Vortex Race 3 Mechanical Keyboard Review

I love a good keyboard. I’m a software developer, and, if you’re reading this, you’ve surely figured it out by now, I’m a writer as well. I spend a lot of time typing. I own two different mechanical keyboards, and have a third one at work, each one completely different, and each one worth the admittedly higher price of a mechanical keyboard, by far. If you’re a professional, you use the best equipment. You won’t see a professional race car driver daily driving a 1999 Honda Odysey minivan. You won’t find a DJ spinning tracks with a Zune and some cheap included earbuds. A calligrapher isn’t going to be caught dead with a cheap plastic Bic. A world renown sushi cheff won’t waste their time with plastic butter knives. If you spend any time on a keyboard, you shouldn’t let yourself get caught dead with some lousy membrane or chicklet style keyboard. You’ve got to grace your fingers with a sweet, comfortable, repetitive stress injury-dodging, clicky, glorious mechanical keyboard. This is how the gods wanted you to type. I type this from my latest keyboard purchase (not counting the sweet translucent DSA keycaps I just bought for a future build) is the Vortex Race 3 mechanical keyboard. It’s a 75% keyboard, which means it doesn’t have a number pad, and condenses the Home, Page Up, Page Down, End, and arrow keys into the standard alphanumeric keys, modifiers, and F keys that you’ve become accustom to. It’s a great way to get the standard keyboard experience in a more compact package, leaving you more space on your desk and requiring you to move your hand less to reach your mouse or trackpad. You can get it in a variety of switches, all Cherry MX. Vortex has the Blues, Reds, Browns, Silvers, Blacks, and even Clears (the one I got) available for this keyboard. If none of that made sense to you, check out Lifehacker’s writeup of some of the most popular key switches from Cherry. Basically put, each key switch has a different sound and feel. and this keyboard has some of the most popular options.

The Vortex Race 3 is my favorite keyboard, yet it’s not without an extremely long list of flaws. It’s a conflicted board, to be sure, but why that is, you’ll have to read below.

 

Pros Cons
Gorgeous keyboard with old-school charm No macOS firmware updater, but macOS support and keys
Amazing typing feel Strange size for Escape and Delete keys, making customization tricky
Solid construction Key caps tight on the switches, hard to swap out key caps
Fantastic key caps Hard to find documentation and instructions

Read MUCH more about this intriguing keyboard below!

The Form Factor

The Vortex Race 3 on top and my CM Crossfire on the bottom. Top keyboard is a 75% keyboard, bottom is a tenkeyless keyboard.

This is a 75% keyboard. There are a few different common keyboard form factors. There’s the full size keyboard, which includes every alphanumeric key, a number pad, function, navigation, and modifier keys. These take up a lot of desk space, but there’s a dedicated key for nearly anything you’d want to do. Then there’s the “tenkeyless” boards. These miss out on the function keys over the number pad, as well as the number pad itself. Next, is the 75% board, this style. It condenses the navigation keys and drops a few more function keys. The end result is a much more compact keyboard with most of the same functionality of a tenkeyless in the keys. Then there are 60% and 40% keyboards. These ditch the navigation keys in the 60%, and both the navigation and function keys in the 40%. There are even smaller, 30% boards as well, which drop modifier keys and shrink the spacebar down to the size of a normal key. How do people use these keyboards? There are function layers. For example, you know you need to push the shift and the 1 key for an exclamation point, right? Well, on a smaller, say 40% keyboard, you might create another function layer or use modifier keys. You’d press the Fn key and the 1 key to get the F1 key, for example. You can also program alternative layers, so each key will do something else, think of it like caps lock, it switches the functionality of each key, and leaves it like that until you go back to the default layer. This can be useful to make the standard keys a number pad, for example. In fact, I did just that, I customized one of my key layers to turn some of my letter keys into a numberpad. This is all done through the keyboard firmware (explained later).

So how do I like the 75% board? I love it. It’s more compact, fits on my desk (and in a few of my purses) easier, and, thanks to the easy layer reprogramming in this key’s firmware, with just a few quick keystrokes, I’ve got more keys than a standard full-size keyboard. Everything is in reach, the keys are full sized, and I never feel as though my hands are cramped. In fact, for people looking to get a more compact keyboard without sacrificing any comfort or completely retraining their muscle memory, I’d say it’s the perfect size.

Save some space and look great.

That’s not to say there won’t be some learning curve. My arrow keys are now located under my enter key and shift key. My navigation, Home, Page Up, Page Down, and End keys are now right next to the rest of my keys, though I’ve not once accidentally hit one. My delete key is now right above my Backspace key, on the corner of the keyboard, which is the absolute perfect place for that key. I don’t even accidentally hit the Pn key (used for programming the keyboard to do different things), because it’s exactly where I’d want it. There’s always a chance that the 75% size is just a pit stop on my way down to a 30% keyboard, and I’m sure I’ll get a 30% keyboard someday for travel, but right now, I can easily recommend the 75% keyboard to anyone, it’s fantastic and easy to learn to use.

