- A Closer Look
- Confused about Hexgears, Kono Store, and Input Club?
- The Verdict
- Where To Buy
The lowpro revolution is quietly coming. For now, it’s only smaller brands that are producing these planks (unless and until Cherry convinces some of the bigger fish to put its lowpro switches on some keyboards), and you can count the Hexgears X-1 among them. The German-based company joins the likes of Tesoro, Gamdias, and Havit in producing a slim keyboard bearing low-profile Kailh switches.
Sold and distributed in the U.S. through the Kono Store, the Hexgears X-1 is clearly meant to evoke the design of the popular Apple Magic keyboards, but with actual mechanical switches on board. It offers both wired and Bluetooth connectivity for optimal flexibility, too. In fact, the X-1 can connect to up to four Bluetooth devices at once. That’s a twist, and a smart one, as long as it all works properly.
It seems like building a great low profile keyboard should be easy now that Kaihua has so many designs out in the wild. But each of the lowpro keyboards I’ve tried out so far have had one or two glaring issues. For example, I found the key spacing on Tesoro’s otherwise pretty great Gram XS to be an impossible impediment to overcome. The Havit HV-KB395L was appealing in many ways, but it’s a full-size keyboard with a thin plastic chassis, and it bends in the middle like…well, like a thin piece of plastic. It was clear to me that Havit and Gamdias used the same manufacturer for their HV-KB395L and Hermes M3 RGB, respectively, but that isn’t a good thing in this case. The Hermes M3 RGB has a lot going for it, but the materials feel kind of cheap, and the design doesn’t exactly inspire.
When I first saw the Hexgears X-1 pop up on the Kono Store, I hoped that it could solve the problems I found on those other keyboards. And now I have one under my fingers. Is it lowpro perfection, or just another attempt that falls short?
A Closer Look
The top and sides of the X-1 are a single piece of machined aluminum that sparkles just so. (You can’t see the plastic bottom unless you flip the thing over.) But it’s not a top plate with switches mounted to it; it’s just a cover. The switches are actually mounted to a black metal plate underneath. The top aluminum plate is there to keep things pretty and firm. Indeed, it’s crucial for the stability of the keyboard. If you pick it up and twist it, the keyboard definitely flexes more than one would like, but I didn’t notice any issues with flexion while typing.
That fact alone is enough to put the X-1 above the other lowpro keyboards I’ve tested, and it’s a good lesson for designers: You can’t make a slim keyboard with a plastic chassis, lest the middle bounce like a trampoline when the heavy-fingered type. (Forget about gaming, when many of us mercilessly pound our keyboards.)
Because this is a lowpro keyboard, Hexgears needed different lowpro stabilizers. No one would tell me exactly who makes them, but I do know that they’re by a factory partner of Hexgears. They have cross-stem tops, but don’t mistake them for Cherry stabs; these are significantly lower profile. (I mean, obviously.)
The rear of the X-1 has a USB Type-C port for the included, detachable cable. Its other end is USB Type-A. On the underside of the keyboard you’ll find four rubber feet that keep the X-1 from sliding around, and there are two flip-out feet that give you a slightly inclined typing angle. The feet are perpendicular to the width of the keyboard instead of the more typical parallel orientation. This is a design feature that Logitech uses on all of its keyboards, too.
Hexgears employed Kailh PG1350 Choc switches on the X-1. The PG1350 switches are moderately heavy, at 50gf (+/-10gf) for actuation and 60gf (+/-10gf) to get over the bump. Their total travel is 3mm (+/-0.5mm), with a 1.5mm (+/-0.5mm) actuation point.
Although you may be able to choose different switches when the X-1 is fully on sale, the model I have on hand has clicky and tactile White switches. The click occurs on the press as well as the rebound, so you can doubly annoy your co-workers and roommates. (Kiddiiiiiing…kidding. Sort of.) I found that the switches felt heavy and sticky, which is in contrast to the lighter feeling I got when typing on the Blue version of the PG1350 Choc on the aforementioned Gamdias and Havit keyboards.
