Today we’re looking at the KBT Race II, one of two keyboards we’ll be reviewing that were designed by hardcore mechanical keyboard enthusiast communities. Both are made by the mainland Chinese OEM manufacturer IKBC, and marketed by the Taiwanese group VortexGear. IKBC also makes keyboards for Deck, Ducky, and have some self-branded models like the Poker II which we’ll look at soon. Update: Our Poker II review has been published!
The KBT Race II was designed by the Taiwanese community KBTalking, which has a huge following of people devoted to mechanical keyboards and PC gaming. Just released this month, it is available at several specialist keyboard shops for about $130 USD. It is available with Cherry MX mechanical switches, in Red, Brown, or Blue. The version we’re using has MX Brown switches. The Race II supports up to 6-key rollover via USB, which isn’t especially great for gaming.
KBT Race II Review
What makes the KBT Race II unique is its layout. So far, all of the mechanical keyboards we have reviewed so far have been Tenkeyless or “80%” layouts. Another popular layout is the ultra small “60%” which does away with the F key row and navigation keys. The Race II fits in between these two, and is called a “75%” layout. It is smaller than a Tenkeyless, as it doesn’t have a dedicated row of Ins/Home/Page keys with the arrow keys below it.
Basically, this is for people who want a keyboard that is narrower than a standard TKL 80% board, but don’t want to give up the F key row or arrow keys. We’ll be looking at a 60% soon, and at that time we will talk about how troublesome it can be to give those keys up.
The KBT Race II comes in either black with white LEDs, or white with green LEDs. The white looks fantastic with the LEDs on or off, but as you can see above, the plastic base doesn’t quite match the key colour perfectly. In home lighting conditions (usually warm lighting) this isn’t likely to be noticed at all, but with cooler natural light, it stands out a bit.
The KBT Race II uses ABS keycaps, with laser etched prints on the top and the side of some keys. The font is Segoe UI, which gives it a clean modern look. Since it’s the official font for new Microsoft interfaces such as Windows 8, it should match up well with modern systems.
Because the KBT Race II uses some key sizes that are uncommon for certain functions, it will be difficult to put together a full custom keycap set for it. If you wanted to go full blank, you could do a full swap, but you will likely need to buy extra 1.5 size caps. If you want to just do a partial swap of either the alphanumerics or modifiers though, you will have to take care to make sure everything matches up.
The keycap surface is UV coated, and has a very smooth pleasant feel to it. If you prefer a grittier texture, you may not like this. The ABS plastic keycaps feel quite thin and light. This contributes to the unique typing feel this keyboard has – we’ll get to that later in the review.
The KBT Race II uses a removable USB-Mini port as its cable, with one port on the left side of the keyboard (as viewed while typing). While the included cable is very thick and durable, there is no stress protection on the port itself. If this keyboard is jarred or dropped while plugged in, I can see the port getting damaged. Luckily, it is a breeze to take apart, and even those with mediocre soldering skills would be able to repair it easily.
The bottom surface features a HUGE rubber footprint – this keyboard isn’t going anywhere. The dip switches have the following functions:
- Turn the Windows Key into another Fn key – This is WAY more useful than simply disabling it, and a great idea in my opinion.
- Swap Windows Key and Caps Lock – This is an interesting solution for those who like to have the Caps-Lock at the bottom left (old-school PC/AT style). However these people usually also like to have the CTRL key where the Caps-Lock is, so this is a unique design
- Fn+P becomes “Home” instead of “Print Screen”. This must have been a specific request by one of the designers…
- This enables the white LED behind the Caps-Lock, rather than just have it on (at full brightness) while Caps is engaged. When the Caps is engaged in this mode, a second green LED (at full brightness) is used.
This set of functions is actually pretty useful. I think that most people tend to leave dip switches alone, unless they have a specific need to switch the Caps and Ctrl keys, or to disable the Windows key. The Race II will have users tinkering with settings to find just the combination they like, and this is exactly what we look for in a hardcore mechanical keyboard like this.
