Monday, April 08, 2013

The Unicomp Ultra Classic Keyboard:


Preamble: 

First of all, here is where my experience level is at right this minute in terms of mechanical keyboards:

I have owned a Das Keyboard (Cherry MX Blue switches for a year or so. I have more recently purchased another Das Keyboard, this one with MX Brown switches. I use this one quite a bit, as it is on my work computer. Finally, I have a smaller keyboard that I have been using with my laptop. It probably only has 20 or 25 thousand words typed on it thus far, but I've quite enjoyed it. It is a Cooler Master CM Storm Quickfire with Cherry MX Black key switches.

For those of you who come into this article without any prior knowledge about mechanical keyboards, here is a short primer. All keyboards use some type of switch beneath each key. When the key is pressed, it completes the circuit on that switch and sends the signal to the computer. Most of the keyboards today use the "Rubber Dome" or "Scissors" switch type, If you're squinting at your keyboard right now, trying to determine what kind you have, here's a rule of thumb for you. If you have a normal sized, full stroke (full sized keys that go down something like 4 millimeters before stopping), and the keyboard doesn't make any real noise when the key is pressed gently, it's most likely a rubber dome or membrane keyboard. These use a rubber membrane that has impressed domes on it to function as resistance to a key press. The contact is below, and is activated when the dome deflects enough to allow the contacts to touch. If you are typing on a low profile keyboard or a laptop keyboard, it's likely that you're using the scissors type switch. This system also uses a rubber membrane, but the way the switch is constructed, it allows for a shorter key that actuates over a much smaller range of movement.

Mechanical key switches, on the other hand, usually use an actual spring to provide the resistance. There are some key designs that use a combination of two springs, actually, although these are not terribly common. The bulk of the mechanical keyboards you'll see on the market today use key switches from a company called Cherry. They make a variety of different switch models, usually denoted by the color of the switch top (which is beneath the key, and can be seen if you remove the key cap. As noted above, I have experience with multiple different Cherry MX key switches. You'll likely be able to glean much about their characteristics as you read this article, as they're often used as grist for comparison and contrast to the keyboard in question.

All right, back to the show.

The Buckling Spring Keyboard Mystique:

After hearing the endless enthusiasm for the IBM "M" keyboard, I felt as if I had to try one. I had certainly used these keyboards in the past, as I learned in a computer lab that had some actual 5150 model IBMs back in the old days. The thing is, I couldn't really remember much about them. I was a kid, and I didn't think much about the keyboard at that time, one way or another. One might have been louder than the next, or stiffer, but that was as far as it went. I wasn't even a touch typist at that time. Hey, I was like twelve or thirteen, okay? I was probably thinking about something else. Like football practice, or rock music. I hadn't even grasped all the different ways I could be a dork yet.

Thus, I determined that I'd need to try a collapsing spring keyboard again. In the interest of science, of course. For the sake of full study and the ability to proclaim without fear of hesitation that I had experience with all the dominant types of keyboards out there today. Well, most of them. Okay, some of them, anyhow. A few of those bad boys are really expensive. Some of the others aren't even made anymore, and need to be hot-rodded just to make them work with a modern computer.

I had a few different choices when it came to acquiring the keyboard that would be used for my testing. First, I could go and comb through old computer stores, Goodwill Industry type places and yard sales looking for a gem that could be had for a few bucks. People are always selling off old stuff that to them could hardly be more outmoded. Other weirdos will think the stuff is the cat's whiskers. There's some sort of saying about that, I believe.

I decided that I was too lazy to go combing through old computer stuff until I found a hidden gem. I work in computers, and sometimes I just don't have the heart to fiddle around and dig through mountains of crap after hours. This was one of those times.

I could also look on Ebay. The problem there is that others have discovered that the "M" keyboards are great, and they tend to fetch a fairly high price amongst the cognoscenti. I wasn't really interested in paying something like eighty or a hundred bucks for a keyboard from the early 90s, especially when I'd need some sort of adapter to get it to function with a lot of my equipment, which doesn't even have PS/2 ports. Thus, the Ebay route seemed like a no-go.

