Product Review: Das Keyboard Model “S” Professional

The main question about the Das Keyboard Professional Model “S” is not whether it’s a very nice keyboard: let me get that out of the way by saying it is. The keys are precise and smooth, and the amount of force necessary to generate a letter is far more appropriate than the standard keyboards shipped with most computers.

Instead, the main question is whether the Das Keyboard is substantively better than the Unicomp Customizer and Space Saver, both of which use the time-tested IBM Model M design and manufacturing equipment. The answer is probably “no,” especially when one considers their relative cost: as of this writing, the Unicomp keyboards are $69 and made in the United States, while Das Keyboards are $129 and made in Taiwan.*

First impressions

The slim keyboard and its housing:

das_keyboard_model_s_1

As shown, the Das Keyboard is black and unadorned by anything save a “daskeyboard” logo in the upper right. The keys are matte black with white letters etched in by laser—a nice touch—while the borders are glossy and probably prone to fingerprints and smudging over time. The attractive minimalist design makes the keyboard look like part of a set when placed next an iMac and Aeron, as though it were designed to complement them.

The chief drawback aesthetically and practically is the split USB cord:

das_keyboard_split

das_keyboard_3

Not surprisingly, a picture like this one doesn’t appear on the Das Keyboard website. It’s reminiscent of the Matias Tactile Pro 2, and not in a positive way.

But the Das Keyboard does have two USB ports on the side, which is a useful feature the Customizer lacks. To me extra USB ports don’t make much difference: I taped a four-port, powered USB hub to the bottom of my desk, and that’s where I plug in peripherals, my printer, and an iPhone cord. The hub cost $10.

The keys

Each stroke brings a satisfying but muted clack. I like typing on the Das Keyboard. Its keys don’t travel quite as far as the Customizer or Space Saver’s, and it’s also easier to bottom out because one doesn’t have the curious resistance that a buckling spring provides, as described here:

The most widely produced buckling-spring keyswitch keyboard is the IBM model M keyboard. When pressing an individual key, the operator is physically applying increasing force (approximately 60-70 grams of force) against a coiled spring. The spring provides slight resistance, so that you can rest your fingers on the keyboard and not cause an accidental or inadvertent key press. Once the key travels a particular distance (approx. 2.5 – 3.5mm), the spring reaches the “catastrophic buckling” point and produces an audible click at the same exact instance that the computer records the keystroke.

With the Das Keyboard, you can still rest your fingers on the keys, but when typing you won’t have the catastrophic buckling that prevents bottoming out. Consequently, the Das Keyboard has a slightly harsher feel than the Customizer or Space Saver. It seems to take approximately the same amount of force to generate a keystroke, but that’s based solely on feel rather than on testing. There might be an objective difference between the two, but if so, it’s not great.

The key switches themselves appear to Cherry MX Blues, which are explained in greater detail at the link and in this Hot Hardware essay.

das_keyboard_cherry_mx_blue

These switches are louder, though not enormously so, than the Cherry MX “Brown” switches in the Kinesis Advantage Ergonomic Keyboard or the Majestouch Tenkeyless Keyboard. You could use the Kinesis Advantage or Majestouch Tenkeyless keyboard in a dorm or office without offending those in the same room, but the Das Keyboard is probably too loud for those environments. I assume the “silent” version uses Cherry MX “Brown” switches that are quieter and also appropriate for group settings. To get a sense of how loud each keyboard is, check out this video, which compares the Advantage, Customizer, and Das Keyboard:

What do all these models mean?

If you’ve visited the Das Keyboard website, you’re probably aware that you can buy four models: the “Original Das Keyboard Professional, “Das Keyboard Model “S” Professional,” which I am reviewing, the “Das Keyboard Model “S” Professional Silent,” and the “Das Keyboard Model “S” Ultimate.”

Here’s how the somewhat confusing nomenclature and model numbers work: A Das Keyboard “Professional” means there are letters on the keyboard, like mine; not having any letters doesn’t seem to confer any benefit aside from sheer geek street cred, about which I care less than practicality. A Das Keyboard “Ultimate” is identical to the “Professional” except that it’s blank. The Das Keyboard “Silent” is quieter, presumably due to using Cherry MX “Brown” switches like those mentioned above.

