TEX Shinobi or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Something Cherry MX-Shaped

User avatar
bhtooefr

15 May 2020, 13:41

Some of the older members here probably remember that I used to be extremely active, but haven't seen me post much for quite a long time.

That's, ultimately, because I didn't think the features I wanted in a high-end keyboard - three-button TrackPoint, wireless, and either Alps or buckling spring switches - were going to happen in one keyboard, and I had settled on the ThinkPad Compact Bluetooth Keyboard with TrackPoint. In fact, as I moved away from a laptop to a desktop as my primary computer, that keyboard became my daily driver, and I gradually faded away from this community. It wasn't from a lack of desire for a good mechanical keyboard, but it was because, as far as I was aware, my search was over, I had the closest thing I could get to what I wanted. I wasn't satisfied, but it was good enough.

I'd keep tabs on things every now and then, but... nothing popped out at me as interesting enough.

I had previously registered interest in the Model F recreations, but realized that they weren't suited to how I used computers any more.

I saw the TEX Yoda, but I deeply dislike Cherry MX switches (I'll use good domes over a Cherry MX), want a bigger layout than 60% (basically I wanted almost exactly the 2006-2009 ThinkPad 7-row layout), and not having wireless makes things awkward for me.

The TEX Kodachi was a better layout (although hiding F12 in the Fn layer is a galaxy brain move), but still Cherry MX and no wireless.

Then, the TEX Shinobi, while moving to the 2010-2012 ThinkPad 7-row layout, more accurately represented that layout, and added a BLE module.

...but it still had Cherry MX switches, so I didn't pay much attention to it.

...until someone in a motorsports Discord guild mentioned the Kailh BOX Thick Clicks. And then I watched Chyros's review of the BOX Navies... and when he compared the force curve to Alps SKCM Amber, one of my two favorite switches, the gears started turning. A Cherry MX compatible switch that feels like SKCM Amber? And there's a version with a lighter spring (I am all about light springs and epic tactility), the BOX Jade? You have my attention.

I immediately preordered a Shinobi DIY kit without switches in US layout, with the BLE module, and bought 100 BOX Jades, in August.

Yesterday evening, it arrived, and I put it together.
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So, this is really going to be two reviews in one - the first is of the BOX Jades, the second is of the rest of the keyboard.

The BOX Jades
Chyros wrote:And it really shows, too, because jeez, these things are tactile as all fuck. And that's exactly what I was hoping to get out of this click bar idea, too, so yeah, see, now we're cooking with gas, now we're getting somewhere.
Basically what he said. That's all that really needs to be said. But I'm gonna say some more anyway.

I've been talking for quite a while about how my ideal switch has relatively low preload, but epic amounts of tacility. There's two ways to get there that I'm aware of. Given that my favorite computer keyswitches are Alps SKCM Amber and capacitive buckling spring, let's detail those.

Alps SKCM Amber, or to a greater extent, the IBM Selectric, use a relatively light linear spring to support the key (Alps uses a coil spring under a slider, the Selectric supports the arm the key rests on on a leaf spring), but there's some sort of tactile element that you have to push through. In both of these switches, this is implemented in a way that gives what I'd call a "thick" or "meaty" tactile event - the force rises, stays risen, and then you either push through and the force falls again (with SKCM Amber), or actuate the switch causing a camshaft to knock the interposer out from under the keylever (with IBM Selectric, and I love that feeling of suddenly being in near freefall when the switch actuates).

Capacitive buckling spring has a relatively modest preload on the buckling spring itself, and initial travel is light compared to most membrane buckling spring keyboards. The force rises fairly linearly up to the point at which the spring catastrophically buckles, causing force to drop and the switch to actuate. It's not "meaty", but it's good.

BOX Jades go for the former approach. And, Alps switches - even complicated Alps - have a bit of "noisiness" in their tactility due to how their leaves work, whereas these things feel much smoother. Get through the light initial travel (to be fair, there's not much), then push into and through the click bar, and these things feel amazing.

If I try, I can get some of these to actuate just before getting through the click bar, as well as holding it just before the click bar returns in the hysteresis. Not too much of a concern, though.

Granted, I've had this keyboard fully assembled for under 12 hours, most of which I've spent sleeping, but holy crap these are good.

And honestly, the noise doesn't bother me much. Yeah, it's high pitched, but it's fine, I've used Alps SKBM Whites with thin ABS caps, I know what annoyingly loud is.

You came here to read a keyboard review, let's review the actual keyboard

OK, so, yeah, let's.

