Potluck

 

T H I S    W E E K

The Theorist by Bo Fisher

 

Consider the Keyboard

 

At the ripe old age of nine, in July of 1980, I received my very first personal computer. Kind parents, a wealthy and eccentric relative, and sheer persistence on my part all focused on one, specific point in the universe. I hit the nerd jackpot. My very own Atari 800. I still have it to this day, and would be very hard pressed to part with it. It’s a dinosaur with one-hundredth of the computing power of my iPhone, but I still fire it up on occasion. Were it not for the wretched keyboard, it would be my primary writing tool. Really. Two 5 & ¼ inch floppies will hold an entire novel.

For those of you who may not have been around in the 1970’s, here’s a bit of background: despite this being the era of platform shoes, disco, and flammable polyester suits, many people miraculously avoided permanent neurologic damage and focused on technological innovation. As the microprocessor came into its own in 1975, personal computers became affordable enough for serious hobbyists to purchase. Computers such as the Altair 8800 and the Apple I were marketed directly to the hobby market. They also came with no display or keyboard, and each buyer needed to purchase, fabricate, or modify other components to fulfill those roles.

By 1980, there were more than fifty different companies producing computers for the exponentially growing home and business markets. Many of these systems contained both proprietary software and hardware, which caused a clear distinction in the computers available in each market. When the first IBM PC was introduced on August 12, 1981, their credibility with the business community combined with industrial strength hardware brought about the inevitable. They began to dominate the market business computing market. The original IBM PC’s were built like tanks, and initially priced to match. Just as significant, but arguably unappreciated, IBM also included what many touch typists consider the finest keyboard ever made, the Model M. More on that in a bit.  

On the other end of the computing continuum revolution was Commodore. They rolled out the Commodore 64 almost a year to the day after IBM’s PC in August 1982. To label it a merely successful product launch would be a gross understatement. The response to the C64 was nothing short of astonishing. Cheap, easy to use, reliable as an anvil, tons of software, a small form factor, and the fact that you could buy one at K-Mart, all contributed to its unrivaled success. The Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the single biggest selling computer of all time. Exact figures are unavailable, but the range is from 12.3 million to just under 25 million when production mercifully ended in April 1994.

Other than a very small but enthusiastic group of people who are trying mightily to relive their childhoods by painstakingly maintaining their aging C64’s, no one else shed any tears when Commodore declared bankruptcy in 1995. On the plus side, the C64 introduced a lot of people to a computer of any kind for the first time, the concept of programming, word processing, spreadsheets, and videogames. As such, its impact on the world cannot be understated.

Accolades aside, there was a dark side to the C64’s success. It was partially responsible for the video game crash of 1983 due to their hyper-aggressive pricing strategy. The hardware from a technological standpoint was mediocre at best. The peripherals were expensive and buggy. Moreover, it was also not upgraded to keep pace with advancements in technology. A C64 purchased in August of 1982 was functionally identical to one built in 1994. In addition, I’ve only encountered a handful of people that actually liked the spongy feel of the keyboard that Commodore used on the C64. It feels like typing with oven mitts.

Long after all but the most hardcore of computing history nerds have relegated their C64’s to their rightful place in a landfill, and the majority of original IBM PC components have been recycled, one item from that period has endured. The IBM Model M keyboard with the legendary buckling spring mechanism is, for most, still the undisputed gold standard for typing bliss.

The first buckling spring keyboard was shipped with the original IBM PCs. Loud, heavy, and progressive resistance to keystrokes was designed to emulate the tactile and auditory feedback for people used to hammering away on an IBM Selectric. The Model F replaced the original PC/XT version shortly thereafter, and little was changed except for the addition of a single key. In 1985, the Model M began production…and you can still buy one today. Over the years, as IBM adapted with the times, they’ve sold off the vast majority of their manufacturing capabilities. Today, the tiny Unicomp company in Lexington, KY continues the tradition and manufactures the Model M for keyboard aficionados.

My beloved IBM Model M, manufactured in September 1987, finally typed its last character in the beginning of 2013. It wasn’t because of age, mechanical fatigue, alien invasion, or a spilled drink. As it turns out, a drop of sixteen feet onto a ceramic tile floor, where the precise point of impact was the lower left corner in a nearly vertical orientation, wasn’t something that the engineers at IBM had in mind with their durability testing. Happily, my bout of grief was short lived when the nice folks in a brown truck delivered two packages. A Unicomp Spacesaver M buckling spring keyboard in one box, and a Razer Blackwidow Ultimate Mac Blue LED with Cherry MX Blue switches in the other. Yay!