The Original Das Keyboard Professional lacks media function keys, has only a single USB connector, isn’t compatible with KVM switches, and doesn’t have “Full n-key rollover,” which means that if you mash, say, six keys at once, the keyboard might not register all of them. The last feature is apparently useful for gaming.

The differences between the “Original” and “Model S” are marginal and not very important. I’d probably take the original.

Mac support

The Das Keyboard supports OS X and Linux as well as Windows. A set of Mac- and Linux-friendly keycaps goes for $14.95, which is comparable to Unicomp’s cost for OS-specific keys. You’ll have to swap the Option and Command key in OS X’s system preferences, as described here.

A strange problem

Edit Nov. 12 2009: Thomas Aitchison of Das Keyboard sent me an e-mail saying that the problem I described below is a known bug and that the company is recalling the keyboards in the affected serial number range, so this probably no longer applies.

Every couple hours, a key would stop working. The first time it was the “e:” I typed “swt” instead of “sweet” in TextMate. The same thing happened in Word and Mellel. But when I plugged the keyboard into my MacBook, the “e” was back, and switching back to my iMac also solved the problem. The same thing happened a few hours later with the “control” key. Unplugging the keyboard and plugging it back in did the trick. It happened again with the “p” key.

In addition, the remapped “option” key doesn’t function properly. In OS X, option-shift-hyphen generates an em dash, like this: —. But I had to remap the caps lock key to option to generate that dash. I have no idea why. This hasn’t happened with any of the other keyboards I’ve used with this computer: the Matias Tactile Pro, the Customizer, the Advantage, or the Apple Aluminum Keyboards. I assume this is a problem unique to this particular Das Keyboard or to this Das Keyboard with my iMac. Fortunately, the company promises: “For repair and exchange: no waiting, no hassle. We will ship you a replacement as soon as we receive your shipment.”

A second opinion

My girlfriend used the Das Keyboard for a day and didn’t like it as much as I did: she said she heard a high-pitched squeak. Of the keyboards I’ve tried recently, she likes the Kinesis Advantage best. In comparison to the Unicomp Customizer, she wrote, “WAY better than the daskeyboard. […] It takes a little more effort, and maybe I’ll find at the end of the day my muscles aren’t a fan of it, but for now, it’s definitely better. Feels more solid.”

Conclusion

Even Das Keyboard’s website says that “Das Keyboard compares to the legendary IBM model M. Its best-in-class mechanical gold-plated key switches provide a tactile and audio click that makes typing a pure joy.” They’re right: it does compare to the Model M. Either keyboard is an good choice.

But I’d take the Model M. Its durability is proven, the key travel is slightly better, and it sounds more like a typewriter and slightly less “plasticky” to my ears. It’s about $50 cheaper after shipping. The only drawback is the lack of USB ports, which is minor.

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


* I don’t highlight where the keyboards are made out of a misplaced and ignorant jingoistic nativism, but rather because, all else being equal, I’d generally choose the item made in a western country (Canada, the United States, most of Europe) over one not made there under the assumption that the workers are probably treated better and make living wages. Taiwan is an industrialized country, so this probably doesn’t apply, but I notice the difference anyway. In addition, products made elsewhere usually cost less; I find it suggestive that, in this case, the opposite is true.

* Note: The review unit was provided by Das Keyboard and returned to the manufacturer after this review was written.

Product Review: Das Keyboard Model "S" Professional

The main question regarding the Das Keyboard Professional Model “S” should not be whether it’s a very nice keyboard: it is. The keys are precise and smooth, and the amount of force necessary to generate a letter is far more appropriate than the standard keyboards shipped with most computers. Rather, the main question should be: is the Das Keyboard substantively better than the Unicomp Customizer and Space Saver, both of which use the time-tested IBM Model M design and manufacturing equipment? The answer is probably “no,” especially when one considers their relative cost: as of this writing, the Unicomp keyboards are $69 and made in the United States, while Das Keyboards are $129 and made in Taiwan.*

First impressions

The slim keyboard and its housing:

das_keyboard_model_s_1

As shown, the Das Keyboard is black and unadorned by anything save a “daskeyboard” logo in the upper right. The keys themselves are matte black with white letters etched in by laser, while the borders are glossy and probably prone to fingerprints and smudging over time. The attractive minimalist design makes the keyboard look like part of a set when placed next an iMac and Aeron, as though it were designed to complement them.

