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The Greatest Computer Keyboard of All Time?

Back in 2004, Adam reported the tale of his relentless search for a keyboard that would meet his all-text, all-typing, all-the-time needs as perfectly as did the nostalgically recalled Apple Extended Keyboard, and how he settled on the Matias Tactile Pro (see “The Majestic Alps and the King of Keyboards,” 2004-03-29). Leap with me now, though, still further backwards in time, to a keyboard greater still: arguably the clickiest, springiest, most responsive keyboard ever, a massive hunk of sturdy plastic, whose tall, concave, solid, gently textured, large, separated, clacking keys once resounded through offices and computer labs all across the land. This was IBM’s legendary Model M, whose feel was intended to suggest that of Selectric typewriters, punch-card machines, and business equipment of all kinds.

The Model M’s keys operated on the principle of a “buckling spring”, which IBM patented in 1978. Supporting the keycap is a coiled spring, shaped like a piece of a tiny Slinky, running vertically from the underside of the keycap down to a knob sticking up from the pivot point of a rocking actuator switch. But the spring does not run quite vertically. The angles of the spring’s top and bottom attachments are such that it actually bulges or bows forward a little. As the user starts to press the key, the spring is compressed and (this is the important part) the bulge is increased. The force of the compression combined with the angle of the increased bulging is sufficient
to rock the actuator switch forward into the “on” position with a sudden, highly audible snap. The key character has now been typed. There is a good deal of travel left in the key, however, so it continues on downwards, with the spring resistance increasing all the while, until it is stopped by its housing.

There is something about the precise combination of all the forces, sounds, and nerve and muscle responses here that feels immensely solid, firm, predictable, and clean. As you rest your fingers on the keys, there is no chance whatever of depressing one of them accidentally; the resistance of the spring is too much for that. And even if some random twitching of your fingers does depress the key a little, the point where the rocker switch actuates is not reached. Yet as soon as you start to depress a key deliberately, it snaps the rocker switch very early, and the remainder of the downward key travel echoes this responsive feedback with the rising spring resistance until, if you are heavy-handed, your finger is stopped hard, with a
second click, by the key housing. At the same time, the keys themselves, as I mentioned earlier, are tall, the keycap tops being slightly concave and quite widely separated, almost cradling and guiding your fingers into place.

The result is that your chance of slipping onto the wrong key, or of not knowing with certainty when a key has been struck, or of getting the timing wrong so that keys are struck in the wrong order, or of key “bounce” emitting two instances of a character where one was intended, is reduced essentially to zero. If what you’re accustomed to is a typical modern rubber dome switch, then after about two minutes to get used to the keyboard, you suddenly find yourself typing more cleanly, steadily, and accurately, with more relaxed, precise gestures, than ever before in your life.

Manufacture of the Model M keyboard was divested from IBM to Lexmark in 1991, and in 1996 the design was licensed by a small Lexington, Kentucky firm called Unicomp. At the end of January 2009, NPR did a story on Unicomp. According to reporter Martin Kaste, Unicomp’s founder is Neil Muyskens, who left IBM specifically to continue manufacture of this keyboard, using not just the original technology but the original plastic molds. Manufacture is both labor-intensive (the buckling springs are inserted by hand and individually tested) and high-tech (the key response times are rechecked by a robotic typist). The resulting price isn’t all that high – just a little
higher than an ordinary keyboard, really. But, according to the story, it’s high enough to make sales a problem; retail chains (any left in business) won’t stock it, and what Kaste calls “aging nerds” don’t buy fast enough to keep the company going, especially because these keyboards are so reliable and long-lived that you probably won’t buy more than one of them, once.

You can guess the rest. Once I heard that story, I had had enough. Enough frustration with decent but ultimately mushy, short-lived keyboards. Enough guilt about not putting my money where my heart and fingers are. I bought a Unicomp keyboard. I love it. I’m typing on it right now. And if you’re a real typist with plenty of desktop space, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It isn’t just that I type more accurately, more smoothly, and (therefore) faster; it’s that I feel better. I’m more comfortable, less frustrated, less tense; and I approach a day of typing at the computer with eagerness instead of a vague, nagging dread. This could really make me a happier, more productive writer!

If you want one, the place to start is the Web site (and don’t start puzzling over whether there’s an “s” at the end of the name; it’s all too confusing). What I got is listed as a “Customizer 104/105”. It comes in one color, black (with lovely grey keys), and two wiring configurations, PS/2 (boo, hiss) and USB (yay!). So what I ordered was a Windows (US) USB model with US English layout.

Now, don’t get all bent out of the shape over the use of the word “Windows” in that title. Nothing about this keyboard is going to remind you of Bill Gates except for the presence of a picture of something that looks like a flying window where the Option key should be, and the presence of the word Alt where the Command key should be, next to the Spacebar. I suppose you could paste something over those symbols if they really bother you (I think Unicomp will actually sell you alternative keycaps, but I didn’t look into that). You do, however, need to reverse the meaning of the Option and Command keys. Here’s how you do it.

Plug the keyboard into your computer. A dialog will appear stating that the keyboard isn’t known, and asking you to type the key to the right of the left Shift key (“Z” on my keyboard) and to the left of the right Shift key (forward slash), and then asking you to confirm that this appears to be a U.S. keyboard. Then, choose Apple > System Preferences, open the Keyboard & Mouse preferences, and click Modifier Keys on the Keyboard pane. In that dialog, set the Command key to mean Option and the Option key to mean Command. You’re good to go! Remember, though, that this reversal is made in software, for your individual user; during startup, when your user hasn’t loaded yet, to hold down the Option key (to display a choice of available
systems) you’ll still need to use Alt.

(Okay, I lied. There is one further indication that this is a Windows keyboard: the presence of the Application key next to the right Control key. I believe this is supposed to do the same thing as right-clicking the mouse – what a Mac user would call Control-clicking. On my machine, it doesn’t do anything, and that’s just fine with me.)

The Customizer 104/105 keyboard costs $69; shipping is extra (and earplugs for anyone who shares your office space must be purchased elsewhere). See the Web site for other models and configurations.

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