Review: KBDfans’ TINA-C & Plateless Tray Mounts

Introduction

Before you go all ‘hurr-durr tray mounts are shit’, trust me when I say that I felt the exact same way about tray-mounted boards just a few weeks ago. From my experience, they tend to have very bad tolerances, lots of design oversight, rattly bottom out sounds and inconsistent typing feels. But, that doesn’t disqualify all tray mounts from ever being good.

Plateless tray mount builds are by no means a new thing in the hobby, but it never crossed my mind until Anthony from 001Keyboards started talking about it on his stream. Being the naturally curious person I am, I decided to pick up a TINA-C on mechmarket to see what all the fuss is about. After about 4 weeks of using the board, the board has grown on me to the point at which I find myself using it more than any other board in my collection.

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TINA-C with IMSTO Cyrillic Black on Black

Specifications

Case Material: Aluminum

Weight Material: Aluminum

Layout: MX HHKB

PCB: DZ60 (Zeal60 used in build instead)

Elevation Angle: 9 Degrees

Case Construction: Two-Part Case

Plate Mounting System: Standard 60 Tray Mount (built plateless)

Price: $159 for a kit (case, plate, PCB, stabilizers)

Link: https://kbdfans.cn/products/tina-keyboard-60?variant=40096238221

Build Process

OFF TOPIC: If you’re buying a built board on mechmarket — even if it claims to have all the bells and whistles like lubed/clipped/band-aid modded stabilizers — unless it was built by a reputable builder (and my list of reputable builders is VERY short at this point), expect to have to rebuild the board. Lubed stabilizers/switches can mean different things for different people, switch alignment is an oversight for most people and neat build jobs are few and far in between.

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Perfectly Lubed Stabs, the Anthony Way

I had to rebuild the keyboard as it was near unusable when I got it. I personally subscribe to the 001Anthony method of building keyboards (check his stream out here) and it has never failed me. While desoldering and disassembling the built TINA-C was extremely painful, building it was a breeze. With no plate to mess with and PCB-mounted switches, soldering the switches in straight was a walk in the park. Also, without the plate, I could access the stabilizers even after all of the switches were soldered in which made it easy to fine-tune them.

(Sidenote: The Zeal60 PCB is extremely easy to work with and is my PCB of choice if you’re going for a standard 60 build. It is really fucking expensive at $120, but it is the best PCB you can buy right now. I’m not sponsored by ZealPC — though that would be nice — I’m just recognizing a great product)

EDIT: Price Inaccuracies

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Screwing in the plate to the bottom case and assembling the keyboard together was also an uneventful experience — a good thing when building keyboards. The screw threads and case tolerances were all excellently done, making for a smooth build experience. Well done, KBDfans!

Design

In my opinion, the TINA-C’s design is iconic, well-thought out and functional. From most angles, the keyboard looks like any other HHKB custom in the last 2 years — not a bad thing, in my opinion. But, it has some extra design features that improve on the simple HHKB shell.

For one, I appreciate the ridges on the flanks of the case as it makes picking the keyboard up easier. I would have preferred if they rounded the ridges just slightly to make it softer to the touch, but it’s not like it hurts my fingers holding it now. Personally, I think incorporating some design element that helps ‘pickupability’ is something designers should be thinking about as it’s a point where creativity and design chops can shine through. Unfortunately, designers (and enthusiasts, for that matter) seem to love clean sides. It is minimalistic I guess, but it’s also uncreative and easy.

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TINA-C Side Profile and Ridges

All edges (both interior and exterior) on the top part of the keyboard are also slightly chamfered, giving it a bit of visual interest in the light. It’s a design element that would usually be overlooked at badly designed boards, so I’m glad it’s included here.

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While I have LEDs turned off, the backglow implementation on the TINA-C is some of the best I’ve seen in custom keyboards. There are discontinuities in the RGB at those darker spots on the diffuser (check the photo above), but it’s still good-looking. I question the implementation of RGB at the back of the case as all it does is glare against my computer screen instead of creating an aesthetically pleasing light show (which I hope is the reason designers even do RGB).

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The TINA-C also has a teal-colored accent/’weight’ thing on its underside that I personally could have done without. It’s supposed to be an additional visual element on the underside of the case, but I feel that it breaks up the clean underside unnecessarily. Saying it’s a weight is also a misnomer as it is made out of aluminum just like the rest of the case, so it doesn’t actually add any weight.

Build Quality

The anodizing quality on the TINA-C is in the top 20% of custom keyboards I’ve seen, and that’s a remarkable feat for a $159 keyboard. The anodizing texture is smooth to the touch, consistent with no dark spots or discontinuities and free of defects.

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Even and Nicely Textured Anodizing

However, there is one major anodizing/machining flaw on my unit — a dark streak running across the entire chin of the case. I’d posit that you see flaws like that on 90% of custom kits out there, but just because something is common doesn’t make it excusable.

