Sunday, January 10, 2010

The greatest keyboard in the world.

I started writing professionally in 1972, which meant I wrote on a typewriter.  My weapon of choice was the IBM Selectric -- simply the greatest typewriter ever made, with a beautiful, ergonomic keyboard that rewarded you with silky-smooth action and supple tactile feedback every time you pressed a key.

Eventually I switched to a dedicated word processer made by IBM, so of course the keyboard was Selectric-style -- and finally, an actual computer.  From 1987 to 1992 I wrote on a Toshiba T3100 portable.  It was a remarkable unit for its time -- the smallest computer made, with a gas plasma screen and an onboard hard drive; it was about 15" by 15" and a little over twice as thick as today's laptops. Most importantly, it had a sturdy, mechanical, Selectric-style keyboard.  

By 1992, under punishing, near-constant use, the Toshiba was beginning to wear out.  (Plus there was this new thing called "Windows 3.1" that everyone wanted me to try.)  And so, after much pestering, I let Bryce Malek drag me to a computer fair in Pomona to buy my first "desktop."  It was a shake-and-bake affair -- the motherboard, disc drives, and screen were all from different, mainly no-name, manufacturers.  But while the rest of the computer was off-brand, I chose an IBM Model M keyboard because, once again, it was the most like the Selectric's stadium-rake design.  For the next seven years, that keyboard would be my constant companion; I used the hell out of it, writing entire seasons of TMNT, Speed Racer, and Mighty Ducks,  as well as a couple of TV movies and numerous pilots.  I spent so much time at that keyboard that by the time I was done with it, the texturing on the front of the case where my wrists rested had been worn smooth to a high gloss.

The Model M served me well, but there was one thing I was not crazy about: it was noisy.  Because the keys used a buckling-spring system, they made a very loud click followed by a slight ringing sound every time you pressed them.

I became especially aware of this when Audry and I moved in together, and I heard how much quieter her newer soft-touch keyboard was. And so when it came time to buy a new computer in 1999, I gladly donated my Model M to a local school, replacing it with a nice, quiet Dell keyboard.  Like the rest of the world, I have used similar keyboards ever since.  And so a long silence settled over my typing...

In time I started a publishing company; as a result, I spent less and less time at the keyboard.  Then late last year I started work on a novel and returned to writing daily -- and to my horror, I found that I didn't type as well as I used to. I made more typos, I mis-struck keys all the time, and in general I found the task of typing to be vaguely unpleasant and something of a chore.  I assumed that because I had been away from my profession for a few years my skills had atrophied.

I was wrong.  It was the keyboard.  And not just the keyboard in my office.  It was every keyboard we had in the house.  It was every keyboard in the world.

Because a funny thing happened in the ten years since I let my Model M slip away: as the mouse gained in acceptance and importance to the average user, and the keyboard became more and more of an afterthought for manufacturers.  And as computer prices have been driven down, keyboards are now built as cheaply as possible, without the needs of a typist in mind. The biggest difference is that now almost all keyboards  use a rubber-dome switch system  like this:

The rubber domes sit beneath the keys; when a key is depressed, its dome collapses, tripping a switch beneath it; when the key is released the dome bounces back to its original shape..  Such keyboards are cheap, reliable, and seemingly easier to use, because the keys have a very short travel, moving only a few millimeters when you press on them.

By contrast. the IBM Model M used a buckling spring key mechanism, which is expensive and complex.  Buckling spring keys have a longer travel, but require a lighter touch.  As you press the key down, the little spring inside bends until it buckles, resulting in that famous loud click and tripping the hammer on a membrane-switch beneath it.

This design provides a true typing experience; by contrast, using a rubber dome keyboard is like typing on the buttons of a TV remote. And you're probably using one right now.

But I didn't know all this yet. All I knew was that I was having problems typing and I wasn't as productive as I used to be because part of me dreaded spending time at the keyboard.  Seeking a solution, I want back to my old touchstone, and did a Google search on phrase: "IBM Selectric style keyboard."

What I got was 20,000 hits about the Model M. 

And I discovered that in the decade since I got rid of mine, the Model M had become a legend.  It has tens of thousands of fans who cherish its solid feel and clicky keys, and more are converting every day.  And the keyboard itself never actually went away: In 1996 IBM sold the rights and machinery for manufacturing the Model M to a company called Unicomp, and it has remained in production to this day. 

I found a site called Clicky Keyboards that has hundreds of old Models M's for sale, and found a pristine new old-stock M from 1993 for 69 bucks. It arrived a few days ago, a thing of beauty, still in its original styrofoam packing:


As soon as I plugged it in and laid my hands on it, I felt like I'd been reunited with an old friend.  My fingers flew lightly over the keys unleashing a flurry of loud, ringing clicks.  Soon I realized I was typing faster, typing more accurately, and most of all actually enjoying typing for the first time in years.  .This was my instrument.  I felt like Sweeney Todd singing "At last, my arm is complete again!"

