The One True Keyboard
NOTE: This is an opinion piece. For those suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis, you should consult a doctor. While our results and opinions below hold true for us (and MANY other people), we are not qualified (nor are attempting) to offer you anything that can be construed as medical advice. Additionally, our feelings on many of today’s gimmicky “ergonomic” keyboards are just that – our opinions. Yours may vary, and we are sure their manufacturers’ opinions definitely do.
Many people have their favorite choice of keyboards. Probably equally as many never give it a second thought and simply use whatever $5 keyboard comes with their new computer. At a.i.Built, there’s only one keyboard that qualifies as “The Best PC Keyboard Ever Built” – the IBM Model M. The One True Keyboard!
In this blog post, we aren’t going to spend it as a drool fest (even though perhaps this keyboard deserves it) – it’ll be kinda dry going through actual reasons why the IBM Model M is so well designed and so amazingly perfect for typing. We’ll save the drool fest for the next blog post about this keyboard (or read some of the links below).
Nonetheless, if you type a lot, this post is worth reading.
For virtually every computer user out there, the keyboard is the most used piece of equipment in their setup – but for many, it’s also the one component they concern themselves with the least. Even those who do concern themselves over their choice of keyboards generally do not properly think out their choice. We’ve seen decisions range from criteria such as color, glowing keys, tons of extra multimedia buttons that will rarely (if ever) get used, weird ergonomic designs that often make typing more painful or worse.
Many people have asked us what makes the IBM Model M keyboard the best keyboard. We’ve decided to tackle that question. The problem we have is there are so many reasons, we could actually write multiple articles about it.
The Model M’s, at the end of their heyday ran for about $100. Yup, $100… not the $5 or $10 one can pick up a generic keyboard for at any online computer retailer. Is it worth the cost? Well, today, one can usually pick up a Model M for under $40 on eBay (since they are no longer made, it’s hard to find them new in box). But even at $100, they are definitely worth it. They are guaranteed to outlast your current computer (and the next one, and the next one, and the next one… you get the point).
The IBM Model M I am currently typing this article on is a “youngin” at almost 17 years old. It was born Feb 5, 1994. Our oldest Model M, still as functional as the day it was born, turned 24 on November 18, 2010. Each Model M has a tag on the bottom with it’s Manufacture/Birth Date. Our oldest has probably outlasted over a dozen computers. It’s the one piece of hardware you can buy and never need to replace.
“Great! I’ll save money on replacement keyboards, but that still doesn’t explain why it’s the best to type on!”
Very true. There are a variety of reasons why the Model M is the best keyboard for any typist – or anyone who’s anything more than the very occasional computer user. Here’s a few (which we will go into more detail about later):
- PROPER ergonomic design to ease/prevent wrist and finger fatigue
- Proper key tension to help prevent finger fatigue
- Lettering is inked into the keycaps and can never be worn off
- Each key provides multiple types of feedback to increase your typing speed and accuracy:
- Click on full key depress
- Click on key release
- Key bottoms out solidly when depressed (when it hits bottom, it stops dead)
- Consistent key feel for every key (none are mushier than the others – well, none are mushy at all actually)
- Key feel does not change over time (no little rubber domes to wear out changing how the key feels and how much pressure you need to apply).
So, lets review a few of those. Many of you are probably familiar with the plethora of “ergonomic” keyboards out there. I’d hazard a guess that only 1 in 100 of you have a clue how detrimental those “ergonomic” designs can actually be to wrist and finger strain/fatigue. So… let’s start with that one and do a few experiments.
First, stick your right hand outwards, palm parallel to your desk. Take your other hand and place your thumb on the bottom side of your right arm, about 2″ away from your wrist (towards your elbow) and pointer finger on top of your arm. Let your right hand hang loose. Now, lift a finger (not your thumb, but a finger). Any finger. Let it hang loose again. Lift a few at a time… Notice the tendons and such moving along your wrist? Lift your hand until your palm is again level with the desk. Feel that?
Now, put your right hand in front of your face, fingers “pointing” straight out to the left, palm down, thumb away from your hand. While keeping your hand parallel to the floor, and watching the tips of your fingers, bend your fingers. Notice that your fingertips move in a curve – kinda like one half of a bowl. Like in the animated pic on the left.
Take a look at the pic on the right of an IBM Model M angled to about it’s normal sitting angle (with legs down). Notice how the key tops for each row match that finger-motion-curve pretty darn well? Now take a look at many of the “ergonomic” keyboards out there. Notice that the key rows are curved in the WRONG direction. Like a bubble. You’ve already noticed in the first exercise above that every finger movement causes your wrists and forearms to work. When you use an “ergonomic” keyboard, those muscles and tendons are doing a lot more work, because you actually need to bend your wrist even more to lift your hand upward somewhat in order to bring your fingertips up on the higher keys in the center rows of your keyboard. Hmmm… the exact opposite of your fingers’ natural motion. More work, more strain, more effort.
