned above, with the Cherry MX Brown keys, but I suspect I’d be happy with the feel of the MX Blue option as well, though noisier. But I’ll probably end up with Brown unless I get a chance to test it and really dislike it. The only problem is, I can’t seem to find it anywhere to buy. Amazon has never heard of it, eBay hasn’t either, and general web searches link mostly to the manufacturer. I guess when they say “New” they mean it! I did find a listing for it at The Keyboard Company, but they are out of stock until the end of Feburary (maybe that’s first stock?) and they appear to be overseas since they’re priced in Euro (and their site says they’re in Gloucestershire).
While writing this, I actually also discovered through their Twitter feed that The Keyboard Company did a blog post about the new Convertible 2 in December. It does seem to confirm not only some operational details about the keyboard (all of which looks great!) but also that it is brand spanking new, and isn’t in stock yet. There was apparently an original Convertible keyboard like this that was Japanese only, hence the number 2, but nothing ever available in the USA. So, I happened to find this with both good and bad timing–good because it exists and I didn’t buy something else yet, and bad because it appears I have to wait at least some amount of time before this one hits the shelves. Fortunately, I can use that time to beef up the budget so I can buy one without an earful from The Keeper of the Budget (aka, my wife–and I appreciate her for doing so!).
This has been The Long Rambling Thoughts of David with Many Links and Much Verbosity for the night. If you made it this far, you probably like keyboards, too, so there’s that :-)
I got a Surface Pro 3 (the middle model) about a month after it was released this year. It’s pretty darn awesome. It’s my main work machine and also useful for play. It’s also been written about to death online; there’s no huge need to overanalyze. Using the pen is great, but would be better if my handwriting was better (or I could draw. Or both). Still, it’s excellent in OneNote 2013 for taking notes during meetings. The screen resolution is excellent, essentially the same for daily work as using a Retina Mac screen. Touch accuracy is great, screen brightness is great, battery lasts a lot longer than my old laptop but sadly not quite up to MacBook Air levels (but I can deal). For 1.8lbs and terribly thin, well, basically it’s a real-life version of the Star Trek: The Next Generation P.A.D.D. (Personal Access Display Device). And with the right app, it can even look like a real L.C.A.R.S. (Library Computer Access and Retrieval System) interface right out of Star Trek. (It’s OK, I know I’m geeky, and my wife tells me often enough if I forget.)
The keyboard is the biggest weakness. It’s leagues ahead of a tablet with no keyboard for sure. But it’s not anywhere near comfortable for long-term typing, though it suffices. It feels a bit cramped, but the worst part is the feel. The travel is necessarily extremely short, and while it does move a bit, I’d say it feels 70% in the direction of feeling like typing on a hard, flat, unmoving keyboard (or screen), and 30% like typing on a traditional keyboard.
I’ve actually used laptop keyboard that felt almost as bad or were harder to type on, but nothing that I’ve ever used consistently. It doesn’t hold a candle to a Dell Latitude, Lenovo ThinkPad, or Microsoft Natural keyboard, which are the three keyboards I’ve used most in my life. The Latitude E6420 I had before feels positively luxurious after typing on the Surface Pro 3 Type Cover keyboard for a while. I often lay it flat rather than magnetically locked up at an angle because having a solid surface underneath it (on a desk) is better than having the suspended keyboard feel mushy. And it does have an issue where, when typing fast, random keys are activated or the mouse will move (I’m pretty sure I’m not actually touching the trackpad but it’s possible, and frustrating either way). But while I do type a lot, it’s not usually for long periods of time, and so far it’s been bearable in short spurts. Just not tremendously enjoyable.
The trackpad is essentially worthless, which is a step up from the prior Surface models where the Type Cover’s trackpad was literally worthless, but I never use my trackpads anyway, so I don’t care much (the exception being the MacBook Pro, which has a wonderful trackpad). A mouse is always superior in efficiency and comfort so I have a relatively inexpensive Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Mouse which uses Bluetooth to avoid taking up my one USB port. It works better than any Bluetooth mouse I’ve ever used (not saying much :-) and is reasonably comfortable. I liked my Logitech previously but I’m not giving up the USB port. I also use my finger on the screen a surprisingly large amount, and it works quite well if a bit inaccurate on the first try sometimes (and occasionally I mouse with the pen, it’s definitely better than using the trackpad!).
I’m primarily carrying the Surface Pro 3 in the ProCase Wallet Sleeve Case which is made of cheap fake leather, but I like everything else about it so much I’d pay multiple times the price for one identical in real leather (or at least higher-end plastic). But it works, and has a pen loop, which is better than the built-in one (which I haven’t stuck on the keyboard as intended). For $15 I’m not complaining, and I don’t like anything else I’ve found any better.
I’m also carrying the Cable Matters Mini DisplayPort to HDMI/DVI/VGA 3-in-1 Adapter with me everywhere, along with the HooToo 3-port USB 3.0 Hub with Gigabit Ethernet Adapter, a handy way to expand my USB ports if needed and use a wired network; often a must when dealing with troubleshooting and configuring wireless networks. And to get 64-bit, Windows 8 support in a serial port (also necessary for some network setup and troubleshooting), I picked up the Pluggable USB to RS-232 DB9 Serial Adapter, which also works perfectly. A lot of these items are things Microsoft has branded versions of, for almost twice as much. So yeah, no. I’m fine with decent quality off-brand accessories for less!
All that plus a network cable is pretty much what I carry everywhere, inside my Wenger Patriot Rolling Case. But wait, I actually carry it in the pull-out briefcase that comes with the rolling case! So it’s tiny and light, and I keep more accessories and paperwork in the rolling case (my Doxie Go scanner, label printer, work orders, additional cords, etc.) which normally stays in my car unless I need it. Saves my back! Everything I linked to in the last three paragraphs (not this one) fits very comfortably with the Surface Pro 3 and the Surface power adapter (and usually a Lightning cable for my phone, which can charge on the spare power port on the Surface’s adapter).
Hello lightweight, goodbye chiropractor (as often), and I rarely miss the stuff I leave in the car! For sales meetings, I often just take the ProCase sleeve with the Surface Pro 3 and Pen for notes, going even lighter weight.
Overall, I love this thing, but it’s not perfect. Just closer than anything else. Though the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga is pretty darn awesome and recently available, but was not on the market when I got my Surface Pro 3. Around twice the weight of the Surface with an optional pen, I’m not sure which I’d like best but it does seem to fix a few of my Surface issues (keyboard (much more awesome, though not removable), maybe trackpad, better battery). Is the extra weight worth it? No way to tell without using it extensively (it felt great when I held it at a conference recently!), but the Surface is my main machine for a couple of years, so that gives Lenovo (and Microsoft) time to scheme which is going to have the best option next go-around…until then, I’m pretty happy!