Monday, April 08, 2013

The Unicomp Ultra Classic Keyboard:


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.


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.


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.


Many thanks to the great Internet sources that I used to glean this information. Of special note is, 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.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Keyboard Snobbery for Beginners:

So, you’re a writer. Or, at least, you’re a big time typist. A thousand words is nothing for you. Smoke rises from the keyboard when you’re on a streak. Here’s my question to you: do you have a weapon of choice? Are there some keyboards that make your hands happy, while other seem bent on making it more difficult to get the words down?

For most typists, they’ll have a preferred type of keyboard. The key spacing, the dynamics, even the sound will play into this. For me, being a computer pro by day, I have probably touched more keyboards that most people do in a lifetime. It’s not unusual for me to be at a dozen computers in the space of a day, many of them having very different keyboard types. I can adapt to most anything. Sure, there are keyboards that I actively loathe, but I’m okay with most of them.

But when you’re putting down thousands of words, even hundreds of thousands, okay isn’t enough. You have to have a keyboard that’s easy on your body and just gets out of the way when you really have the thoughts flowing. The worst thing is to be pulled out of the narrative flow of what you’re writing by the mechanics of putting the words down on the page.

I can imagine that some of you are sneering already. “Yeah, whatever,” you say. “I type while lying on the bed, on my laptop, with the cat sitting on my head. I am situationally invariant.”

If so, great. Good for you. Most of us aren’t so lucky as to be able to type while riding a unicycle and fending off escaped circus animals during an intense conference call. We need a little help from our equipment.

One caveat. No keyboard can make you better than you are. Only the lousy carpenter blames his tools. That said, there are certainly keyboards that can make it tougher to be productive. Here are a few reasons why:

1) Cramped keyboard spacing. There’s a reason why a lot of keyboard flubs are called “fat fingering”. If, in point of fact, you have large fingers, the little keyboards of the world are not your friends. I have owned a netbook with a tiny keyboard. I have struggled against it manfully, but there’s no way that I can slam through my typing projects like I could with a larger keyboard.

2) Odd key placement. This often goes along with the cramped keyboard spacing, primarily on mini keyboards or on laptops. The designers start to move keys around or make normally large keys shrink. Sure, there’s only so much real estate on any given machine, but when the delete, backspace, enter, or other frequently used keys are not where your hand thinks they should be, things aren’t pretty. It’s a sinking feeling when you’ve accidentally hit a key combination that just deleted your whole document. When that starts to happen a lot, some of us begin to use lamentable language and throw things. No one wins in that circumstance.

3) Poor typing dynamics: Keyboards with stiff action, lack of tactile feedback, or sticky keys can be a drag. Keyboards which have light action, but will either double up letters when you don’t intend to or fail to type letters when you’re sure that you engaged the key properly can also be a problem. For many of us who learned on full sized desktop keyboards, it takes a while to get used to the short keystroke pattern of a laptop keyboard. There’s a great variation in the quality of the keyboards on laptops today. Some of them are quite good, while others are fairly useless. In this world of the Internet consumer, it is possible that the bulk of the users who have these machines are unaware of any shortcoming. I would suppose that over half of the computer users out there today are not touch typists, and enter very little data. If any of you are reading this article and shrugging, you may go.

4) Lack of longevity or perceived flimsiness: The $5 keyboards that come with computers can have a fairly short life cycle. That said, they’re pretty cheap. In the days of yore, though, it was not uncommon to have the keyboard far outlast the computer it came with. I have a keyboard that came with an HP desktop that I bought in 2000, and it is still going strong. It’s ugly, beaten up, and may be a health hazard, but it still works like a charm. If you’re, well, a forceful typist, the sense of being flimsy can be fairly serious. If, when you’re typing, you feel the keyboard flexing beneath your fingers, squeaking in pain, or otherwise giving you the sense that you’re about to break it, that can be a distraction. A certain individual I know that may be in excess of 6’ 7” and type at great speed and with great force may, indeed, have broken the space bars of every keyboard he came across for quite some time. I try not to “type angry”, but I still like a sense of solidity to the keyboard. Although I love my current laptop, when I’m typing on it, I feel as if it isn’t quite sturdy enough for me to do it over the long haul.

All of which brings us to something that I found out about myself a short time ago. I am a keyboard snob. Much like pianists that won’t play on anything but a Steinway, I prefer a really high quality keyboard. I enjoy typing more, can do it faster, and can do it longer, when the keyboard is playing along with me.

What are the best keyboards? Well, there’s a certain level of disagreement on that score, but there are certain ‘boards that universally get the nod from the snobs.

