Sleek mechanical keyboards that strip away lesser-used keys in favor of a smaller footprint are picking up, but some people just can’t do without that number pad. Vortex’s new Vibe keyboard is a nice compromise, with some outstanding keycaps on top.

A full-size keyboard has all the keys. A tenkeyless, or TKL keyboard, slices the number pad bits from a full-size. From there we drop into percentages. A 75 percent keyboard, like the Vortex Race 3, loses a few of the right side function keys and smushes everything together. The we get into the 60 to 65 percent boards, which lose the right function keys (and often the arrow keys) and the top row of function keys. The smallest board I own, the Mechmini 40 percent, doesn’t even have numbers.

Put into percentage terms, the Vortex Vibe is a 78 percent keyboard, a relatively new form factor in mechanical keyboard enthusiast circles. It’s a 60 percent board with a number pad on the side. Since the number pad is often the first thing to go when designing a smaller form factor keyboard, this layout is perfect for typists who’ve never gone smaller for fear of not being able to calculate sums properly.

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Aside from its distinctive layout, the Vibe’s other major selling point is the SA profile keycaps that come standard with the board. Made from thick and durable PBT plastic, these high-profile caps are rarely seen on a mass market keyboard.

Vortex Vibe Specs

  • Layout: 79 Key US QWERTY (78 percent)
  • Switches: Tactile Brown Cherry MX (also available with Cherry MX Clear, Red, Silent Red, Black, Silent Black, Silver and Blue)
  • Keycaps: Dye Sublimated SA Profile PBT
  • Key Rollover: Full N-Key Rollover
  • Interface: USB
  • Size: 14.37" x 3.82" x 1.34"
  • Weight: 1.77 lbs.
  • Extras: Includes two colored space bars and multiple additional colored keycaps
  • Price: $149 via MechanicalKeyboards.com

Sound Check

Thick SA profile keycaps make every keyboard feel and sound a little better. My engineering sample is sporting Brown Cherry MX switches, and these beefy caps add a lovely thunk to that tactile bump.

The Upside

The Keycaps Are So Good: Have I mentioned the SA profile keycaps enough yet? The thick, high-profile caps with spherical tops are generally the stuff of mild to moderately expensive aftermarket sets. It’s rare to see a retail keyboard sporting SA out of the box.

The Vibe’s caps are made from PBT, giving them a pleasant, slightly rough texture. The legends are dye sublimated, a process that sees the dye sink into the plastic rather than rest on top, so they aren’t going to wear off. And since Vortex opted to go with uniform row 3 keys instead of the full sculpted profile, swapping out custom keys is easy.

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Frameless: No bevels, no edges, no top-plates. Where the edges of the outer keycaps end is where the keyboard ends. Viewed from the top down, aside from the slight gap between the number pad and the rest of the board, the Vibe looks like a collection of neatly-arranged keys just hanging out together.

The minimalist design is one of Vortex’s signatures, as seen in the Race 3 I reviewed earlier this year. As much as I enjoy color anodized aluminum cases with translucent panels beaming bright colored LEDs, there’s something about the simplicity of Vortex’s design that speaks to me.

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Efficient And Versatile: It might look like the Vibe sacrificed important keyboard elements in order to maintain its slim profile, but it’s all still there, just slightly hidden. The F1 through F12 keys require holding down the FN key to access. Hitting the numlock key swaps the number pad on the right with the arrow cluster and command keys (Page Up, Page Down, Home, etc.) found in more traditional layouts.

The Vibe features three customization layers beyond the default as well, allowing users to create their own specialized configurations. And for folks who prefer Colemak or Dvorak layouts to good old QWERTY, the Vibe can swap between all three on the fly.

The Downside

A Little Awkward: Stripping away the sixth row makes for a long, slightly awkward-looking keyboard, especially with the gap separating the number pad from the rest of the board.

Making things slightly more awkward, it’s packaged in a tube. Keep on rollin’, Vortex.

Customization

My ever-growing collection of random SA keycaps loves this board. Look at this nonsense.

The Beer Break key never gets old, though the Waffle is my new favorite.

Final Thoughts

I’ve spent years eschewing full-size keyboards in favor of tenkeyless and smaller designs, having convinced myself I have absolutely no need for a number pad. I have no trouble getting on without one, but I have to admit it’s nice to have one on hand, especially while trying to figure out my holiday gift budget. I’d forgotten how my fingers used to fly over that digit-laden rectangle.

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The Vortex Vibe gives me access to those digits, while still letting me type on a keyboard that’s small enough to maintain the extra desk space I need for all of my junk. Plus, priced at $149, it’s one of the least expensive ways to gets a high-quality keyboard sporting a lovely set of SA caps.