When it comes to less strain and less effort, the IBM Model M keyboards don’t just stop there though. Because they’ve got specially designed mechanical keyswitches, you can actually place your hands in the “home position” and let your fingers fully rest on the keys – and not worry about them accidentally depressing. That means, no effort between key presses. It also means quicker typing because you can keep your fingers on the home keys (they wont accidentally stray because you’re putting effort into holding them off the keys). You can actually strum lightly on the keys (like how one would tap their fingers on their desk) on a Model M and they won’t depress.
Speed is of course a big factor for any real typist. Since the Model M keyboards provide you with audible feedback (the click) and the key hits bottom very solidly when a key is fully depressed, the typist always knows when the keypress is registered and doesn’t have to doublecheck on the screen. The force is always consistent – with each key, and with the passing of time (unlike on today’s cheap rubber dome keyboards, where more or less force is needed as the keyboard ages). And when one releases a key, there’s a corresponding “clack” there as well (hence the phrase “clickety-clack” as coined for the IBM Model M and IBM Model F keyboards). Model M enthusiasts find they type faster – often a lot faster – because that audible and physical feedback is there.
“Well, how reliable are they really? I’m on my 3rd/5th/10th keyboard.”
Well, how about if I told you that you could stand on one of them and they’d still work fine? Or drive over it with a car? Been there, done that… keyboard still works to this day. Besides a very thick two piece plastic shell (secured with a bunch of very long and sturdy screw-bolts), the Model M also has a very thick metal backplate that they key mechanisms and inner plastic plate is mounted to. Some theorize the metal plate is thick enough to deflect small caliber arms fire – while I can’t confirm that, I do know it’s thicker than the side panels on numerous new cars today. It’s part of what gives the IBM Model M it’s rigidity, weight and it’s insane durability.
But if that’s not enough proof of their durability, we’ll be filming one being run over with a minivan and then being plugged back in and tested. It’ll be one continuous piece with no cuts and with the keyboard always in view. Look for that in the near future.
“What’s so different about the keys that makes them so special?”
A few things really. First, each key has it’s own mechanical keyswitch. Open up your current keyboard (unless of course you happen to own a Model M or one of it’s brethren like the Model F), and you will see a little rubber dome under it. Second, the letters don’t wear off. Ever. Never ever. They are dye sublimated INTO the plastic. Inotherwords, they are part of the keycaps and can’t rub or wear off (ever), unlike the screened on letters on cheap keyboards. And finally, cleaning the keys is easy… the keycaps are separate and removable, leaving blank keys underneath (which cover the mechanical switches). That allows removal of the keycaps for cleaning (easily done with soap and warm water) and easy replacement. That’s some of the reasons our 24 year old Model M pictured above, after over a dozen computers have come and gone, looks so new.
Suffice to say, the IBM Model M is a masterpiece of a keyboard, where everything including functional ergonomics, durability, reliability and typing accuracy were all accounted for during it’s design. We’ve yet to find a better keyboard.
Now, you don’t have to believe us… feel free to check out these other links below to read other reviews on the IBM Model M. While you’re reading them, take note of the review dates – IBM/Lexmark stopped making the IBM Model M 15 years ago, yet a decade to a decade and a half later, even places like PCWorld rate it the “World’s Greatest Keyboard” (which may help explain why one has been enshrined in the Smithsonian).
- 2010: http://chadt4.wordpress.com/2010/03/21/the-best-keyboard-in-the-world/
- 2008: http://www.pcworld.com/article/147939/inside_the_worlds_greatest_keyboard.html
- 2008: http://rudd-o.com/en/archives/the-best-keyboard-ever-built-ibm-model-m
- 2007: http://lowendmac.com/fishkin/07/0115.html
- 2009: http://lowendmac.com/thomas/09tt/ibm-model-m-keyboard.html
- 1998/2008: http://www.dansdata.com/ibmkeyboard.htm
- 2006/2008: http://www.dansdata.com/clicky2.htm
- 2005/2009: http://www.dansdata.com/clickykeyboards.htm
- 2006: http://sob.apotheon.org/?p=61
There are plenty more reviews out there, but we figured if you’re that interested, you’ll find them on your own. Now… go find yourself an IBM Model M to replace your crappo generic keyboard with!
Don’t forget to check Wikipedia’s Model M Page (link) to figure out which variant is best for you.
Oh, and while you are at it, Google “The One True Keyboard” and see what pops up.
BUY AN ORIGINAL IBM/LEXMARK MODEL M HERE: http://www.clickeykeyboards.com/
BUY A BRAND NEW MODEL M FROM UNICOMP HERE: http://www.pckeyboard.com
(including ones with USB, WinKeys, etc)