The Majestic Alps and the King of Keyboards
Back in the days when ADB ruled the land, Apple made one of the best keyboards in the known universe – the Apple Extended Keyboard. It was a large, solid keyboard with a great tactile feel provided by mechanical switches under each key. But good keyboards cost money, and over time Apple traded the desire to provide the best keyboard with the Mac for the desire to spend less money per Mac by skimping on the keyboard. Thanks to moving away from Alps mechanical keyswitches, Apple’s keyboards became mushy, and those of us who appreciate a good keyboard muttered darkly and clung to our old keyboards.
But if things were looking bad then, they were to get worse (and I promise not to dwell on the abomination that is the location of the Fn key on PowerBook and iBook keyboards). When Apple introduced the iMac, it included a cute little keyboard with a non-standard layout and a truly awful tactile feel, accompanied by a round mouse that was even worse. Almost everyone hated this keyboard (I’m being kind here, since in fact, I don’t know anyone who liked it, but it’s a big world out there and Apple sold a lot of iMacs, so I’m sure someone must have liked it). Worse, since the iMac dropped ADB in favor of USB, it became difficult to use an old ADB keyboard, since USB-to-ADB adapters tended to be a bit flaky with keyboards, which need to work in unusual situations such as when the Mac is powered down, sleeping, or crashed.
Having fallen to previously unexplored depths, Apple pulled itself out of the fetid mire with the Apple Pro Keyboard, a full-size keyboard with a standard layout and a decent tactile feel. The Apple Pro Keyboard was so much better than the original iMac keyboard that everyone breathed a sigh of relief and with a few exceptions, forgot that even the Apple Pro Keyboard couldn’t hold a candle to the Apple Extended Keyboard.
On a Mission — I, and the other members of the TidBITS staff, do a lot of typing. Our keyboards are in constant use all day long, as we write and edit articles, create and reply to email, and who knows what else. In fact, the main serious use for keyboards that we don’t have is gaming, where fast and accurate response are essential.
Over the last few years, we’ve tried a number of keyboards. Note that we don’t want anything fancy, like split keyboards, or keyboards with lots of extra specialty keys. All we want is a real Macintosh keyboard (with Command and Option keys, rather than Windows and Alt keys) that’s basically the same as the Apple Extended Keyboard.
None of the keyboards we’ve tried, including some from Macally, Kensington, and MicroConnectors, have garnered entirely positive comments, and more problematic, a number of them have failed in some important way (who needs an N key anyway!).
Enter the Tactile Pro — We’re inundated by press releases every day, and it’s uncommon for one to generate comment on our internal staff mailing list. However, when we received the initial press release for Matias’s Tactile Pro keyboard, which led with "Matias recreates ‘the best keyboard Apple ever made’" and went on to promise that the Tactile Pro Keyboard used the same mechanical switch technology as the original Apple Extended Keyboard, there was very nearly an online battle over who would get to try a review unit first. Ever the voice of calm and reason, I settled the question by announcing that I would take first crack at it. To quote Tom Petty, it’s good to be king.
On the face of it, the Tactile Pro Keyboard looks very much like the Apple Pro Keyboard (at least the one that came with my Power Mac G4), with a clear plastic shell backed by white plastic and solid white keys. It’s slightly less wide (from Caps Lock to the edge of the numeric keypad) than the Apple Pro Keyboard, but deeper (from the spacebar to the top of the keyboard above the function keys). Like the Apple Pro Keyboard, it sports a hard-wired cable and a pair of USB ports on either side of the top. A pair of feet flip out from the bottom if you prefer your keyboard angled up (so your fingers are higher than your wrists, a position I usually recommend against because of the unnatural hand position it enforces).
The keyboard layout is standard (no Fn or other boutique keys anywhere in sight!) and for the most part very similar to the Apple Pro Keyboard. There are a few differences, though. The top row of keys (Escape, the function keys, and the volume and Eject keys) are somewhat more separated from the rest of the keyboard than on the Apple Pro Keyboard, which is fine, since you don’t want to press them accidentally. The Tactile Pro Keyboard also has a power key above the function keys, a welcome addition if you can’t easily reach one of the power keys on your Mac or if you don’t have Apple monitors (which can power the machine on). Through no fault of Matias’s, the power key can only power on older Macs with the necessary hardware support; Apple’s current Macs no longer support power on signals via USB (but the power key still brings up the Restart/Sleep/Shut Down dialog when the Mac is turned on).
