1984 was a landmark year in computing. It was the debut year of the Macintosh, of course, but it also spawned another piece of timeless computer hardware: the IBM Model M keyboard, which Matt Neuburg argued is the greatest keyboard of all time (see “The Greatest Computer Keyboard of All Time?,” 27 February 2009).
The Model M represents a long-gone era of keyboards designed to satisfy typewriter users, featuring satisfyingly clicky buckling-spring keys. In 1992, IBM offloaded most of its keyboard manufacturing to Lexmark, which continued to produce Model M keyboards for Big Blue. The industry eventually moved to cheaper and mushier mechanisms like rubber domes, and Lexmark and IBM both bowed out of the Model M business in the late 1990s. However, a group of Lexmark employees bought the factory in Lexington, Kentucky and formed Unicomp.
Clicky keyboards, once a niche item, have come back into fashion in recent years. They’re now so popular that mainstream companies offer mechanical “gaming” keyboards you can buy in many brick-and-mortar stores, even Walmart. Meanwhile, Unicomp has been churning out those classic Model M clicky keyboards since the days of Apple’s apparent doom.
Unicomp even makes a Mac-specific model, the Spacesaver M, but I’d be hesitant to recommend it. That’s because, over the years, the old Lexmark tooling has worn down, leading to widespread reports of reliability issues and poor fit and finish. Recently, Unicomp invested in brand-new tooling to make the first brand-new Model M in a quarter-century, simply named the New Model M.
I recently found myself in need of a new keyboard. While the Model M wasn’t my first keyboard, it was what I used in my high school typing class, and ever since I have longed for that clicky, bouncy, typing thrill.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns having a catastrophic impact on small businesses, I’ve made it something of a New Year’s resolution to do more to support small local businesses. The Unicomp factory is only 3 hours north of my house, so I figured even if I wasn’t totally happy with the keyboard, I’d at least be doing my part to support one of the few computer peripheral manufacturers still making products in the United States.
The New Model M(ac Keyboard)
I nearly ordered a stock New Model M with Windows keys and all the trappings of a PC keyboard. After all, I don’t look at my keyboard all that much, so I don’t care that much if my Command key is emblazoned with the Saint Hannes cross, a Windows logo, or a Linux penguin. Regardless, you can swap out the keycaps, and Unicomp sells a variety of keycaps.
My hangup was the Mac-specific keys along the top row that let me control brightness, volume, Mission Control, and other functions. Plus the base model lacked the Function key seen on Apple keyboards. Sure, I could reprogram something to take its place, but I decided that it would make my life substantially easier to have a keyboard with a Mac layout.
I contacted Unicomp support in mid-December to see if they would be willing to build me a New Model M with the same layout as the Spacesaver M. I knew Unicomp had been hit especially hard by COVID-19, delaying the upcoming Mini M keyboard that was due in March 2020, so I didn’t get my hopes up. However, they responded quickly, telling me that they could do a custom keyboard in mid-January and to contact them again then.
Flash forward to mid-January, and I got in touch with Unicomp support again to see if they could build my custom New Model M. They said yes, and gave me instructions on how to order it:
- Add the New Model M to your shopping cart.
- Add two $10 customization fees.
- In the Customization field, specify Mac layout.
The checkout process was pretty clunky, and the total cost after customizations and shipping was $145.87. That’s pricey, but no more so than many high-end mechanical keyboards currently on the market.
I was told it might take up to two weeks to build and ship my keyboard, but it shipped in just three days and arrived the day after it was shipped, likely due to my close proximity.
The keyboard I’m now typing on may very well be unique: a New Model M with a Mac layout.
The New Model M Mac Layout
The New Model M’s utilitarian industrial design won’t win any style awards. It features a simple black base, with a mix of white and gray keys. The Mac variant is pretty bare bones. It includes all the keys you would expect in a full-size Mac keyboard—Command, Option, Function, brightness, etc.—but don’t expect Susan Kare-designed icons on the keycaps. Special keys like Command and Exposé have simple text labels, while brightness, volume, and media keys have generic pictographs.
In terms of size, the New Model M is a beast. It’s 17.9 inches (45.5 cm) wide, 7.5 inches (19 cm) deep, and 1.96 (5 cm) inches high, and weighs 3 pounds 11 ounces (about 1.7 kg). The number pad makes the keyboard especially wide, so it might get in the way if you keep your keyboard and pointing device side-by-side. I prefer to put the keyboard in my lap, so that’s not an issue for me.
The New Model M worked with my iMac out of the box. Volume, brightness, and media keys worked perfectly, as did Exposé. I had to program the Dashboard key to trigger Launchpad in System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts (interestingly, the Dashboard key registers as F12).
One odd thing is that Unicomp replaced the Insert key with Eject, something I didn’t notice until I tried to press Insert while typing on my ThinkPad and the DVD tray popped out. Another oddity, though it’s standard on full-sized Mac keyboards, is that there is no Num Lock key on the number pad. Instead, it’s replaced by a Clear key. Also, I’m amused by the little pictograph of finger guns slaying the letter “a” on the Delete key.