The chief drawback aesthetically and practically is the split USB cord:

das_keyboard_split

das_keyboard_3

Not surprisingly, a picture like this doesn’t appear on the Das Keyboard website. It’s reminiscent of the Matias Tactile Pro 2, and not in a good way.

But the Das Keyboard does have two USB ports on the side, which is a useful feature the Customizer lacks. To me it doesn’t make much of a difference: I taped a four-port, powered USB hub to the bottom of my desk, and that’s where I plug in peripherals, my printer, and an iPhone cord. The hub cost $10, like the one at the link, although I bought mine elsewhere.

The keys

Each stroke brings a satisfying but muted clack, and I like typing on the Das Keyboard. Its keys don’t travel quite as far as the Customizer or Space Saver’s; it’s also easier to bottom out because one doesn’t have the curious resistance that a buckling spring provides, as described here:

The most widely produced buckling-spring keyswitch keyboard is the IBM model M keyboard. When pressing an individual key, the operator is physically applying increasing force (approximately 60-70 grams of force) against a coiled spring. The spring provides slight resistance, so that you can rest your fingers on the keyboard and not cause an accidental or inadvertent key press. Once the key travels a particular distance (approx. 2.5 – 3.5mm), the spring reaches the “catastrophic buckling” point and produces an audible click at the same exact instance that the computer records the keystroke.

With the Das Keyboard, you can still rest your fingers on the keys, but when typing you won’t have the catastrophic buckling that prevents bottoming out. Consequently, the Das Keyboard has a slightly harsher feel than the Customizer or Space Saver. It seems to take approximately the same amount of force to generate a keystroke, but that’s based solely on feel rather than on testing. There might be an objective difference between the two, but if so, it’s not great.

The key switches themselves appear to Cherry MX Blues, which are explained in greater detail at the link and in this Hot Hardware essay. You can see them in the Das Keyboard here:

das_keyboard_cherry_mx_blue

These switches are louder, though not enormously so, than the Cherry MX “Brown” switches found in the Kinesis Advantage Ergonomic Keyboard, which I reviewed at the link, or the Majestouch Tenkeyless Keyboard. You could use the Kinesis Advantage or Majestouch Tenkeyless keyboard in a dorm or office without offending those in the same room, but the Das Keyboard is probably too loud for those environments. I assume the “silent” version uses Cherry MX “Brown” switches that are quieter and also appropriate for group settings. To get a sense of how loud each keyboard is, check out this video, which compares the Advantage, Customizer, and Das Keyboard:

What do all these models mean?

If you’ve visited the Das Keyboard website, you’re probably aware that you can buy four models: the “Original Das Keyboard Professional, “Das Keyboard Model “S” Professional,” which I am reviewing, the “Das Keyboard Model “S” Professional Silent,” and the “Das Keyboard Model “S” Ultimate.”

Here’s how the somewhat confusing nomenclature and model numbers work: A Das Keyboard “Professional” means there are letters on the keyboard, like mine; not having any letters doesn’t seem to confer any benefit aside from sheer geek street cred, about which I care less than practicality. A Das Keyboard “Ultimate” is identical to the “Professional” except that it’s blank. The Das Keyboard “Silent” is quieter, presumably due to using Cherry MX “Brown” switches like those mentioned above.

The Original Das Keyboard Professional lacks media function keys, has only a single USB connector, isn’t compatible with KVM switches, and doesn’t have “Full n-key rollover,” which means that if you mash, say, six keys at once, the keyboard might not register all of them. The last feature is apparently useful for gaming. The short version is that the differences between the “Original” and “Model S” are marginal and not very important. Given the choice, I’d probably take the original.

Mac support

The Das Keyboard supports OS X and Linux as well as Windows. You can buy a set of Mac- and Linux-friendly keycaps for $14.95, which is comparable to Unicomp’s cost for OS-specific keys. You’ll have to swap the Option and Command key in OS X’s system preferences, as described here.

A strange problem

Edit Nov. 12 2009: Thomas Aitchison of Das Keyboard sent me an e-mail saying that the problem I described below is a known bug and that the company is recalling the keyboards in the affected serial number range, so this probably no longer applies.

Every couple hours, a key would stop working. The first time it was the “e:” I typed “swt” instead of “sweet” in TextMate. The same thing happened in Word and Mellel. But when I plugged the keyboard into my MacBook, the “e” was back, and switching back to my iMac also solved the problem. The same thing happened a few hours later with the “control” key. Unplugging the keyboard and plugging it back in did the trick. It happened again with the “p” key, and presumably with others that I hadn’t noticed because I didn’t use them.