Assembly

Assembly was fairly straight forward, although the assembly guide wasn't included with DIY keyboards (it's hiding on their blog), and it would've been helpful to have read it before I had to remove the TrackPoint to install the G, H, and B switches (I disassembled something I didn't need to). Pop the switches in, solder the switches down (while holding the TrackPoint cable out of the way - I disconnected the TrackPoint module from the keyboard PCB to be safe), solder the LED in, cut its leads, test it, screw it together, install the BLE module, and done.

I'll cover the extra stuff included with the keyboard here, as most of it is relevant during assembly - two extra screws, a total of six o-rings for the mouse buttons, an extra mouse keyswitch (MX Low Profile Red, more on that later in the review), an extra TrackPoint cap (both are Soft Dome, sorry Classic Dome and Soft Rim enthusiasts), an extra Caps Lock LED, and a bunch of extra keycaps - both blue and black Enter, several Command and Option keys if you want to build it up as a Mac keyboard, and an extra Fn and Ctrl of different sizes so you can reverse them.

The TrackPoint

This thing is half of the uniqueness of this keyboard, so how does the TrackPoint feel? Just like a genuine IBM TrackPoint IV, complete with negative inertia. (AFAIK the module they're using has either actual IBM firmware, or something licensed from IBM, so, well, yeah, it should.) Ironically, I'm having to get used to this, as the Lenovo keyboard I've been using isn't a genuine IBM TrackPoint, and doesn't have it, and the Dell devices I support in my day job of course don't have negative inertia either.

Unlike old TrackPoint IVs, this doesn't use a TrackPoint driver, though, which has some advantages and disadvantages.

TrackPoint sensitivity adjustment is done through the keyboard by default - Fn plus a number from 1 through 9 adjusts the sensitivity. There's a delay in which the TrackPoint module itself is reset, which I know real PS/2 TrackPoints don't have when the driver adjusts sensitivity, but whatever, it works.

Scrolling is handled by the keyboard, not by drivers on the host. The keyboard can be configured through DIP switches, and one of the configuration options is to enable middle clicking in addition to middle-drag scrolling - something ThinkPad users in X11-style environments have enjoyed for a long time, but something that's extremely uncommon on other platforms. Unfortunately, horizontal scrolling doesn't appear to be working for me on Windows 10, even though the Mouse control panel does show the option for how far to scroll when rocking the wheel, or Android. I'm suspecting either a firmware bug or a configuration issue. Vertical scrolling works well, however.

The buttons, though... ugh. I was expecting my problem to be that the buttons were keycaps, and honestly, that's perfectly fine. The real problem is that the switches are linears. I need tactility on my mouse buttons, even if it's soft. I did install the O-rings, and I feel like it'd be even worse without them. The feel is better with the O-rings doubled up, but then actuation is unreliable. (MX Low Profile Speed switches might work better with doubled O-rings?) I also tried shoving a buckling rubber sleeve out of an old ThinkPad's IBM Model M6-1 into one of the mouse buttons, and it was too large to work properly.

The keycaps

The profile is excellent, I'm all about sphericals. (Although, on certain keys, it's hard to tell which way is up, because it's almost but not quite vertically symmetrical.)

They're ABS, and moderate weight - I'm even fine with light ABS, but I'd prefer heavy, and PBT is of course better... but they're pad printed. I wish they were lasered... (Edit: Now that I've used them more, they're behaving much more like lasered, with printing on some keys either fading or staining. So the problem on F10 may be misaligned lasering or something.)

And, one of the keys (F10) has defective pad printing. It doesn't really bother me that much, but it's there.

The rest of the keyboard itself

The gripes: the stabilizers (especially on Enter) are rattly, the case honestly feels a touch cheap even though it's decently thick, somehow - the palmrest area makes the sound that cheap textured ABS makes when you move your hand across it - and the Caps Lock/pairing LED is white (come on, this is supposed to be a ThinkPad keyboard, green is traditional for ThinkPad Caps Lock). I could do without the huge palmrest, too.

The web configurator to program the keyboard is decent, although I don't use macros, so I can't speak to how well that works. Programming the keyboard consists of turning on DIP switch 6 to enable the USB drive, turning the BLE module (if installed) off and unplugging it from USB, replugging it to USB, saving the file from the web configurator to the emulated USB drive, and then unplugging and turning off DIP switch 6. I took advantage of the programmability to make the browser forward/back buttons be Page Up/Down, just like those keys on modern ThinkPads. (That's a remapping I do in software on actual old ThinkPads.)

The plate makes the keyboard rather heavy.