What else could I do? Worried that I had hit a dead end, and that I would have to be satisfied with only the three kick ass keyboards I already had. Fearful, I went to Google for help.

It didn't take long to discover that there was a modern alternative. I found that a company called Unicomp was there to help. They were a small company that catered to the boutique market of keyboard snobs and people who needed their old IBM keyboards repaired. I was intrigued, and went into research mode. I will relate what I found, because I like to type and to share my dorky learning with others. Here goes.

The Story of the IBM Model "M" keyboard and its modern antecedents, as told by someone who kinda knows the details from reading about it on the Internet and stuff:

Long ago, when it became clear that there would have to be solid technology created for computer keyboards, IBM set to work on the task. They'd need a key switch that would be rugged, useful, and allow typists to enter data as easily as they typed on the IBM typewriter, which was the world business standard at that time.

Enter an engineer named Richard Hunter Harris, who designed the first buckling spring keyboard in 1971, for which IBM applied and was given the patents. Later, in '77, the historical antecedent of the "M" keyboard came out, this time with an upgraded version of the buckling spring switch. This was the keyboard model "F", and is, if anything, an even more impressive piece of equipment than the "M". The "F", though, was created so long ago that it doesn't quite have the layout of keys a modern computer user would want. That was to come together on the "M", starting in '83. The glory days for the "M" would end up being a solid ten years. That, in case you're wondering, is an almost unimaginable length of time for a computer peripheral.

IBM began as the primary manufacturer of the "M" model keyboard. As time went on, they began subcontracting work out as demand got high and they had to make due with a limited amount of production capacity. This is very common in industrial situations. If you look back at stuff that happened in World War II, you'll see that car companies were making guns and tanks and airplanes. Sewing machine companies were making...something that I can't dredge up at the moment, but wasn't sewing machines. Anyway, big companies spin off work to subcontractors all the time.

The primary subcontractor that made the "M" keyboard for IBM was called Lexmark. You might know them for their printers today. Anyway, Lexmark shopped the work out to others around the world, as well. There were a lot of models over about ten years, and they were made in different shapes, colors and layouts. The unifying factor, though, was the switch technology and the high level of quality built in. That was an IBM must. They didn't screw around. They expected everything with the IBM logo to be a serious business tool that would last under stringent conditions.

From the time when the IBM "M" keyboard made its debut to the mid 90s when it was phased out, the computing business changed a great deal. Computers were much more expensive in the 80s and early 90s, devices that were not going to be in every home or within reach of every rundown jerk on the street. Especially the business-biased machines that IBM made were considered something that was a major investment. These things had to be built to last and built to perform in the hands of workers who would really put them through their paces.

In the earlier days of computing, everything happened through the keyboard. That was the primary input mechanism, and the interface was usually the command line or some text-heavy interface within a program. If you had a computer in the 80s, there was no mouse to distract you, no pretty pictures to gaze at, no big, full featured Internet to browse through. You sat down, launched a program, and it was likely that you'd be typing. Thus, the research and development behind the keyboards was more in-depth, and the keyboard itself was allocated a larger amount of money in terms of tooling costs.

Other things changed as the time when on, as well. For one thing, computers became much less expensive, in terms of relative cost versus the value of a dollar. In trying to make computers more affordable, corners were often cut. Going to a cheaper, simpler keyboard technology allowed companies to shave costs. As computers found their way into homes and other less stringent environments, the necessity for the "best" also decreased. The level of use a computer would see with one or two people playing with it at home was not at all the same as they would see when you had two or three shifts of data entry technicians pounding on the keyboard for years.

Finally, the pace at which computers became obsolete suddenly became much more precipitous. With computers being "kinda old" after a few years and "wow, that's a relic" after five, the values of the computer manufacturers were bound to change. The longevity of many of the peripherals was no longer a big concern. Thus, we saw the "throw away" culture of computers rise, and the monolithic build qualities of some of the earlier designs abandoned for something cheaper, more fragile, and more geared toward "good enough."

