Posted On 05/24/2018 By In Keyboard Reviews, Reviews

Tex Yoda II Review: Is that a TrackPoint?

Page Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. A Closer Look
  3. Layout and TrackPoint
  4. Teardown
  5. Configuration Software
  6. The Verdict
  7. Where To Buy

Introduction

I don’t remember who told me I needed to swing by and see Justin Wu, founder of Tex Electronics, at Computex 2017, but I do recall that the message was that I really needed to see this guy and his contraptions. And so it came to pass that I found him in a booth at a far end of one of Computex’s enormous exhibition spaces. It was like a tiny little keyboardy wonderland. It’s where I first laid eyes on the Tex Yoda II, a (more or less) 65% keyboard with one of those iconic red IBM TrackPoints planted right between the G, H, and B keys, accompanied by three keys beneath the spacebar that served as mouse buttons.

It took just a few minutes of conversation to get the sense that Wu is both smarter and more creative than I am. He showed me oddity after oddity, never once giving any indication that he could tell they were enchanting me. There was the Cloud 65 keyboard with Bluetooth; the chunky Freewrite “smart” typewriter that had an e-ink display on board and a carrying handle; and the adorable little JD45 sitting in a heavy, machined aluminum chassis. But those were mostly experiments and one-off fun side projects. The device that he really wanted me to get to know was the Yoda II.

A closer look at a weird keyboard

The two most obvious aspects of the Yoda II that separate it from most other mechanical keyboards is the presence of the TrackPoint and the three dedicated mouse keys that are located below the spacebar. Basically, Tex recreated IBM/Lenovo’s famous TrackPoint/clickpad setup and put it on a standalone mechanical keyboard. Tex also included three different types of TrackPoint caps, because hey, why not.

The TrackPoint is one of those things that people seem to either love or hate, but it certainly has a number of ardent fans, if not zealots. It’s the Venn diagram of TrackPointers and mechanical keyboard enthusiasts who will go gaga for the Yoda II. (That particular Venn diagram can’t be that big…can it? Justin Wu probably doesn’t care.)

Taken just as a mechanical keyboard, though, the Yoda II has a lot going for it. The chassis is mostly a heavy but svelte brick of CNC’d aluminum. There’s hardly any bezel around the back and sides, and the front bezel is there only to accommodate the three mouse keys.

The plate mount assembly fits into the aluminum case neatly, and the black plate and black keycaps create an optical illusion such that you barely notice that the top of the Yoda II isn’t just seamless aluminum.

The first time I saw the Yoda II, at Computex, it had Cherry MX Brown switches. The model I’m reviewing has Cherry MX Blues, but you can order up a model with Cherry MX Red, Brown, Blue, Black, Clear, Green, Silent Red, or Silver switches.

The typing experience is somewhat noisy. There’s a good bit of clack mixed with a notable metallic ping. The keycaps are ABS plastic, which shows lots of shine, but it seems Tex skipped PBT in order to accommodate all the customized translucent legends. You could, if you really really really wanted to, create a different PBT keyset that has all the Fn legends in all the right places, but even so you’d need to machine off one edge of the G, H, and B keys to accommodate the TrackPoint. (The mouse keys, though, are 1mm thick black PBT. They have no backlighting.)

Other than the ABS, then, the only downside of these highly customized keycaps in my opinion is that you’re stuck with them. They belong to the keyboard, and the keyboard belongs to them.

The primary legends on the keycaps are a bit small for my taste, but Tex gets bonus points for exceptional labeling. All of the primary, secondary, and tertiary functions of every key are lasered on the caps. Of course, if you want to significantly alter the layout (which you can do with Tex’s excellent web-based interface, which I discuss in detail below), all that careful labeling becomes problematic, but I felt that the default layers were superbly placed.

Tex gets extra bonus points for flipping the normal positioning of the LEDs; usually, they’re at the top of the switch housing, but Tex put them at the bottom. That leaves the secondary legends relatively unlit, which isn’t ideal, but the tertiary legends (that is, everything on the Fn layer) are on the front of the keycaps instead of the top and are brightly lit.

And I do mean BRIGHTLY lit. There’s something like 14 levels of brightness available on the Yoda II, and in order to keep my retinas from burning out, I had to keep it at about one-third brightness. With the LEDs jacked to the max, you could use this thing as a flashlight.

Note that these are white-only LEDs…although they looked a little bluish to me. Maybe even a hint of purple.

The only port is the USB Type-C connector on the back. The cable has one USB Type-C end (with an angled neck) and one USB Type-A end. Underneath the keyboard you’ll find two feet; they’re the same aluminum as the chassis, and they have a small rubber nub on their tips to prevent sliding. They’re also removable, if you want to make the typing angle completely flat.

About that layout and that TrackPoint…

For as charming as I find the entire concept behind the Yoda II–that is, loading up a compact keyboard with a TrackPoint and extra, dedicated mouse keys–I was concerned about the practicalities of it. And indeed, although this thing doesn’t let you ditch your mouse…it almost does. Almost.

