The Model M: A timeless classic

I just found an informative article about the origin, life, and astonishing persistence of my favorite keyboard. Nearly every article on this blog was hammered out on the same Unicomp Model M I’m typing on now. The design is 25 years old and still going strong, a nearly unique longevity in computing devices.

I endorse every bit of snarkiness and ergonomic wisdom in that article. I find the lack of tactile feeback and noise from modern “soft-touch” keyboards disconcerting and uncomfortable. It does my heart good to know the model M is still being produced, now with USB interfaces even. I expect I’ll be using these until I die or we get brain/computer interfaces, whichever comes first.

I feel about the Model M the way I feel about the 1911-pattern .45 pistol and the core design of Unix. All three of these are too frequently dismissed as dinosaurs, but stand out to the discerning as timeless classics of square-shouldered ruggedness and fitness-for-purpose whose virtues, it seems, need to be rediscovered anew in every generation. They get the job done, outlasting transitory fads and fashions; they endure, with quiet excellence that is burnished rather than eroded by the passage of years. They have what architect Christopher Alexander called the Quality Without A Name and embody as well as any engineering design can the human quality the ancient Greeks called arete.

I have been many things in my life, but I am first and last and always an engineer, a maker. To me, designs that achieve the level of excellence of these examples are art to rival the Parthenon, fit to be counted among the great achievements of any civilization. It’s no bar that they are humble and utilitarian; in fact, I think they speak on that account more truthfully about the virtues of their designers and their civilization than art objects made for display and to impress.

As such, the Model M (and all engineering designs at that level of excellence) are worth celebrating. If you have one, take a moment to think about your keyboard and appreciate it. If you don’t, find out what you’re missing and buy one so Unicomp will keep making the lovely things for another 25 years, and many more after that.

100 thoughts on “The Model M: A timeless classic

  1. I also use one. You simply can not beat the tactile feedback afforded by the buckling spring design. Moreover, many people rather enjoy the audio feedback as well. Working on something without that sound is just not the same.

    Fortunately, in The Philippines, its very easy to pick up an older (but still perfectly functional) model M, or even non-functional ones to have handy replacement parts. I have not yet ordered one from Unicomp, but only because (for me) they are still conveniently found.

    My keyboard has been used as a coffee filter, ash tray, tea strainer and is still 100% functional, easy to clean and enjoyable to use. I won’t go near those ‘ergonomic’ things.

  2. Gah. I hate keyboards with heavy tactile feedback – and the Model M is second only to an ASR 33 Teletype in that regard as the worst of the lot – because they make me work too damned hard to type! Some tactile feedback, okkay. The less the better for me, though. The clackety-clack of the keyboard is no prize, either: how do you avoid waking up your roommate when hacking late at night?

    You can have all the Model Ms you want. Just keep them the hell away from me.

  3. >You can have all the Model Ms you want. Just keep them the hell away from me.

    Jay, Jay, Jay. It pains me to discover such a lapse in your good taste at this late date. Ah, well, I have ignored worse in my friends and probably will again.

    :-)

  4. It’s worth noting that though UniComp bought the patents, they’re all expired now, so buckling-spring keyboards can be offered by third-party vendors.

    The DasKeyboard Professional is one such keyboard. Somewhat lighter touch than the Model M, but the action is similarly crisp and it has a nice sturdy build. Compact profile and shiny black 2001 monolith appearance are other bonuses.

    I paid $130 for mine and it’s been worth every penny. Owned it for a year and a half and my fingers suffer on virtually anything else. (Besides a real Model M, of course.)

  5. Model M is also designed in a different era. I believe it will withstand EMP much better than any other keyboard we have.

  6. Wow, I went to Iraq to fight the war you argued for, and all I got was my lousy comment about keyboards get nuked. Thanks, ESR!

  7. > I believe it will withstand EMP much better than any other keyboard we have.

    Highly unlikely. That controller board has a Hitachi microprocessor on it that on it that will get just as toasted as a modern design. If you mean that the top and bottom key contacts are separated further apart and less likely to arc over, maybe, but that’d be a moot point after the controller fried. Anyway that virtue would be shared by long-travel keyboards that aren’t buckling-spring, like the one on my ThinkPad.

  8. The DasKeyboard Professional is one such keyboard. Somewhat lighter touch than the Model M, but the action is similarly crisp and it has a nice sturdy build. Compact profile and shiny black 2001 monolith appearance are other bonuses.

    Unfortunately, out of stock at the moment. I laughed a bit when I noticed that the unit ships with (optional) re-usable ear plugs to give to co-workers or spouses.

  9. I have a Model M keyboard, and while I loved it and it still works, it has one fatal flaw: it is an AT-style keyboard (pre-PS2, pre-USB). To use it with my USB KVM, I needed two adapters (AT-PS2 and PS2-USB) and the adapted keyboard didn’t cope well with the BIOS of my PCs, when switched through the KVM. (Once the OS had booted, not a problem, but if I needed to change a boot setting, I was SOL). Eventually I switched to a Dell SK-8115 keyboard, but a USB-version of the Model M is mighty tempting…

    PS: I’m surprised that you’ve forgotten to mention the Model M’s properties as a weapon. It’s guaranteed to do more damage than it will sustain

  10. I suspect you’d love the keyboard used on the IBM 3278 CRT terminals, then. Not only did it have an even smoother feel than the model M with the same heavy tactile feedback, but if you wanted more, it had a special feature…

    Scroll down to the 6th picture, the closeup of the special keys at the left end. See the one on the bottom right of that cluster of 8 keys, with what looks like a speaker icon on it? That enabled something guaranteed to give you all the tactile feedback you wanted: a thumper, that literally thumped the keyboard a bit with every keystroke. It was there to emulate the feeling you got when typing on an 029 keypunch.

