review: TEX Beetle

This is my first time posting a review, so I'm not sure yet what information will be of most use. That said, here are my impressions of the TEX Beetle keyboard, along with some photos. Hopefully people will find this information helpful. Please don't hesitate to get in touch if there's something else you'd like to know!
(also posted at http://geekhack.org/index.php?topic=46342.0)

-- Background and use case --

The TEX Beetle is my second-ever foray into the world of mechanical keyboards. My first mechanical keyboard was a KBC Poker that I borrowed from my friend Jesse for a few months. At that point my primary motivation had nothing to do with the feel of the keyboard - I was simply looking for a *small* keyboard to carry around, and he suggested I try out a tenkeyless to see if I liked it. I enjoyed the feel of mechanical keys so much that I now use a tenkeyless mechanical keyboard as my primary keyboard even when I'm docked into an external monitor. I've now returned the Poker to Jesse and swapped it out for this TEX beetle of his that I'll be borrowing for a few more weeks until the one I ordered shows up.

To tell a bit more about my use case, most of my computer use is coding and writing, not gaming. I have a single X-series laptop that I use for everything. At home and at work I plug it into an external monitor. I also like to work in libaries and coffee shops, and while traveling on trains and planes. When I'm away from the office I use a laptop stand and collapsible mouse in addition to the external keyboard, to ensure a neck-strain-happy setup:

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-- Layout --

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A few notes about the layout of the TEX beetle.

- The mini-USB port is in the top left.

- The arrow keys are normal-sized, and accessible without doing anything special. I really appreciate this because I use the arrow keys a lot when I'm coding in an environment other than an emacs buffer (like when I'm writing MATLAB). You can see they're actually even larger than the arrow keys on a Lenovo X-series laptop.

- The top-left key is escape, not tilde. Tilde is to the right of the up-arrow.

- Some keys are accessible using the X-shaped function key:
- Pg Up and Pg Dn live under O and L. I find this to be a very accessible place for them: I can press the X key with my thumb and access them easily. Home, end, and so on are all in the same neighborhood.
- Delete lives under Backspace. This is also intuitive and accessible.

- The right-shift is tiny. Fortunately this doesn't bother me: the KBC Poker had forced me to adapt to left shift, because on that layout right shift doubled as the up-arrow. But if I try to use right shift on the TEX beetle, I end up hitting the question mark key most of the time.

- If you want to change anything about the layout, like switching caps lock and control, you can use the function keys to toggle swaps L1 through L7, as shown in a diagram on the bottom of the keyboard. A series of lights indicates the currently active mapping.

Image

-- Shape, size, appearance --

There's nothing unexpected about the outward shape, size, or appearance of this keyboard, so I'll just provide a few pictures to give you a sense of what it looks like:

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This picture should give you an idea of the keyboard's size keyboard relative to my hand.

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Here's a shot of the shaping/angle of the keys.

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And here's the printing on the keys, to give a sense of the font.

-- Construction --

My first observation about this keyboard was that it feels very durably built. The metal frame has quite a bit of heft to it. Also, you can see in these photographs that the keyswitches are not attached directly to the circuitboard, but instead are mounted on the frame. This is in contrast to the Poker, which has the keyswitches directly attached to the cirbuitboard.

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Image

Mounting the keyswitches on the frame instead of the circuitboard has a number of effects, all of which I really appreciate. First of all, the frame does not have any "give", whereas a circuitboard is bendy. As a result, with the TEX Beetle (as contrasted with the Poker) it feels like the keys have less travel and take less force to press. With the Poker, the springiness of the circuitboard actually did add some additional travel distance.

The reduced springiness also makes it feel more like my fingers are "floating" on the keys, psychologically speaking. It's easier for me to pay attention to not bottoming out and not clacking hard on the keys, which gives the appearance at least of being less tiring on my hands (I'm not sure whether it makes an actual physiological difference, but it feels more pleasant!)

Finally, and very importantly, this keyboard is *quieter*. I think that's a a joint function of the construction itself and the reduced desire to clack obnoxiously on the keys. The one potential downside is that this keyboard is heavier than the KBC Poker normally is. That said, the Poker I was borrowing from Jesse was one he had augmented with additional weight to make it feel heftier and slide around less. The additional weight in the TEX Beetle certainly makes it feel solid and stable, even if it makes it more annoying to carry around in my backpack.

-- Verdict --

Good enough to spend money on - I have ordered one of my own!

Pros: Well-constructed, quiet, function keys and arrow keys are easy to access, layout is easy to change. Good feel - very "solid".

Cons: Right shift is small, frame is heavy.
catherio

Unread post29 Jul 2013, 19:28

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Thanks for an excellent review. I have had the Tex Beetle in my sights for some time, as I am looking for a 60%-size keyboard, preferably with dedicated arrow keys, a highly intuitive Fn layer, excellent build quality, and easily replaceable keycaps.

Thus far, I have found that the Leopold FC660M comes closest to meeting these criteria. My only quibble with the Leopold is that its layout, while eminently practical, is not as aesthetic or symmetrical as a purely 60% or a fully tenkeyless board.

Therefore, my search continues. With these criteria in mind, what are your views on the relative merits of the Tex Beetle, Poker II, Pure Pro, Leopold FC660M (Cherry switches) or FC660C (Topre switches), Filco Minila, HHKB Pro 2, or others in the ~60% category?
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Unread post29 Jul 2013, 22:11

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Based on your positive review along with others I have seen on Deskthority and GH, I went ahead and purchased the Beetle from Mechanicalkeyboards.com. Moreover, because of the somewhat non-standard layout of the Beetle, I also ordered the Poker II, which has a standard layout but lacks dedicated arrow keys. Cherry blues were requested for both boards.