In addition, the remapped “option” key doesn’t function properly. In OS X, option-shift-hyphen generates an em dash, like this: —. But I had to remap the caps lock key to option to generate that dash. I have no idea why. This hasn’t happened with any of the other keyboards I’ve used with this computer: the Matias Tactile Pro, the Customizer, the Advantage, or the Apple Aluminum Keyboards. I assume this is a problem unique to this particular Das Keyboard or to this Das Keyboard with my iMac; if this happened with a purchased computer, the company promises “For repair and exchange: no waiting, no hassle. We will ship you a replacement as soon as we receive your shipment.”

A second opinion

My girlfriend used the Das Keyboard for a day and didn’t like it as much as I did: she said she heard a high-pitched squeak from it. Of the keyboards I’ve tried recently, she likes the Kinesis Advantage best. In comparison to the Unicomp Customizer, she wrote, “WAY better than the daskeyboard. […] It takes a little more effort, and maybe I’ll find at the end of the day my muscles aren’t a fan of it, but for now, it’s definitely better. Feels more solid.”

Conclusion

Even Das Keyboard’s website says that “Das Keyboard compares to the legendary IBM model M. Its best-in-class mechanical gold-plated key switches provide a tactile and audio click that makes typing a pure joy.” They’re right: it does compare to the Model M. Either keyboard is an good choice. If I had to make it, I’d take the Model M. Its durability is proven, the key travel is slightly better, and it sounds slightly more like a typewriter and slightly less “plasticky” to my ears. In addition, it’s about $50 cheaper after shipping. The only drawback is the lack of USB ports, which seems minor in comparison to how the keyboard feels.

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

 


* I don’t highlight where the keyboards are made out of a misplaced and ignorant jingoistic nativism, but rather because, all else being equal, I’d generally choose the item made in a western country (Canada, the United States, most of Europe) over one not made there under the assumption that the workers are probably treated better and make living wages. Taiwan is an industrialized country, so this probably doesn’t apply, but I notice the difference anyway. In addition, products made elsewhere usually cost less; I find it suggestive that, in this case, the opposite is true.

* Note: The review unit was provided by Das Keyboard and returned to the manufacturer after this review was written.

February 2009 Links: Book Reviews, Literary Blogs, Amazon, and more

* The Washington Post’s Book World supplement won’t be available in print any longer. Terry Teachout expresses my sentiments in Omega/alpha:

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: it is the destiny of serious arts journalism to migrate to the Web. This includes newspaper arts journalism. Most younger readers–as well as a considerable number of older ones, myself among them–have already made that leap. Why tear your hair because the Washington Post has decided to bow to the inevitable? The point is that the Post is still covering books, and the paper’s decision to continue to publish an online version of Book World strikes me as enlightened, so long as the online “magazine” is edited and designed in such a way as to retain a visual and stylistic identity of its own.

* Cynthia Crossen answers a reader’s question about books that change lives in much the way I would: by saying that no book can be the universal answer, since the right book has to find the right person at the right time.

(But, for the record, I’ll give my personal answers: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.)

EDIT: * Cynthia Crossen part duex:”How People Reveal Their True Colors” asks for literary expression of how masters treat slaves in a Hegelian sense. My answer to the headline, however, would tend to be that no one behavior or situation tends to reveal “true” colors, whatever those are.

* Patrick Kurp on blogs:

Maintaining a literary blog is like keeping a big band on the road during the waning days of swing music. The audience is aging and no longer guaranteed. They look elsewhere for diversion – television, bop or R&B. As the boss, you make sure the arrangements are in order, payroll is met, dates booked, players rehearsed and reasonably sober. You’re not Basie or Goodman but you’re a professional and people count on you. You’re never certain who’s listening, if anyone, but you still love the music and probably aren’t suited for doing anything else. Tomorrow’s another gig and you’ll be there.

* Strained metaphors and questionable analogies probably capsize the argument of “Technology is Heroin,” but I’d also never considered the entertainment evolution ideas contained within.

* Nigel Beale lists ten wicked quotes on writing.

* Sad:

Why is the newspaper business losing readers at an accelerated rate while television viewership is stronger than ever? Here’s a speculative idea: A tipping point has been passed in the competition between print and screen that has been under way since the beginnings of broadcast TV and now continues with video and other media.

