nerd it up, yo.

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.

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23 thoughts on “nerd it up, yo.

  1. Sevesteen says:

    IBM’s keyboard design was one of the smarter things they did with the original PC. The keyboard they used wasn’t quite a type M, but the key feel was similar, and in a different league compared to the average keyboard of the day. On the other hand, a $70 keyboard made sense on a $2000+ system where it doesn’t on a $400 one.

    The model M I am using is from 1990. They can fail, but I’ve had two failure modes on mine–spending 5 years in a nasty factory environment full of electrically conductive dust (weld slag or graphite) or over-stretching the cord.

    If you spill something in one, hose it down in the shower and let it dry for a week or so–There is a good chance it will work again once it is dry. If that doesn’t work, squirt dish soap into it and repeat. That was enough to revive some of the former factory floor ones I’ve salvaged.

    There are some dress-up options for a type M. I’ve got one in storage with a dark gray case, and my current one has multi-colored keycaps salvaged from keyboards dedicated to particular software systems.

  2. Tam says:

    you could probably beat someone to death with it and still use it write a blog entry about the experience afterwards.

    Thief.

    Of course, it’s not like I’ve never boosted a line from you before, or anything. :D

  3. True. Simply true. Sadly, carpal tunnel has moved me to a split keyboard, but I still have two Ms in storage.

  4. Stingray says:

    This may be heresy here, but I humbly submit that the Northgate Omnikeys are slightly superior to the model Ms. Unfortunately, they’re also harder to find. The microswitches feel better to me (I enjoyed the same huge jump in typing speed when I made the switch myself), are slightly quieter while still being nice and clicky, and occasionally availible in the split model for wrist-gimps like myself and GreatBlueWhale. Major downside: Requires an AT to PS/2 adapter. And you can still beat someone to death with one then blog about it.

    • Scott. says:

      *May* be heresy? Why, they would have burned you at the stake during the inquisition! :-) I admit, I wouldn’t mind trying out a Omnikey, but like you said they are rather hard to come by.

  5. Rick says:

    My personal favorite is the Silicon Graphics Granite monster that came with the Indy. It weighs a ton, but the spring action is toned down a bit from the IBM.

  6. carteach0 says:

    Ayup….. MY last IBM keyboard finally wore out.
    I used up three in a row, all scavenged from old machines going to PC heaven. THAT was a keyboard you could type with! Even a thumbuster like me.

    Now, I have some wireless thing that lets me lounge, but it has no key feel at all, making for typo city.
    I also had to disable about twenty eleven extra keys that did nothing but activate crap I didn’t want turned on.

    I wish I still had a few IBM keyboards….sigh…
    I’d pay $100 for a new one that had the same weight and feel.

  7. BRB says:

    I’ve been reading your posts for quite a few months and enjoying your writing style, if not all of your economic and political takes. I find your enthusiasm for old key boards and typewriters interisting. Check out this article from one of my old English professors: http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/8/keys.php.

    BRB

  8. BRB says:

    Too many typos

    BRB

  9. dpatten says:

    The Model M that I am currently typing this comment on was rescued from a 55 gallon drum brim full of rainwater, aluminum machining fuzz and mosquito larvae where it had sat for 6 months behind the machine shop at my place of employment.

    I took it apart, bleached the keycaps and case and dried the contacts in the oven at about 150 degrees F for an hour. (Don’t tell the wife!)

    It works as well as the day that it was installed on the multi-axis milling machine that it used to control in 1987.

    I buy every one I can find from the computer salvage place, but I’ve never had to replace this one in the 4 years I’ve had it.

  10. kd5nrh says:

    Hmm, I guess I’m just evolved more than some; letters appearing on the screen provide all the feedback I need. I’d rather someone came out with a laptop-style short-throw, flat keyboard for the desktops.

    Then again, maybe some folks also prefer gritty military triggers for all the tactile feedback they give.

  11. ibex says:

    Amen! Preach the gospel, brother.

    The Customizer is truly good news. Can I get a Hallelujah?

  12. perlhaqr says:

    Way back in ’97, three men came to kill me. The best of them was carrying this Model M. It has outlasted quite a few computers. I love it. It is my very favorite gun keyboard.

  13. perlhaqr says:

    That last comment would have been funnier if wordpress recognized the html for strikethrough.

  14. Ethan says:

    Marko, I had no idea our tastes were so similar. I have two type-M’s in the basement, awaiting the revival of a desktop linux machine. My current favorite laptop keyboard is on this full-size Thinkpad A22m, but I think the most impressive *current production* keyboard is Apple’s new minimalist aluminum keyboard. It LOOKS like it will be awful, but the feel is amazing. Apple is bipolar with its input devices, and they finally hit a high again.

  15. jed says:

    > This may be heresy here, but I humbly submit that the Northgate Omnikeys are slightly superior to the model Ms.

    Here here.

    The only keyboard I’d be happier with would be the one from the VT100.

  16. Sigivald says:

    You can still buy Essentially The Same Keyboard, just not from IBM. And you can get them with USB.

    Me, I hate the damned things. Too loud; my coworker has one, and I can’t think while he’s on a roll, and I don’t need to smash a spring to know I hit a key.

    I have one of the new Apple Keyboards (the aluminum one) at home and another at work. I find the short stroke provides ample feedback, and knowing Apple the thing will last a decade. I’m with Ethan completely on it. It looks like it should be an awful chiclet, but it’s got great feel.

    (And for the geeky, it has 19 function keys, and an extra Meta key compared to the old IBMs.)

    And it’s not as loud as a train-wreck.

  17. aczarnowski says:

    The USB/PS2 issue is worrisome. So far I’ve dodged with a USB adapter from clickykeyboards.com/.

    I lucked out and found a batch of type Ms without the num pad on the right. I run one of them at work with a logitech trackball. The combination is the most space efficient and high output setup I’ve found for moving bits eight hours a day.

    But, to each their own, of course. My wife does some data entry work and can run a 10key faster than I can type code. So we have a full size type M at home. grin

  18. munchkinwrangler says:

    You want to trade off one of your Space Saver Type Ms? I have two perfectly serviceable kids here…I suppose I could part with one and still start a dynasty.

    Seriously…those 84-key Type Ms are exceedingly hard to find. I’ve not seen one on eBay in the last three years that went for less than $75. Not bad for obsolete hardware.

  19. aczarnowski says:

    You want to trade off one of your Space Saver Type Ms?

    Trade? I’ll just send ya one. I assume you can pull my email addy from my comment. Send me your address and I’ll put one in the mail to you.

    Least I can do given how often I visit here for smart scribblings.

  20. Scott. says:

    Great article, very funny! I personally don’t like the feel of the single-piece keys used on the modern Unicomp keyboards. I do have one Lexmark-built keyboard from 1994 that went bad, I took the internals from a 2001 Unicomp and installed them in the old IBM housing with the original two-piece keys. I find it works great, not sure I notice any big difference with the modern springs.

  21. Yuhong Bao says:

    “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.”
    This is a hardware modification that can solve this problem:

    http://www.geocities.com/jszybowski/keyboard/

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