  11. This raises a question: is there any obvious way to improve upon it?

  12. I have a Model M keyboard, and while I loved it and it still works, it has one fatal flaw: it is an AT-style keyboard (pre-PS2, pre-USB).

    Is it an AT keyboard rather than a Model M, then? The kind with function keys down the left-hand side? IIRC, the Model M was introduced with the PS/2 line, so AFAIK, all IBM Model Ms have PS/2-style connectors.

  13. That enabled something guaranteed to give you all the tactile feedback you wanted: a thumper, that literally thumped the keyboard a bit with every keystroke. It was there to emulate the feeling you got when typing on an 029 keypunch.

    Just imagine if we fed the output of that thing into an amp and a huge subwoofer…the neighbors would be able to hear you typing …

  14. “You can have all the Model Ms you want. Just keep them the hell away from me.”

    Gladly!

    There are only two keyboards that are acceptable to me. The Model M, and the Thinkpad keyboard. Both of these are the only two keyboards that won’t give me wrist pain and that I can gladly type for hours on. In the case of the Model M, it’s damn near indestructible. The newest one I have is a Lexmark from 1991, that’s the one at work, because it’s somewhat quieter than the rest.

    I’m packing up my IBM Model M compact (no number pad) to take to a LAN party this weekend. Not only is it old enough to drink, it’s probably older than half of the gamers that are likely to show up.

  15. Is it an AT keyboard rather than a Model M, then? The kind with function keys down the left-hand side? IIRC, the Model M was introduced with the PS/2 line, so AFAIK, all IBM Model Ms have PS/2-style connectors.

    Certainly not: I had an IBM PC/XT which came with an IBM Model M with the now-standard 102-key layout, and an AT connector.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_Model_M#Features_by_part_number

  16. Like another commenter, I switched to a Das Keyboard Model S Professional Silent.

    I actually own an old IBM Model M and a Unicomp Model M, but I prefer the Das Keyboard to both of them, by a large margin.

    Comparing the mechanical switched Das Keyboard to a Model M, it’s a lot quieter and requires less finger pressure to activate, but it still activates before you “bottom out”, just like a buckling spring keyboard. Note that the Silent model is not silent – it’s still noticeably louder than a typical keyboard.

    I would also recommend the Ergonomic Touchpad to go with it ( http://ergonomictouchpad.com/ ). I attached it below my Das Keyboard with some sticky tape, so I didn’t have to use my mouse as much.

  17. The other day I was at a UPS store and saw an interesting keyboard: it was a flat roll of rubber with keys, like a rubber mat. You could roll the thing up, and wash it easily. It had a surprisingly nice feel.

    It was USB. I might have to go buy that thing.

  18. I’m with Jay: Give me a softer & quieter keyboard on which I can type piano or even pianissimo. And I say that as some one who learned to type on a manual typewriter and loved it: The manual beat writing things out longhand seven days a week and twice on Sundays. But a modern soft-touch keyboard is better still.

    > I feel about the Model M the way I feel about the 1911-pattern .45 pistol and the core design of Unix.

    So do I, in my own way: They are excellent in their respective niches, but the range of uses and users for which they are optimal is much narrower than their fans claim. Outside those optima, all three are kludges to use.

  19. I am typing this on a Microsoft Natural 4000 ergonomic keyboard; it’s replaced my venerable Microsoft Natural Keyboard that I’d literally typed on until the screens had gone.

    Before that, I was using a Model-M variant.

    Why did I switch? Repetitive Stress Injuries – I type as a full speed ten finger touch typist at about 70-80 wpm. Eric types as a four finger hunt and peck typist. I don’t know how many keystrokes Eric puts out per week, but mine were in excess of three million keystrokes per week between writing games, writing freelance and doing assorted office jobs in between.

    The Microsoft keyboards took weeks to get used to. Now I sometimes lug one along to use with my laptop. They also have a nice full travel on the keys…and they’re nice and QUIET. Do transcription for a while and you’ll appreciate quiet in keyboards…

  20. I wonder to what extent fandom for the Model M is driven by nostalgia acquired from learning to type on actual typewriters. To what extent is today’s popularity of three-dollar dead-in-a-month keyboards a result of a general preference for disposable plasticky crap, a general conditioning towards cheap consumer goods, or a lack of experience typing on clunky, undeniably mechanical machines?

  21. >I wonder to what extent fandom for the Model M is driven by nostalgia acquired from learning to type on actual typewriters.

    I’m 52, I’m a Model M fan, I learned what keyboard skills I have on computers. So not only am I a counterexample to this theory, my history suggests that the largest cohort of people who learned to type on computers is probably older yet than that.

  22. I wonder to what extent fandom for the Model M is driven by nostalgia acquired from learning to type on actual typewriters.

    No fooling. Eric waxing effusive about the humble, utilitarian mechanical design of the Model M reminded me of Patrick Farley’s description of the Hermes typewriter in The Guy I Almost Was. The buckling spring design was developed specifically to recall the feel of a Selectric for typists familiar with that machine, IIRC.

    To what extent is today’s popularity of three-dollar dead-in-a-month keyboards a result of a general preference for disposable plasticky crap, a general conditioning towards cheap consumer goods, or a lack of experience typing on clunky, undeniably mechanical machines?

    Don’t forget noise. A coworker with a Model M is sure to drive the entire office nuts. Especially in programming or IT, where the staff often can’t be afforded cubes, let alone offices with doors.

  23. >The buckling spring design was developed specifically to recall the feel of a Selectric for typists familiar with that machine, IIRC.

    That’s a myth. It’s true that the Model M’s visual design and keycap layout was Selectric-inspired, but Selectrics feel quite different – shorter travel, much less definite break, more like the keys on my ThinkPad than a Model M.