Typing on the New Model M
Let’s talk about what’s really important: what is it like to type on the New Model M? It’s difficult to convey such an experience in text, but I’ll do my best.
It’s important to note that the Model M is not a mechanical keyboard! Instead, it uses a buckling spring mechanism, which is a much older design than the traditional mechanical keyboard mechanism. The chief difference between the two is the size of the spring. In a buckling spring keyboard, you press a keycap, which presses a spring that sits directly on a lever that actuates the keypress. In a mechanical keyboard, a little bit of plastic actuates the keypress, with the spring simply returning the key to its original position.
In a buckling spring mechanism, the spring is the star of the show. If you pull off one of the keycaps you can see the spring sitting in its well.
The functional difference is that a buckling key’s springs have a certain “springiness” that mechanical keys do not. It’s hard to convey, but the keys make a slight “sproing” sound as you type. It’s not particularly loud, though it’s definitely not silent. I don’t worry about waking up the kids when they’re sleeping in the next room, and it seems quieter than Adam Engst’s old reliable Das Keyboard, which sounds like horses stampeding when we’re on Slack calls. I made a video of me typing on the New Model M so you can get a sense of the sound.
Buckling springs have a reputation for requiring a lot of force. I was worried about that because my forearm muscles tend to get painfully tense when pressing buttons repeatedly, which is why I use a vertical mouse and rarely play games on computers anymore (see “Anker’s Vertical Mouse Provides Cheap RSI Relief,” 7 December 2018). However, I have not been bothered at all by the activation force necessary for the New Model M.
In fact, I find the keys to be quite light to press. The spring offers enough resistance so you won’t accidentally activate a key just by touching its keycap, but once you decide to press a key, it moves ever so slightly before that ever-so-satisfying click. I estimate the actual activation travel to be about the same as Apple’s Magic Keyboard.
The additional travel between the click and the key bottoming out helps cushion your fingers. When I typed with Apple keyboards, I sometimes experienced pain in my fingertips from where they were constantly smashing into the keyboard. I have no such pain with the New Model M.
When I was between keyboards, I used a super-cheap Walmart keyboard that was so mushy it was like typing on mashed potatoes. It was a strain on my forearms because it felt like my fingers were working in mud. I can’t say the New Model M has eliminated my forearm pain, but it aggravates it the least of all the keyboards I’ve tried.
I like typing with this keyboard, but nothing’s perfect. For one, while aesthetics are subjective, I find the New Model M ugly. But perhaps more offensive than the overall aesthetic is the use of bright blue LEDs for the Caps Lock and Function indicator lights. Maybe it’s just my highly sensitive eyes, but I find blue LEDs to be entirely too bright, and they’re totally overused in computer components these days.
If you care about n-key rollover, the New Model M is not the keyboard for you. Many keyboards stop reliably registering key presses when too many keys are pressed at the same time. You can test this on your current keyboard by holding down both Shift keys with your pinkies and typing:
THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG
When I do this on the New Model M, I get:
TE UIC RWN JUS VER TE LAY DG
That’s pretty bad, but again, it primarily concerns gamers, who might have to hold down several keys at once. The Apple Magic Keyboard performs about the same:
H CK BN FX JMPS V H LAZ DG
Keyboards that feature n-key rollover have no limit to how many keys you can press at once. N-key rollover is often confused with ghosting, which is when phantom keypresses occur when multiple keys are pressed down. For example, you press “n” and “k” at the same time and then “i” also appears in whatever you’re typing. Many times when keyboard makers advertise “anti-ghosting” they really mean some sort of key rollover. Linus Sebastian explains the differences in this video.
The long-delayed Mini M, if it ever ships, will sport one feature I wish the New Model M had: a detachable USB cable. In my experience, the first thing to go on long-term use items like this is the cable (like on my Sony MDR-V6 headphones from 2007), so I’d like to be able to replace it easily.
There are a few things about the New Model M that are inferior to the old Model Ms I used in high school. There is a slight creak when I squeeze either side of the keyboard. The original Model Ms were rock solid, presumably because they had been carved from stone. However, this doesn’t make any difference when typing. Another downgrade is the use of single-piece keycaps. The old Model M models had an external shell over each key that easily popped on and off, so you could change a key’s look without removing the entire key and possibly messing up the spring mechanism. On the New Model M, you have to remove the entire key. Again, this is a nitpick.
A final small issue I have that may become larger in the long run is the sharp edges on the Command key. Since the side of my left thumb often rides against the corner of that key, the edge irritates my thumb. It’d be nice to have chamfered edges on the Control, Option, and Command keys.
If I didn’t love the New Model M, I could at least console myself with the fact that I had thrown some money to a small, somewhat local business. But I do love it! While it won’t win beauty contests or video game tournaments, it’s a joy to type with. And I’m typing all day, every day.
There is a theory called the Lindy effect, which states that the longer a non-perishable thing lasts, the longer it is likely to last. For example, if a book has been in publication for 50 years, it’s reasonable to assume that it will be in publication for another 50 years. By that measure, the 37-year-old Model M is indeed “lindy.” It’s a timeless design, and I’m glad Unicomp is carrying on the tradition.
Finally, I’ll leave you a video of my youngest son helping me record keyboard sounds.