The original “typist’s dream” computer keyboard was the IBM “M” series keyboards. There are people who are still paying top dollar for keyboards that may be up to twenty or more years old, just because they loved them so much. What made them good? A number of things. To begin with, IBM products of the day were built to a very high standard. They were expensive, and they felt that way, and they lasted forever. The “M” keyboard was no different. The parts quality was very high. All the switches for the keys were mechanical, and they had both tactile and auditory cues when the keys were depressed. The keyboards were also large, with great spacing and intelligently thought-out features. Finally, they were heavy and didn’t move around on the desk. They were designed by the world leader in typewriters, for a command line interface world. What was the downside? They were loud. If you had a whole room full of typists at work, it could grow to the level of cacophony.

As the computer age wore on, and it became clear that computers were, at best, five year devices before they became hopelessly obsolete, the manufacturers decreased the quality of many of the peripherals. They also found that, in many cases, the home user didn’t require the same level of quality and longevity as the business or industrial user. After several years of this, the norm became the cheapest possible keyboard and mouse. (I should mention that, paradoxically, I am not much of a mouse nerd. As long as it tracks and clicks, I’m happy. I don’t even really care which hand I use.)

At first, most of us didn’t really notice. We’d slap in the new keyboard (hey, this one’s wireless! Neat!), and we wouldn’t think much about it. We’d adapt to the new keystroke, the new spacing, whatever. Then...we’d be going along, and have to really type for a while. That was the point where there was...just something wrong. “Wow,” we’d think. “I thought I was a better typist than this. I’m really dorking it up here.”

Maybe we were out of practice. After all, we only typed a half million words last year. It could be rust. Or...It could be the fact that the tools we were using had grown less and less apt to their intended purpose.

For me, the breakpoint came when I bought a new keyboard and mouse set from a reputable manufacturer, and found it to be almost unusable. I would grow more and more angry every time I would have to use the computer for anything other than web browsing. Finally, I hooked up a cheap wired unit, just to get reasonable functionality out of the system. I went online and looked around. What could I get that would be, for all intents and purposes, the last word in keyboards?

What I found was that the serious typists liked keyboards with mechanical keys. I was intrigued. I researched the issue. I read reviews. What I found was that there were three basic types of keyboard switches. The first was the mechanical, where a spring was displaced and a contact made as the key was depressed. These could be tweaked to have the most accurate, predictable, and consistent performance. The switches could be manufactured to have the amount of stiffness, tactile feel, and auditory click that the situation required.

The next type, the most common today, uses pliable dome over the top of the actual switch. These are quiet and smooth, but have no real tactile cue that the key has been depressed. They can also be inconsistent in the level of travel required to actuate different keys on the same keyboard, as well as the required force to do so. Finally, they tend to wear out more quickly.

The third type of keyboard is the scissors-actuation type. These are primarily used in compact or thin keyboards, as well as laptops. The primary difficulty with these keyboard is that they tend to lack tactile “feel”, and can be somewhat fragile. Because most of the keyboards of this type are designed for “partial stroke” keyboards, they tend to require a different typing dynamic to be successful.

There are good and bad iterations of all of the types of keyboards listed above. That being said, the favorite type of the serious typing snob is certainly the mechanical switch keyboard. When I was done with my research, that’s what I decided to buy. “This is stupid,” I thought. “I’m spending way too much money of this damn thing, and I’ll probably be sorry.” With all that in mind, I plunked down long green and awaited the arrival of my new DasKeyboard, with MX Cherry Blue keyswitches.

I took delivery of the keyboard and hooked it up. It looked like Darth Vader. Moment of truth time. I put my hands upon it and started to type. It was loud and clicky and fast and awesome. All fears and concerns evaporated from my mind. I was sold. I was a keyboard snob. Life was good.

Since then, I’ve bought a second DasKeyboard for my work computer, this time with the somewhat quieter keys (MX Cherry Brown). If anything, it might even be better. Every time I type on either of these keyboards, I am a happy person. Do I still make mistakes? Of course. I didn’t ever say that I was a perfect typist. What I don’t do is fight with the keyboard. It’s a willing and helpful participant in the process.

As with anything where there’s a limited, and frankly obsessive element to the inquiry, others will look at you oddly if you begin to become a keyboard snob. That said, the payoff is for those who type all the time, who are big time typists that can actually see a slight easment in the difficulty of their daily tasks and maybe even a little joy at the ability of the keyboard to handle their rapid spates of typing.

Then there’s the gamers. Ah, the gamers.