  24. I bought one of Unicomp’s 104/105 keyboards and it was crap — they keys were really cheap plastic and the feedback was much softer than a true M5. I have a M5-1 (built in ’93) and two more M5s in storage as backup should this keyboard somehow suffer the unspeakable (purchased from clickykeyboards.com, if anyone is looking for a source).

  25. I love my Microsoft Natural 4000 keyboard. I’d like to try a buckling spring keyboard in the Natural (split/curve) layout. Having tried non-Microsoft attempts at the layout (Belkin, Logitech), they never seem to get the shape exactly right.

    In a most un-Microsoft fashion, if you use their own Windows drivers, the entire keyboard is reprogammable using an XML file. I don’t reprogram it much, but I do get a proper Control Key back and reprogram the center zoom control to be a scroller, which is really handy when I’m editing anything of a significant length.

  26. @esr

    I’m 52, I’m a Model M fan, I learned what keyboard skills I have on computers. So not only am I a counterexample to this theory, my history suggests that the largest cohort of people who learned to type on computers is probably older yet than that.

    I’m almost 38, but grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood. The first keyboard I ever used was the Commodore 64 keyboard (nice, long travel, if a bit squishy feeling); the first keyboard I ever used daily was the one built-into an Apple //e. (I still feel a touch of nostalgia whenever I touch a Mac keyboard. :) The keyboard on which I learned to touch type, however, was an old Royal manual typewriter at my high school. (IBM Selectric? Ha! I only wish we’d had IBM Selectrics!)

    I’d say that typing on the Royal typewriter is nothing like typing on a Model M.

    It is worth noting, however, that the Model M, like the PC, PC/XT and PC/AT keyboards before it, were supposedly modeled to feel like an IBM Selectric, but having used a Selectric a couple of times and a Model M regularly, it didn’t really feel anything the same to me.

  27. Ohhhh, how I miss my IBM model M. It was given to me by a friend, salvaged from an old abandoned school set to be demolished. At some point when I had to move, it was completely destroyed in the truck. I’ve typed up to a few paragraphs at around 150wpm with it with minimal typos. (I’m a pretty savage typer of words. lol)

    I just can’t justify spending more then a few bucks on a keyboard though, so I’m stuck with the shitty one that came with my HP.

  28. I’ve got a Model M purchased from Unicomp, lacking the Windows keys (I rarely miss them, except for the moments I have to use Windows — Windows-E is pretty useful and as far as I know, I can’t map a custom shortcut for it instead …). It’s not even a year old yet, and I love it. It drives family nuts because of the noise :-)

    All the keys are in the proper shape, the keyboard is proper shape (none of the funky curved/split keyboard business), a nice feeling of actually pressing a key just right — amazingly so many keyboards I’ve used (especially the $2-$20 range keyboards) don’t have a consistent pressure point for when a keystroke is registered. Having never actually used a Model M before, when I got it in October 2009, I was totally unsure if it was a good acquisition, but I’m glad to say it was. Even my greatest fear of the keys being too hard to press to be useable in gaming was destroyed once I actually used it — it’s a better gaming keyboard than any specially-made-for gaming keyboards I’ve ever tried to use!

  29. Eric, given your musical background, and your ‘two fingers on each hand hunt and peck’ typing, have you ever considered a one-hand chording keyboard?

    ESR says: I have. Never found one that was comfortable.

  30. “I feel about the Model M the way I feel about the 1911-pattern .45 pistol and the core design of Unix.”

    Let’s continue the series. Land Rover Defender. Nokia 3210. IBM AS/400.

  31. There is a significant subset of the computing population to whom the selection of a keyboard is not a matter of taste, but it boils down to the following choice: on a Microsoft Natural or Natural 4000 your wrists don’t hurt, on anything else they do. I think it is neither particularly hard nor expensive to curve a keyboard slightly outwards so that your wrists can be in a natural position parallel with your arms, so why don’t other manufacturers get the clue? I think it is not a matter of taste but a direct and well-researched health issue.

  32. >Let’s continue the series. Land Rover Defender. Nokia 3210. IBM AS/400.

    I agree the Defender belongs on there. AS/400, maybe. I don’t think the M3210 has had a long enough service life to qualify as a timeless classic.

  33. I’ve got a Model M purchased from Unicomp, lacking the Windows keys (I rarely miss them, except for the moments I have to use Windows — Windows-E is pretty useful and as far as I know, I can’t map a custom shortcut for it instead …).

    Those keys with the funny little wavy logo on them? They’re called “Super”.

    The Super key is essential to use in awesome. It’s basically how you send commands to the window manager. Switch desktops (Super-1 through Super-9), run new programs (Super-R), rearrange existing windows, all a keystroke or two away. I suppose you could use the rodent, but… why?

    Although — come to think of it, I suppose with a 101/102-key Model M, you could bind Super to, say, Scroll Lock and go right to town. Maybe it’s time to hop on eBay…

  34. There is a significant subset of the computing population to whom the selection of a keyboard is not a matter of taste, but it boils down to the following choice: on a Microsoft Natural or Natural 4000 your wrists don’t hurt, on anything else they do

    Daliesque keyboards fuck with my internal map of where the keys are. Having to locate them along curved two-dimensional rows with weird spacing slows me down considerably.

    Oh, and in case you haven’t figured it out — I generally touch-type with ten fingers; however, I don’t lock my hands on home row but keep them hovering naturally above the keyboard and moving around somewhat. I can actually get sustained 72 WPM typing speeds this way, but for the fact that I can drain the buffer of what I wish to type faster than I can think up new thoughts.

    I pity the poor people who had it beaten into them by some schoolmarm that they must twist their wrists around and lock their hands in fixed positions above home row in order to type quickly or effectively.

  35. > >Let’s continue the series. Land Rover Defender. Nokia 3210. IBM AS/400.

