IBM Model M / Unicomp Customizer Keyboard update: Mac edition

EDIT: Unicomp now offers a SpaceSaver M keyboard, in which the “M” stands for “Mac.” That’s probably what you want, rather than the Customizer, since the mechanical keys on the SpaceSaver M are the same as they are on the Customizer, while the keyboard itself is considerably smaller and includes Mac-specific keys out-of-the-box.

My Product Review of the Unicomp Customizer keyboard is the most enduringly popular post on this blog, and the last few days have seen an especially large amount of traffic thanks to an NPR story on how an Old-School Keyboard Makes [a] Comeback Of Sorts, which talks about Unicomp. The saddest part: the company is laying off workers because the Customizers and similar keyboards last too long and cost too much. The latter, of course, has a great deal to do with the former, but economic conditions mean that the initial investment apparently isn’t available to many people.

Aside from the durability of its products, Unicomp also has unusually good customer service. I use a Mac and the Customizer ships with Windows keys by default, which one can see in my original post. For $10, however, Unicomp sent me custom keys with “option” and “command” instead of Windows buttons (pardon the fuzzy pictures: I only have a lousy cell phone camera at the moment):

01-31-09_1223

Option and command close up

01-31-09_1225

Perfect: the Windows buttons aren’t staring at me and other people who use my computer aren’t confused (“Hit command-w to close the window.” “Where’s command?” “The one with the Windows logo to the left of the spacebar.” “Huh?”).

Mac users who care about typing, take note: buy a Unicomp SpaceSaver or SpaceSaver M rather than the lousy Matias Tactile Pro 2. You can find Unicomp’s website here.

34 responses

  1. Hey, I’ve been all over their website, but I can’t find those keycaps for sale. I left a message via voicemail, but have got no response.

    Can you help me locate those keycaps?

    thanks,

    – Ray

    Like

    • I called today (3/19/10) and was told that the correct procedure to allow the order to be done online (no phone call) only is as follows:
      1. select the keyboard and click “Order”
      2. go through the order menus (address for shipping, etc.)
      3. at the end you will enter your payment method and there is a comment box at the bottom of that screen
      4. add the following comment: “Please add the Mac button set to my order. I understand that there will be $10 added to the total charged for the order. Thank you.”

      I was told that if you don’t acknowledge the $10 upper they will call you to confirm that you understand you will be charged an extra $10 for the Mac key caps and, basically, it just delays your order.

      Hope this helps.

      Like

  2. Do they have a Linux customization that replaces the windows icon keycap with Tux?

    FYI, my current keyboard is a Fujitsu FKB4700, nice beastie… my ESC keycap is a red one with PANIC written on it; and I do own an original IBM Model M as well.

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  3. I’m also curious about the replacement of the key caps for Mac. My original Matias is on its last legs and I’m not getting another one (it’s not well built enough). Trying to decide between this and Das Keyboard. Appreciate the detailed reviews! I’m a writer and I’m using the keyboard all day long.

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  4. Everything I’ve read and seen has said pretty clearly that not only is the Unicomp Customizer better in build quality than the Matias Tactile Pro, but that is also of a quite substantially better build than the Das Keyboard. The Das, while being a nice modern board, suffers from poorly printed key labels that wear off in just a few months & a finish that is an absolute magnet for dust & fingerprints. I’ve also heard the plastic they use isn’t as durable as it should be, especially for the price. The real Model M can be had for around $30 these days, and beats all of them in quality. Just remap the keys in Sys. Prefs.

    Like

    • Hi Justin,

      I’m Andy, the Community Manager for Das Keyboard. I wanted to thank you for mentioning Das Keyboard; I also wanted to address you concerns. We have had issues in the past with the lettering wearing off of Das Keyboard Professionals when people use them heavily; we’ve taken the feedback to heart and the new Das Keyboard Model S Professional has lasered-on lettering, so they won’t fade. You’re right that the glossy frame shows fingerprints, which is why we include a cloth with each keyboard to help keep it shiny. For dust, there’s no property in the keyboard that attracts dust, but just like any keyboard or item on your desk, it’s always a good idea to keep it clean.

