The image on the custom header above is the One True Keyboard, the IBM Model M. (I took a picture of one of mine, cropped out a fitting segment, applied one of those “hey look, I’m all artsy” Photoshop filters to it, and used the text tool to slap some typewriter-looking font on the result.)
Anyway, the Model M is a pain in the ass to have around on the desk. First of all, it’s not very pretty. It’s big, square, and beige, and it clashes horribly with anything computer-related made since, oh, 1998 or so, when Apple came up with all the fruity colors, and PC makers suddenly figured out that you don’t have to make ‘em all beige. All the computer gear and every last peripheral in the house is some combination of black and silver, and the Model M parked in between all that trendy glitz looks like an eggshell-colored VW Beetle in the middle of a parking lot packed with Corvettes.
Then there’s the size of the thing. It’s wide, tall, and boxy, and it claims a big chunk of desk real estate. My Logitech mouse constantly hits the lower right corner of the Model M when I’m mousing around, and whenever I take one of my increasingly rare Flight Simulator breaks, I have to move the whole thing out of the way because the joystick won’t fit on the desk anymore.
And then there’s the noise. The Model M has buckling springs under each key, which is where that distinctive clicky sound originates. The keys make that click when you depress them, and when you let go of them, so each key press gives you two clicks. The Model M is a bit more quiet than an IBM Selectric at full tilt, but not by much. When you get into the groove and crank out an article or a blog entry at 60 or 70 words per minute, your work is accompanied by a thunderous racket that can be heard halfway across the house.
Lastly, in the era of disappearing legacy ports on computers, it is getting increasingly difficult to use the old Model M with modern hardware. The keyboard connector is PS/2, and some modern motherboards don’t even come with PS/2 ports anymore–the USB port has taken the spot as the standard keyboard interface. Of those who do still retain a PS/2 port, many don’t work with the Model M regardless, since the old IBM uses far more current than a modern piece-of-crap rubber dome PS/2 keyboard. Those pull about 5-10mW, whereas the Model M’s internal circuitry pulls close to 100mW. As a result, many modern computers refuse to work with the Model M, including my new dual-core system. Then you need to track down a PS/2-to-USB converter that’ll turn the Model M into a USB keyboard.
So why the hell do people still use those noisy dinosaurs?
Simply put, because every other keyboard sucks once you’ve used a Model M. If you just use your keyboard to dash off a few emails a day and type out the addresses to your favorite
porn research websites, then the $10 rubber dome abortion that came with your system will probably serve you well. If you use your computer for any kind of work involving writing, however, the keyboard becomes the most important part of the whole setup. For that kind of use, having a $1000 PC and using a $10 keyboard as an interface makes about as little sense as buying a bucks-up defensive pistol and then stuffing it into a Gun Show Special nylon rig. (“See, it’s got a magazine pouch for your extra clip!”) The cheap-ass keyboards work for most people, because most people don’t use their computers to write a few thousand words per day, and most computers don’t last more than three or four years before they’re replaced with a newer model.
On the Model M, the buckling springs give the user tactile and auditory feedback every time a key is pressed and released. Typing on a Model M feels more precise, the key resistance is just right, and the sound actually makes your typing more accurate. I am so used to hearing two clicks per keypress that even at 60 words per minute, I can hear when I miss a keystroke by the absence of the “clack”, and I’m usually on the backspace key to correct the omission before I even have to glance at the screen.
There’s also no Windows key in the way between the CTRL and ALT keys on the left side. The key caps are removable, and you can just take them all off the keyboard and toss them into the dishwasher when they get grimy. (You can actually swap keycaps around and make your own Dvorak keyboard, if you’re one of those weirdos who actually dig that layout.) The whole keyboard weighs five pounds because it’s mounted on a steel backplate, and you could probably beat someone to death with it and still use it write a blog entry about the experience afterwards. You simply cannot wear out a Model M–there are a ton of them out there that are fifteen or even twenty years old, and they work just as well as the day they left the factory. The one I’m currently using was made in 1989, and the computer with which it originally shipped has been in a landfill for a decade if it had a long career. I have three more Model Ms sitting in storage in the Big Tupperware Tub o’ Geek Gear in the attic, and I don’t expect to have to fall back on one of those unless I dump another glass of wine onto the one that’s currently on my desk. (That’s how its predecessor bit the dust–if they have a vulnerability, it’s the lack of drainage channels for liquid spills.)
In the computer age, typing on a Model M is as close as you can get to going back to typing on an IBM Selectric. It gives a unique mechanical feel to the entirely digital affair of making text appear on a screen, and it makes writing a tactile experience again. There’s a reason why you can do a Google search on “IBM Model M”, and find dozens of web sites dedicated to (and advocating the use of) the Great Clicky One.
The demand for Model M keyboards is apparently sufficient for companies like Unicomp to make new ‘boards based on the buckling spring concept. Unicomp acquired the patent for the design from Lexmark, where IBM had outsourced the production of the Model M in the 1990s, and now you can get a brand new sorta-Model M with USB connectors and Windows key. (Unicomp calls theirs the “Customizer“, and you can get it in black-and-silver as well.) I’ve not tried any of their Model M knockoffs, but from what I hear from users who have used both the original and the new iteration is that the Customizer uses springs with less tension than the Model M, and that the plastic used for the key caps is thinner, which sums up to a very different feel. Apparently, they replicate the sound, but not the feel.
Fortunately, the durability of the Model M means that you can pick up any number of them on eBay, and the shipping is usually more expensive than the keyboard itself (see “steel backplate” above.)
If your computer use involves lots of writing, and you haven’t tried typing on a Model M before, find yourself a used one and try it out for a while. You’ll find that you’ll get spoiled for anything else, you’ll start sneering at the rows of cheap rubber dome keyboards on the shelves at Best Buy, and one day you’ll use a thousand words or more to sing the praises of it on your blog, branding yourself as a hopeless nerd.