    > I agree the Defender belongs on there. AS/400, maybe. I don’t think the M3210 has had a long enough
    > service life to qualify as a timeless classic.

    Mazda Roadster? (Miata) Although you could trace it back to the British roadsters on which it was inspired, I say it had a far more direct influence on the car world in the last 20 years than any of its predecessors did in the years before. Light, simple, inexpensive, amazingly easy to work on, extremely capable, performance-wise, and enjoyable.

  36. “I pity the poor people who had it beaten into them by some schoolmarm that they must twist their wrists around and lock their hands in fixed positions above home row in order to type quickly or effectively.”

    Interestingly enough, I was never taught to type, I began with 2-finger hunt-and-peck on the Commodore 16 at 8 or 9 years old and just figured out the rest of it myself. Yet my hands indeed, lock into the home row – which means on a non-curved keyboard the wrists angle outwards the arms – which leads to pain. Do you move your elbows when you type? I never. They rest on the table, in fact, my forearms rest on the table. IMHO you can only use a straight keyboard and not have an unnatural wrist angle i.e. pain if you actually hover your whole arm including the elbows in the air. Maybe I should learn that but it seems like an overkill to me – typing should be finger movement not arm movement…

  37. jsk> …you could trace it back to the British roadsters on which it was inspired…

    Just picking nits.

    Actually, it was the 60′s era European roadsters that inspired the designers, specifically, the MG, the Fiat, and the Spider. The designers actually drove all three repeatedly, deciding which was best in each of a number of categories (cornering, breaking, ride, sound, aerodynamics, power, etc.) and then attempted to design a car that replicated the best qualities of each.

    Most people think it’s an MG look-a-like because the MG was the aerodynamic body style they went with.

    I don’t know if that detracts from it’s place as a “timeless classic”, I’ve always thought of it as more a tribute to the timeless classic Euro-roadster. No doubt though that what they came up with is better than any of the original 3 was individually.

    Until I read about the design, I never realized that even the TIRES are part of the design specs (e.g. you’re not supposed to put tires on the car that way more than x lbs. or you’ll get a rougher ride and have worse cornering and breaking control). They even customized the exhaust on the 100 horse MX-3 engine used in the original car to get the sound of one of those classics. Pretty cool.

  38. dgreer:

    Ah yes, my mistake. I was on-the-spot recalling the design history and was only pulling the original conversation that seeded the concept (“classically-British sports car”) and the fact that it was IAD that did the engineering on the prototype. Cache miss on the details.

    Mine is my daily, and the poor thing is probably on its last legs, but I love it. I especially loved it when the radiator went, and it only took three hours in the morning before work the next day to drive to the dealership in my roommate’s truck, buy the new radiator, get home, and replace the whole thing. I ended up only being about two hours late to work. And I had never done it before. A+

  39. From dgreer:

    > Actually, it was the 60’s era European roadsters that inspired the designers, specifically, the MG, the Fiat, and the Spider.

    Actually, that’s not very specific. The MG you are thinking of is the MGB. There were about a dozen different FIAT passenger car models in the 60s, so you were really after the FIAT 124, probably the 124 Spider. The “Spider” you were talking about is really the Alfa Romeo Spider, and the Mazda designers looked closest at the Duetto variant.

    And if you really want to look into it, there’s a lineage of two-seat small open sports roadsters that goes back to the 20s. Nothing made in the 20s is very similar in terms of design, construction or look to the MX-5 (which is what we in the colonies call the Miata) but the idea of small fun cars isn’t very new. There’s a pretty good stock of examples in the 1950s which are fairly clear design prompts for the MX-5, the Alfa Romeo 1900 chief amongst them, although there’s some MGA in there as well. So whatever IAD might nominate as their three examples, there are heaps of open-top small sports cars that occupy the same design space.

    > I never realized that even the TIRES are part of the design specs

    They’re part of the design specs for all cars. Carcass weight is the last of your spec issues; profile, width, directionality and perceived sidewall stiffness will all be thrashed out with the tyre suppliers at suspension design stage, then re-negotiated at manufacture. Ironically, the tyres on the 50s and 60s cars the MX-5 nods towards were actually lighter – cross-ply mightn’t have been fantastic for grip and stiffness, but it was lighter than steel belts.

    > They even customized the exhaust on the 100 horse MX-3 engine used in the original car to get the sound of one of those classics

    And it doesn’t. It sounds like what it is, a small Japanese four with an exhaust mod. Different timing, different firing order, no valve noise, different induction noise, no gearbox noise. Make no mistake, it’s more reliable, much more efficient, possibly more powerful, easier to drive and maintain, and safer. But it sounds like 60s Alfa or MG in the same way a Yamaha DX-7 trumpet patch sounds like a trumpet.

  40. It’s funny to me that people are talking about miatas.

    I drive a 1990 version myself. It runs and drives like new, and it is a blast. It seems to love this hot weather. Putting the top down and driving is like going to a sauna. Maybe I will get the front end painted.

    Love that car.

  41. Hmmm….why is that when men start talking about “timeless classics” the conversation always shifts to cars? :)

    Agreed on the Mazda: it sounds nothing like any those of classics from the 50s and 60s. I know for sure; I’ve heard them all. Putting an exhaust mod on a typical Japanese 4 cylinder isn’t going to make not sound like a Japanese 4 cylinder.

  42. >How about adding the AT&T 3B series? They’ve had a fairly long service life.

    Great Ghu, are those things still around? I wrote code for one in the mid-’80s.

  43. Yep. They’re still in use in telco switching systems, according to a friend of mine who used to work for Verizon.

    My first encounter with Unix was on a 3B2/400. ;)

  44. The solution to two-fingered-hunt-and-peck is Dvorak or a similar layout. Rapid hunt-and-peck on a QWERTY keyboard is not all that suboptimal, because long practice tends to have your hands naturally wandering. I think “touch typing” on QWERTY is a bit of a joke. With Dvorak, you don’t try to touch type, you just do, because your fingers are on the home row anyhow. If they left, you’d just be making things worse for yourself.

