Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why I'm using a 1988 keyboard...

This summer, while sorting a junk heap of old keyboards, I found a real gem -- a 1988 IBM Model M mechanical keyboard in pretty good condition.

This keyboard is a well known model, and is very popular among keyboard enthusiasts. I cleaned up the board, and now I've been using it as my primary keyboard for a few weeks.

My favorite keyboard.
How many electronics do you own that have a birth certificate?

So, what makes this 24-year-old board better than your fancy gaming keyboard? or even your high-end mechanical board?

Here are a few reasons:
  • PBT Plastic
    • Most keyboards (even most "high-end" mechanical boards) have keycaps that are made of ABS plastic. PBT plastic is more difficult to work with, but is far more resistant to wear.
      • Your ABS keyboards will probably start to look a bit shiny after a few months/years. However, my Model M's keycaps still have a good texture even after decades of use in a school.
24 years and the keys still have a texture
  • It's built like a tank...
    • How many keyboards these days have a heavy steel plate inside? The IBM Model M features a (very heavy) steel plate, that gives the keyboard both it's weight and durability.
      • You could probably snap a cheap modern keyboard easily. The Model M could probably survive being thrown across a room.
Ripster's image of a bolt mod on a Model M. Gives a good picture of the steel plate that gives these boards their weight.

  • Buckling Springs Are Better
    • IBM buckling spring keyboards like the Model M are notoriously noisy, much noiser than even Cherry MX Blue switches. This is because you receive a loud click upon successfully actuating a key.
      • This is what sets mechanical keyboards apart from "rubber-dome" keyboards that rely on a sheet of rubber underneath your keys. Mechanical keyboards have real switches and springs. The Model M isn't a true mechanical (no switch), but it feels like one.
GIF of IBM buckling springs.
Image from the Mechanical Keyboard Guide on
  • No-nonsense layout
    • The Model M has a perfect, no-nonsense 101-key ANSI layout. None of that crap with the over-sized Enter key and microscopic Backspace (why make enter so big but backspace so small? why?)
  • Detachable, coiled cable
    • I've seen very few coiled cables these days. I don't know why. I really like the coiled, detachable cable on the Model M. It just sits on my desk and doesn't get tangled.
  • It's vintage aesthetics make a great contrast to my "modern" hardware
    • If anyone tells me that I should get a "new" keyboard (haters-gonna-hate I guess), I'll calmly explain why I love my keyboard, and why I actually prefer the old look (it looks so awesomely out-of-place on my desk).

Now, the Model M is a great board, but it's not perfect. Here are some possible disadvantages.
  • No NKRO
    • It's no secret that the Model M has 2-key rollover (meaning, worst case, you might not be able to hit three keys at once). I'm not even much of a gamer, and this has gotten in my way a few times.
  • It's still membrane-based
    • Unless you have a rare IBM Model F, underneath the springs is a plain old membrane (just like your rubber-domes). This is why it is 2KRO, and why it's not a true mechanical keyboard.
  • 101-key
    • Personally, I like the 101-key layout (no Windows key or Context Menu key), but many people, especially if you use Windows (I don't usually), will find it inconvenient.
  • The way that the plastic is attached to the steel is just plain cheap
    • This can be fixed with a bolt mod, but after many years, the plastic anchored to the steel plate will get weak. Fixable if you have some basic tool skills and some parts, but annoying nonetheless.
  • It's really really difficult to open and work on
    • The bolts holding the plastic together are 5.5mm (7/32 inches), not only is this fairly uncommon, but the shafts where the bolts are located are very narrow as well.
    • You also can't get to the hammers or membrane without doing a bolt mod.
  • It's draws more power than it should
In conclusion, the most important features to me in a keyboard are: PBT plastic, clicky and tacticle feel (buckling spring, Cherry MX Blue/Green), and a good ANSI layout. NKRO is highly preferred if possible.

The Model M isn't perfect, but it's pretty good, and it's better than most keyboard's I've used in my days. The downside, however, is that I've become extremely picky about keyboards, and I can't even find a high-end mechanical one that I like as much. The days where I could be happy on a $15 keyboard are over.

Unicomp still make replica Model Ms... but I don't think the quality is quite as good (though, I'm sure they're still great boards because they're very close to the original).

I'd really like to see a true Cherry MX Green keyboard on the market. The MX Green switch is like a heaver version of the MX Blue (buckling springs are quite a bit heaver than Blues). All we've got right now are "ghetto-Greens" (MX Blue switches with MX Black springs).

Now, if I could just get my hands on an AT Model F...