The Key Switches

As you press down, the plastic part of the switch moves out of the way, allowing the metal to make contact. The plastic switch also has a bump on it, which you can feel when you type.

Cherry MX Clears are a sought after switch. That’s because they’re quiet, like the Cherry MX Browns, but they also require a bit more force to push, due to heavier springs in the switch itself. This makes the switches more tactile, and helps prevent bottoming out, which is when a key is pressed all the way down into the metal plate below, making a slapping noise. This keyboard is, by far, my quietest mechanical keyboard I own, thanks to the fact that I don’t bottom out as much. On top of that, the tactile bump on the Clear switches is much more pronounced than it is on the Browns. This leads to faster typing, if only by a few milliseconds per key, but in thousands upon thousands of daily keystrokes, that adds up. The typing feel is what’s most important though, it’s pure typing bliss. Each key is firm, yet tactile. It’s almost like the keys on a piano. You can tell when it’s gone far enough to send the hammer down to strike the strings, but you can also press it just a bit further to hold it down. A good piano is a joy to play, and a good keyboard is no different. This is a good keyboard. The Cherry MX Blue switches are supposed to be the best typist keyswitches, but this keyboard has me considering Clears instead. I have a board with Blues, and I just installed some lovely DSA profile keycaps on it (more on that below too), yet I still prefer the amazing typing feel of this keyboard thanks in part to those key switches, and also to the form factor and smooth keycaps.

The Key Caps

Colorful alternative keycaps included with the keyboard.

When you put your fingers on a keyboard, you’re not touching the key switches. You touch the key caps. And Vortex put some amazing key caps on this keyboard. They’re DSA profile, dye sub lettering, made of PBT plastic. Keyboard fanatics are already going nuts from that description, but what it means is that each keycap is the same height, making the keyboard lay flat. The keycaps are a thick, durable plastic that isn’t going to shine or wear out over time. The lettering won’t be worn off as you use it over the years either. Each key is perfectly curved in the middle to cradle your fingers. The ‘F’ and ‘J’ keys have slightly deeper indents, so you can easily find your place on the home row of your keyboard. The keys have a smooth texture, and a solid sound when you type on them. The only thing I’ll say about them is I’m not a huge fan of the font. I know, it’s picky, I know, but these kind of keycaps have a retro look, and the font is a bit too modern, especially in comparison to my other keycap sets. Also, on the number keys, the numbers get a little too close to the edge of the keys. These are nitpicks, the keys themselves are excellent. Besides, on a mechanical keyboard, you can easily replace the keycaps with anything you’d like. That’s why my CM Storm has a brand new set of DSA profile keycaps now too (and I like the font/printing on those better, but the texture on these more). Still, the solid keycaps add to the quality of this keyboard. A full set of these keycaps alone would come close to the full price of the keyboard, that’s how good they are. I don’t know how Vortex can afford to sell this keyboard for under $200.

Typing on it

Typing on a keyboard like this is a bit different. They layout, the key switches, the keycaps, the aluminum frame, it’s all an experience, more than the sum of its parts. I’ll admit, at first, the clear switches were a bit stiff, but they loosened up in a day or two. If you’ve got a heavy hand, you’ll want a keyboard with stiffer springs, like a Cherry MX Black, Green, or Clear switch. I happen to aggressively attack my keyboard, and frequently bottom out on my keyboards with Blue and Brown switches, so these switches are just right for me. However, if you don’t have strong fingers, you’re going to prefer a switch that’s lighter, like the Reds, Blues, or Browns, otherwise your fingers are going to feel worn out. I haven’t felt fatigue with these yet, although I can tell the typing takes a bit more force than I’m used to, and that someone who doesn’t prefer to mash a keyboard with their fingers might. I like it though, it sets this keyboard apart.

Firmware and Software

You know keyboards have firmware, right? That’s low-level software made to interact directly with hardware, in this case, the keyboard. The firmware is set on the keyboard, and preserves your custom settings. Your phone, computer, every electronic you use, has firmware. The firmware of this keyboard allows it to quickly switch between Windows, macOS, and Linux modes with the press of two keys. It allows users to quickly switch between QWERTY, Dvorak, and Colemak layouts. It even allows you to assign macros and shortcuts to keys, on three different layers, so you can completely customize not only how your keyboard looks, but also how it works. The firmware this comes with has some pretty cool features, and would definitely be useful for enthusiasts.

However, the firmware and software this keyboard uses isn’t perfect. Out of the box, it required an update to enable the right commands to be entered to switch modes. This had to be installed on Windows, as Vortex doesn’t have a firmware updater for macOS or Linux. Fortunately, my old MacBook has a partition with Windows 7, so I was able to update. Some won’t be that lucky. I spoke with the manufacturer of the keyboard and was told that an update to bring the firmware updater to macOS, along with some tweaks to the firmware to make it better for macOS, would be coming in the next few months, around the same time they’ll be releasing an RGB LED version of this keyboard, I’d guess. The macOS layout needed me to modify a custom layer to make the right Command key operate as the left command key, because it was stuck as an alternate key (even though the right command key is included in the box). Also, the Winlock key prevents the Command key from working, even in Mac mode, instead of being useful for anything else. It feels like the macOS mode was cobbled together, and not used by a Mac user.