    That said, I’m ambivalent on the question of whether it’s worth switching and not actually advocating it per se. I switched and I’m not switching back, but it was a hunk of work. Just an observation about optimality. (Though I do have this theory about incrementally transforming from QWERTY to Dvorak one key at a time to learn Dvorak without the frightful “big bang” I-know-nothing period, but I’ve had no takers yet…)

  45. I have one of the Lexmark ones (made in ’97, bought used a couple years ago,) which apparently aren’t as good. But it’s still the best keyboard I’ve ever used and I’ll be sure to get another Model M when (if?) my current one breaks.

  46. Thanks for that link. I used to love that keyboard. Just ordered a USB model.

  47. Morgan:
    > Hmmm….why is that when men start talking about “timeless classics” the conversation always shifts to cars? :)

    Feel free to name singular feats of engineering outside of computers and guns that have revolutionized the world so thoroughly as cars. Boats, trains, airplanes (mechanized transport in general I guess), and, perhaps, electric guitars come to immediate mind. Airplanes, boats and trains are outside my domain, but I think a Fender Tele or Strat, or a Les Paul could easily be added to the list.

    On occasion I like to think of my cars (two-seater roadsters all) as my personal wheeled mecha-suits. They take on a special kind of significance in my mind – human-advancement-wise – that way. : )

  48. I have one of those, made in 1986. I like the feel, but absolutely can’t stand the noise. I’d prefer a completely silent keyboard, and it seems that these days I’m using laptop ones most of the time, and they come pretty close to that. It’s true that the feel of these recent ‘minimal travel’ laptop keyboards is not much to write about. If there’s a crumb or something that falls under a key, the key can become completely ‘numb’ and you don’t notice until you have a letter systematically missing from a few sentences.

    I recently set up a ThinkPad for a family member. The machine was from the low end of the ThinkPad price range, and the keyboard was pretty much exactly the same sort of plastic fantastic thing you get with anything else these days. I was mildly dissapointed.

  49. >I think a Fender Tele or Strat, or a Les Paul could easily be added to the list.

    Not the Strat; there’s a significant flaw in the design of the neck joint. But the Les Paul, yeah, there’s a pretty good case for adding that one to the “timeless” list.

  50. >The machine was from the low end of the ThinkPad price range, and the keyboard was pretty much exactly the same sort of plastic fantastic thing you get with anything else these days.

    I use a ThinkPad X61. The keyboard on that is remarkably non-sucky for a laptop. Full-sized keys and longer travel, with a bit of a break as the key depresses. I’ve generally found the keyboards on the higher-end Thinkpads to be pretty good.

  51. esr pronounces:
    > Not the Strat; there’s a significant flaw in the design of the neck joint. But the Les Paul, yeah, there’s a pretty good case for adding that one to the “timeless” list.

    Care to advance an argument for this that doesn’t also argue that the Travis Bean is about a hundred times better than a Les Paul?

  52. >Care to advance an argument for this that doesn’t also argue that the Travis Bean is about a hundred times better than a Les Paul?

    Debatable. The weight really is an issue, though I admit the aluminum neck is a good idea. The Les Paul is a good candidate for “timeless classic” because it predates every other surviving electric-guitar design other than the Fender Telecaster, and has functioned effectively in a much wider range of musical styles than the Telecaster.

    (I’m not being partisan here; I personally always preferred the Gibson SG for my own playing. I have small hands, making the SG’s relatively slender and narrow neck a better choice for me that the Les Paul.)

  53. I’ve got no stake in the guitar debate either, since my first instrument isn’t a guitar, and while I like what some people have done with Beans, I don’t especially like them as instruments. I just think neck design is a perverse criterion for evaluating “timelessness” in guitars, since a) the Strat has the same neck as the Tele; b) by your own lights the Tele is both earlier and more pervasive than the Les Paul; c) the Les Paul neck isn’t really that great a design anyway, being full of glue and as sensitive to manufacture as any Fender; and d) all jointed necks are flawed if you want to look at it that way, including SGs.

  54. I own a Model M myself, of which I’m quite fond, however I’ve had to put it into temporary mothball. You see, my wife claimed that I was waking her up at night typing in the next room, even though the door was closed. I didn’t believe her until I heard clicking of my Model M over my daughter’s baby monitor, which is also located on the other side of a closed door. Alas, I guess I’ll just have to wait until I have an office space in which to use it. It’s a shame, my first PC was an IBM 5150 and to me that satisfying click is the sound a keyboard is suppose to make.

  55. The Travis Bean a timeless classic? Never.
    How many other designs are based on the TB? Probably none.
    Only a few thousand were built, and none today.

    But the Strat and the LP are basically the blueprints for > 90% of all solidbody guitars.
    They have been the mainstay of rock music as long as there was and is rock music.

  56. I use a ThinkPad X61. The keyboard on that is remarkably non-sucky for a laptop. Full-sized keys and longer travel, with a bit of a break as the key depresses. I’ve generally found the keyboards on the higher-end Thinkpads to be pretty good.

    Yep. I’ve never owned a ThinkPad (mostly because I’ve been able to get very deep discounts on Dell laptops) but IBM puts the same keyboard in some of their fold-up server KVM terminals and I have used those regularly. They’re very useable compared to most other laptop keyboards. Plus, if you’re in a tight space, the eraserhead mouse knobby is a much more reasonable mouse substitute than a touchpad, IMHO.

