In our Vortex KBT Race II review, we hinted at another mechanical keyboard from Vortex made by the same OEM. Based in China, KBC seems to be a pretty large community site as well as an OEM for several brands such as Deck and Ducky. They have designed several of their own products, some of which are promoted and distributed by Vortex in Taiwan. Today we’re looking at the latest version of their most successful model – the Poker II.
The first thing you’ll notice is the layout. We have reviewed several different mechanical keyboard layouts so far, from full sized layouts with 104 keys, to 80% or “Tenkeyless” keyboards that do away with the NumPad, to the 75% Race II that moves the lesser used keys to a function layer. The Poker II has a “60%” layout that takes things even further by moving the arrow keys to a function layer, and removing the F-key row completely.
The result is an ultra compact keyboard that gives a pretty unique visual impact when sitting on a desk. The Poker II is tiny, but comes packed with features and is constructed very well.
The Poker II uses Cherry MX switches, available in the common types of Brown, Blue, or Red. It is available with or without backlighting – the backlit version (available with green or blue LEDs) uses ABS keycaps which we’ll look at more closely later. The non backlit version uses PBT caps. The version we’re reviewing has blue backlighting with Cherry MX Brown switches.
The Poker II is another one of those keyboards that wants to stand out by using a non typical font on its key legend. In this case, it’s Bank Gothic which I believe is also used on the Das Keyboard models that have a printed legend. The function layer includes all of the missing keys, like the navigation keys (Home, Page Up, etc) which have the same familiar placement as standard keyboards, and the arrow keys which are cleverly mapped to WASD. There is also a row of media keys along the bottom, a calculator shortcut, and even that Windows “App” key that nobody uses. The number keys double as the Function keys with – and + working for F11 and F12. The rest of the function layer layout makes logical sense – the Del key is under the Backspace, Ins is under “I” and so on.
As for the day to day use of a keyboard that has most of its functions under a layer that requires an extra key to be pressed, I’ll discuss that in the conclusions. It definitely takes some getting used to.
Since there isn’t much contrast in the laser etched, UV-coated labels, it can be somewhat hard to see the function layer labels that are printed on the front of the keys. Backlighting helps, but since the switches are mounted with the LEDs at the top of the keys, they don’t light up very well unless the brightness is set to full (or one step below that). In fact you will probably see the reflection of the backplate more clearly than you can see the labels themselves. This issue is exacerbated on the blue LED version, since blue isn’t exactly the most visible part of the colour spectrum compared to, say, amber or green.
Speaking of the LEDs, they can be adjusted with seven different brightness levels, but there are no special effects or anything like that. The top legends are very clear at most brightness settings, since the LED is right under each label. Well that’s not really the case for the number row. Since the numbers are printed with their shift-symbols in a traditional way with the number on the bottom and the symbol on top, it’s the symbols that get lit up brightly and not the numbers. We saw this on the Race II as well. Some manufacturers flip the orientation, so the number is at the top and the symbol at the bottom. An example of this is the Razer Blackwidow. Others print them side by side, like the Deck Hassium Pro. Any key with a long label will not be fully lit up either – CapsLock, Backspace, and Enter tend to fade out at the edges, even at full brightness.
Until you memorize the entire function layer, you will be using the front legends a lot, so it’s unfortunate that they aren’t more visible. This could have been prevented if they had placed the LEDs at the bottom – but then the legend would have to be printed at the bottom or middle as well. Otherwise, they would also fade at the top of each letter.
Moving the LED and key labels to the bottom is a solution that we’ll be discussing in our next keyboard review, as we will be looking at the very similar KBParadise V60 Mini. Moving the LEDs to the bottom solves this issue, but introduces another.
The ABS keycaps used on the backlit version of the Poker II are quite thin; I measured them at slightly over 1mm using a vernier caliper (1.03mm to be exact). The surface has a very slight texture to it – it isn’t as smooth as the KBT Race II, but it’s not as rough as the Topre RealForce 87U.
The Poker II uses a removable USB cable with a standard USB-Mini port. This is very handy, especially for a compact keyboard like this that will probably be moved around a lot. I do have concerns over the port, since it doesn’t have any form of stress protection. I can see it getting broken quite easily if the keyboard is yanked or the cable is bent while plugged in. This is an all too common design choice we see on just about every keyboard we review that has a detachable cable.
Flipping the Poker II over, we see four substantial rubber pads, which offer impeccable grip. There are four DIP switches, offering the following settings:
- Switch 1 swaps Capslock key with the Win key. It’s not uncommon for keyboards to let you do something with the relatively useless Windows key and/or Capslock key. Usually they have a switch to disable the Windows key, and call it “Gaming Mode”. In this case, the Poker II simply swaps the two most useless keys on the keyboard. It’s really a weird feature, and I don’t know why anyone would use it.
- Switch 2 changes the right CTRL key to another ~ key. I suppose if you hit ~ a lot this is an option for you. Without it, you need to hold 3 keys to type a ~.
- Switch 3
does nothingUpdate: There was an error in the manual provided to us. Switch 3 actually turns the Win key into a second Fn key. This changes a lot of things, because having a pair of Fn keys makes the Poker II much easier to use.
- Switch 4 locks the macro programming.