The BLE module

It supports pairing to up to three devices, as well as switching between those devices and a connected USB host. It's fairly unobtrusive on the back. It takes two AAs. It seems to just work. What more do you want? (OK, I could use a USB HID wireless dongle, but that's because one of my devices doesn't have Bluetooth support, but that's incredibly niche.)

Conclusions

If you like meaty tactility with light preload, buy Kailh BOX Jades.

If you like TrackPoints, compact but not 60/65% layouts, and mechanical keyboards, buy this keyboard. If you want wireless, buy the BLE module.
Last edited by bhtooefr on 22 May 2020, 14:30, edited 1 time in total.

User avatar
Muirium
µ

15 May 2020, 14:41

Nice, opinionated review! The Box Jades sound a whole lot more appealing to me than the keyboard. And linear mouse buttons? Sacrilege! Unlike you I even like linear keyboards, but mice buttons gotta *click*. It’s there in the action name!

Where’s a good source for a loose variety selection of these Box switches for pure curiosity’s sake? I haven’t any builds lined up, but I would like to see what they’re up to. Something to add to my big box of vintage switches, including the Alps original.

User avatar
bhtooefr

15 May 2020, 14:58

I think to get it from NovelKeys you'd have to get both the Standard and Custom sample packs, and you'd get a bunch of more straight MX clone stuff you don't need too, and you wouldn't get the Crystal (slightly heavier) switches either: https://novelkeys.xyz/collections/switc ... ample-pack

You could also probably get their switch tester, although it's out of stock.

(Also note that the Hako switches they sell are Input Club's take on Kailh BOX, too, and would be needed for the complete collection.)

There are apparently other sources of Kailh Box switch testers that include the Thick Clicks, but I have no idea how reputable they are.

User avatar
Muirium
µ

15 May 2020, 16:26

I’m asking as much in hope of someone here offering up a selection of their own spares! I know what we’re like!

I also haven’t tried Zealios. Just know the ancient MX clones and some first gen Gaterons.

User avatar
bhtooefr

15 May 2020, 17:38

Yeah, whereas I skipped all of the various enhanced MX clones designs because... IIRC they were mostly trying to be smoother linears? Whereas I'd rather use rubber domes than linears. (As evidenced by my attempts to actually put a rubber dome of sorts around the linear mouse switches on this board.)

User avatar
zrrion

15 May 2020, 18:27

I'm pretty sure cherry makes a tactile (well, insofar as you would call browns tactile) version of those lo profile switches that you could swap the mouse buttons for which would improve them somewhat. There also exist low profile clickbar switches but I do not know if they are compatible with cherry low profile switches and I know for sure that they do not have the same keycaps.

User avatar
bhtooefr

15 May 2020, 18:59

AFAICT, MX Low Profile only exists in Red and Silver, and has a proprietary pinout so you can't replace it with anything else.

User avatar
webwit
Wild Duck

15 May 2020, 23:15

Hey now.

Findecanor

16 May 2020, 04:47

When the MX Low Profile was announced, Cherry did talk about tactile and clicky variants coming later on, but nobody outside Cherry has ever seen any (if they even exist).

Kailh Choc shares a switch pin in the same position as MX Low Profile. To fit a switch, you would have to drill and wire the other one. Then maybe drill more for fixing pins and perhaps a fourth for a click bar. That is, provided that no trace on the PCB intersects. Instead of fixing pins, perhaps make a small three-switch plate? The plate hole is the same as for MX but at a different elevation from the PCB.
If the switches had been plate-mounted, the announced Kailh Choc V2 would have fit even better: it has the same plate-mount elevation as MX Low Profile and no fixing pins, reducing the number of drill holes to just that switch pin that differs.

User avatar
bhtooefr

16 May 2020, 10:59

Hmm, maybe I can somehow add material to a MX Low Profile Red's slider to make a sort of... jury-rigged MX Low Profile Ergo Clear?

I'm guessing the sliders themselves are ABS? Edit: Looks like some type of POM is what Cherry uses. Still a thermoplastic, but it'll need hotter. Hmm.

User avatar
bhtooefr

21 May 2020, 16:12

So one update: battery life is dreadful. Like 3-4 days in my usage pattern dreadful. (I get like 2-3 weeks out of a charge on a ThinkPad Compact Bluetooth Keyboard in the same usage pattern.)

However, not a huge deal to just slam another couple Eneloops in, and throw the old ones on the charger.

The TrackPoint can also be a bit balky about coming out of sleep, but it seems like a few Fn presses wakes it up.

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