The keyboards arrived yesterday, and I posted my first impressions of them on GH. Currently, I favor the Beetle over the Poker II because of the excellent build quality and good looks of the Beetle along with its dedicated arrow keys. However, I find that the small right shift key slows me down. To help me find the right shift, I have temporarily replaced its keycap with a bright red S-key from a WASD set.

Today I have been switching back and forth between the two boards, trying to decide which one feels more natural for typing. I modified the Poker II by adding two self-adhesive vinyl bumpers (3/4-inch wide and 5/16-inch hight) to the bottom rear of the case to elevate the angle to the same slope as my IBM SSK and Leopold FC660M. The built-in extensible legs on the Beetle provide a slope that is slightly less than that on my other boards; I might adjust this by adding some adhesive rubber strips to the non-rubberized legs on the Beetle.

In any event, thus far I am finding that the Beetle feels more natural to me while typing. It appears that the lack of dedicated arrow keys on the Poker II presents more of a problem for me than does the small right shift on the Beetle.

Among the many things I enjoy about the Beetle is the small spacebar. It still provides ample room for both thumbs, but its smaller width enables it to have a snappier response and to produce less rattle than longer spacebars with correspondingly longer stabilizers. The smaller spacebar begs the question, "Might it be possible to make short spacebars out of PBT instead of ABS?" Perhaps a better way to phrase the question is, "How short must a spacebar be in order to make it out of PBT instead of ABS?"

Although the Beetle is my current favorite between the two 60% models, I like both boards for different reasons. I am already looking forward to customizing the Poker II with an aluminum case and new keycaps, both of which are relatively easy to find for this standard layout board. At present, I am satisfied with the case and keycaps on the Beetle, although I look forward to seeing doubleshot ABS and/or dye-sub PBT keycaps becoming available for it in the future.
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Unread post04 Aug 2013, 23:08

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The Beetle's switches are "plate mounted". That's the name for their attachment to a metal plate, which takes the force, instead of the PCB. Most people much prefer plate mounted switches. (Especially those of us who build our own keyboards and don't even have a PCB.)

The Beetle has "non-standard stagger". (Similar to the Filco Minila.) Look at the straight line from Q to A to Z and then compare with the Poker and any other keyboard to hand. Staggering is one of those things where there's not so much as a right and a wrong way to do it, as there is just a common one. It's like QWERTY itself. Adjusting to a non standard stagger can be really annoying.

I like the Beetle's (and the Minila's) short space bar. I'm used a 5 unit space bar ("unit" just means how many small keys wide it is) and I've experimented with 2 units fairly effectively. Less is most definitely more! For some of us anyway. More room for mods (like Alt, Option, Windows, Command etc. etc.) within easy thumb's reach.

RJ's question about PBT space bars is one for the manufacturers. As far as I know, there is no problem with making PBT into 6 units, 6.25 (the most common size), 7 or beyond. They need the appropriate mold; and the cost effectiveness of making those is the actual problem. So many more people use ABS caps than PBT. And all you need is one mold to make all the single unit keys on a keyboard. The space bar, meanwhile, demands one of its own. The minority inside a minority. So ABS space bars for you!

From what I know, PBT caps of around 2 units (like ANSI shift and return) are more common. That's probably the space bar to answer your question. You can always use two of course. I have ideas for that!
Muirium
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Unread post04 Aug 2013, 23:37

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Jasker Muir
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Mu, regarding my comments and questions about spacebars, my understanding is that spacebars on most keycap sets are made of ABS rather than PBT because of the lower shrinkage properties of ABS compared to PBT; shrinkage is more of a problem with a long structure like the spacebar, and so most spacebars are made of ABS. I have also heard that one exception to this is the IBM Model M and IBM SSK -- it is my understanding that on these keyboards, all the keycaps, including the spacebar, are made of PBT. Perhaps someone reading this could provide documentation for a definitive answer to this question.
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Unread post04 Aug 2013, 23:59

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I love the PBT caps on my IBMs. The absolutely massive space bar on my 1985 XT — it's very almost 10 units wide — is indeed wrinkly, and I gather this is fairly common on such old boards. Wouldn't surprise me at all if it's either PBT done bad in the first place or just wrinkled over time. I don't think it's ABS because it's the same nice light colour as the rest of the keys. ABS space bars are notorious for being the yellow "mouth" at the bottom of an otherwise still nice and white PBT keyboard!

Plastic manufacturing has come on a way in the last 30 years. Doubleshot PBT is rare but no longer impossible. From what I understand, making doubleshots requires a tighter tolerance for shrinkage than simple whole body caps of any desirable size. In other words: I think PBT spacebars are within reach, if only manufacturers could be coaxed into spending the up front costs required to make them.

But more knowledgeable minds in plastics could surely fill in a lot of the holes in my suppositions with actual facts! I'm just passing along what I've heard.
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Unread post05 Aug 2013, 00:25

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Jasker Muir
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Mu, This reminds me of the famous quote from the 1967 film, The Graduate, in which the character Mr. McGuire says to Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman), "I want to say one word to you. Just one word. ... Plastics."

Certainly, the world, the enterprise, the industry of plastics looms large in our little universe of keyboards and keycaps, and there are many subtleties and technical arcana to be discovered and mastered.
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Unread post05 Aug 2013, 01:22

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Thanks Muirium for the advice with some of these subtleties I missed and helping catch me up with terminology! Very helpful =)

rjrich, sorry I could not provide more compare/contrast detail - glad to be useful anyway, thanks for adding your own notes and observations!
catherio

Unread post06 Aug 2013, 04:21

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