  57. The Model M also has one other feature that separates it from ALL other keyboards (to my knowledge). And that is the fact that each key is actually made up of two components. And underlying switch “top” and then the lettered plastic “cap” part. The cap clips onto the underlying switch top. When you want to clean your keys, you remove the caps by simply un-clipping all of the plastic caps and give them a personalized hand washing before popping them back onto their switch tops. Try doing that with any other keyboard. As an engineering neat freak, that feature alone makes the Model M a keeper.

  58. Oh, and speaking of ThinkPads–aren’t they just awesome? True, I can’t get used to the interface on Macs (or the darned pricetag), so I haven’t used those very much, but after having Dells and HPs where the hinge would loosen in that unfixable plasticky way, where the finish would wear off of the palmrest, where the machines were clearly not designed to run at a reasonable temperature while doing anything but idling. The ThinkPad I have is serviceable with parts as generic as possible, the service manual is clear and well-written, and darn it, the thing seems like it’ll last as long as I want to keep it around.

  59. @Mike H: I had another keyboard with similiarly detachable keytops, but I haven’t seen one other than the Model M in a very, very long time. The keyboard — I think — was made by Keytronic and it had a set of cursor keys that were cross-shaped, with the home key in the middle and large L-shaped Enter key that was labeled ‘Return’. Haven’t seen one in years.

  60. esr: I’m 52, I’m a Model M fan, I learned what keyboard skills I have on computers.

    Yes, me too, but the computer I learned on was an original IBM PC, with the Model M keyboard. Amend my original question to refer not just to typewriters, but to typewriters and typewriter-style clacky keyboards.

  61. >Oh, and speaking of ThinkPads–aren’t they just awesome?

    I think so. I won’t carry any other laptop, haven’t since 1999 or so.

  62. There seem to be two Mike H’s here. My only earlier comment in this thread was the “I have one of those, made in 1986.” one.

    Typing inevitably reminds me: do we qualify Emacs as a classic?

  63. >Typing inevitably reminds me: do we qualify Emacs as a classic?

    Much as I love Emacs, I think not. It doesn’t have the rugged minimalism that I think is required to qualify as a timeless classic of engineering design. To illustrate the difference, I think Lisp (the language Emacs is built around) does actually qualify as a timeless classic.

  64. Oh, and speaking of ThinkPads–aren’t they just awesome?

    Yep. Recent ThinkPad convert here: treated myself to a shiny new T510 a month or two back. Perhaps its most noteworthy feature is that despite being a full-sized and powerful machine, it comes with a battery beefy enough to last eight hours on a single charge! With that kind of longevity, I’d rather carry it than my netbook on a protracted trip!

    Oh, and the keyboard on the T510 is excellent — better than any other ThinkPad keyboard I’ve encountered, let alone the keyboards that come on any other laptop.

  65. Much as I love Emacs, I think not. It doesn’t have the rugged minimalism that I think is required to qualify as a timeless classic of engineering design. To illustrate the difference, I think Lisp (the language Emacs is built around) does actually qualify as a timeless classic.

    vi would, though. (Notice I said ‘vi’, and not ‘vim’.) And probably ed, too. After all, ed is the standard.

  66. Shenpen, it is actually possible to focus on the home row on a straight keyboard without bending your wrists at odd angles. On my work computer, they keybaord is in front of me, about 8 inches from the edge of the desk. My hands rest on the home row, but the arms are at a natural angle with the wrist hardly bent at all, meaning my pointer finger is extended more than my pinky. My forearms are on the edge of the desk just in front of my elbow, and my wrist flows slightly above the desk, keeping the arm more or less lined up. The limited give in my forearm skin/muscle is enough that to reach the “y” for instance, my whole arm shifts slightly since the pointer finger can’t reach without moving. Basically the idea is let your arms rest as naturally as possible, and let your fingers adjust to still be on the home row. If you can’t work your fingers independently enough to do the vulcan greeting, this may not work for you

    All that said, overall i prefer my ergonomic keyboard at home, but I wonder sometimes if the frequent shifting between straight keyboard+ mouse to split keyboard + thumb trackball helps me resist repetitive stress issues.

  67. Don’t forget another great feature of the Model M; Unicomp will make you custom keys for a VERY reasonable price. I replaced my Alt keys with Meta, my Windows keys now say “Super”, the Menu key become Hyper, CapsLock became Escape, Esc became Help, and for the coup de grace, the Enter key is now an Execute key, a la “Lost, Season 2″. Price? $10.

  68. >vi would, though.

    Oh ghod, no. The thing that happens if you forget and try to use arrow keys in insert mode is a huge enough ugly to disqualify vi.

  69. I am using the Samsung NC20 as a laptop/netbook. What sold me on it was the following:

    * 1280×800 on a 12.1″ monitor
    * A 98% full sized keyboard with nonsucky travel and tactile feel (for a laptop keyboard anyway). it has two odd quirks – they got to 98% on the key sizes by moving the `/~ key just to the left of the spacebar, and put the Windows key on the right side of the space bar – to the right of the right Alt key. I wish that the keys weren’t labeled with stickers is about my major non-configuration complaint.

    For significant amounts of typing, I’ll plug in the Ergo board to the USB port. It runs a tiny bit warm in my experience, and they seem to be running it into End of Life. Sometime in 2011, I will probably be saving up for a replacement.

    But for me, it’s about the perfect size for a laptop. It’s small enough that it goes anywhere, and the battery lasts about 5.5 hours when I need it to. I could use a bit more CPU power in it due to horrific things I do with Excel.

  70. Oh ghod, no. The thing that happens if you forget and try to use arrow keys in insert mode is a huge enough ugly to disqualify vi.

    Arrows? Man, we’re talking about vi! Who uses arrows in vi? hjkl.

    ESR: slaps Morgan Greywolf with a fish.