The Windows updater and the two PDF instruction guides you’ll need.

On top of that, once I did get the firmware installed, I found that I needed to use two PDF instruction booklets from Vortex’s website to set everything up. And, in fact, the one PDF (instructions for another keyboard) didn’t actually work with this keyboard. I ended up finding the way to switch custom layers (Fn + Shift, then release) by chance, after a few frustrating minutes. This was not easy to set up. I had to use Windows (which I hate), then I had to read two PDFs, one of which had either out of date or incorrect instructions, then I had to figure out how to customize the keyboard, and then I had to actually customize the keyboard to make a truly Mac mode for it. It wasn’t too difficult, and I didn’t mind it too much, but anyone who’s not a techie would have likely given up. I think the payoff’s worth it, but if technology really doesn’t make much sense to you, this might not be the mechanical keyboard for you, at least until the macOS firmware updater and updated firmware is released in the next few months. Keep an eye on Vortex’s Facebook page or the r/mechanicalkeyboards subreddit for information, if you’re interested in this keyboard but want to hold out for a less tricky setup.

Other Special Features

The keycaps that were originally on the keyboard, a few extras, and the aluminum feet Vortex includes.

This keyboard came with a set of colorful modifier keys, a keycap puller, and it came in a beautiful box. It’s made of aluminum, has colorful LED indicators under the spacebar, is programmable, and uses a detachable micro USB cable, instead of mini USB. It’s heavy and well built. Included in the box are two pairs of aluminum feet that can be screwed into the bottom of the keyboard, if you prefer the back of your keyboard to be higher than the front. However, believe it or not, that’s actually poor ergonomics. The only reason keyboards ever did that was so people could look at the keys, or get used to it if they were coming from a typewriter. It’s just going to make you strain your wrists. If anything, it should tilt downward slightly. This keyboard is so high-end, so good looking, and such a joy to type on that I want to bring it with me to and from work every day, instead of leaving it in the office. In fact, I have taken it home from the office once, just once, and it was so I could type this entire review on the keyboard I was reviewing.

The Glaring (and Minor) Flaws

The escape key is, strangely, shaped different than the other keys.

If you customize your keyboard, you might not like to see that the Delete key and the Escape keys are shaped differently than the other keys. They’re 1.5 the length of normal Escape and Delete keys. That means, if you buy replacement key caps, they’re not going to fit right on the board, you’re going to have to find custom keys, or be ok with there being space around them with normal key caps. Speaking of replacement key caps, these key caps are stuck on the switch stems more than any keyboard I’ve ever used. Pulling keys off my other keyboards is a breeze, but these keycaps are jammed on the switches, nearly impossible to pull off. I had one switch break as I was pulling the key cap off, and I couldn’t repair it myself, it’s completely ruined, and the seller would not do an exchange. I’ll have to desolder the switch, put a new one one, and solder it to the PCB board if I want to fix it. Fortunately, it was the caps lock key, which I couldn’t care less about, however, I could have made it a modifier key for a different function. Now it does nothing, all because some of these keycaps are virtually glued on these key switches. If you’re taking them off, be very cautious, don’t pull too hard. If a switch isn’t coming off, either leave it or put a think piece of metal (not a sharp piece) or tweezers under the key cap to hold the key switch on the board as you pull up with a key cap puller

Besides the firmware and software flaws I mentioned above, this keyboard just screams “enthusiast keyboard.” It just doesn’t feel like something that can be mainstream yet. Hopefully a few updates can fix that, but right now, I can’t recommend this to anyone but techies who love mechanical keyboards until Vortex issues a macOS firmware updater and better macOS firmware. Hell, I’d love some software that allows me to program it from my Mac, rather than through keypresses, and maybe reassign those LEDs. It would be cool to light up my space bar with a cycling rainbow of LED light. Vortex is making a RGB LED version of this keyboard, so if that sounds cool, you may want to hold off. On the other hand, I’ll be thinking about buying a second board when that comes out, and using those translucent keys I just ordered on it.

Conclusion and Rating

This keyboard is the best one I’ve ever typed on. I love they typing feel of this keyboard. I love how it feels to use this keyboard, and it’s replaced the Rosewill 9000V2 I was using at work. It’s certainly not a “plug and play” keyboard right now, it’s a keyboard for enthusiasts, people who love mechanical keyboards, people who love tech, and people who know what they’re doing. Hopefully that’ll change. If it does, I’d rate this 9/10, knocking off only one point for the strange size Escape and Delete keys. Once the firmware can be updated from a Mac, it would be nearly perfect. But right now, I can’t recommend this for a layperson, even though I think they’d really enjoy typing on such a magnificent keyboard, and proud to have such a unique piece of tech sitting on their desk. Vortex created some amazing hardware here, even with those silly Escape and Delete keys, I just wish they had the firmware, software, and documentation to back it up.

Rating (for now): 7/10

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