There’s a whole segment of the gaming population that uses their keyboards as killing tools. Not literally, of course, but their success or failure in game terms is dictated by their keyboards’ ability to instantly and accurately register every move, shot, and macro key.

For them, especially for the competitive gamer, having a great keyboard is a must. For them, there are specific requirements that may be totally different from a standard typist, but the quality of the key actuation is still very important. Most gamers user the WASD keys to move or aim, as well as the function keys to switch tasks or weapons. In many cases, these keys may be color or texture-identified on a pure gaming keyboard. There may also be things like a Windows key lock-out, which will keep the gamer from being kicked out of the game for an errant key press. In terms of key actuation, there’s certainly a lot of overlap between what will be a good key switch for typing and gaming, but the gamers seem to prefer the linear switches, rather than the tactile switches. Even a keyboard that is primarily noted for typing dynamics will likely be better than a mushy membrane-type board for anything crucial.  

Now comes the really dorky part of the whole thing. Not only are there mechanical key switches, there are several different types of switches.

Pretty much the only game in town when it comes to mechanical keyboard switches is the Cherry brand. Cherry has been building these switches since the mid 80s, and is really good at doing so. Here’s a rundown of the types of keys that you’re likely to see:

Cherry MX Blue: This is the pure typist’s switch. It is fairly light actuation, and has both tactile and auditory cues that the switch has been actuated. It’s loud, in other words. It sounds like an old-style keyboard. For those of us that are in our own environment, and for which noise is not an issue, they are the e-ticket ride. For times when excess noise would be a bad thing, they are going to be a poor choice. This was my first foray into mechanical keyboards, Just listening to them brings back memories of the past. They have that great feel like the old keyboards, such as the IBM “M”. For some, they may take a bit of getting used to, as the light activation and the fairly high level of noise can throw you off. Give them a week, though, and I bet you’ll find that they are a wonderful dance partner.

Cherry MX Brown: These are sometimes marketed as “silent”, but that is not an apt description of them. While much quieter than the Blue switches, they are still louder than most of your membrane style keyboards, especially if you type vigorously. The Brown switch doesn’t have a click upon actuation, but does have a tactile cue, in that resistance changes after the switch activates. These are going to probably be slightly more friendly in terms of sound level, and are appropriate for group areas like work offices. I have a model of this type, and find it to be a great tool for typing. I would not hesitate to recommend it. The Brown switch type may be more friendly and familiar to the first time mechanical switch typist, or to anyone who doesn’t like much noise to come from their keyboard. In general, I would describe the Brown switch as “buttery smooth”. It has light activation pressure, and a very nice feel. The others who I’ve had try it out immediately commented on how nice the keyboard felt. This type of keyboard could certainly spoil you.

Cherry MX Black: Unlike the Brown and Blue switches, these have linear resistance, with no tactile cue that the key has actuated. The linear keys don’t have to be pressed more than half way down to actuate, however, and so these keys are thought of to be the best choice for gaming, where quick actuation is the most important thing. The black switches are not “clicky” either, so concerns over excess noise should not be an issue. I have recently taken delivery of a keyboard that uses these switches. It should be noted that there is no such thing as a silent mechanical keyboard. Some are quieter than others, but none of them are going to be something you’ll want to type with right next to a sleeping baby. I would say that the Black switches are maybe a very small amount quieter than the Browns, but that may very well be due to the acoustic elements of the two keyboard enclosures, rather than the keys themselves. The noise on the Browns and the Blacks is due to the key “bottoming out”, so if you can tune your key activation to exactly the amount of pressure to push the key 2mm down and actuate it without actually bottoming the key out, you can type much more quietly. That being said, when I’m going quickly, I tend to type vigorously, and end up making more noise.

The Black switches are somewhat stiff, so if you’re a really light typist, you may not like them as well as the lighter switches, such as the Browns. For me, though, I don’t mind the higher pressure required. I found that I quickly adapted to the Black switches, and liked them very much. I’ve tried my hand at gaming with this keyboard. I found that it worked just fine, but I don’t think that my skill level is high enough or the games I was playing sensitive enough to twitch speed that it made a lot of difference.

Cherry MX Red: The Red switch is almost exactly like the Black, the difference being that the Red switches have lighter touch pressure to actuated. If you like a very light touch, this will be a good switch to try. Of late, many of the mechanical gaming keyboards have been using this switch. As I do not require a really light key actuation (I rip phone books, bend nails, and so on), I have not felt moved to try this switch type, but it may be just the thing for some people. It may be, as my keyboard delirium deepens, necessary for me to try this type of keyboard as well, but I have thus far managed to avoid buying yet another keyboard, simply to satisfy my curiosity.