This would be a good spot to clarify that Kaihua created multiple clicky versions of the PG1350. There are actually eight PG1350 models listed on Kaihua’s site. No fewer than four of them are clicky. They all have distinctly similar specs. What gives? Well, Kaihua is nothing if not iterative, so they made five variations for NovelKeys in addition to their three stock versions.
But there’s at least one additional variant out there that isn’t listed on the site: the Dareu clicky Blue PG1350.
The stock Kailh version is clicky and white. Because I don’t have access to specs for the Dareu Blue version, I can’t compare the two switches objectively. I do know that they’re a teeny tiny bit different in that Dareu wanted the two slots on top of the switch stem to be a slightly different spacing to accommodate their own keycaps. These Dareu-tweaked Blue switches are on the Gamdias and Havit keyboards, which I have on hand, so I can confirm that their keycaps are not compatible with the stock Kailh Choc White switches.
Subjectively, I find that the Kailh/Dareu Blue switches offer a lighter, more fluid typing experience than the stock White switches on the X-1. The longer I type on the X-1, the looser the switches feel, but I think they need a good lubing.
I also detected a bit of input lag on occasion, even when the cable was connected to my PC.
Chiclets Are Better As Gum Than Keycaps
The keycaps are chiclet-style, with all that brings with it. Personally, I’m of two minds about chiclet caps. They do match the low-profile nature of the chassis and switches, so there’s some design consistency there. But most of us like caps with sculpted tops for a reason, and I find that the chiclet typing experience just isn’t as appealing. Granted, regardless of your feelings on chiclet keycaps, this is a massive improvement for laptop typers by dint of the mechanical switches on board and the ability to pitch the keyboard at an angle.
My biggest issue with chiclet caps, though, is that their thinness negatively impacts the typing feel on wider keys. You’ll see this most notably on the spacebar. I’m not sure I’ve ever been this blunt in a review of anything in all my years evaluating products, but: chiclet spacebars suck. They just. Suck.
This was one of my primary complaints about the Tesoro Gram XS, and I repeat it here for the X-1. If you strike the spacebar exactly on center, or directly above one of the two stabilizers, you won’t notice that anything is amiss. Touch typists, I’m looking at you. But if you often strike the spacebar between the switch and the stabilizer, you will be unhappy.
There are at least three ways to solve this problem. One is to use a sturdier plastic for all the keycaps. Another is to employ a split spacebar design, giving each half its own switch flanked by a pair of stabilizers. This would put the switch for each spacebar half closer to where your (or at least, my) thumb naturally strikes, and of course that would build in twice the support for the keycaps. The third option is simply to use half-height caps instead of chiclet caps. Both Gamdias and Havit did so on their lowpro keyboards, and it redeems those keyboards to an extent. Plus, all of the Cherry lowpro keyboard prototypes I saw at CES have them. (Anecdotally, they all felt wonderful.)
Update, 8/3/18, 11:22am ET: A representative informed me that Hexgears is actively pursuing a solution to this issue. They’re considering adding a metal stabilizer to the underside of the spacebar. Ideally, that would enhance rigidity and eliminate the bendiness.
You won’t be able to use aftermarket keycaps, either, because these switches require a two-prong male keycap mount instead of the age-old cross stem female mount. Unless someone decides to create a group buy for them or something. Again, you can’t even use the half-height keycaps from the Havit or Gamdias boards because Dareu has to be a special shooting star.
This Layout is “Fun” and Clever
The default layout on the Hexgears X-1 is really, really important because you can’t change it. There are multiple additional functions available on a second layer, but you cannot make any key assignments or program macros. That’s a dealbreaker for many a keyboard enthusiast.
But for everyone amenable to a static layout, I found this one appealing. For as much as the X-1 is inspired by the Apple Magic keyboards (with numpad and without), it takes more layout cues from laptops. As user konstantinub noted in a Keebtalk thread, the physical layout is nearly identical to the Lenovo Y720 laptop.
It’s essentially a TKL layout, but the numpad is combined with the nav and arrow keys rather than omitted. You have to press NumLock to enable the numbers, like always, even though the numbers are backlit to denote that they’re the primary legends.
