Thursday, July 5, 2018

Keyboard review : IBM Model M Keyboard

Note : This review was written way back in 2004. It is still relevant today, and perhaps even more amazing is that I am still using the SAME keyboard to type this. Yes, they really do last.

Many moons ago..

I have been around computers for a long time. How long? Well, when I was 15, I used an Apple ][ at school back in the early 80's. Yes, back then having TWO floppy drives was a luxury as it meant less disk swapping to boot the beast. These were real bendable floppies mind, not the modern fancy hard 1.44MB ones. I'm a nostalgic kinda guy sometimes - I still have a working ][e in the garage somewhere. My first computer was a tape drive based Tandy TRS-80. I had a lot of fun programming that to do silly text adventures in basic.

I also knew someone who worked at IBM, and I played with one of the first IBM PC's, and a thing called the PC portable. This was a "portable" not a "laptop", unless you wanted to become a paraplegic in a hurry. You see, it weighed quite a bit, and more or less took a full grown man to move it.

Then I used a whole swag of PC's and macs. Fast forward to today and I estimate I have touched perhaps a few thousand computers. Consider that I spent time as a computer consultant supporting offices with 50 computers at a time, and this doesn't seem so crazy. Over that time computers have changed.. a lot. Initially, they were super expensive and made to last. The IBM cases were so strong that it was quite possible to stand on one with no ill effect. Other components too were often over engineered. Then things changed. It was all about volume and cheap prices. Quality dropped, compromises were made and durable parts were substituted for cheap parts. Hold that thought.

I distinctly remember playing a text based adventure game called "Nethack" on one of the original IBM PC's. This software came from the mainframe world and amazingly, can still be played today! If you have never tried this gem, I suggest you give it a go. It certainly won't give your graphics card a workout (or your CPU either), but it has a charm and depth that is undeniable. Certainly as a spotty 14 year old, it was very addictive and enjoyable. I recall moving about the maze, using my imagination as to what was happening on screen, to the soft clicking sound of the keyboard.

The clicking what?

The clicking keyboard. Every key press could be heard, twice in fact. The down press is louder than the key up, but there was a sound involved with typing. There was also a feel, a feel I got used to and liked. All of this is due to the fact that early keyboard were made with springs under the keys. As you pressed the key, the spring compressed slightly, then buckled (which made the sound and also produced the key press). When the finger lifted up, the spring unbuckled with another slight sound as it snapped into place. You don't see the springs of course, but you do feel and hear them. These keyboards were amazingly durable, with each key taking rated for an estimated 25 million key presses.

Sadly, these keyboards were not made forever. You see, they cost too much, and to be honest, some people didn't like the noise. A cheaper way was found, which involved a plastic dome bubble. These bubbles were pushed in by a spike on the underside of the key. When the top and bottom of the bubble made contact, the key was "pressed". Sheets of keyboard bubbles could be made very cheaply. The feel of these keyboards are completely different however. "Squishy" is a word that comes to mind. For those that noticed, it was a giant step backwards. Not many people did notice however, as most people were new to computers. Besides, the mouse was the big thing at that time, the keyboard was oh-so 70's. Even IBM gave up making the sprung keyboards before long.

So...what? Can you get to the point please?!

Patience!! The other day I was reading Daniel Rutters excellent web site, Dan's Data. I enjoy his sense of humour and also trust his judgement. If you have never checked out his site, I suggest you do. One day, when I am flush, I will give him some money for his efforts as well. He deserves it. Anyway, he was reviewing a fancy-scmancy new light up keyboard, and I read his article with passing interest. The more I read, the more I thought about the humble keyboard, and an idea started to grow in my head. I remembered in a flash the old keyboards of oh-so-many years ago, and how much I liked their feel. The penny dropped that these keyboards were so well made and durable, they can still be used today, and that I wanted to get one. I knew I would lose the "multimedia" trimmings, and the windows key, but I was ok with that.

SO I hit Ebay... no luck. But good old Google turned up some interesting things. Most notable was the growing feeling that I had just discovered a quiet underground movement of keyboard fanatics. I was not alone, and perhaps even a little slow off the mark. This web site, is a shrine to the IBM Model M keyboard, and has a run-down of all the models and dates. It also has an extensive buyers guide, so I felt I was hot on the trail! I did note that the keyboards they had for sale were all in the US, and were quite a bit more than I wanted to pay (about US$50 each plus US$70 shipping - ouch!). These old keyboards are rather heavy you see, so to send one half way around the world costs real money.

I did more research. It turns out that Dan had already fairly comprehensively covered these old keyboards as well, in a dedicated article on the IBM model M's. What his article is a bit short on, is how to get one of these boards in Australia other than paying through the nose, like he did it seems. But the more I read, the more I knew I wanted one - it started really becoming a quest. I told my wife about all this, and I was not surprised to be called a "geek" in no uncertain terms. To get excited about a keyboard is not normal, apparently. I don't get upset in the slightest about her teasing, I'm quite used to it by now!

So, did you find one?

