Product Review: Unicomp Ultra Classic keyboard, or, the IBM Model M reborn

A rash of e-mails regarding my negative review of the Matias Tactile Pro 2 leads me to write this positive review the Unicomp Ultra Classic, which is a modern version of the Model M that IBM used to produce. Dan’s Data explains why these “buckling spring” keyboards are so nice:

The big deal about these old keyboards is their lovely, positive key-click. When you use a keyboard that doesn’t have a good positive click, it’s hard to tell when you’ve depressed a key properly. You have to watch the screen to make sure you don’t leave letters out, or you have to really hammer the keyboard, which is not good for your hands.

Most of the mid-priced keyboards […] use some variant of the “rubber dome” switch technology, which gives a definite little popping sensation when the dome buckles, but doesn’t necessarily give you an actual letter at the exact same moment, thanks to uncertain contacts. The old buckling spring tech absolutely positively does give you the letter when you feel the click. These keyboards feel very much like an old IBM Selectric typewriter – there are plenty of these ironclad behemoths still in service, and they may herniate anyone that has to move them but they’re darn nice to type on.

Today, buckling spring keyboards are never or almost never shipped with computers. Fortunately, Unicomp has accomplished what Matias couldn’t and produced an excellent keyboard in the Ultra Classic, which is based on the actual IBM Model M design. Keystrokes are crisp and precise. The “shadow key” problem that bedeviled the Tactile Pro is absent, and the Ultra Classic itself is solid, recalling a slab of stone (see the picture below), unlike the fragile, mushy keyboards most PCs ship with. It’s also been durable, and in the months I’ve pounded on it the only problem has been a backspace key that became slightly squeaky. I sent an e-mail to Unicomp and someone called me to recommend that I pop off the offending key with a butter knife to reseat it.

If you know anything about modern tech support, reread that sentence and let the shock set in. An actual phone call? From a guy involved with the actual manufacturing of the product? Indeed, and I’ve now experienced my miracle. The squeak seemed to go away and I’m back to my normal pattern. Furthermore, the company is based in Kentucky and makes the Ultra Classics there.

The main drawback for me is that I use an iMac and the keyboard is set up for Windows (EDIT: This is no longer a problem for anyone who chooses the Mac version, which Unicomp now sells, presumably thanks to people like me asking for it). The ability to change key bindings was important to me, and OS X allows it to be accomplished easily by going to System Preferences -> keyboard and mouse -> keyboard -> modifier keys:

As the screenshot shows, I’ve disabled the caps lock key—which is not specific to this keyboard, but just a preference—and changed the “option” key to command and the command key to option, which aligns the Ultra Classic to any other Mac keyboard. Windows and Linux users will probably want to leave the alt and control keys where they are. The Ultra Classic is thus a viable Mac keyboard, which delights me after the Matias Tactile Pro 2 problems. Although I haven’t conducted any tests to demonstrate whether I actually type faster with the Ultra Classic, I feel like I do, and even if I don’t, I like typing on it far more than I do other keyboards.

The Ultra Classic’s minor downsides are fivefold: 1) as described above, the command, alt, and option physical keys don’t match what the computer will actually do; 2) the keyboard has no built-in USB ports, which is a problem with Macs because even the 24″ iMac comes with only three on the back, which is too few; 3) the price, at $69, is somewhat high, but I think the productivity improvement worth the extra cost, and 4) the Ultra Classic probably can’t be used in a work or living situation in which you have to share space with someone else, as the clacking will anger the other person. That last drawback is to me part of the advantage—I like the clack, and to me the noise is part of its fun. Finally, 5) Unicomp doesn’t make a version without the number pad, which is incredibly annoying. Like most people I don’t use the number pad much or need it. The number pad is just wasted, inconvenient space.

My only wish is that Unicomp would make keys with “command” on them, so Mac users could pop the Windows keys off and replace them with a Mac-centric layout. These are minor issues, and the necessary trade-offs weigh heavily in the Ultra Classic’s favor for those who care about their typing experience. EDIT: Unicomp now makes a SpaceSaver M specifically for Macs. The SpaceSaver is identical to the Ultra Classic, except that it’s slightly smaller. If you’re on OS X, it’s the keyboard you want. As I wrote above, it’s too bad Unicomp doesn’t make a version without the number pad. WASD does, so for most people it’s probably a better option.

EDIT: Clarified relationship of the Ultra Classic to the Model M. In addition, you can see the Ultra Classic in my post about new workspace. This post discusses computers, tools, and meaning.

EDIT 2: I did buy Mac-friendly keycaps from Unicomp and wrote about them in this post, which also has pictures of the new keys.

EDIT 3: I wrote a long post on what I think of the the Kinesis Advantage, Unicomp Space Saver, and Das Keyboard two years later.

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