The X-1 is plug-n-play with PC, macOS, and Linux. There’s some discussion about Hexgears putting out some Mac replacement caps, but nothing firm as of this moment.
A few details to note:
- Instead of “Fn,” you have a “Fun” key
- There are media controls as secondary legends across the F row
- You also get secondary functions on the F row that include some of the lighting, Windows lock, putting the PC to sleep, and screen brightness
- The Backspace, Shift, and Enter keys are all smaller than on a normal TKL layout
- The Delete key is in a nonstandard location, above the Backspace key instead of next to it.
- The bottom row is a little different, with four keys on either side of the spacebar
- There’s an Alt Gr key to the right of the spacebar, and it’s just mislabeled; it scans as right Alt, so the Alt Gr cap is likely vestigial to Hexgear’s international roots
- The arrow keys work like arrow keys regardless if NumLock is engaged or not. To use the PgUp, PgDn, Home, and End secondary functions, you have to press Fun first.
Although there’s no software to let you play with the RGB lighting, Hexgears baked in some onboard features. First of all, you can dim or brighten the backlighting by pressing Fun + “-” or “+” on the numpad. (Note the secondary characters printed on those caps.) There are five levels of brightness, including “off.”
Lighting modes include:
- Breathing (rainbow is default)
- Breathing with color cycling
- Fireworks (lights are off until you press a key, and then color explodes around that key)
Other features include the ability to cycle between lighting modes, cycle through color modes, light only the WASD and arrow keys, and more. You can control all of the above with key combos. Here’s the list:
Note that you’re limited to a few colors, so you can’t fine tune the LEDs to match your eyes or anything. The red, orange, yellow, green, light blue, dark blue, purple, and sometimes white (depending on the lighting mode) that are standard is all you’re getting. However, the default rainbow mode is really pretty. That part of the lighting is actually RGB–the LED controller is capable of it–but Hexgears just didn’t really employ it anywhere else, unfortunately.
Can I be totally honest? Although I fully recognize the value and flexibility that Bluetooth has brought the world, I kind of hate it. It just barely ever seems to work for me; I feel like I’m constantly wrestling with devices refusing to connect, tenuous connections, and BT peripherals that just don’t ever work. I have a similar contentious relationship to two-stroke engines (can someone please come over and get my chainsaw to work?), so I readily accept that I may be the common denominator here.
However, my fears were relieved when I tested the Bluetooth 4 feature on the Hexgears X-1. It does support four devices. You toggle between USB mode and Bluetooth mode by pressing Fun + Backspace. To select a device to type on over BT, press Fun + 1, 2, 3, or 4. The connections happened almost instantaneously on the three laptops I had connected; it took a few seconds to find my phone every time.
You can use the Bluetooth mode even when the keyboard is connected to your PC via the cable. When you toggle the Bluetooth mode on, you’ll lose the data connection with the computer, but the keyboard won’t be using its battery. You’ll want to leave it plugged in anyway, because the battery lasts only three or four hours on a charge when its lights are ablaze. (Without the RGB lighting, it can allegedly hang on for three months without needing a recharge, though.)
Taking the Hexgears X-1 apart wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped. There was a lot of wrestling involved. This, despite the relatively small number of screws holding this thing together. There are two screws on the underside, and if you peel off the rubber feet, you’ll find four more. (Only one tried to fight me.)
The bottom plastic piece of the chassis is further held on to the aluminum top piece via a series of plastic tabs, so you have to gently wiggle a couple of those free and then use a tiny screwdriver to pry each one. It felt like I was going to break the thin, flimsy plastic at every moment. (I didn’t, though. [applause]) I strongly recommend that you do not try this at home unless you’re okay with some light to moderate damage to the chassis.
With the plastic piece removed, you’ll see an impressively neat and tidy PCB. The soldering is simply impeccable. The battery pack is firmly secured, mounted onto a plastic riser with what I presume is glue, although I chose not to force it loose to find out. I don’t like how vulnerable the USB Type-C connector is, though; it’s just stuck on the PCB with no additional support.
