Going Loud

I got a new keyboard.

It’s one of those fancy Das Keyboards that all the kids are talking about these days. To be more specific, it’s the recently released Mac version which has the keys labeled correctly.

Instead of getting a new keyboard I had given serious thought to finding a high quality PS/2 to USB adapter and using my old IBM Model M (part number 1391401, manufactured on June 21, 1988) instead, but on this Mac I use the option key quite a bit, and the command key is of course indispensable. The Model M only has two keys on the left side.

I could get around this, of course. One option would be to map the caps lock key to control, the control key to option, and the alt key to command, but that would be very strange for the muscle memory. Nothing is perfect.

So instead I got a more modern USB keyboard with the correct buttons but a different type of mechanical switch. They do still make the buckling spring type of switch that the Model M uses, but most other mechanical keyboards either use Cherry or Alps mechanical switches. As far as I have been able to tell, both are highly regarded.

I also wanted to stick to companies that made keyboard versions intended for Macs. It isn’t difficult to remap a Windows keyboard to work correctly on a mac, but it is preferable for the keys to be labeled correctly with no manual remapping required.

Unicomp is the company with the buckling spring technology and they make a lot of industrial and POS type keyboards. They do have some Mac models but they are just about the ugliest things I have ever seen. I know that the Model M is frightfully ugly too, but it is allowed to be because it is 24 years old. You can get away with a lot just by being around forever and never breaking down. But there is no reason for the key switch technology to dictate the styling of the rest of the keyboard, and it certainly doesn’t require that the key caps and case they are mounted in look 24 years old on the manufacturing date.

Matias, another manufacturer, has mechanical switch keyboards as well, which use Alps key switches. Unfortunately they suffer from a similar malady. The Tactile Pro 3 looks like a bad combination of the shape of an old Apple keyboard from the bondi blue iMac days combined with the styling of the mushy white crumbcatcher keyboard. They have a metal version too but the shape of the case is unchanged. I think maybe the problem is that instead of using a basic keyboard shape or developing one of their own they tried many years ago to be stylish by copying Apple and now changing tooling for a new shape is too expensive to bother.

So it ended up coming down to the Das Keyboard as the only mechanical switch keyboard I could find that tried to stay out of the way; that tried to look elegant but simple, and used its own shape instead of copying something else. The Das Keyboard uses Cherry switches.

The keyboard case is a very glossy black, and fairly simple in overall layout. It is a perfect rectangle, except for the logo area at the top right which widens out almost like the transition from the fretboard to the headstock of a guitar. The keyboard is not much larger than it has to be, which is welcome. The overall shape is actually similar to some of the keyboards Cherry makes for POS and similar applications, but is both simpler and more refined.

It has the necessary Apple specific keys above the function keys, but they require pressing the fn button to use them. I haven’t yet decided whether to shift this so fn isn’t needed. The only questionable design decision is probably the key cap labels. They feel printed on and I worry that they will wear blank over time. The font choice and decision to use lowercase letters is also questionable.

But these are nitpicks, and it looks and feels like a very solid, well-built machine. Hopefully I’ll be happy with the typing feel over time, and hopefully it will be as durable as my 24 year old IBM was.

I had honestly forgotten just how loud a mechanical keyboard could be. I haven’t used my Model M as a primary typing keyboard in many years (though I’d hate to let it go), and I gave away another mechanical keyboard about 10 years ago.

This thing is amazingly loud. Most of the normal typing motions are just sort of clicky, with a nice snickity noise as the mechanism trips and then a clack as the key reaches the bottom of its travel. It’s not quite the same feeling as the Model M gives, but similar. The larger keys, though, are killers. Enter and backspace are especially frightening. I think it has a lot to do with the overall size of the key and the somewhat alarming force with which I slap them. I’ve always enjoyed forcefully deleting the wrong words and letters. “No, you don’t belong. Begone.”

Right now the big open question is how much I will like this keyboard for typing and general use in the long term. Will I get over the mechanics and wish it was quieter? Will I get so spoiled by the feel that other keyboards are hateful in my sight? I don’t know. I really don’t.

I really do like the super low profile laptop-style keyboards that Apple ships with their computers now, and I’m not sure how much of this is keyboard nostalgia for the days when I spent most of my time in DOS or a Unix terminal, and how much is actual typing speed and comfort.

Only time will tell. Time and a lot of typing.

— Steve

Posted on 17 May 2012