The KBT Race II has 6 brightness levels, and the LED shines through clearly and evenly through almost all of them, depending on ambient light level. The LEDs can also be disabled completely, if you are using it in an environment where flashy backlit keys are going to get the wrong type of attention. You will notice that the larger keys like Enter and Backspace don’t light up perfectly evenly, but that isn’t uncommon with backlit keys with wider labels.
I found that the Fn layer labels on the front of the keys only light up legibly when the brightness is turned up very high (again, this depends on ambient light). There’s not much they can do about that, since Cherry MX switches can only have LEDs on one side or the other. If you want the main key labels to be on the top edge, the LED needs to be right behind it.
This brings up an issue with the number key row. They are designed with a standard “modified function above the number function” that any keyboard uses – 7 has an & above it, for example. However, since the LED is at the top, it’s the modified function that gets lit up rather than the actual number. So at lower brightnesses, your number row will look like !@#$% instead of 12345. We have seen other manufacturers modify their print layout to accommodate this, such as Razer putting the number above the modified, and Deck putting them beside each other.
Going with PCB mounted switches has its advantages and disadvantages. One major advantage is the ability to modify switches without having to remove them. This is most likely why KBTalking designed the Race II this way. Another advantage is weight savings – most people assume mechanical keyboards are all heavy and bulky, but that isn’t the case here. The Race II is a very small, portable board, and its light weight lends itself to that design quite well. Despite being bigger than its cousin, the 60% sized iKBC Poker II (which we’ll be reviewing later), the Race II is actually lighter.
The major disadvantage to PCB mounted switches can be typing feel and sound, which we’ll get to soon.
The tray of the KBT Race II is where I have some issues with the KBT Race II. As mentioned earlier, it isn’t quite the same white as the keycaps. Worse than this, the plastic material has a “cheap”, hollow feel to it. This is despite having no flex at all, and metallic mounting threads. I think it is just the plastic itself that gives it this feeling. This is, of course, purely subjective.
KBT Race II Key Sound
In my opinion, the combination of the keycap material, tray material, and the PCB mounting gives the Race II an unfavorable typing feel compared to other keyboards using the same switches. This is instantly noticeable when you compare it directly to MX Brown keyboards that use plate mounting – even more so when PBT keycaps are used. Below you will find our sample of the KBT Race II key sound, along with several others that you can compare it to. The first 3 use the same Cherry MX Brown switches, so are the most directly comparable.
Compare Typing Sound:
As you can see, even with the same switches, keyboards can sound and feel quite a bit different from each other. Something you probably can’t pick up on just by listening to them is how the keys feel. Compared to the Deck Francium and even the Poker II – both of which use Cherry MX Brown switches – the Race II isn’t nearly as much of a pleasure to type on.
I also noticed that the space bar is quite loud compared to the rest of the keys. This is pretty common with keyboards, but in this case, it is very noticeable during extended typing sessions.
KBT Race II Macro Programming
The KBT Race II has very robust macro capabilities, all of which are done on the board itself. Settings are saved on the keyboard, and a full second layer is available by using the “Toggle” function.
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).
I can’t directly compare the KBT Race II to its predecessor, so I’m not sure what kind of improvements or changes were made. I will say that if you are looking for a mechanical keyboard that is smaller than a standard 80% TKL but still has a row of F keys and arrow keys, it’s worthy of consideration. It is also a good choice for those who like to heavily modify their own keyboards. The Race II is absolutely meant to be taken apart and tinkered with (unique keycap layout notwithstanding). From custom keycaps, to customized Cherry MX switches, to a custom base tray and a custom programmed function layer, you can do a lot to make the Race II something that is completely unique from anyone else’s keyboard.
My main issue with the KBT Race II is typing feel. In its stock form, the combination of thin ABS keycaps, a hollow feeling base, and PCB switch mounting all lead to a typing feel that, while not entirely unpleasant, isn’t the same experience as typing on other keyboards using the same switches. The KBT Race II has a lot of things going for it, but typing feel isn’t one of them, in my opinion.
KBT Race II English Manual
If you bought a KBT Race II and it didn’t come with a manual, or if you just want to learn more about how it works, you can view it here.