There are several microcontrollers on board, including:
- PixArt PAR2801QN-GHVC
- Vision VS11K09A-1
- Vision VS12103A
- Vision VSPW01
As is often the case, there’s little to no information available about these online. I’m digging for more and will update if and when there’s more to share.
Four more screws hold the PCB and plate to the top part of the chassis. Even once I had the screws removed, I was concerned that if I forced the PCB assembly apart from the chassis I would irreparably damage the keyboard, so I stopped trying at that point. If I had, you would see a lovely photo of the SMD LEDs. Alas. I did manage to loosen it enough to measure the thickness of the black metal top plate; at approximately 1mm, it feels a little thin. I’d feel better about it at twice the thickness, although 1) the shallow switch housings may make that impossible (I don’t know), and 2) the aluminum top housing provides an added level of rigidity, so between the two pieces the keyboard feels sturdy enough.
Here’s what these switches sound like:
When in wired mode, the Hexgears X-1 is supposed to have NKRO. I was unable to confirm this with 100% accuracy. Using both Switch Hitter the AquaKeyTest, I never got all of the switches to register at once. However, this may be due to the different layout and onboard controls, which don’t map perfectly to the software test layouts. For example, the spacebar wouldn’t register if I pressed it in line after pressing the four leftmost bottom-row keys. But if I started from the rightmost bottom row, it did.
Regardless, nearly all the keys registered simultaneously, so I feel confident stating that the Hexgears X-1 almost certainly does offer NKRO.
Confused About Hexgears, Kono Store, and Input Club?
There’s been a bit of confusion around all the parties involved in the launch of the X-1, but it’s easily cleared up.
Although many in the keyboard community conflate Input Club with the Kono Store, because both were started by the same people, they serve different functions. Input Club is a group that designs and makes keyboards. Kono Store is a web store that sells products from multiple vendors, including a lot of Input Club creations. Hexgears is a keyboard maker, like Input Club. Kono Store helps both companies (and others) sell their wares.
But those intertwined relationships explain why a lot of people erroneously thought that the X-1 was an Input Club creation. It’s not. Hexgears created it, originally giving it the less catchy moniker of “GK950,” although other names bandied about include “Black Canyon” (aw yeah!) and “Cicada’s Wings” (uh…). Kono Store worked with Hexgears to create the name “X-1,” asserting that it was inspired by the Bell X-1 aircraft.
Kono Store also consulted on the final design, and the Kickstarter campaign is to raise enough funds to cover raw materials, switches, and other costs. Hexgears already paid for the tooling, engineering, and assembly line setup. Also, Kono Store functions as the exclusive U.S. distributor for the X-1.
Hexgears gets a big ‘ol cookie for producing a lowpro keyboard with sufficient rigidity, not to mention higher-end looks. It has a couple of additional features that make me happy, including a tidy layout, USB Type-C, and multiple simultaneous Bluetooth connectivity options. The teardown showed a pristine PCB, too.
But the X-1 has some severe limitations. You can’t change any key assignments or program macros. The lighting is allegedly RGB, but you can’t really use it. Effectively, it’s a 7-color keyboard. The chiclet keycaps left me wanting, and although I more or less got used to the stiff typing experience, I never adjusted to the awful spacebar. [Note update above–Hexgears is working on a solution to the issue.] A combination of the flimsy keycap and the stiff switch made for frustrating typing. I had to slam that spacebar to get it to actuate every time.
Manufacturers and designers are still figuring out how to do low-profile keyboards right. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s a more difficult task than expected. The Hexgears X-1 is a solid effort, but its shortcomings are big ones that will be dealbreakers for many users, even though the price is tempting at just $99.
|Most solid lowpro construction we've seen so far||No programmability|
|Bluetooth connectivity (x4!) option||Terrible, flimsy spacebar|
|Maximized compact layout||"RGB” lighting, but functionally is basically just 7 colors|
Where To Buy
Eventually you may be able to buy a Hexgears X-1 on the Kono Store, but for now it’s exclusively available via the Kickstarter campaign. It’s available in both the white keys/silver body color combo I have on hand, but there’s also a black/black option. The price is currently just $99, but it will likely increase to $120 later on.
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