No, not one. I recently discovered a second hand PC dealer in Crows Nest, EziPC (Edit : no longer in business). A very soft spoken and genuinely nice guy by the name of Charles runs the place, which can be loosely described as a basement full to the brim of old computer gear. Some in racks, some stacked on top of each other on the floor. I thought he might have one, so I sent him an email. But I couldn't wait for a reply, so I called him and arranged to go there after hours that same day. To my great pleasure, we found a whole big box of Model M's, mostly model 1391401's - just what I was looking for. Some had a few keycaps missing, so I decided to take, wait for it... six!

Charles didn't know about the value of these keyboards, and to be honest was happy to give them to me for free based on past business. I wasn't happy about that though, so I did pay him for them. I also told him that I thought they were worth quite a bit, to the right person. I figured this information may be worth something to him as well, even though I was effectively burning my bridges. When I got home I discovered that I had 4 model 1391401 boards, one of which was older that the others and had the black and white logo. The other two of the six were Lexmark made models, which are still good but not quite as good (seemed ok to me, but I bow to greater knowledge on this topic). So I took the missing keycaps from these two Lexmark keyboards and made 4 perfect boards in total. Woohoo!!

When I got home...

Of course, I tell my wife that I have just bought 6 keyboards and she looks at me like I'm some kind of madman, which perhaps I am. I then proceed to rip all the keycaps off one of the boards (I started to do this with a screwdriver, but actually, you can just pull them all off with your fingers. You might need a tool to prize the bigger keys off though). I don't think this helped me looking less mad - I mean, why buy 6 keyboards if you are hell bent on destroying them? I was not destroying them of course, besides, they are indestructible. I was simply started cleaning them.

A clean keyboard is a happy keyboard!

You see, these keyboard were 12 to 15 years old! They had been used by more than a few people previously, and I did not like the keyboard plague that was before me. Everyone knows that a used keyboard is dirtier than a toilet seat. I wanted the new old look, and I was prepared to clean each key to get it. Took about half an hour per keyboard. I also cleaned the keyboard itself, and removed the crap that had fallen into the keyboard with a vacuum cleaner. A bit of spray'n'wipe later and I can pass these off as almost new. One keyboard had clear evidence of a coffee spill incident in it's past. This was near the space bar key, and I it was very sluggish as a result. It is a testament to the durability of these 'boards that after cleaning the residue away it worked like new. Honestly, these will be still working when my fingers have long since cramped up.

So you are happy, right?

Well, yes I am! I now have 4 mint IBM 1391401 keyboards, including one rare old one. They all work a charm, and are a pleasure to use. I have even taken one to work and intend to use it with my laptop in place of my logitech wireless keyboard I'm using at the moment. Except I can't just yet. Why not? Well, you see, these are PS/2 keyboards, and my laptop doesn't have any PS/2 ports. The PS/2 port is slowly disappearing in favour of the much more user friendly (but not actually as responsive) USB port. I am not concerned though, as I have a AU$15 USB->PS/2 adaptor on order from my local super cheap and nasty computer store. This little widget plugs into any USB port and gives you a PS/2 keyboard and mouse port to play with. So these keyboards can now live on until the USB port standard dies. Which I figure is not any time soon.

But does that mean they are perfect? They are without doubt superior to other keyboards in terms of key press feel. I think this is the most important thing, so the rest doesn't matter so much. They are also clearly more durable. On the negative side of the coin, they are noisy, big and heavy. They don't have any fancy keys such as the windows key (Ctrl-Esc does the same thing by the way) or any multimedia things like volume control or one button email/internet. I have had a few keyboards with these extra keys and I can count on one hand the number of times I've used them. The only things I have found remotely useful have been the volume controls and mute button. Still, a decent pair of speakers will have a volume control on them, so if they are within arms reach there is no problem. My laptop also has a volume control on it. It's also wired, and wireless is flavour of the month. Bah humbug I say.

Also, and this has taken a little use to find out - the keys are angled slightly differently to modern keyboards. They are more, well, upright. I feel that I have to be a little more "above" the keyboard to be in the right position, and there is no palm rest of any kind (although you can add your own easily enough).

I think some of these issues could be solved if I could get my hands on a model 1395300, which is basically the same mechanism but in a much smaller enclosure. This would eliminate the size and weight problem anyway. I am still on the lookout for one of these! They were made in smaller quantities, so they are a harder find. So.. it's not over yet.

You may be wondering why I have bothered to write a long description of all this. The answer is twofold. The first reason is that I genuinely believe these keyboards are special, and everyone ought to know about them (although that means it's harder for me to find them... but I have 4 so I can't see myself EVER needing more... unless they are all stolen..). The other reason to type all this is exactly that - a good excuse to type something. You see, you enjoy it with one of these keyboards!!

I draw the analogy to cars. This keyboard is like a 20 year old Cadillac. It's big, it's not as fancy as the modern cars or as sleek, but has a special something that is just magic and the ride is super smooth. It's not for everyone, but I know it's for me. I was going to say that they just don't make them like this any more, but that's not exactly true. There is a company that still make sprung keyboards. I like the *look* of the IBM's better (the lock light panel is nicer IMHO) but the mechanics are the same. Check 'em out here. I think it's more fun to find an old one in a bargain bin somewhere, but of course it's your call.

And no, I don't have any spare so don't ask. I'm keeping mine. Forever.