I received my Clear switch Vortex Core today (ordered through Amazon--couldn't wait for the drop).
After setting it up and playing with it for several hours, I want to share my impression around programmability and usability since those seem to be area of high interest.
Quick summary: I'm pleasantly surprised with the usability of Vortex Core despite its limited programmability and quarks. I'm going to use this keyboard instead of Leopold 660M (my travel partner) when I travel light.
Little background, I use computer a lot, 3/4 of working hours writing code, browsing internet and reading/writing e-mails. I care a great deal about efficiency and ergonomics of input methods. My primary workhorses are TKL mechanical keyboards and 9-button mouse in both hands.
I got into less than 80% business when I started to spend time working at nearby cafe. Notebook keyboards are abominations but it didn't make sense to lug TKL that weighs as much as small notebook, so I made minimal compromise and got 660M (which I love).
Using 60% keyboard turned out to be better than I expected with significant gain in portability with small productivity loss. So, I started to wonder if further tradeoffs with 40% keyboard make sense. At the same time, I don't contemplate on changing my primary workhorse setup since I need to maximize productivity there and I want to retain standard layout muscle memory due to occasional work at other terminals.
When I saw Vortex Core on Massdrop, it drew my interest since I liked visible key design with thin aluminum case, reasonable price point for secondary setup, and what seemed to be just enough programmability for variant of standard layout. With the release of the firmware 1.04.03 addressing my requirements of using both thumbs for FN keys via undocumented swap of PN <-> FN1 and programming L and R spacebars separately, I pulled the trigger on purchase.
While programming the keyboard, I roughly had three goals:
1) Keep the layout close to standard layout to minimize confusion when I go back and forth
2) Make commonly used symbols accessible, meaning either direct key or one modi access
3) Have close equivalent to TKL navigation cluster keys to minimize training whole new muscle memory
From outcome perspective, it would not be success if pinky does stressful things, trying more than one "learned thing" on each hand, or looking for keys to press on both hands.
After couple of hours of experimenting, I believe I have a mapping that meets the above goals and outcome. I have listed the mapping below for reference. I'm typing this post with the mapping, and I'd say except for the numbers and symbols which I need to type with FN or FN1 + keys I don't remember where offhand, I can type without pause. I can also navigate, make selections and edit with ease. I haven't coded yet which I do anticipate to be harder due to more frequent usage of number row symbols. Since I have made those FN+keys on the left instead of Shift+FN1+keys which was completely awkward, they should be usable despite initial learning curve and slow down.
While programming the board I came across several surprises, some positives and some negatives:
• Layer setting is persistent - if I go to L1, unplug, plug back in, I'm still in L1. This was really good surprise since after seeing so many posts asking whether the default layer is programmable, I assumed you always restart in L0. With persistent layer, whatever layer you are mostly in is de facto default.
• Arrow keys mode worked better expected. LWin+LAlt+RSpace seems mouthful but it worked pretty well in practice.
• By far my biggest gripe is how modifiers and FN* keys interact. Consider case 1, navigate cursor with arrows then make a selection with SHIFT+arrows. Common practice would be 1) have FN pressed, 2) while using IJKL as arrows, once cursor is at the right place, 3) press SHIFT (FN is still pressed), then 4) keep using IJKL to make selection. Well, this DOES NOT WORK!!! At Step 3, you need to release FN, press SHIFT *first* then do FN+IJKL.
Consider case 2, navigate cursor with arrows then then jump to another location with CTRL+navigation keys (such as home/end). Again, FN would be pressed the whole time, but before CTRL getting pressed FN needs to be released, then CTRL needs to be pressed first. This happens even in the default layer without anything programmed for CTRL or SHIFT. Even if CTRL or SHIFT keys are programmed, I think it's better to special case this so modifiers get treated as modifiers instead of FN+modi when FN combo navigation was invoked.
It wasn't too hard to train myself to delineate actions into two phases and release FN in-between, but remembering to press modi keys before FN+key sequence is very bothersome. AFAIK, this is not the standard behavior of notebook keyboards which have had FN keys for long time.
• There are numerous what I would call "quarks" that don't make any sense. They are not blocking issues, but they do not speak favorably to the refinement level of the firmware. I can imagine some customers running into weird issues may end up returning the board. Here are ones that I recall:
o some FN+keys are not programmable. Esc, g, b keys are not programmable as FN combo (I tried most keys; guessing FN+t isn't programmable either)
o some programmed keys do not auto repeat. For instance I have LCtrl mapped to ` and FN+Caps to ! and they do not autorepeat. The problem seems to be limited to some of the dark shade keys, but certain behaviors defy logic. For example, Del and BS mapped to [ ] do not auto repeat but FN+Del and FN+BS mapped to Del and BS do auto-repeat.
o whenever key combination logic kicks in, occasionally it's unforgiving. I'm guessing it's due to strict adherence to technically correct behavior. For instance, when invoking arrow keys mode, LAlt then LWin then RSpace needs to be pressed in that order and LAlt released last for results without side effect like menu being invoked. I think firmware logic can be augmented to accommodate more natural behavior. Similar things happens while programming keys especially when assigning keys to Shift+FN1+key. You need to press the modi key first and watch the LED behavior to know you did what you tried to do.
Even though I complained more than complemented, my Vortex Core is a keeper and I'm going to put it into action whenever I use notebooks.
It does not have full programmability but it meets my usability needs which is pretty extensive.
I would recommend this keyboard to folks looking for 40% keyboard without full programmability and adventurous folks who are looking for portable mechanical keyboards with one condition. The person needs to be techie enough, say be able to learn how to swap CapsLock and LCtrl via registry.
I give kudos to Vortex for gutsy move to introduce 40% keyboard to general enthusiasts. It's a solid effort, but I think it can benefit from more fit and polish to improve user experience and reduce possibilities of returns. Further firmware upgrade would be big help.
Last nitpit: fix QA on keycaps. Some of my keycaps have roughly finished edges and RSpace shows dimples.
Swap PN and FN1
[CAN’T] In addition Swap FN and Left space
Esc to Tab
[CAN’T] FN+Esc to Esc
Tab to LCtrl
LCtrl to ` (for ~)
FN+LCtrl to Esc
Del BS to [ ]
FN+Del to Del
[CAN’T] PN (former FN1) to /
LSpace to BS
FN+LSpace to Del
FN+RSpace to Enter
RAlt to ‘
Menu to /
FN+N to Menu
FN+Menu to \
RCtrl to ‘
FN+RAlt to RCtrl (for Hanja Convert)
FN+BS to PgUp
FN+H to Pause
FN+Enter to PgDn
FN+p to Home
FN+; to End
FN+o to Ins
FN+u to Scrlk
FN+y to Prtsc (mapped to CapsLock via registry)
FN+Tab (mapped to LCtrl) to !
FN+a to @
FN+s to #
FN+d to $
FN+f to %
[CAN’T] FN+g to ^
FN+LShift to ^
FN+z to &
FN+x to *
FN+c to (
FN+v to )
[CAN’T] FN+b to _
FN+LWin to _
FN+LAlt to +