If you’re a true fan of the TrackPoint, you actually might be able to get away with using the Yoda II to replace both your keyboard and mouse. My issue is that the TrackPoint just doesn’t give me enough control, even though you do get eight DPI levels (which you can easily click through by pressing Fn + Q or E). The lowest setting still didn’t give me refined-enough control over the cursor. The TrackPoint is also not clickable–which isn’t a huge deal because you have the mouse keys right there, but using the TrackPoint plus the mouse key does require one extra brain cycle than a clickable touchpad. And frankly, I only have so many brain cycles to spare…

I do, however, think that the mouse keys are a sensational idea. One of the great things about keyboards is that different people use them in different ways, but most hardcore keyboarders try to keep their hands on the plank as much as possible, and the mouse buttons give you a legitimate means of doing so. Any programmable keyboard will let you assign mouse functions to keys, of course, but you have to use them as part of a more complicated keymap. By adding dedicated mouse keys, Tex made them an extra feature without putting them in the way of your normal typing.

They’re programmable, too, so you can drop a macro onto them if you like. I found the left and center keys, in particular, easy to reach while in-game–much moreso than a left-side vertical bank of dedicated macro keys that you’d find on a “gaming” keyboard or even the Q, E, F, G, or other keys that are near the WASD cluster.

Tex gets bonus points for placing the mouse keys with a downward slant, making them far more comfortable to press than if they were more even with the spacebar. I also quite liked the ability to scroll by pressing the middle mouse key and scrolling up or down with the TrackPoint.

The Yoda II does not have a standard layout. It’s fairly similar to a Varmilo VA68M/Magicforce68 layout (pictured here, in the 65% section), but the Yoda II layout has a Fn key between the spacebar and Alt, which bumps Alt, Menu, and Ctrl to the right so they align with the other right-side keys. It also cuts out the likes of Insert, Delete, and so on, placing them as secondary functions on other keys. The result is a pretty, compact layout that gives you lots of additional keys–as long as you don’t mind riding that Fn key hard.

One of the things that throws me about the Yoda II’s layout, though, is the missing arrow keys. I use the arrow keys constantly, and I missed them terribly in my time with this keyboard. Granted, because the Yoda II comes with the arrow keys available on the WASD cluster with Fn, you can adjust. I found the arrow keys/WASD placement to be fairly ideal, all things considered. I missed being able to use the arrow keys with one hand, though, and performing an action like highlighting a line of text, which I do often, requires you to press the following:

Fn + Ctrl + Shift + [W, A, S, or D]

…which is kind of a lot of simultaneous keypresses, thank you very much.

However, the funky function layer has some positive side effects. For example, on a full-size or TKL keyboard, I almost never use the Pg Dn/Pg Up/End keys, just because they’re kind of a reach and slow me down, but on the Yoda II, they’re perched right above the Fn key. Because I leaned on the Fn key so much while typing on the Yoda II anyway, I found myself suddenly using them. (Nice.) I was also pleased to see full-size Backspace, Enter, and Shift keys on the right side of the keyboard.

Lighting controls, TrackPoint DPI, and the F keys are all part of the Fn layer, with legends printed on the front of the keycaps.

It’s also worth noting that this is a totally plug-and-play keyboard. You just connect the thing, and the TrackPoint, mouse keys, and Fn layer are ready to do.

Teardown

With the keycaps off, you get a better view of the black metal top plate, which is approximately 1.5mm thick. Note the Cherry-style stabilizers and inverted position of the switches.

Quite unlike certain keyboards that require you remove dozens of screws (yes, dozens, plural!) for disassembly, the Yoda II is held together by a grand total of five–seven, if you count the two that hold the mouse keys assembly onto the chassis. They’re teeny tiny little fellas, but they have Phillips heads, so you can get them out with a standard set of mini screwdrivers.

Also quite unlike certain keyboards whose dozens (again, plural!) of screws were tightened down by robots or giants or gods and can barely be turned by a mortal human, I was able to get these screws out with a little bit of elbow grease and (almost) no swearing.

Four of the screws are on the underside of the Yoda II, and one is hiding in the middle of the top of the keyboard. Technically, you can actually disassemble this thing without removing the keycaps, which is…pretty cool. You will have to pop off H and J to get to the one top-side screw, though.

Also, be super careful when you flip this thing over, lest you place undue stress on the TrackPoint’s metal post, which protrudes further than the switches.

Looking at the underside of the PCB, note that most of the welds look good, but there are some untidy ones here and there. I’m a little (but just a little) concerned about the long-term fate of one lonesome LED, which is there to light up the translucent dot on the Caps Lock key.

You can also see the assembly for the TrackPoint. The MCU is the Holtek HT32F1654and the LED controller is a Texas Instruments TPS61195 (PDF). The three mouse keys have their own PCB that connects to the main PCB with a tiny cable.