Overall the Poker II doesn’t offer a lot of customization. There are no functions that make use of the wasted (for some) Windows key, and as mentioned, there is no way to get a second Fn key. And while the left CTRL and Capslock keys can be swapped, our sample didn’t include any extra keys; since the caps are different sizes, swapping them isn’t possible without extra keycaps. Some retail Race II packages come with extra coloured keycaps, but if you’re not going for a colourful look, you’ll still need to find a spare key if you want to do a swap.
The Poker II has the standard USB 6 key rollover based on our N-Key rollover test. More importantly, I didn’t come across any combinations that didn’t work. WASD (or any other keys you can think of) can be used in combination with every other key on the board without issue.
Poker II Assembly
The Poker II has plate mounted switches and a dual layer PCB, which gives it a solid feel. In fact, despite being quite a bit smaller than the Race II, it is actually slightly heavier. The typing feel benefits greatly from this design, though. While I felt that the Race II has a sort of ‘hollow’ feel to it, the Poker II feels crisp and solid. It’s not nearly as solid as the Deck Hassium Pro of course, considering the much thinner keycaps, but for a compact board it feels very good.
The one disadvantage to plate mounting is that if you are interested in customizing the Cherry MX switches themselves, they will have to be de-soldered and removed from the plate first. PCB mounted switches on the other hand can be disassembled while installed.
Adding to the solid feel is the thick, rigid bottom tray with metal threading. Unlike some other keyboards we have tested, this tray has a nice solid feel to it.
Poker II Typing Sound
As mentioned above, the Poker II has a nice typing feel. While the assumption may be that all keyboards using the same switches will feel the same, that is absolutely not the case. Everything from keycap material and thickness to switch mounting can have an effect on typing feel and sound. We have recorded the sounds of several keyboards using various switches, mounting types, and keycap construction. Check out the comparison here:
Compare Typing Sound
Again, it’s not as solid as the Deck keyboards, but feels very nice for a compact keyboard with 1mm thick keycaps.
Poker II Macro Programming
Like other keyboards made by KBC, the Poker II has a fully programmable macro layer. It works just like the Deck Hassium Pro and Race II we have reviewed already, so I’ll just repeat the information here.
To program a macro, hit the Pmode key (Fn+Ctrl), press the key you want to program, then enter the macro. Hit the “Pn” key to complete the macro. You can add in delays of either 10, 15, or 50 milliseconds by using Fn+F, G, H while programming. To activate the macro, hold Pn and the key you just programmed.
Alternatively, you can have an entire layer of functionality by using the Toggle function. There are many possibilities using this, such as switching between a QWERTY and non-standard layouts like Dvorak (if you share the board with someone else, for instance).
Overall, the Poker II has its advantages and disadvantages over the competition. We already went over the lighting issues in detail, and really that’s the only flaw of the design itself.
For me, it’s the 60% layout that I have issue with. This is 100% a personal preference thing, but I can’t go without mentioning how difficult it can be to work around the limitations of this type of layout. If you do a lot of text editing, and make use of highlighting and deleting text often, it can be frustrating to have to hold the Fn layer to do everything.
Something as simple as highlighting some words and deleting them goes from a few convenient key presses (hold SHIFT+CTRL which are right beside each other, and move the arrows until you get the highlight the desired words, let go, hit delete) to a combination of key presses that only an octopus would find convenient. Instead of the above, you must hold shift+ctrl+FN+either WASD to highlight the words.
Since there is only one Fn key and it’s on the right, you would probably think that you could do this with your right hand. Update: There was an error in the manual provided to us. Switch 3 actually turns the Win key into a second Fn key. This changes a lot of things, because having a pair of Fn keys makes the Poker II much easier to use.
Also the arrow functions are on the opposite side from what you’re used to, so be prepared for that as well, unless you decide to overwrite the Fn layer on some keys on the other side of the board.. Once you highlight the words, you will probably use Backspace since hitting delete requires you to continue to hold the Fn button.
And so on. After several weeks of using the Poker II, I have come across many instances where the key combinations I used to find convenient suddenly became a hassle. Even CTRL+F5 to refresh a page becomes inconvenient, since the same hand that presses “5″ also has to press either the CTRL or FN keys. You can’t use the right CTRL key, since again, it has a layer function. Trying to quickload or quicksave games is no longer a matter of quickly pressing the F6 key or whatever. Instead, you will need to hold Fn and press the 6 key, which requires two hands. Again, this isn’t a huge issue, but if you are playing one of those games where you need to save and load a lot, you may want to bind the keys to something else instead (if you have room for it)
Maybe it’s because I cut my teeth using PCs on a text interface, and most of my work involves writing. Sometimes I see people perform text editing with their mouse, but that feels very inconvenient and imprecise to me. That’s why I should stress once again that this is mostly an issue of personal preference. I am not saying the Poker II is inherently bad, but if this type of thing might be an issue for you, you might want to look into a keyboard with a more traditional format.
Our next keyboard review will be one with another 60% layout, and I actually found it to be slightly more usable simply due to having an extra Fn key on the left side, and an extra set of arrows on the right under the function layer. If that sounds interesting to you, be sure to subscribe and watch for that!
Otherwise, if you can deal with having a lot of functions hidden under an extra layer that requires holding an extra key, of which there is only one, then by all means the KBC Poker II is a solid 60% keyboard.