My first computer—at least, my first serious computer (the used Apple II Plus I played around with for a while doesn’t really count)—was an IBM PC-AT I got from my parents when they upgraded to a Tandy 486. The PC-AT had an 80286 processor running at a whopping 6mhz, had 1mb of RAM, and ran MS-DOS 5.22. It was on that computer that I learned many of the skills that stick with me to this day. At the time I longed for one of those fancy new Windows machines, since all my friends had Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), but I am very glad to this day that I cut my teeth on an old-fashioned command-line based system. Being comfortable with telling a computer what to do with a keyboard comes in very handy, especially when working with Linux or utilizing the advanced functions of a Mac or Windows machine.
Even if you’re not an old CLI-jockey like me, the keyboard is one part of the computer that gets nearly constant use. It’s the part you actually touch the most. Despite its important role in computing, the keyboard is often an afterthought—both to the manufacturers who produce them at the lowest possible cost using the cheapest possible components, and to the users that seem content with whatever keyboard came with the machine.
I have been just as guilty as anybody else in this respect. I do most of my typing on an Apple Keyboard USB that I just threw in with my order when I bought my previous computer and—I’m almost ashamed to admit—I considered bypassing it because of the $30 price tag and picking up something even cheaper at MicroCenter. This keyboard is not bad, per se, but it does have the typical ‘mushiness’ of the modern, inexpensive dome-switch keyboards that rule the market today.
When I think about it, the best keyboard I’ve ever had for daily use was the IBM PC-AT Keyboard on that 286 with which I started my computer journey. Yes, the AT had an odd key layout (with the function keys in two columns on the left, CTRL where Caps Lock should be, ALT where CTRL should be, nothing where ALT should be, and a shared number-pad/arrow pad on the right), but the action of the keys themselves was exquisite. Presses were precise, accurate, and had a blessed tactile and audible ‘click’—all of this thanks to IBM’s patented ‘Buckling Spring‘ technology.
It turns out that my affection for the typing feel of old IBM keyboards is shared by many, and countless typists consider the IBM Model M keyboard—the more traditionally laid-out successor to the AT keyboard featuring same switch mechanism—to be the best keyboard ever made. The Model M was produced by IBM in-house from 1984 to 1991 with either AT or PS/2 connections. After 1991, IBM divested much of its peripheral business into Lexmark, which continued producing IBM-branded Model M keyboards (of a slightly inferior build quality) until 1996. Most of these keyboards were built to last and, if they haven’t been thrown out, are probably still in use today.
Because of their tactile/audible typing feedback and overall build quality, Model M keyboards are (believe it or not) still in high-demand today. ClickyKeyboards.com sells like-new and refurbished Model M keyboards, some of which still in their original packaging, for $60-plus. They are also available at various prices and conditions over at eBay. Of course, for use on a modern computer, you’d need one (PS/2 to USBs) or two (AT to PS/2 to USB) adapters to use the keyboards over USB, and they also lack one modern function key (the ‘Windows Key’, which also acts as ‘Command’ on Macs).
But all is not lost for lovers of the buckling spring keyboard! When Lexmark ceased production of the Model M, a company named Unicomp picked up the requisite patent licenses and designs from their owners and continued production of the venerable keyboard line, later introducing USB versions and adding the ever-important Windows key. Unicomp versions of the Model M are still available (brand new!) today, including a $59 clone of the original, a $69 original with the updated keys and available USB interface, and several other variations—like the smaller $69 SpaceSaver and the touchpoint-including $99 Endurapro.
My Endurapro is on the way; I’ll add a brief review to this entry once it arrives.
The 2nd Best Keyboard Ever Made (Added 6/6/2008)
My Endurapro hasn’t arrived yet (I’m guessing some time next week), but as an aside, while I’m thinking about keyboards, I thought I’d mention the keyboards often regarded as the 2nd best keyboards ever made. They are also considered the best Mac keyboards ever made, since the IBM Model M’s were not Mac compatible until the relatively-recent age of USB.
There is controversy about which of the two is ‘better’, but the consensus seems to be the Apple Extended Keyboard and/or the Apple Extended Keyboard II are each excellent keyboards. They use something called the ‘Alps’ switch, which is a mechanical switch that provides a tactile sound/feel that approaches (but does not reach) that of IBM’s buckling spring design. In my humble opinion, almost any mechanical switch has better feel (by a long shot) than the dome-switch design usually used in new keyboards today.
Both Apple Extended Keyboards predate adoption of USB by Apple and the wider industry, so both came with the proprietary Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) connector. This can be converted to USB using the Griffin iMate, the only ADB to USB adapter I’m aware of on the market. The Model M has the advantage here, as PS/2 to USB adapters are widely available from many manufacturers.
Like the Model M, the Apple Extended Keyboards are available in various price ranges and states on eBay, and there is also a modern incarnation called the Matias Tactile Pro 2.0. The Tactile Pro is USB-based and has a modern look (even compared to Unicomp’s new Model M’s). Most importantly, it uses very similar keyswitches to those used in the original Apple Extended Keyboards.
Interestingly, I actually have an Apple Extended Keyboard II among my menagerie of derelict computer equipment. I’ve never done a lot of typing on one, so I can’t vouch for it nearly so much as I can for the Model M, but I am picking up an iMate to give it a shot for comparison purposes.
The Endurapro (Added 6/9/2008)
My Unicomp Endurapro keyboard has arrived, and after only a few minutes of use I’ve found it to be everything I’d hoped it would be. The action feels almost identical to the keyboards of old that I loved so much, and I can see myself easily getting years of great typing out of this thing. I have ordered a ‘real’ IBM Model M cheap off eBay for my little computer museum (it hasn’t arrived yet), but I also discovered that an old IBM ‘Luggable’ I had in my closet has a built-in buckling spring keyboard similar to the Model M, and the action (in a fairly limited comparison) seems to be nearly identical. Excellent.
After years of typing on mushy dome-switches for so long, it will probably take me a few days for it to feel ‘normal’ typing on a solid, well-made keyboard again. That’s not a problem. I’m already loving the clear, tactile, audible feel and sound of making a keypress and the ‘machine gun’ sound of typing a few sentences. Great stuff.
In case you’re wondering what I’m going on about, here are some recordings of me typing the same sentence on three keyboards. This does not capture the feel, but it should at least give you an idea of the sound. The three recordings were made with the same microphone at the same distance from each keyboard. (And, if you’re wondering, I type about 70 words per minute [WPM] on average. Test your own typing speed!)