Lexmark, who was sort of running the show and had fully spun off from IBM during the run of the "M" keyboard, had rights to the patents involved in manufacturing the hardware. Unicomp had been one of the subcontractors during the "M" years, and some enterprising soul had decided that there would be a market for this stuff in the years ahead.

The Unicomp company ended up acquiring the tooling and patent rights to build new "M" keyboards in a few different form factors. They could also manufacture replacement parts for old keyboards, which, since they were sturdy and well loved, might spur their owners to actually, gasp, try to fix them. In this world of throw away stuff, we find that people sometimes like to have things feel, sound, and perform like they're accustomed to. As the keyboards morphed from being the hulking tanks of the old days into the uncommunicative plastic mush boxes of today, they missed something.

There is tangible, psychological element to tools, no matter what they are. Many will suffice for the job, but there are some that are just better suited to it. Some tools simply have those hallmarks, those small nods to the person who wields them, that make us feel better. One of the faults of the modern day, perhaps, is that we become more wrapped up in whatever is new, whatever is slick and small and convenient. In those preoccupations, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that, in the end, the device has to cater to us as organic beings.

As an aside, the ability to be repaired is one of the really neat things about mechanical keyboards. Every key is a little mechanism on its own, and can be repaired on its own. Thus, if your "J" key dies, you can, if you so desire, take the keyboard apart and replace the switch under the "J". Pop the key back on top of the new switch, and you're cooking with gas again. That is not possible with some other types of keyboard switch technologies. Certain types of damage to a rubber dome keyboard are fatal, as the rubber membrane is shared beneath all the keys. I've seen keyboards of this kind end up shorting across multiple contact points, so that when you press a key, it might initiate three or even five or six key presses that you didn't intend. This type of issue is generally not going to bother you with a mechanical switch keyboard, as long as you can get parts.

At the end of the long and winding road, what I found was that, with some nods to modernity, you could get a copy of the old "M" keyboard, brand new and at a reasonable price, from Unicomp. After a day or two of consideration, I did so. We only go this way once, and I am an avid typist, so I figured what the hell. The worst that would happen is that I wouldn't like the keyboard much. From my prior experience with my other mechanicals, I figured that would be an unlikely outcome.

The ordering process:

Unicomp's website is not super fancy. There are no twirling javascript active elements. There are no prominent videos. It is not rendered with all the great graphical acumen of a professional, CSS heavy web page to the stars. No, it feels very 2002. Plenty of pictures, easy enough to navigate, but nothing to knock your socks off or impress the people who are looking for a gaming keyboard.

I believe Unicomp knows that the gamers are not their market. These keyboards are being sold to those people that like to sit down and type a lot of words. Thousands of words at a time. All day. Like me.

In the world of mechanical keyboards, Unicomp's are very plain, very simple. They aren't the cheapest keyboards, but they're fairly value-conscious, especially when you consider that they are actually made here in this country, and that the company is based in Lexington Kentucky.

The ordering process was fairly simple and I was pleased to see that their system sends out order confirmations and shipping confirmations when these things are registered. The shipping confirmation comes with a tracking number, which is always fun for us as we look to see where our new present is at that moment and think about when we'll be able to unwrap it.

The package arrived on time, and was in good condition. There were two boxes, an outer shipping box and the keyboard box itself. The box was in pristine condition, so it appears that it did not fall into the hands of an angry eight year old at any time along the way. That's always nice. The inner box wasn't really anchored, so that it could move a bit inside the bigger box, but that has not proved to be an issue. It should be mentioned that the boxes here are simple, brown boxes. There's no fancy press kit, no heavily printed and glossy box to look at. If these are elements that you feel are necessary, they can be provided by other keyboard companies. Unicomp is clearly a small shop, and my guess would be that they deemed it a waste of money for them to try to compete with big oversees firms in terms of packaging.

The keyboard arrived in good condition, with only the control key having fallen off in transit. This type of keyboard has two piece key caps, so the outer, and normally visible key cap is easily put on and taken off. There was no harm done by having the key fall off in the box. It should be noted that, in most cases, all the key caps for this style of keyboard are interchangeable. This allows them to be duded up with colorful keys, or for the typist to experiment with different key cap colors until the look of the keyboard suits him.