  71. @Ken Burnside:

    * A 98% full sized keyboard with nonsucky travel and tactile feel (for a laptop keyboard anyway). it has two odd quirks – they got to 98% on the key sizes by moving the `/~ key just to the left of the spacebar

    Ack! No! That would drive me crazy. I’ve written way too many shell scripts for the backtick key to be located there. Thanks for the warning.

  72. > Arrows? Man, we’re talking about vi! Who uses arrows in vi? hjkl.

    I agree with esr here, even though I prefer the modern vi family over emacs. Standard vi’s braindead, single-function insert mode is fairly gross, IMO, considering how much gets stuffed into the rest of the program. Having to change modes just to move my cursor to another place I want to insert text… hurts.

  73. Morgan, I don’t think the NC20 is still being made; I think that Samsung’s later keyboards have fewer odd quirks. The NC20 was the first ‘netbook’ that was 12.1″ for a screen size back in early 2009.

    I’m figuring that some descendent of the ASUS 1215N is likely to be my replacement for it. I’d buy a replacement 12.1″ machine from Samsung if they made any, but every machine Samsung has put out other than the NC20 has been a 1024×600 10.1″ netbook.

  74. Says Kurt:
    > The Travis Bean a timeless classic? Never.
    > How many other designs are based on the TB? Probably none.

    Well, it depends on how think of “based on”, but there’s at least a family resemblance between the Bean and all the later graphite, composite and carbon fibre guitars in the way they think about the relationship of neck to soundboard and bouts. But that’s not really my point. I don’t think the Bean is a classic. I simply find it odd that the Strat is considered not a classic because of a supposed flaw in its neck, and the Les Paul *is* considered a classic, despite a neck which is structurally worse than about a dozen other guitars. In other words, if necks are that big a deal in making your canon, you can count the Les Paul out too.

  75. Since somebody mentioned air craft, I’d have to say the Curtis Flying Boat (the basis of most true amphibs); the Eurcoupe, which included features that predicted most modern tri-gear (non-tail wheel) aircraft; and the Curtis JN-1 Jenny, which pretty much set the standard for the bi-plane (of which the Boeing Steerman is the most famous example). Of these, only the Curtis Flying Boat was truly original, but I feel pretty sure they all meet the requirements.

    You might throw in the Boeing 707 as the standard by which all modern commercial jets are based upon. Again not original, but the only significant earlier example, the De Havilland Comet, was literally a deathtrap and was grounded shortly after entering service because of engineering flaws.

  76. I’m under 40 and I learned to type on an actual IBM Selectric- used of course. Yes I am a minority of one.

    I have never enjoyed the Model M as I find it painful to use for extended periods, hands and ears both. At college there were a number of different types of workstations provided for student use- I tried to avoid the rooms that has IBM machines (first RT-PC’s running vanilla BSD, then RS2K’s running AIX). Heaven was when the Decstations showed up (never really liked the Microvaxes). LK401′s and puck mice, with the disk ‘feet’. Anything from Sun always had kb’s that were too spongy.

    The closest I’ve been able to find to that most satisfying LK401 smoothness are certain soft touch-type kb’s from NMB. (Who pretty much never sell under their own name so it can be tricky.) I suspect that we all just find justifications for describing as “timeless classic” whatever we found most comfortable when we were that certain impressionable age. Well except me of course- DEC puck mice really were the finest examples of rodent engineering of all time.

  77. Meh. My favorite keyboard was the Honeywell/Microswitch product that HP OEM’d for their HP2640 series terminals. I learned to type on it, and it’s still the best feeling keyboard I’ve ever used. The IBM snappy/clangy botched layout keyboard never held a candle to HP’s terminals.

  78. IBM Model M? Yeah! Absolutely the best keyboard I ever bought. It’s a completely solid keyboard and has survived more abuse than any other single possession I own. Rock solid! I’ve got a Lexmark made in 1994 with a PC-AT interface. I now use it with a PC-AT to PS2, PS2 to USB adapter. I hope to get many, many more years out of it.

    The buckled spring keyboard makes me feel like I can fly over the keyboard when I type.

    It works great on my mac as well :)

    The high end IBM thinkpads also had decent keyboards for laptops.

    They don’t make them like they used to.

  79. dgreer: Ercoupe? I’ll buy that argument. It does indeed have features that influenced many later designs, even if some (the nosewheel steering via the yoke) are unique.

    I’d say the Stearman is the classic design, though, as its timeless beauty and incredible robustness set the standard for just about every biplane that came after – and damned few did, in part because they’re so ubiquitous that there was simply no point in trying to better it for years. Even today, 70 years later, no unmodified Stearman has ever broken up in flight.

    Another timeless classic: The DC-3. Douglas got that one *right*. Big airplane by comparison to the others of its time, but easy to fly and will stand up to abuse. The competition just wasn’t even close.

    I’ll finally argue for the 172. There’s a reason Cessna built a zillion of them: they’ll make any pilot look good, and they’re easy to deal with. They have no nasty habits in the air or on the ground, and aside from the N model’s engine (I’m told by a reliable source that Lycoming will never again make an engine with AD in the model number), they’re very solid and reliable.

  80. @Some guy:

    I never liked any terminal keyboard I ever worked on. That being said, I have a soft spot for the DEC terminals that I used in 1989-90 attached to the first Unix computer I ever used, which was an AT&T 3B2/400; it was bettter than Not sure which ones they were, unfortunately, but they’re very similar to some terminals HP made in that time period.

  81. I love my Model M, and you can have it when you pry it from…

    well, anyway.

    The 3b20d, the top of the line duplex model of the series, has been the core of every AT&T/Lucent 4ESS and 5ESS switch ever built; the 3b2′s were a microchip implementation of the original.

    The high-level work in those switches is done by code running on Unix.. and yes, that means you can get 5-nines reliability out of a Unix box, if you do it properly.