It should be noted that just because a keyboard is marketed for gamers, that doesn’t mean that it would not do well for normal typing tasks. Any of the switches listed here would probably provide a more than adequate typing experience. In terms of which one would be your favorite, that is a taste issue, and the answer won’t be the same for everyone. There will certainly be typists who prefer membrane keyboards, or the chicklet-style keys on their laptop. Maybe you’re not a keyboard snob at all, and that’s okay, too. It’s probably nothing to be proud of.

The great thing about this small realm of inquiry is that you can really delve into it without spending a lot of money, in the galactic sense. Most of these keyboard list at prices between $79 and $130. Yes, that’s an absurd amount in a world filled with $5 keyboards, but think of this: which of our other obsessive oddities can we provide with “the best” for less than $130? Not many, I would submit. The “Rolls Royce” of keyboards can be had for somewhere in that range. I tend to be permissive with myself in terms of my strange fixations, especially if indulging them costs less than a day’s pay. In this case, your money gets you a keyboard that will likely last you for many years, and give you (if you enjoy such things) hundreds or even thousands of happy hours poking away at the keyboard. When you consider that the input devices we choose are our primary way of communicating with our computers, and that our computers are at the center of our little worlds for thousands of hours per year, I think that a good case can be made to choose a keyboard (and mouse) that really feels comfortable.

Then again, it is also my belief that, if there is any one thing that human beings excel at, it is justifying their own illogical behavior, so take all that with a grain of salt.

Here are a few links that you might be interested in, if you want more information.

Cherry Key Switches

Mechanical Keyboard Reviews


What’s your favorite keyboard?

What about it makes it special?

Make a comment and join the conversation.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Next Big Thing!

I was asked to do this blog post by my friend Chanté McCoy. She and I have appeared in the Crimson Pact anthologies together, and she’s a great writer. Not only that, but she will not tolerate moping, being a wallflower, or otherwise failing to have fun. She has, upon occasion, been known to make me go dancing, drink alcohol, and watch scary movies. For those things, I am thankful and honored.

So, on to business. My version of “The Next Big Thing.”

Right now, I’m working on the sequel story to “The Failed Crusade” which launched the Crimson Pact anthologies and served as the origin story for some concepts that have been the bedrock of that series. When Paul Genesse and Barbara Webb first started talking about The Crimson Pact idea, my brain just started sizzling. I loved it. I didn’t know what it would be, but I wanted in. Big time. Paul and I brainstormed the story, and I started banging on the keyboard with abandon. The story came together. Barbara and Paul helped make it cooler. In the end, it became the seed of something that’s kept us going for quite a while.

As I hope this story will serve as a capstone to the whole series, there’s, ahem, a little pressure to make it awesome.

Working Title of your Book (Okay, Story):

Bearers of the Testament

Where did you get the idea?

Well, working in a library for almost ten years may have had something to do with it. The idea that there was some great power in books kept coming back to me. It could be the author thing...

Anyway, I got this voice in my head, talking about how the power in a book wasn’t in the words or the meaning, but in the way it affected people, the lives it changed. I went with that, and ended up with this story. I also wanted to write a story wherein the fate of the characters from The Failed Crusade would be shared. Finally, the image of a blasted plain covered in ash, with little cyclones rising, ash devils, if you will, kept coming to my mind. Those things pushed together and got me into the story.


Dark Fantasy

Actors to play the parts:

Yeah, I never do that. Brain doesn't work that way with my own stories.

Give a One Sentence Synopsis of Your Story:

A ragged group of pilgrims take the last remaining copy of their holy book deep into demon territory, hoping that they can summon their deities and turn the tide before all is lost.

Self-Publishing route, or Agency:

If it turns out well enough, you’ll see it in Crimson Pact v.5, so...

What would you compare it to?

Ohh...I’m bad at these, too. It’s sort of biblical, I suppose. There’s certainly the classic “take the magic thing to the special place” plot going on there. I think a lot about Dennis McKiernan’s books, like Dragondoom, and how to do that on a much more limited scale, while I’m writing this one. Finally, I take a little page from the modern Battlestar Galactica show, in that I try to always have the worst possible thing happen during the try/fail cycles. That’s a convoluted and half-assed answer, but that’s all I’ve got.

Other Info:

If you haven’t read any of the Crimson Pact stuff, there is a place HERE that you can check out The Failed Crusade for free. If you like it, there are a few books that happen to have stuff like that inside. Those are available HERE and HERE, if you’re interested. I have stories in all of them, and a novella in the 4th one. Be on the lookout for Crimson Pact 5 this Spring.