      I asked around about your durability concern; I would be interested in where you heard that Das Keyboard isn’t as durable as it should be; a keyboard has never been returned because the frame failed or it wasn’t durable. In fact, we often get comments about how it’s so sturdy and heavy that it could be used as a shield or weapon (which we obviously don’t condone.) That being said, we take all customer feedback very seriously; if you or someone had or is having any issues with his/her Das Keyboard, I would love the chance to make it right.

      Additionally, all Das Keyboards come with the full warranty, so even if Das Keyboard doesn’t fulfill your expectations, you’ve got 30 days to change your mind for any reason, and a year make sure it will last.

      We love to hear comments, questions, and feedback, so please feel free to contact me at community [at] daskeyboard [dot] com

      thanks!

      Like

      • I had problems with the Das Keyboard that I tried; the lettering wore off after only a few months and the USB was utterly flakey. Das said I need to use 2 USB ports on my computer directly with the keyboard-lame.

        I was able to get warranty service on it for the key wearing issue but had to pay $20. to ship it back. Once I received the new one back, I sold it on eBay and went to a Unicomp buckling spring model which I am much happier with. It feels so much more durable.

        Like

      • Hi Hank, I’m so sorry to hear that your Das Keyboard experience was so poor! Please contact me at the email above and I’ll do whatever I can to help. Thanks!

        Like

  5. @ Justin: “The real Model M can be had for around $30 these days, and beats all of them in quality. Just remap the keys in Sys. Prefs.”

    The problem is that Macs like three meta keys: command, option, and control. You can remap caps lock to one, but it’s still not as easy to learn or, in my view, to use as a keyboard with three meta keys available. In addition, modern Macs (and most modern laptops, as far as I can tell) only have USB ports, which means you have to find a USB converter that can handle the voltage expected by the old-school Model Ms. Not all can. That’s why the real Model M probably isn’t as good an option as the Customizer.

    Like

  6. Hey, after ordering 2 ‘space saver’ (strongly recommended over the customizer), and a set of keycaps, I can tell you that all you really need to do is:

    1) order the keyboard off the ubicomp store (Yahoo!)
    2) write in the ‘notes’ area of the order that you want the Mac keys.

    They’ll increase the charges on your credit card by $10, and ship the keyboard and keycaps to you.

    I’m considering ordering 50 (25 white, 25 ‘black’) from them with the keycaps already installed, and putting up an Amazon store. Pricing would be the same as off the Ubicomp website, only Mac-specific (would include a sheet of paper explaining how to set System Preferences to recognize the new Command and Option keys.

    Question: what to do with the now ‘blank’ key that had the menu on it?

    Like

  7. Here is the response received from Unicomp Customer Service:

    Thank you for the inquiry and your interest in our keyboards. Today, we do not make an Apple/Mac keyboard per se; however, as you know, any USB keyboard can be used with the Mac or Apple. We have plans to offer a Mac-like model in the future with the buttons re-arranged and the legends more Mac -like, i.e., Option, Command etc.

    It will be several months before such a model is available. In the meantime, what most Mac customers do is order a USB model (usually the SpaceSaver) and remap the Windows buttons. I provide them with three blank buttons to replace the Windows buttons, which they can mark as they wish. A second choice for an additional $10 is to have us also supply Command and Option buttons to replace the Windows buttons. Of course, the buttons still need to be re-mapped. This is available for any of our 104/5 USB models.

    Like

  8. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m a programmer, I use a keyboard all day, and for the most part, one is just as good as any other (assuming they’re full sized, and not on a netbook or something).
    This IBM keyboard just looks like an old dinosaur with nothing special about it other then perhaps being loud – which doesn’t seem like a great feature, but more of an annoyance to me.

    Like

    • The key feature here is tactile feedback, which IMO is one of the biggest factors that make up a good keyboard. The key action feels much better than a cheap $5 keyboard. They have a nice, satisfying “crunch” to them (hard to describe) when you press them, unlike most cheap keyboards, and you simply know when you’ve pressed a key. As a result, you can type much more accurately than with a mushy keyboard. It’s also rather fun to type on one.