At First Blush:

This is not like the Das Keyboard, which is designed to look classy, expensive, and more or less like the Darth Vader equivalent of a keyboard. (To my way of thinking. Others have said that they thought the Das was ugly. Go figure.) The Unicomp is very unassuming. People would not look at it and have any strong emotion. It looks like a keyboard. Maybe a slightly bulky and old fashioned keyboard, at that.

I chose to buy the black keyboard with the gray key caps, as this matches my gear better. Also, I'm not a huge fan of the old beige plastic, and was happy enough as that color gradually fell into disuse. Black is cooler. Clearly.

Upon hoisting the keyboard out of the box, the first thing that struck me was the sheer mass of the device. This is a heavy keyboard, well over three pounds. I'm told that it isn't quite a solid feeling as the original, as it doesn't have a metal backplane, but boy, it is a far different thing from the feather light keyboards you'll often encounter today.

In terms of aesthetics, this is not a beauty queen. If you look hard at the plastic, you can see little whorls and places where it was injection molded. There are somewhat uneven gaps around some of the keys, where the chassis is not perfectly aligned with the keys. Not to the extent that it looks sloppy, but compared to the Das or the Cooler Master, it is not quite as well finished. That being said, the matte plastic on the Unicomp will be far less likely to attract dust than the high gloss on the Das models. With the added material, the keyboard feels very substantial, like it will last the duration, regardless of what sort of abuse you dish out. This may be a purely mental construct, of course, as I'm certain the other mechanicals I have are perfectly sturdy. It's just that you rarely encounter something so...substantial in computers anymore.

Key Spacing: 

When you go from keyboard to keyboard, there is always a learning curve. Each layout, key spacing, and key shape will require you to slightly alter the way you reach for the keys. If I had to quickly convey the spacing of the Unicomp, I would call it neutral and forgiving.

You'll notice, if you type on one of these boards, that their key caps are slightly smaller than a lot of other keys in the modern era. Even the full sized, full stroke keyboards have keys that are larger and closer together than these. This layout has palpably smaller key crowns, though they are dished slightly, allowing the registration of your fingers in place on the home row and on other keys. The additional space between the keys, to me, allows fewer inadvertent key presses, as well as less likelihood of getting your finger "in the danger zone", where you become aware that you're on the verge of another key, and have to slow down, re-position your hands, or otherwise take your attention away from what you're typing to make an adjustment.

I can't tell you how other hand shapes will feel, but for a guy with large, blocky hands, this slight additional space between keys is a real help. For guitarists, think of the spacing of a vinyl string classical guitar, rather than a steel string. It's sort of like that. Friendly. The reaches are no further, but you're more likely to be able to do your work without running afoul of the other keys. Nice.

Typing Dynamics and Effort: 

These collapsing spring keyboards do not have the lightest action in the world. In fact, they are somewhat heavy, if you're used to the light action of either a rubber dome keyboard or, let's say, the MX Brown switch. I would say that the typing effort is a bit heavier than the MX Black switch, which is the heaviest of the Cherry switches that is in common circulation. As I have strong hands, and I'm a fairly forceful typist, this is not a problem for me. Just as with any new keyboard, you have to spend a few thousand words getting used to the action before you can make a perfect judgement, but a few thousand words is easy enough for me to whip off.

The "click" part of the key travel is fairly close to the top of the travel. When I stop and click a single key, it feels like it just barely begins to depress when the auditory and sensory cue comes, and the key engages. For me, I tend to bottom out keys when I get going, but I suppose that you could bias your typing inputs in a way that would minimize this.

In terms of tactile feel, this keyboard is very satisfying and communicative. There is no wondering whether or not the switch gave. You know. Every time. That is, for most typists, a real help. If you're familiar with the MX Blue switch, imagine what that would feel like, with a significantly higher spring tension. Think, let's say, of an additional thirty or forty percent resistance. The tactile bump and then reset of the key is not as clear as on the MX Blue, but the keys seem as if, by virtue of their higher spring tension, they might reset for the next key press faster. Some very vast typists say that they are able to "get ahead" of some keyboards, but not the collapsing spring model. I don't know that I can get ahead of any of them. I aspire to, but it has not seemed to happen.