HTML5 FTW

One of the strongest features of the Yoda II is actually its configuration software. There are multiple ways keyboard makers can choose to give end users programmability, including firmware like QMK, key shortcuts/layers without software, and standalone software applications purpose-built for supporting a given company’s peripherals family.

There are pros and cons to all of the above, but Tex took a unique approach; the configurator is web-based (HTML5). Once you have your configuration set, you download it as a file, set the keyboard as a storage drive on your PC or Mac, and drag-and-drop the file. Here’s how to do it:

You can choose between ANSI, ISO, or DIY layouts. (I had ANSI.) Simply click a button on the main page to select which one you’re configuring and then click Next Step to go to the Macro Settings page.

Here, you can set up to 12 macros. To create one, click any of the M1-M12 icons. When the window pops up, click the green plus sign. You’ll get another pop up–a simple GUI of the keyboard and all keys and pre-programmed functions–and you click a key or function that you want to use. Repeat to select another key or function. (For example, I selected Alt and then Tab.) Click the X to close the window.

A couple of potential downsides to note here: You can’t edit the timing of your keypresses when you’re making macros, and because the configurator doesn’t record your keypresses, you have to click that green plus sign and then click the next key in the series you want in the macro, one by one.

When you click Next Step again, you can pick a profile or layer in which to remap keys and/or assign any macros you created in the last step. (There are three profiles available, with a top layer and Fn layer for each.) Click any key in the GUI, and a pop-up will give you another GUI showing you a full-size keyboard, ISO layouts in multiple languages, JIS layout, application and media controls, additional Fn buttons, and other miscellaneous controls–as well as the macro assignments.

All I wanted to do this time around was assign my Alt+Tab macro to a key. So on the main GUI, I clicked the right-side Ctrl key (which I never otherwise use), and when the new GUI popped up, I selected the M1 button for it.

Click Next Step to go to the Download page, where you’ll be greeted by a list of helpful step-by-step instructions, which boil down to this:

  • Flip the correct DIP switch on and disconnect/reconnect the keyboard from your PC.
  • When you reconnect the keyboard, you’ll get a pop-up Explorer window indicating that the system recognizes the keyboard as a storage drive.  
  • Click the small, blue “Download .TEX” button on the configurator page; this will download a file called KEYMAP.TEX.
  • Click and drag that file to the new “storage drive.”
  • Disconnect the keyboard from your PC, flip the DIP switch port 6 back off, flip DIP switch port 1 (or port 2, or port 3), and reconnect it. Your changes should be all set.

It’s true that this requires a few more steps than, say, configuration software that’s installed on your PC. I posit, though, that Tex’s HTML5 configurator is superior for two reasons. First of all, the interface is exceptionally clean and fairly easy to understand. It took me a minute to figure out how the macro maker worked, but only a minute, and I found everything else to be instantly intuitive.

Second, configuration software that’s installed on a system limits your configuration capabilities to one system only, unless you install that same software on additional systems. Then there’s the software updates. Heavens to betsy, the updates! Certain keyboard manufacturers will push software updates that require you to install them and then restart your system. It’s intrusive, to say the least. Tex’s solution obviates those problems because it’s web-based and therefore available on any system, and there are no updates to install, ever.

The Verdict

Just like the TrackPoint that dots its surface, the Tex Yoda II will have its adherents and its detractors–and that’s kind of by design. Tex isn’t trying to please everyone with this thing; they created a funky, fun, nichey keyboard as a love letter to the TrackPoint.

Indeed, TrackPoint apologists should fall all over themselves for this thing, because the implementation with the mouse keys is fantastic–except, in my opinion, for the too-high DPI of the TrackPoint itself.

On the other hand, fans of compact layouts who would otherwise be intrigued by the Yoda II’s build and looks may be turned off by all the extras. However, even if you aren’t interested in the TrackPoint at all, the Yoda II still has those three mouse keys that make for perfectly located macro keys, whether you’re gaming or just typing.

That HTML5-based configuration software is terrific, too. It’s intuitive and easy to use, and you can use it anywhere you have your Yoda II and an internet connection. The only clunky part is having to fiddle with connecting/disconnecting/reconnecting the cable and navigating Explorer windows, but given the advantages of the web-based configurator, I think it’s a more than fair tradeoff.

If nothing else, collectors with almost $300 to burn will want one of these for posterity. You can find them for sale on MechanicalKeyboards.com, although the backlit version appears to be out of stock at the moment.

ProsCons
Excellent implementation of the TrackPoint and mouse keysStuck with shiny ABS key caps
Strong build qualityWhite LEDs are too blue
HTML software is easy to use, powerful, and flexibleNo dedicated arrow keys
Clear labeling on all keycaps
Overall smart layout
Plug and play

Where to buy?

You can find them for sale on MechanicalKeyboards.com, although the backlit version appears to be out of stock at the moment.

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Seth Colaner

Editor in Chief of Keychatter. Irrepressibly interested in things. Loves devices that click and clack. Data nerd. Proud Midwesterner. Pass the buffalo chicken dip.

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