So what is it about the Model M that inspires such devotion?  It can't be just be its retro appeal.  First and foremost, it's the typing experience.  It is the only keyboard I know of designed for people who type for a living.  With a Model M, you know when you've completed a keystroke, unlike rubber-dome-switch keyboards .  And its design is descended from the mighty IBM Selectric: the shape and layout of the keys is truly ergonmic, resulting in greater speed and accuracy.  It's simply less work to work on an M.  (One user claims his typing speed went from 50 words per minute to 65 when he switched from a rubber-dome keyboard to a Model M.)

And it is built like a proverbial tank.  Tens of thousands 25-year-old Model M's are still in service today.  Letters and symbols are embedded in the keys, not printed on them like decals, so they can never wear off.  It weighs five pounds -- more than many contemporary laptops -- thanks to an internal steel plate that supports the entire mechanism.  If, while working, you are attacked by an assailant with a small-calliber handgun -- anything under a .38 -- you can use your five-pound steel-plated Model M to deflect the incoming bullets, then beat your attacker senseless with it.  How many computer peripherals can make that claim?

So if you write for a living, or program code, or spend a lot of time typing for whatever reason, consider adding the Model M to your arsenal.  You'll discover the long-forgotten pleasure of typing on a really good keyboard.  You'll probably find your work is easier and goes faster.  It's compatible both with PCs and Macs.  And your Model M will still be with you long after the computer you're working on now becomes landfill. 

There are three ways to get a Model M: The first and cheapest is Ebay, where dozens of Model M's are auctioned off every day.  Expect to pay from $30 for a well-used but still functioning one, to $70 for old-store stock, unused in its original packaging.  But be sure to read the fine print; sometimes on Ebay the phrase "works perfectly" really means "works perfectly except for the 'B' key that always sticks."

If you don't want to deal with Ebay, I highly recommend  They have a wide range of used Model M's, all cleaned-up, tested and guaranteed.  They also do repairs, and have excellent customer service.

In either case, you'll probably need an adapter, as vintage Model M's use a PS2 plus like this...

...while most present-day computers use a USB plug.  Fortunately, ClickyKeyboards sells a good PS2-to-USB adapter for about $15.  (Do NOT get a simple, passive plug; the adapter for the M requires active circuitry and onboard drivers.)

Or. if you'd like to skip all the hassle and get a new Model M, go the website of Unicomp,  the company that took over manufacture of the M from IBM's Lexmark division 13 years ago.  They make a wide variety of keyboards; the "Customizer" is their version of the Model M, and you can get it with a USB connector, making it a true plug-and-play unit, for $69.  I recommend their black Model 104 for Mac users, as it has the extra buttons which can be used as the "Option" keys on a Mac keyboard.  According to reports, their customer service is unbelievably great.

I didn't realize how much I'd missed my bulky, heavy, noisy Model M until I had it back and under my fingertips again. The clicking racket that had caused me to abandon it ten years earlier was now music to my ears.  As Hendrix had his Stratocaster, as Paganini had his Guarnerius, as Jimmy Page had his two-necked Gibson, so I have my Model M.  It's my axe!  Bring on the noise! 

Postscript: Here's a paean to the Model M, written by a Mac user: IBM Model M -- The Best Computer Keyboard Ever.


  1. Hi David
    I well remember that keyboard from my childhood. I hadn't thought of it until I read your post and now I want one too. I don't like the new keyboard upon which I am typing, where all the keys are flat. Thank you for reminding me! Also I really enjoyed your post on Samuel R. Delany.
    Here's to a great 2010!

  2. Happy New Year to you, too, RK! I currently work on a Mac Pro running Windows, which uses that superflat aluminum keyboard. In many ways it's the best rubber-dome keyboard I've used. (You certainly don't have to worry about your fingers banging into the wrong keys, as can happen on a stairstep keyboard like the Model M.) At the same time, I don't feel like I'm typing -- just tapping squares on a board. Also, as is the case with any flat keyboard, you actually have to reach a bit further to hit the upper rows of keys. But everything else about a 'board like the M is superior!

  3. Personally, I agree. I also favored the Model M keyboard, and still cannot get used to the flat keyboard of an Apple or Sony laptop. It had always been the most comfortable and was the perfect design for a keyboard.

  4. I REALLY miss the great mechanical keyboards that came with the early Toshiba portables. I would trade thinness for a *real* keyboard any day.