In terms of speed I seem to achieve, I have not scientifically tested that element, but it's possible that I might be slightly faster with the Cherry switch keyboards, but that's up for debate. I can certainly clatter along quite well with the Ultra Classic, and do it for an extended period of time. In the first night I had the keyboard, I probably typed something along the line of 8,500 words. This is after work and dinner.

Sound:

This is clearly in the clicky/tactile subset of mechanical keyboards. That being said, it is not, to my way of thinking, absurdly loud. I would say that it was probably similar in volume to the MX Blue, and probably a bit more intrusive than the MX Brown and Black. The quality and timber of the sound is an interesting combination.

It is of a lower pitch than the MX Blue switch. The sound of key bottoming out is not a strong component of the total noise on this model. If you are a hard typist, you'll make about the same amount of noise as a less forceful typist. This is not the case on the MX Browns and the MX Blacks. Thus the sound of the switch engaging is most of what you hear.

In terms of the quality of the sound, I would say that the Blue switches have the most high frequency component to them of all the keyboards I have currently. Think of that as almost a "ping" sound. The sound of the Unicomp has an element of this noise, but it is a lower pitched and more muffled noise. While still a loud keyboard, the metallic sound is probably somewhat less. That said, it is still going to be a distraction in a quiet room, or where there are people who are sensitive to noise. Not, perhaps, the best for the bedroom computer.

Contrasting it to the MX Brown and Black, I would say that the two quieter MX switches are more of a "clack" than a "click". They have lower pitch noises, especially the Black switch. If you are a hard typist, it is likely that you'll make almost as much noise with the Brown and Black switch as you do with the buckling spring Unicomp, to clarify. If you type gently on those aforementioned switches, however, you can decrease the noise output considerably.

Fatigue:

As with any switch that requires a higher level of input pressure to actuate, there is a chance that you'll get fatigued when you begin to type long passages on the Unicomp Ultra Classic. My sense, though, is that it would only take a few days for you to become used to this additional input required.

As with anything of this kind, each person's mileage will vary. If your preference is for a very light key action, I would say that the MX Brown or Blue would suit your purposes better. If you would rather have a linear switch that was non clicky, for gaming, let's say, the Black switch would be the better choice. For linear action with a light touch, there is another Cherry switch, the MX Red, which is available to fill that niche. I have no experience with that type right now, so I can't offer any opinions on it.

Let me go a step further and say that this is NOT a gaming keyboard. I think that anyone who tried gaming on it would find themselves displeased. The action of the keys is far more appropriate for typing than it would be for gaming. If you like a fairly heavy key press but want the responsiveness of a mechanical, I would seek out a keyboard with the MX Black switches.

For the neophyte to the game of mechanical switch keyboards, I would have to recommend the MX Brown switches, which are smooth, light, and of reasonable noise level. They would allow creditable gaming, I believe, but are also fine for typing, and light enough that almost any typist could get along with them. The primary negative to light typing action is that you sometimes get inadvertant key presses when your technique gets sloppy, or if you rest you fingers on the keys a bit too hard. That will not be an issue with the buckling spring keyboards, like the Unicomp. They require a mindful press of the keys. You don't type by accident.

The buckling spring keyboards are certainly great typing tools, but some will find their action to be too stiff for their liking. Especially if you're typing at a less than perfect angle, you might find yourself to get tired before you might otherwise.

Wrap Up:

In the end, every mechanical keyboard I've yet tried has significantly improved my sense of satisfaction when typing. Compared to the the lesser keyboards you are likely to find on the run of the mill computer, they are just better, more accurate, and more communicative of what's happening underneath your fingers.

Are they necessary? No. Are they important for the people who are not likely to type more than a few lines during the course of the average day? No. Do they have idiosyncratic elements, like excess sound production or heavier key action that might take some getting used to? I've already said as much.

Getting back to brass tacks with the Unicomp, I will say this. The keyboard's design was well thought out and executed, way back in the days when computers were, in a lot of ways, a whole different animal. All of the touches that were put there then are still present now, and for the right kind of typist, they are very helpful when working.