      Like

  9. From out of left field… Here’s what you’re missing young man. You’re soft and you don’t even know it. You grew up with soft food and can’t relate to the crunchy stuff that satisfied your dad back when people worked. I’m old school and I prefer crunchy. Keyboards included. Membrane keyboards are cheap and feel cheap. Membrane technology makes it cheap to add useless buttons. People have grown accustomed to cheap manufacturing and don’t realize how compromised their computing experience has become. Membrane keyboards, yes laptops too, are a modern marvel like drip coffee makers. Just because a drip coffee maker is cheap and turns the water brown doesn’t mean it makes good coffee. Yes, at times my coffee is a bit crunchy and I don’t mind so much.

    Like

  10. Jay, I have a quick question for you.

    First, this is an excellent post for an excellent product. I grew up with a Model M, and after years of laptop usage, I returned to the desktop world with a new Sandy Bridge iMac — and found myself totally ill-equipped for the rubber-dome keyboard that came with the otherwise beautiful computer.

    I ordered the SpaceSaver M, which comes with the Apple buttons and commands, yet when the product arrived yesterday, I would not work! I tried plugging the keyboard into multiple Macs (and even a PC), yet the keyboard never registered (or seemed to even power on).

    So my question: did you have to do anything more with your Unicomp keyboard other than plug in the USB cord? Unicomp is replacing the keyboard (I’ll get the new one in a couple days), but I am so curious as to why the rigorously tested product would not work.

    Thank you for your time, and cheers to an excellent site.

    Like

  11. Jay– just thought I’d give you a heads up on something you might be interested in: check out Unicomp’s new Spacesaver M http://pckeyboards.stores.yahoo.net/onthestick.html (NOTE:: their links seem to be misleading, but it’ll still direct you to the right page). From their website:

    “The SpaceSaver M offers the touch and feel of the Model M buckling spring keyboard merged with some of the system and audio controls seen on Apple® and Mac® keyboards. SpaceSaver M allows for convenient control of iTunes®, Safari® and other applications running on Mac OS X® based systems. This USB connected keyboard, available in Pearl White or Raven Black covers, will provide years of trouble free service. Please call if you have questions or need additional information.”

    Like

  12. Hi,

    I am writing this on a Matias Tactile pro v2. (mac)
    I find it very nice for writing. Though yes, i do get the notion that not every key is giving the right feedback now and then, and also you need some getting used to.

    It’s like warming up the tires for a race …
    The thing is on Alps, after a while they feel very well, and then are a dream to type on.

    I have tried, also others, the IBM model M; I am still trying to get my head around, cause the feel is great, though still feel a bit too stiff. Maybe is should give it another go.

    The Filco (blue mx switches) is great; i use it at work, and feel that when writing reports, mail etc, it is fine allover, and after long day don’t feel fatigued.

    The Alps do have a strange lag maybe via usb, but overall the feel is great :)

    Please give them a try, even at geekhacks; the alps are underrated, :P

    Regards, Davin

    Like

  13. Whenever I press F2 (for example) from Aquamacs, I get ” is not defined”. In order to get F2, I must press Function and then F2.

    I’ve tried the KeyRemap4MacBook utility, but it does not seem to be able to address this issue no matter what I do. I had managed somehow to tame the built-in MacBook keyboard Fn keys, but the Unicomp M keyboard is leaving me stumped.

    But otherwise, the physical typing experience is superb. This is more of a Mac-related issue than a Unicomp issue, but since Apple claims to know me vastly better than I know myself, I’m commenting here.

    Like

  14. Unicomp are a company with a great product and dreadful marketing, I really wanted one of their keyboards but gave up waiting for them to release a Mac version. Even now they don’t do the Mac version in a UK Layout and why don’t the advertise the Mac keys as an option on their site?

    In the end I ended up with a Matias Tactile Pro V3, even though as an ex-IBMer I knew I wanted a new Model M keyboard.

    I’m sure if UniComp where to product a website as good as Matias and then push out review samples to leading websites they could quickly double their sales.

    Like

  15. Pingback: Product Review: Unicomp Customizer keyboard, or, the IBM Model M reborn « The Story's Story

  16. Pingback: Product Review: Kinesis Advantage ergonomic keyboard « The Story's Story

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