Consumers are increasingly avoiding newspapers — and books, too — because the text mode is now used so infrequently that it can feel like a burden. People are showing a clear preference for a fully formed video experience that comes ready to play on a screen, requiring nothing but our passive attention.

* Tim Berners-Lee, who in effect invented the Internet as we know it, on Net Neutrality, which might turn out to be one of the essential rights of our age.

* I wrote about Amazon.com and prices earlier, and a New Yorker review piqued my interest in Robert Crawford’s The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography. The book’s retail price is $35; Amazon.com is selling it for $23 as of Feb. 7. I called the Barnes and Nobel and Borders in Tucson, both of which are selling it for… $35.

This is why Amazon.com is doing so well. On a side not, Farhad Manjoo argues that “Amazon’s amazing e-book reader is bad news for the publishing industry” on Slate. He’s probably right, but, like Microsoft’s operating system hegemony with Windows, it’s unlikely that much will change the larger trends he’s examining.

* CNet’s “Tech coalition launches sweatshop probe” offers yet another reason to like the excellent Unicomp Keyboards (as discussed previously in Product Review: Unicomp Customizer keyboard, or, the IBM Model M reborn):

A tech industry watchdog plans to investigate conditions at a Chinese hardware factory that supplies IBM, Microsoft, Dell, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard, following a damning report on conditions there by a human-rights organization.

The National Labor Committee report, “High Tech Misery in China,” said these tech giants use Meitai Plastic and Electronics, a keyboard supplier that operates a factory that “dehumanizes young workers.”

In response, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), a self-regulating body set up by tech companies, will carry out a third-party audit into the working conditions at the factory, IBM told ZDNet UK on Friday.

* Although it has almost nothing to do with books, Mark Bowden’s “The Last Ace” is a compelling piece of contrarian reporting that demonstrates the trade-off issues frequently left out of other articles, like Fred Kaplan’s “The Air Force doesn’t need any more F-22s.” The F-22 is among the most maligned expenses in the federal budget, and yet Bowden implies that buying more of them might paradoxically mean they’re less likely to be used.

American air superiority has been so complete for so long that we take it for granted. For more than half a century, we’ve made only rare use of the aerial-combat skills of a man like Cesar Rodriguez, who retired two years ago with more air-to-air kills than any other active-duty fighter pilot. But our technological edge is eroding—Russia, China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan all now fly fighter jets with capabilities equal or superior to those of the F-15, the backbone of American air power since the Carter era. Now we have a choice. We can stock the Air Force with the expensive, cutting-edge F‑22—maintaining our technological superiority at great expense to our Treasury. Or we can go back to a time when the cost of air supremacy was paid in the blood of men like Rodriguez.

See this post for more about the issue, including Bowden’s clarifying point that he’s not arguing for the F-22, but rather trying to understand the consequences from not building more of them. In other words, he’s evaluating trade-offs. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to read between the lines of his article and come away with the impression that building more F-22s would be a smart idea, even if it might not actually be the optimal use of resources.

(Why “almost nothing” to do with books? Because although this isn’t between hard covers—yet—Bowden wrote a number of fascinating foreign policy and nonfiction books, including Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam and, perhaps most famously, Black Hawk Down.)

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.

New workspace

A year and a half ago, I uploaded a picture of my writing space. Things have changed, and Nigel Beale’s challenge inspires me to post another:

Notable features include an Aeron, the ultimate chair, ink bottles, a backup hard drive used with Time Machine, a gargantuan, wonderful iMac, and a Unicomp Customizer keyboard that inspired this rave—it’s now the most trafficked post on my site.

From Nigel’s blog I went to the Guardian and found out that Alain de Botton has an Aeron too, which obviously enhances the psychic connection established when I shook his hand and discussed Cooper Minis with him in Seattle. His fun novel Kiss & Tell was on my senior year AP English exam.

Notice also the ink bottles hiding between the lamp, book, and base of the computer. I have an anachronistic bend toward fountain pens, and these days I most often use an ink mix of Noodler’s luxury blue blended with Diamine Mediterranean Blue. Juxtaposing inks that Chaucer might have recognized with the computer he probably would not seems an appropriate homage to old and new.

I’d post bookshelves pictures too were my books not substantially packed in preparation for moving.

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.

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.

%d bloggers like this: