Vortex Core Review

Vortex CORE Review: Viva Tiny Mechanical Keyboards!

I have a special mechanical keyboard up for review today. The Vortex CORE could end up being a pioneer for 40% form factor keyboards and the future mech market. What makes it so unique? The CORE is not a kit that requires soldering skills for a complex assembly process. It’s not a custom you design and build yourself from the ground up based on a specific PCB. The Vortex CORE is the first mass produced, fully assembled 40% mechanical keyboard for the “mainstream” retail market.

Until now, these ultra compact 40% layouts have been mostly relegated to a hardcore niche audience, even among keyboard enthusiasts. Does the Vortex CORE have what it takes to invigorate the 40% market the same way its predecessor, the Poker series, did with 60% mechanical keyboards? We shall see…

Want the tl;dr version of this review? Skip to the summary.

What’s in the Box

Round of applause for Vortex in this regard. The CORE’s packaging exudes quality. It arrived in a textured black box with a hinged lid held in place by magnets. The CORE logo is discreetly printed on top in a smooth finish that contrast well with the rough textured surface of the box.

Packed in a textured black box

A sticker is applied to the right side of the box. It provides information about the keyboard model, switch type, color and SKU.

Sticker with keyboard details

Lifting the lid reveals another infamous slogan from Vortex, “Find our latest philosophy and enjoy your feeling”. Yeah, it’s corny. But better on the box than printed on the spacebar.

Box lid open showing slogan

The first thing you see when unboxing is the Vortex CORE resting snuggly inside a dense foam tray like sleeping beauty. Safe and secure.

Under the CORE is a cardboard separator that creates another section where the printed manual and Micro USB cable are stored.

Lower section of box stores manual and Micro USB cable

That’s all she wrote. No other accessories or tools are included. Not even a cheap plastic ring keycap puller. The packaging is attractive and protective, but the contents are completely lacking in value added extras. Honestly, that’s fine with me considering the quality of the CORE itself and value for the money compared with its main competition. If omitting a few useless trinkets can keep the price lower I’m all for it.

Contents of the box

Layout, Features and Aesthetics

The Vortex CORE is a 40% hardware programmable mechanical keyboard with only 47 dedicated keys in ANSI layout. It measures 9.75 inches in length (side to side) and 3 inches in depth (front to back) with a weight of 14.3 ounces. The distance from the bottom of the case to the top of the keycaps is about 1 inch.  If you’re in the market for a portable mechanical keyboard look no further.

Vortex Core being weighed on a scaleStating the obvious, but there are many non-standard key sizes. It’s unavoidable in this form factor. That means completing a full custom keyset will be more involved, costly and time consuming. But as I will discuss later you may not even want to upgrade after getting a look at and feel of the stock PBT keycaps.

One obvious feature of the Vortex CORE that stands out at a quick glance (other than the unbelievably tiny form factor) is the programmable split spacebars. You can keep both as a spacebar, leave one and reprogram the other, or just reprogram them both. The Backspace key is undersized (1u). This was a necessary compromise so they could fit a dedicated Delete key.

47-key layout (40%) with split spacebar, 3 programmable layers and 3 function layers.

The CORE has 3 function layers. The Fn layer (identified by blue sub-legends on the keycaps) includes a few media keys, an arrow key cluster, timing delays for macro programming, Caps Lock, Print Screen, Page Up, Page Down, Scroll Lock, Pause, Insert, Reset, Home and End.

Operation of the Fn Layer, labled with blue legends.

The Fn1 layer (identified by red sub-legends on the keycaps) contains the F1-F12 keys, number keys, forward and back slash, brackets, etc.

Operations of the Fn1 layer, labeled with red legends.

A third layer is accessible by pressing Shift + Fn1. This layer isn’t labeled on the keycaps, so while learning the layout you’ll be constantly checking the manual for these function keys. Here we have the special characters and symbols that correspond with the number row, question and quotation marks, underscore, the pipe key and more.

Operations of the Shift + Fn1 layer, not labeled on keycaps.Note: This graphic from the Vortex CORE manual is partially incorrect. The “, ?, {, } and | functions are configured differently on the actual product (programmed to the B, N, M, < and > keys respectively).

The Vortex CORE has 3 programmable layers marked L1-L3. They are accessed by pressing Fn + < (L1), > (L2), or Right Shift (L3). L0 (Fn + M) is the non-programmable default layer. A LED light under the left spacebar indicates what layer is currently selected. Red for L1, Green for L2 and Blue for L3. When using the default L0 layer the LED is off.

The Vortex CORE doesn’t have dedicated arrow keys, but you can toggle the Right Shift, Right Alt, Menu and Ctrl keys into makeshift arrow keys by simultaneously pressing the Win Key, Left Alt, and Right Spacebar. Press those 3 keys again to return normal functionality.

There is currently no backlit version available to order (yet), but one is probably in the works for a future release. Many outlets were sent review samples that included a prototype version of the CORE. That models features RGB backlighting and Cherry MX RGB switches with clear housings.

The Vortex CORE comes with a detachable Micro USB cable. The black cable is of a basic rubber insulated construction, not braided. It’s approximately 5 feet in length. This is the only area where Vortex sort of skimped on build materials. The cable is a standard detachable Micro USB, so I’d wager most users will be replacing it with custom braided cables anyway. The Micro USB connector plugs in at the back of the board on the left side of the aluminum case.

Detachable Micro USB cable

On the bottom of the aluminum case 4 round rubber feet are tasked with holding the board steady. Like everything about this mech, they’re small. Even so, the feet do an admirable job of preventing it from sliding around on a desk or smooth surface. The CORE is relatively hefty considering it’s small size. That helps with traction. There are no flip-out or riser feet, so your stuck with the default height and angle (it sits perfectly flat). You’ll have to outsource some aftermarket feet if you require a steeper typing angle.

Four rubber feet on bottom of case

Visually the CORE has a refined, efficient and nuanced appeal. It’s minimalistic to the extreme. When viewed from straight above all that’s seen are the keycaps. No thick case bezels protruding from underneath or graphics plastered between every bit of empty space. There are no empty spaces.

The gunmetal gray aluminum case is clean and understated. It has straight edges and slightly rounded corners. It’s stealthy, sort of just blends into the background so you hardly even notice it.

Stealthy case design

The Vortex CORE makes use of a floating key design and the DSA keycaps are all the same height for a very uniform, symmetrical framework. A touch more retro appeal is added from the off-white/beige keycap color scheme.

Floating key design

The only branding on the entire mech comes in the form of a metal badge affixed to the underside of the aluminum case.

Metal badge on bottom of the Vortex Core

Tastes will obviously vary from person to person, but I find the CORE’s simplistic, retro styling suits it well. Out of all the keyboards I own it has certainly garnered the most attention and comments from casual observers. Though that may be for reasons other than its unique visual appeal.

How to Program the Vortex Core

First of all, make sure you have the latest firmware. Vortex just recently released a new version (V 1.04.01) before I published this review. The updated firmware expands upon the CORE’s programming capabilities. All the information below is based on that specific firmware.

When you’re ready to program the Vortex CORE you must first select the layer to be customized. This is accomplished by pressing Fn + the corresponding key for that layer (they’re labeled with blue secondary legends). There are 4 layers in total, three of which are programmable. The default layer (labeled L0) isn’t programmable.

Follow these 6 steps to program the Vortex CORE to your liking:

  1. When on the desired programmable layer, press Fn + Right Ctrl to initiate the programming feature. A LED under the right spacebar should light up solid blue, confirming you’re now in programming mode.
  2. Now press the key you want to customize. The LED should change to a blinking red. This means the keyboard is ready to accept new input(s) for the key you just pressed.
  3. Type in your desired function for the selected key (or multiple inputs for macros, up to 32).
  4. Next, press the Pn key to save your changes for that previous key. That key is now programmed and the LED should be a solid blue again, meaning you can move on to the next one.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 for all other keys you wish to reprogram.
  6. Once you’re finished setting up the layout to your preferences, press Fn + Right Ctrl again to exit the programming mode. You now have a custom layer.

Vortex Core in programming modeLeft spacebar LED shows your current layer (red is L1, green is L2 and blue is L3), right spacebar LED in blue indicates programming mode is activated.

The Pn and/or Fn key can also be swapped with any key to the left of the right spacebar on the bottom row. This swap is initiated by pressing and holding either Pn or Fn + Shift until a green LED under the right spacebar starts blinking. You can then proceed to press the key that will be switched with either Pn or Fn.

If you completely screw up your key bindings and need to reset, it can be done. To reset only the the current layer, press and hold Fn + R. A white LED under the left spacebar will begin to blink. After about 5 seconds the LED will stop blinking to indicate the current layer has reset. You can now release Fn + R. To reset every layer, follow the same process while pressing and holding both Alt keys.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few limitations to the Vortex CORE’s programmability. As I mentioned earlier, the default layer isn’t programmable at all. Also, not all keys can be altered, even on the programmable layers. Those keys are Left Shift, M, <, > and Right Ctrl. It’s decent enough that you should be able to compromise and find a layout that’s good enough with a little practice, but otherwise can’t compare to a fully hardware programmable mechanical keyboard. If that’s what you require best to bite the bullet and build one yourself.

Switches

I decided to go with Cherry MX Clear tactile switches on my Vortex CORE, mainly because it’s a switch I have yet to discuss in any previous review. It’s also available with 3 of Cherry’s most popular flagship switches: Cherry MX Red, Cherry MX Blue and Cherry MX Brown. Linear, clicky or tactile. No matter what type of switch you prefer, the Vortex CORE has you covered.

Keycaps removed to show Cherry MX Clear switches

Cherry MX Clear is a tactile switch with medium stiffness. Similar properties to Cherry MX Brown, but Clears are heavier (55g actuation point) with a longer tactile bump. The tactile bump requires 65g of force to overcome and the switch stiffness gradually increases after the bump before bottoming out around 95g.

Some users may find that high resistance after the tactile bump to be tiring. For me, it really helps with not bottoming out, which I almost always do on lighter switches no matter how much effort I put into avoiding it. The extra resistance after the actuation point effectively “cushions” each keystroke. It’s a comfortable typing experience once you become accustom to the force required to activate a key press without bottoming out. During my 3 week testing period I experienced no chattering or unregistered keystrokes.

Closeup shot of Cherry MX Clear stems

The feel and feedback for pure typing is great. On the other hand, gaming with MX Clears can be a chore if your coming from a lighter switch. This, of course, will come down to personal preference. I personally would recommend going with the Cherry MX Browns if you’re considering a tactile switch and your main priority is gaming performance instead of typing.

After spending the last 3 weeks with the them MX Clears have become my favorite Cherry switch. I have always preferred tactile over linear and clicky switches, but the tactile bump on Browns is barely detectable. Clears fix this dilemma if you don’t mind the stiffer spring.

Keycaps

The Vortex CORE has thick PBT keycaps in DSA profile with dye-sublimated (black) primary legends. The secondary function legends are side printed in blue and red to differentiate between layers. The DSA profile results in a uniform, flat aesthetic because the keycaps all have the same height and spherical shape (except for the split spacebars).

PBT keycaps with dye-sublimated legends

PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) gives the keycaps a slighty textured and grippy feel. Much less slick than ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) in comparison. They’re denser and produce a deeper, more pleasing audible clack when bottoming out than thin walled ABS keycaps.