For a person who is interested in great tactile feel, the sound of yesteryear as each key as pressed, and the benefits of slightly loosened spacing between keys, these are a good choice. When you add in the fact that they appear to be built for the long haul, and are a product of the US, that sweetens the pot a little. This is not a glamour keyboard that you get to impress your gamer friends, or one that has any special gizmos like a USB hub or backlighting. It's a plain keyboard, where all the attention was put toward making it the best typing weapon you could have with this particular technology. For people with nostalgia for the great 'boards of yesteryear, or for the die-hard typists among you, I say give one a try. They are available in beige or black, with PS/2 or USB connections. Mine is the USB, as I find this to be a far more convenient connection type in most cases.

Bonus Round: 

What is a buckling spring keyboard? Well, it is exactly what it sounds like, actually. Inside each key switch, there is a small coil spring that is biased in one direction. When the coil spring is depressed a certain amount, the spring buckles to the side. Thus, buckling spring. When the spring buckles, it creates a tactile change in the way the resistance is felt in the typist's fingertip. It also engages the switch by moving a hammer mechanism in contact with a membrane where the circuit is connected. When the connection is made, that sends the signal that a key has been pressed to the computer. And that's how it works.

Sources: 

Many thanks to the great Internet sources that I used to glean this information. Of special note is Deskthority.net, where the real keyboard gurus are. If anything that I've been talking about sounds interesting to you, you can get tons more information at the Deskthority website. I also watched many great videos, read tons of reviews at various online retailers, and looked at a whole platoon of blogs that featured articles on various keyboard types, and the impressions people had of them.

In the end, I haven't just spat out what anyone else has been saying, I promise. I actually own all the keyboards that I mention, and really have put a lot of words through all of them. Thanks for reading, and happy keyboarding. Please make a comment or shoot me an email of you have any questions.

6 comments:

Jim Van Zandt said...

I got a Unicomp Classic Keyboard several years ago to use at work, and have really liked it. I got another about 9 months ago (it has December 2012 marked on the back) for the home computer, and have enjoyed it too. Until a few weeks ago, when the left control key quit working. Well, it actually would work, but I have to press it clear to the bottom of the travel then push it a bit further. And I use EMACS, so I really exercise that key. So I've ordered a replacement, which I'm looking forward to.

In the meantime, I have fallen back on a Microsoft Natural keyboard. I like the layout, but the tactile feedback is crummy, and I've used it long enough that the slight nubs on the j and f keys are almost worn away, so my hands get out of position. It's definitely not designed for the long haul like the IBM/Unicomp keyboard.

I really wish Unicomp would offer a keyboard that combined the best of both worlds: buckling spring keys with the Microsoft Natural layout. Even if they had to pay Microsoft a license fee.

Patrick M. Tracy said...

Jim,

The Unicomp is a good keyboard. I enjoy it for long-form typing, though I prefer the Cherry MX switches for quick bursts, as most of them are a bit lighter effort. I love my DasKeyboard with MX Browns for work, and I think the MX Blacks in my CM Storm Quickfire are the bee's knees for gaming.

To my knowledge, there aren't any ergonomic 'boards with standard mechanical switches, but a brand called Kinesis seems to use, at the least, well designed dome switches. They are expensive, but may be worth a look.

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Marc Hugo said...

This is the best review I have ever read on ANY keyboard, let alone the Model M. I am looking forward to mine.

old cadet said...

Thanks for the article on the Unicomp Ultra Classic. I have been looking for an "old time" feel like the IBM selectric. This may work from a comfort level.

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Konarobb

Anonymous said...

I have a Unicomp M. I got the ps/2 model specifically for no-key rollover, in addition to all the attributes listed out in the article. Alas, when I press five keys at a time, only one is showing up on my screen. I guess I should have asked when I was buying the thing... I called Unicomp's number and didn't spec nkro directly. I was distracted by the 103 key option.

Cherry it seems is the only no-key rollover keyboard. Unless Unicomp has... nkro models?