Product review: Matias Tactile Pro 2

I recently tried a product as disappointing as Children of Húrin: the Matias Tactile Pro 2 keyboard, which combined a fat price ($150) with poor build quality (loose keys, a malformed edge, and a continuing shadow key problem). Combined, they make a keyboard worse than the one they supersede—in the words of one reviewer, “[…] It’s 4 steps backwards, one step sideways, and 0 steps forward.”

I type a lot, as implied here, and so spend a greater-than-average amount of time thinking about my keyboard. When I heard about the Tactile Pro 2, I sent an e-mail to Derek Trideja, who gave me the title “Alert keyboard fetishist.” An exaggeration, but not far from the truth, and I’ve yet to find that perfect keyboard. Frequent readers will remember when I posted a picture of my writing space—since changed—and the Matias Tactile Pro Keyboard version 1 that peaks out. It’s as close as I’ve come to the perfect keyboard, and if not for the shadow keys problem it would be. Seventy nine dollars was a lot for a keyboard until I began using it regularly, and I found this one much better than the mushy keyboards that most computers come with, or the new and hideous keyboard that came with my iMac.

Programmers sometimes raved about old school IBM Model M keyboards, but the regular ones were discontinued in 1996 and don’t have an easy place for command, option, and control keys, making them poorly suited for OS X. The Tactile Pro 1 filled that gap because it had a Mac layout and the comfort I want. Shadow keys, however, develop when the writer hits a number of keys in succession—apparently the keyboard has multiple keys on the same path in some instances, which can cause characters to appear even when the user doesn’t press them. Problems occur when you type anything ending in “ion”, like “division,” which appears as “divisioqn” if you strike the keys in rapid succesion. Not fun, but still better than the mushy keyboards.

Version 2 still has those problems, although they’re not as pronounced. In an e-mail to me, someone from Matias said that the shadow key problem had been reduced in version 2. The person was right, but it hasn’t been reduced enough. In addition, the USB port situation irritated me—the old version has one cable and two USB ports, one on each side of the keyboard. The new one has a single USB port on the side of the keyboard and two ends, as depicted here:

Matias Tactile Pro USB Plugs

(Notice the background: an Oxford edition of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Other Tales.)

This causes me to run out of USB ports on the back of my computer and to have to continually unplug things if I want to download pictures or transfer files to a USB drive. Their marketing materials don’t mention that they’ve lost one USB port on the keyboard. In addition, the one I received has keys much looser than my previous Tactile Pro—it feels flimsier and doesn’t have the same satisfying action with each keystroke. The front edge was also malformed, as this picture shows, though not perfectly:

The deformed edge of the keyboard

I was tempted to return mine and ask for a replacement unit, but after reading this thread on Ars Technica and the previously mentioned Bronzefinger review I decided not to bother. I’d rather just have the money back, and one thing Matias does offer is a 30-day money-back guarantee. I’m sure that the writer of Bronzefinger and I are not the only ones to have made use of this policy. The keyboard feels more like something hacked together by electrical engineering students one weekend or a science fair project.

What went wrong? I have no idea. I’ve heard engineering friends say that late projects seldom bode well for the finished project, which is more likely to turn out poorly because the delay manifests underlying problems; I’ve read similar things on Slashdot, for what their opinion is worth. The Matias Tactile Pro 2 was supposed to ship in March, but the initial batch didn’t arrive until, as far as I could tell, June, and the one I bought came from the second run that shipped in September. If Matias hasn’t worked the kinks out yet, I’m not sure they will in this iteration. In the meantime, those interested in a better keyboard might want to try and snag a used Tactile Pro 1 or a reborn Model M. The Tactile Pro 2 does have a few stronger points, like an optimizer feature that allows one to change the keyboard layout, but its benefit is minor compared to the keyboard’s drawbacks.

In other technology news, Apple just announced the latest versioqn—excuse me, version—of OS X, Leopard. I’ve also started using iWork, and especially Pages, for some of my writing. Pages simply looks nicer than Word, even if Pages is still missing many features.

EDIT: I posted a review of the Customizer, which is the new version of the Model M mentioned above.

9 responses

  1. Pingback: Keyboards Extended II :: dirtystylus

  2. I went through four Tactile Pro keyboards. Their spectacular five-year warranty baffled me since the product seemed to be of such un-spectacular quality. They do have excellent customer service, though, and were always happy to replace my broken keyboards. I’m happy to read your review since I had no idea why all four would have the same, aggravating, “shadow key” problem.


  3. Hi,

    I enjoy your writing. I’ve used a couple of the earlier version of the Matias keyboard. I was very disappointed for a lot of reasons, most of which you mentioned.

    I do a lot of writing (and reading) and the keyboard is the main interface to most of my World. And right now I am on one of the Apple Aluminum keyboards. This is probably the worst keyboard I have ever used. I use it with an Aluminum Powerbook all the time, at home. The spacebar omits triggered ‘spaces’ (Those comprise 95% of my after-the-fact corrections).

    I saw your post on the Unicomp keyboard, which, I am guessing, is based on the old IBM Model M keyboard. I am in the process of getting it together to buy either the $130 or the $55 IBMs from the site. BUT, after reading your review, I’m wondering if I should go for the Unicomp, instead. Decisions, decisions. If you by any chance post an update regarding your feelings about the keyboard you are now using, I would be very curious to see more of your real-world feedback on it.

    Anyway, thanks for the two posts regarding the keyboard situation. They give a double-Virgo type, like me, hope.


  4. The Unicomp keyboards are not “New versions” of the Old IBM keyboards, they are the real McCoy. IBM handed their typewriter division off to Lexmark, and along with it, the beautiful buckling spring technology. Unicomp later split off from Lexmark after some restructuring, but the keyboard machining and tooling stayed with them.
    I am actually debating between the Matias Tactile Pro 3 and the Unicomp SpaceSaver USB. I use a Mac and a PC with a KVM switch, so the PC version would be great, since MacOS X has a very nice remapping sytem built right into the OS.


    • [quote]
      The Unicomp keyboards are not “New versions” of the Old IBM keyboards, they are the real McCoy.

      Sort of.

      While IBM did indeed hand off their keyboard division to Lexmark, anyone who has typed on both IBM grey logo and Lexmark blue logo keyboards (I own both) will tell you there is a tangible difference (albeit a very slight one). The Lexmark IBM logo’ed keyboards use somewhat lighter case plastics and the springs are not -quite- as stiff as the earlier, grey logo models.

      Not to mention that Lexmark had some keyboard models with fixed (as opposed to swappable SDL-style) cables. These changes were made because Lexmark realized that the days of IBM charging whatever they felt like for keyboards were over and it was time to start shaving pennies (same as any other keyboard manufacturer circa 1993). It’s cheaper for a manufacturer to solder a cable to a keyboard rather than incur the expense of adding an SDL socket.

      When Unicomp split off from Lexmark later on, even more design changes were introduced.

      So, technically you are correct: the Unicomp keyboards are descended from the IBM models. However, take a look at the Unicomp model of Space Saver and then at a grey (or blue) IBM-logo’ed Spacesaver and you will see some visual differences; type on the different model keyboards and you will, very likely feel some more.


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