  82. Oh, and I’ve been told that the buckling-spring keyboard is actually *better* for your fingers, because contact is made *while the key’s still on the fly*, not *when it hits the stop*… so if you’re talented, you never *need* to hit the stop.

    Or at the very least, you’re pulling out of high-torque mode by then…

  83. One other thing: if you’re having noise problems with a Model M: remember that *the surface you have it on* may be a resonator: I put a sheet of kitchen rubber drawer liner under mine, and it not only doesn’t slide around anymore, but it also wasn’t using my entire desk as a speaker cabinet; it helped just enough.

    Sorbothane would work even better, but it’s damned pricey.

  84. I wish, Ken, I really do. No matter how long I’ve left a Model M and a 4000 alone together, though, they persistently don’t produce children. Not even if I leave an OS/2 CD with them for inspiration.

  85. What Jeff Read said.

    I had a coworker with an M-equivalent. (Still have the coworker, actually, but he has a new keyboard.)

    When he was typing, I was literally unable to work, as the noise was loud and erratic enough to make concentration impossible.

    I find that a nearly silent keyboard provides more than enough feedback for me to know when I’ve hit the key properly.

  86. It’s weird, but I’ve carried around a plastic keyboard for two years, it cost me the equivalent of three bucks, doesn’t deafen anyone else around, provides good feedback, and I don’t have to ask for it from a single company (or a couple of companies) who can gouge me. I don’t suppose that it has buckling springs, or a metal body, but, for that matter, what exactly are you doing with the keyboard that requires the latter? And might I ask, why not try to tone it down a notch?

    I’d say the inability to program in a room without bothering anyone would be a disadvantage, especially in this cubicle age. If you have a whole room to yourself, then go ahead. Otherwise, please think about the ears.

    To counterpoint, I have to say that, having never actually tried a Model M, I have no idea of how good the feedback actually is, so
    there is that.
    I think about the same of the Das Keyboards. I don’t need a blank keyboard, I just don’t look at it. Plus, the times I do need to look at it, I actually can. A quick example: I routinely use a Dvorak layout. When I have to switch to qwerty (say, because I’m not the only one using the computer and my wife uses qwerty), it is useful to be able to look. Typing passwords is sometimes hard if you can’t look at the keyboard.

    And I would definitely classify the nokia soapbars as a triumph of technology: dead cheap and durable, do exactly what it says on the tin (and a bit more), are small, their battery lasts a very long time, are easy to use and intuitive. I Don’t know exactly what else do you need to add them to the hall of fame.

  87. Adriano,

    While the original Das Keyboard was available only in blank, currently they offer versions with marked keycaps (in Bank Gothic, no less, for extra elegance!). The original Das also lacked the Cherry keyswitches for which the line is now famous, being effectively a $15 Keytronic spray-painted black.

    Anyway, the marked and unmarked versions of the current Das Keyboard are available for the same price. They also offer a “silent” version now if noise is a concern.

  88. >>I wonder to what extent fandom for the Model M is driven by nostalgia acquired from learning to type on actual typewriters.

    >I’m 52, I’m a Model M fan, I learned what keyboard skills I have on computers. So not only am I a counterexample to this theory, my history suggests that the largest cohort of people who learned to type on computers is probably older yet than that.

    Another data point: I’m 24, unsurprisingly I learned my typing on computer keyboards, and I love my Model M. Also, my mother, who learned to type on a typewriter, tried it and didn’t like it.

  89. I have a similar love of the model M series… and hate the last 15 years of laptop keyboards. The trackpads make touch typing nearly impossible… I turn mine off 30 seconds after getting a new lenovo with the stick thingi….

    I remember, fondly, the butterfly laptop keyboard that IBM made back in the mid-90s, that expanded out to a comfortable size.

    The patent on that is due to expire soon….

  90. I am typing this right now on a Unicomp, custom-built about 18 months ago (I got a Norwegian keyboard layout in combination with an in-keyboard whatever-that-little-rubbery-wart-was-called IBM something mouse simulacrum. Love the tactile feedback, but I switch between this and other keyboards (bog standard Logitechs, a Microsoft Natural, a surprisingly well made HP run-of-the-mill) to avoid CTS.

    I guess keyboards are like musical instruments – if they don’t start out personalized, the soon will be.

  91. I recently switched out my Das Keyboard (3rd gen, Professional) for a Unicomp M5-2 (101 key, 2000 manufacture date) because the width of any proper keyboard tends to place the mouse too far to the side for ergonomic concerns. I originally got the Das Keyboard in an effort to recapture the experience of the AT&T computer (with AT&T AT/Model M style keyboard) I learned to type on. The Das Keyboard also features removable keys, not Model M style two part but similar and the manufacturer recently put out a set of alternate keycaps for Apple keyboard layouts and Tux bearing Super keys (combined with the newly excess logo keys and some paint I had Meta, Super, Alt Graph and Compose.)

    As for the lack of ‘ergonomic’ or split style keyboards, there was the IBM M15 “adjustable”, but like many of the more interesting Model M variants they are hard to find and usually are only available with AT or slightly odd PS/2 connectors. Also, due to their rarity and the fact that no one seems to be manufacturing this model (or a close equivalent) currently the price tends to be rather high.

  92. Yesterday I received my 1st IBM model M (1989, dirty but in good condition, common price on ebay ). I washed it, and now it looks like new.
    2 days ago I destroyed that awful logitech plastic membrane keybord: 1st problem can’t work on ps/2 with an adaptor, and freeze my FreeBSD system every 10 min (USB problem related to the keybooard); 2nd awful keys, so light that can be acted by a fly. But now I have THE KEYBOARD (IBM model M), real ps/2 (no more freeze), no bill gates keys, and Mainly the real clicky KEYS.

    The Best Computer Keyboard Ever.

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