IBM Model M: The One True Keyboard Resurrected

A long time ago, in a time that seems like forever ago, computers were over-engineered to a high standard – especially in regards to computer keyboards. With a tactile feedback and a loud clicking sound, these were the well-oiled peripherals of yesteryear.

Ask almost any keyboard aficionado from then and now which keyboard set the standard, and the answer will most always be, the IBM Model M. It’s affectionately known as The One True Keyboard.

Eventually, as computers became more of a commodity, so did keyboards. The Model M eventually faded from the mainstream and was replaced with “mushmelon”, utterly craptastic keyboards with little to no tactile feedback.

Unicomp 101

Unicomp Customizer 101 keyboard

However, the Model M lives on in two ways, used and new. If you want a brand new Model M, you’ll want to check out the Unicomp Customizer 101 [update: now available only in USB, and also available in black]. Unicomp bought the rights to the Model M and still produces these delightfully clicky keyboards today.

If you aspire to own an actual IBM Model M, look no further than clickykeyboards.com. Clicky Keyboards refurbishes Model Ms and sells everything from the cables necessary to the much needed PS/2-to-USB adapters [no longer necessary now that Unicomp has gone USB] that will keep you and your Model M clicking away on modern day Macs and PCs. You can read an interview I did with Brandon Ermita of Clicky Keyboards to learn more about the keyboard and the company.

keyboard in bubble wrapBrandon was kind enough to send me a vintage Model M from 1988 to review along with another fan favorite keyboard that I’ll be reviewing later. After a few days, the Model M arrived. Clicky Keyboards did an excellent job bubble wrapping the keyboard as well as cushioning it with packing peanuts. The cables were wrapped nicely with twist ties.

The Model M was very clean. Each Model M to come from Clicky Keyboards is washed and cleaned. Each key cap is removed and cleaned by hand. They pay very close attention to detail!

IBM Model M keyboard

I grew up typing on Model M’s in typing class at Fairforest Middle School in Spartanburg, South Carolina. From the moment I plugged in the Model M to the iMac using the PS/2-to-USB adapter and started typing, all that clicky goodness I remember from the old days came flooding back. Nice, crisp, buckling spring action.

And just as I remember, once you throttle it by hitting 70 WPM and higher, it sounds like bombs going off. My fingers didn’t get tired like they do when I type on “mushmelon” ‘boards.

IBM's buckling springWhat makes that loud click? It’s the buckling spring, well . . . buckling under pressure. The spring hits the side of the wall of the key switch, producing the audible click when you press down each key. What makes the Model M comfortable to type on is the fact that you don’t have to bash the keys. You’ll instantly know halfway down – when the key clicks – that you indeed hit the key, which in turn doesn’t make your fingers hurt, since you don’t have to hit the key to the very bottom.

Another site I find myself frequenting these days is geekhack.org. This forum discusses anything and everything keyboard related. The Model M is discussed frequently and often fondly. One discussion that takes place every so often is whether the IBM-made Model M is better – or is the Lexmark-made Model M better?

Lexmark Model M

To backtrack a little: In 1991, IBM spun off its printer and keyboard business. The new company’s name was Lexmark. You can check out the history on Wikipedia or Google it. Among Model M fans, some believe the Lexmark-made M’s are inferior in terms of typing on them.

I decided to make my own comparison. Brandon, once again, was kind enough to provide me with a Lexmark-made M for comparison purposes.

To my fingers, the Lexmark-made M did indeed feel different. It felt a little less responsive and more mushy, as if there’s a lag in each keystroke. Key feel seems to be a subjective thing. I can’t seem to put my finger on why, pardon the pun. I think it could be due to the Lexmark-made M’s having a one-piece keycap design. Not all Lexmark-made M’s have the one-piece keycap design. (What do I mean by keycap design? All IBM-made M’s for many years employed a two-piece keycap design. There was a blank, main keycap, and then over the top of it was another keycap that clipped on and included the letter or number. Later on, to save on costs, Model M’s were, in large part, made with just a single keycap.

Let me be clear: Even the Lexmark Model M’s are a dream, especially when you compare all of today’s keyboards. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of the keyboards you can buy from clickykeyboards.com. Brandon and the guys there provide a wonderful service for fans of quality keyboards! They are always helpful and more than willing to answer any questions you may have.

PS/2-to-USB Adapter Required

If you decide to buy one from clickykeyboards.com, then you’ll need a PS/2-to-USB converter (which clickykeyboards.com sells) if your computer doesn’t have the necessary PS/2 keyboard port, and no Mac has ever used PS/2 ports. I highly recommend you buy the adapter from them as well. Why? Because the electronics inside the Model M pull more power, which means your everyday, run-of-the-mill, PS/2-to-USB converter will not work. Most of the cheap PS/2-to-USB adapters are passive converters, meaning they don’t have the electronics to provide the proper voltage conversion.

In English? Your Model M won’t work with your computer if you use a passive converter. The converter clickykeyboards.com sells is an active converter that will allow the Model M to work properly with your modern computer. Be sure to ask the folks at clickykeyboards.com about the converter they sell if you have any further questions.

You can also buy a brand-spanking new ‘board from Unicomp, which still produces the Model M (renamed as the Customizer). You can choose from the classic 101 key layout, which doesn’t include the Windows keys and Application menu key. Or you can get one with the aforementioned keys. You can also choose whether you want one with a PS/2 connection for older computers or a USB connection for modern computers.

If you appreciate a good quality keyboard, get the one and only true keyboard, the IBM Model M or one of its descendants.

Further Reading

Update: Since this article was published in 2009, Unicomp has switched completely to USB keyboards, so no adapter needed for Mac users. All models use buckling spring technology and have 101 or 104 keys. You can also get them in black. Prices range from US$79 to US$109.

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