Remember the brief trip down computer nerd memory lane? Great! Here’s the tie-in: no matter how much hardware we have for our computational needs, for the vast majority of the time, we only physically interact with our GODs (Graphic Omnipotent Devices) through the mouse and keyboard. We look at the monitor, we listen to the speakers, but we touch the mouse and keyboard. That level of interaction is personal and as such, it’s well worth the extra synaptic activity required to make an informed decision.

Despite Commodore’s unceremonious implosion during the first years of the Clinton administration, some of the ideals they pioneered for the computing industry are in full effect today. Make it cheap. Make it inexpensive. Technological advances typically offer more computational power per monetary unit, and this benefits all of us as consumers. However, there are areas where corners have been cut a few too many times and we’re left with inferior products. Nowhere in the personal computer industrial complex is that more evident than it is with keyboards.

More than likely, the keyboard that shipped with whatever computer you happened to purchase in the last ten years is using “membrane” technology. A single, flexible conductive membrane is located under all of the keys. When a key is pressed, a metal or rubber (even less expensive) dome squishes the membrane until a circuit is closed, which registers the input. Insanely cheap to manufacture, the longevity of most units can be measured in months rather than decades. A slightly improved version of a membrane keyboard are those with a scissor switch, which provide slightly better feedback and are commonly used on laptops due to their low profile.

Neither is a good choice for the long haul or above average typing speed since most of the parts are plastic. Better quality keyboards will use more metal parts and will be more durable over time (such as keyboards present in the MacBook Pro), but the super short keystroke distance still negates tactile feedback. Lastly, any membrane keyboard needs to be pressed to the end of its travel to register. Without progressive resistance, it’s difficult for new typists to know how hard to press the keys. The benefit to the manufacturers is obvious… less cost per unit. With the exception of the scissor switch to make the keyboard fit into a small package (like a laptop), there are no benefits for the consumer other than price.

With the junk out of the way, let’s discuss mechanical keyboards. Due to the fact that they have a vastly higher number moving parts and heavier frames, they’re more expensive. While there are many types of mechanical switches that have been created over the years, in today’s market there are two that are fairly common. Beyond the gold standard buckling spring keyboard, the other commonly used mechanical switch is the MX line by Cherry.

For those of us that grew up learning to type on an IBM Selectric and want a keyboard that will survive the zombie apocalypse, the clear winner is the buckling spring. There’s simply nothing else like it. Progressive resistance, tactile click when the keystroke registers before the button bottoms out, and refurbished original Model M’s or new units from Unicomp will last a lifetime. Downside? They’re industrial strength and have the looks to match. They’re fugly, and there are almost no customization options such as LED backlighting.

If you want that smooth, progressive feel, need customization options, and are willing to sacrifice a marginal amount of longevity (ten years rather than twenty), there are dozens of companies that build keyboards using Cherry MX switches. Backlighting? No problem. Multi-colored backlighting? Can do. Macintosh specific keys? Done. Also, the Cherry switches are available in a wide range of options. Light keystroke, heavy keystroke, auditory click, dead silent, progressive resistance, linear resistance, etc., are yours for the asking. Open your imagination and your wallet, and your dreams of typing nirvana are literally at your fingertips.

Yes, you’ll need to open your wallet. A basic, no-frills, membrane keyboard can be purchased for less than $10 on Amazon. Slightly better membrane models will run $20 to $30. A new buckling spring keyboard from Unicomp will run about $80. A refurbished original IBM Model M will run about $150. Keyboards with Cherry MX switches generally start at $80 and rise rapidly depending on options. $69 was the least expensive I could locate. The Deck Hassium Pro Mechanical Keyboard is $190.

To paraphrase The Most Interesting Man in the World, I’ll leave you with this: I don’t always type since writing in longhand on occasion helps the creative process. However, when I do, I prefer a mechanical keyboard. Type well, my friends.

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Edward Yoho still considers himself a New Jersey resident despite thirty-five years of exile in the cultural wasteland of Florida. When not otherwise occupied with tasks relating to employment at a university, family obligations, or classwork for his MFA program, he can often be found writing new science fiction.