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Streaking Line Across the Chin of the Case

This awesome anodizing quality could be attributed to the large runs that KBDfans does for their keyboards, and that the TINA-C is a tray-mounted board so no color matching/seam matching is needed.

The machining and tolerances on the TINA-C are also tight enough all around that there are no major flaws to them. One surprising this is that there are no marks visible on the inside of the case, which is where KBDfans has historically been disappointing at. I could excuse some machine marks on the inside of the case, but in this case there is no excusing needed.

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One thing that could be improved on with tolerances in future revisions is in making the bezel spacing more consistent all around. Right now, the vertical spacing between the keycaps and the bezels is slightly larger than the horizontal ones, making it seem unbalanced. That might be due to the fact that they wanted the vertical spacing to be similar to the spacing between rows, but I would prefer consistent bezel spacing instead.

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Inconsistent Keycap-to-Bezel Spacing

Typing Feel and Sound

Typing on the plateless TINA-C was initially very unsettling. Coming from only custom keyboard with hard plate setups, the bounciness and flex of the TINA-C distracted me from what I was typing. In particular, the bottom row (OS key, ‘Alt’, ‘Spacebar’) really threw me off as it was the part of the keyboard with the most flex. The PCB also vibrated a little after every bottom out which I thought was weird. I did notice that my finger joints hurt less while typing on the keyboard and I attributed this to the very cushioned bottom-out feel the plateless setup provided.

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Now that I’ve gotten used to that very different bottom-out feedback, I’ve come to enjoy typing on the TINA-C. Unlike the cold and emotionless hard plate setups, plateless feels fun and refreshing on type on. In the last few weeks, I found myself gravitating towards this over my customs when just derping around on my computer. I don’t think I would be able to use this for long typing sessions just because I’m so accustomed to hard plates, but for the short bursts of replying messages or trolling on Discord, using the plateless TINA-C has been very enjoyable.

If you’re looking for true HHKB thock in your MX custom, plateless tray mounts are definitely the way to go. With less material (as it’s plateless) for the vibrations to travel through, the plateless TINA-C produces a bottom-out sound that is deep and full of reverb. While the sound isn’t as drawn out as the one found on plastic keyboards, it’s still way more musical than any plated keyboard. However, it is that same drawn out sound that makes the bottom-out sound mushy. I like that it sounds different from other keyboards that I’ve tried, and it definitely isn’t my preferred sound signature, but it’s definitely up there.

Tina C Mounting Points.001

Plateless builds definitely aren’t perfect, though. One big issue with it on universal 60% mounts (like the one here) is that the flex is discontinuous at certain points in the layout. The typing feel at the keys closest to the mounting posts is dramatically different from that of the other parts of the keyboard. In particular, the ‘G’, ‘H’, ‘Q’, ‘Pipe/Backslash’ (which I use as ‘Backspace’) keys are affected the most as they are frequently used keys positioned near said mounting posts. They generally feel much harsher and pingier to bottom-out on than the other keys which ruins muh immersion.

As such, I’m hoping that in the near future, KBDfans (and other designers, for that matter) start experimenting with tray mounts without that center mounting post. Or better yet, experiment with a new 60% tray mount standard that has mounting holes along the edges of the PCB to emulate a bottom-mounted keyboard.

Conclusion

Tray-mounted keyboards have a very bad reputation for being cheap and low quality by custom keyboard enthusiasts. However, I think that some of that hate should be directed solely to the ones with shoddy build quality and the ones that are built with plates. Sure, many tray-mounted boards have boring designs, terrible tolerances, bad anodizing and rattly bottom-out sounds. But, with how positive my experience has been with the plateless TINA-C, I think that tray-mounted keyboards can be done well.

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Sure, the plateless setup is what makes this TINA-C so special, but I wouldn’t knock the case either. The TINA-C is a great custom keyboard kit that punches way above its price class. The anodizing is great, the machining is clean and the design is excellent. If made top-mounted, the TINA-C would be a $400 keyboard and nobody would bat an eye.

In short, tray-mounted boards can be good when made plateless, and the TINA-C is one amazing keyboard kit for the money.

6 thoughts on “Review: KBDfans’ TINA-C & Plateless Tray Mounts

  1. Awesome review as always!

    Do you think a sandwhich mount w/ a PC plate might have the same effect but would offset the tray mounting point hardness points?

    1. It would offset it for sure, but I don’t know exactly how much of an offset that would get. Though, that would be a simple calculation with values you can get in typical CAD software. Also, a bottom mount would offset the hardness even more than a sandwich mount.

      1. Yep! This is because the plate is constrained on discontinuous individual mounting points instead of continously across the entire edge of the plate.

      2. Do you know of any plates that have structural cuts even around the mounting points that would result in more flex?
        Not sure if that would induce TOO much flex at that point.

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