At a quick glance, the keycaps on the Tactile Pro Keyboard look slightly unusual. When you look more closely, you realize that Matias has done something that would seem obvious except for the fact that no one has done it before: they printed the Option- and Shift-Option-characters on every keycap. It’s a brilliant move; no longer do you need a software utility to look up the degree character when you can just glance at the keyboard and see that it’s Shift-Option-8. And before this I could never keep the keystrokes straight for single and double curly quotes (hold Option- or Shift-Option and press the bracket keys).
On the downside, the Tactile Pro Keyboard’s Option keys are slightly smaller than on the Apple Pro Keyboard, making them harder to hit accurately. The Apple Pro Keyboard’s Caps Lock key has an unusual keycap that separates it slightly from the A key; the Tactile Pro Keyboard lacks that special keycap, so I find myself accidentally turning Caps Lock on more frequently than before. Speaking of special keys, the volume and Eject keys require a special driver that Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar users must install; a CD-ROM contains the necessary installer.
Where the Tactile Pro Keyboard really shines, though, is in its feel. The keys are decidedly "clickier" and more mechanical, and they have a slightly longer key travel when you push them. The end result is a much less mushy feel than on the Apple Pro Keyboard, but accompanied by much louder typing noises. When I’m typing fast, the Tactile Pro Keyboard almost clatters, and I can say with assurance that I don’t mind one bit. The new feel took a little getting used to, but within a day, it felt quite wonderful.
It’s entirely possible that some people may not appreciate the extra noise; there’s no question that the Tactile Pro Keyboard is much louder than the Apple Pro Keyboard and other keyboards that use rubber membrane switches. I could imagine situations where a quiet keyboard would be important, but for most people, the important aspect of a keyboard is how it feels when you type. I had to switch back to the Apple Pro Keyboard briefly because the first Tactile Pro Keyboard Matias sent me developed a spotty A key after a few weeks of use; Edgar Matias told me that although the Alps keyswitches generally last for many years, if one is going to fail, it will fail almost immediately (which is why Matias offers a 5-year "few questions asked" warranty).
The return to the Apple Pro Keyboard was revealing. My typing accuracy dropped immediately, and my hands ached after a long day. Although I probably would have re-acclimated to it after another week or two, switching back to the replacement Tactile Pro Keyboard when it arrived was a huge relief.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but if you consider yourself a keyboard aficionado, or if you’ve been bothered by the slide in quality for Apple’s keyboards, you owe it to yourself to give the Tactile Pro Keyboard a try. It costs $100 plus $20 shipping if you buy direct from Matias; it probably makes more sense to buy from a reseller like TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics, where the price is $80 before shipping.
Protecting the Alps — There’s an interesting little side story that played itself out while I was reviewing the keyboard and communicating back and forth with Edgar Matias. The Tactile Pro Keyboard had been out for only a short while when Alps, the makers of the mechanical keyswitches, announced that they were going to stop making these particular keyswitches altogether.
Most vendors have moved to a lower-cost clone of the keyswitch, but when Edgar tried a sample keyboard they sent him, he thought it felt awful, with a touch so light it was tricky to avoid typing a character if he so much as touched a keycap. Although a light touch might seem like a good thing, it’s common to rest your fingers gently on the keycaps when you’re not typing, and if the switch doesn’t provide a certain amount of resistance, you end up entering characters accidentally. Most users respond to a too-light keyboard by holding their fingers just above the keyboard, but that subconscious action can make you even more tired by the end of the day. Despite this light touch, the sample keyboard was even louder than the Tactile Pro Keyboard. Needless to say, he was shocked that this could happen, both because he feared for the Tactile Pro Keyboard’s future and because he didn’t want see the famed Alps keyswitch disappear for good. Since Alps would have mothballed the tooling used to build this particular keyswitch, it might never have been produced again, particularly if the tooling deteriorated in the warehouse from lack of use and maintenance.
Luckily, Edgar was able to convince the Alps factory in Taiwan to keep the tooling active for him by committing to buy a million keyswitches. There are 110 keys (and thus presumably keyswitches) on a Tactile Pro Keyboard, so Matias needs to sell just over 9,000 keyboards to use up the promised million keyswitches. That’s confidence, but after trying the Tactile Pro Keyboard, I think it’s justified. It costs only a bit more than an Apple Pro Keyboard; it includes all the Option- and Shift-Option characters on the keycaps; and at least to my mind, it feels so much better that I type faster, more accurately, and more comfortably. Everyone’s hands are different, but if you live and die by your keyboard as I do, Matias’s Tactile Pro Keyboard is absolutely worth a try.