Thick keycaps, MX stems

This high-end keycap material provides many other benefits. PBT keycaps won’t yellow with age and exposure to UV light. PBT doesn’t shine from wear and exposure to skin oils. This plastic material is also more resistant to chemicals, environmental conditions (such as extreme temperatures) and some cleaning agents that have been known to damage or even destroy keycaps manufactured from ABS.

DSA profile

The Vortex CORE uses a Cherry style stabilizer. Yes, just one. The right spacebar is the only keycap large enough to require stabilization.

To summarize, these are excellent keycaps. Probably the best stock keyset to come with a retail board I’ve personally owned. I can’t see any reason they would disappoint, unless you’re just not a fan of the DSA profile or require homing bumps on the F and J keys (there are none).

Note: Cherry MX Clear switches are known for tight fitting stems. This was the case with mine. I had to work at a slow, deliberate pace while removing the keycaps to avoid damaging the switches. If you elect for MX Clears be extra cautious with keycap removal. Stems have been known to be pulled straight out of the switch if not handled correctly.

Case and Overall Build Quality

Fit and finish is excellent. The tolerances are tight and everything just fits together extremely well. The CNC machined aluminum case is surprisingly thin. I think Vortex went this direction to create a unique visual aesthetic with the keycaps covering the case completely from an overheard angle. They succeeded.

The case looks great and thankfully the thinness doesn’t effect structural integrity in a negative way. That’s due in part to the small physical dimensions, but the switches are also plate mounted to a tough steel backplate instead of softer aluminum. Steels increases the weight and provides a stiffer “core” that strengthens the entire board. The backplate has been painted black.

Sturdy steel backplate prevents flexing

The whole board is rigid, stout and free of flex. The steel backplate is secured to the case with 5 Phillips screws that hold everything together in 3 layers (backplate, PCB and case). This simple design makes it’s quick and painless to disassemble without any special tools.

Thin aluminum case

I’m not an expert on soldering by any means, but the solder joints look strong and clean.

PCB of the Vortex Core

Conclusion and Rating of the Vortex Core

There’s a lot to like here. Genuine Cherry MX switches with options for linear, tactile or clicky operation. Some of the best stocks keycaps I have experienced to date. DSA profile on a mech targeting the retail market. That might actually be a first. Excellent fit and finish, clean visual appeal and premium build materials. All that for about 40-50% cheaper than its main competition, which at this point consists only of kits or custom built mechanical keyboards. What few complaints I do have are mostly nitpicks, though I’m still disappointed it isn’t fully programmable. I guess nothing’s perfect.

The Vortex CORE has an opportunity to be a ground breaking product for the 40% niche. If it performs well in sales this could lead to an influx of lower priced options from budget oriented manufacturers that follow popular trends. Can you imagine 40% mechs under $50? That would be a big win for consumers.Buy the Vortex Core
Buy the Vortex Core

+ Pros

  • First prefab 40% mechanical keyboard for the mainstream/retail market.
  • Affordable considering the individual parts; high value for the money.
  • Premium build quality.
  • Extremely compact, highly portable.
  • Programmable, though not fully and with some limitations.
  • Thick PBT keycaps in DSA profile.
  • High contrast dye-sublimated legends with eye pleasing font choice.
  • Detachable Micro USB cable.
  • Varied selection of genuine Cherry MX switches.
  • Beautiful aesthetics.
  • Floating key design.
  • Constructed for quick and easy tear downs.
  • Sleek aluminum case.
  • Excellent packaging and presentation; almost extravagant unboxing experience.

– Cons

  • Poor documentation. The paper manual that shipped with my CORE has inaccurate key function labels, though Vortex did release an updated manual in PDF form along with the new firmware.
  • Not fully programmable; whole default layer and a few specific keys can’t be changed.
  • Barebones. Includes no tools, accessories or any other extras.
  • No flip-out feet so height/angle can’t be adjusted without adding your own custom or aftermarket feet.

This concludes my review of the Vortex CORE 40% mechanical keyboard. For those interested it’s available at Amazon with Cherry MX Red, Blue, Brown or Clear switches.


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