Das Keyboard: feel the noise

Das Keyboard close-up
Bronze Coast, Alameda , CA

It seems a little strange to refer to Das Keyboard as «the Das Keyboard» because of course «das» means «the». It’s something like asking for the «hot salsa picante sauce», except that «keyboard» is not German for «keyboard», placing Das Keyboard firmly in the realm of branding. Das Keyboard isn’t even made by a German company—the keyboards are manufactured in Taiwan and they are designed and sold by a company in Austin Texas. 1

This is perhaps a different kind of writing instrument than that which I’ve reviewed in the past. Don’t worry; I have not abandoned the fountain pen. I have for a very long time appreciated quality keyboards. I grew up in a family with IBM PCs and had my first tastes of typing on a Selectric II. I was spoiled with good keyboards from a young age.

As computer keyboards have progressively gotten cheaper, flimsier, quieter, and mushier a minority of computer users have resisted the trend and created a cottage market for specialty keyboards with the old-fashioned click and positive response that comes from mechanical keys. Just as many electronic keyboard players demand weighted keys, some of us who spend a good deal of our day using a keyboard demand a keyboard that acts and sounds like a real keyboard.

There are a variety of reasons to desire a keyboard with positive response, such as the sound of the keys. Typing on a silent keyboard can be disconcerting. It’s easy to see why a busy and crowded office might want the most quiet keyboards possible, as that sound does multiply, but many of us who type at our own desks don’t have that issue and actually want to hear that sound. We’ve come to associate that sound with our own productivity. Hearing the clack of the keys is the sound of my own thinking.

If you think that association is held only by a few eccentrics, consider that in Hollywood movies and in TV shows, computer operators—even visual designers and photo editors—rarely use the mouse. Even when it is totally inappropriate to the kind of work being done and you can see windows being dragged around, the actors have their hands on the home keys and the sound the foley artists add is that of a keyboard. It’s part of our cultural metalanguage: creative thought is represented by the sound of a keyboard.

What’s good for the fingers?

More important are the issues of comfort and ergonomics. Intuitively it seems that the softer, mushier keyboards would be the ones that are more comfortable. After all, what’s more comfortable, a wooden chair or your recliner?

This is an example of intuition misleading. I do not have ergonomics studies to back this up, but I do have my own experience. One attribute of so-called «clicky» keyboards is that they trigger the keystroke long before the key bottoms out on the bottom of the tray. The sound of the key’s switch being triggered also gives the typist an audible clue as well as the feel from the key. The feel of the key itself may be the most important of these. It takes a bit of pressure to trigger the switch, and then once that threshold is past the travel becomes easier with very little force pushing back.

The best possible thing for a finger is to depress that switch and then start traveling back up in that free-fall area of travel before the finger hits bottom. This simply is not possible with a rubber-dome key mechanism which has very little travel and only two positions: top and bottom.

The problem with the low-profile rubber-dome switch design is two-fold. With the shorter key travel the finger hits the bottom abruptly, which puts the stress in repetitive stress injury. I am convinced that the keyboards with greater travel allow for typing habits that are much less damaging to one’s hands than the softer, quieter, keyboards found on most computers. I swear that after typing on the chiclety Apple wireless keyboard I begin to feel the stress not in my fingertips but in my second knuckles.

The second advantage of a keyboard with positive feedback is the definitive feel of the keypress. Rubber-dome switches feel mushier and have a less discrete moment of activation. As a result, when typing on a softer keyboard, one has a tendency to hit the keys harder even though less pressure is actually required. With mechanical switches, typists can use precisely the necessary force and keep from pummeling their fingers over and over again. With soft keys, the users have to pound harder and do more damage even though they make less noise doing so.

There is good reason for low-travel soft keyboards: they are perfectly serviceable for short periods of typing and entirely appropriate for laptops, where thinness and portability trump many other considerations. However, when sitting at a desk and typing for long periods of time at a stretch, a real mechanical keyboard is the tool for the job.

The consensus among those that desire the sound, feel, and comfort of a mechanical-switch keyboard is that they don’t make them like they used to. The keyboard against which all keyboards are ultimately compared is the IBM Model M keyboard. Back when IBM manufactured keyboards, they made them heavy and tough. The keyboards have heft and last a very long time. They are some of the only keyboards made with buckling spring technology. Sadly, they haven’t been manufactured since 1995.

The Model M has a loud, pingy, distinctive sound to it, owing to the buckling spring switches and the solidly made key mechanisms. Those buckling spring switches are still put in keyboards made by a company called Unicomp. A few years after IBM spun off its printer and keyboard division into a separate company named Lexmark. Lexmark sold its keyboard manufacturing (and IBM’s patent on the buckling-spring keyswitch) to Unicomp.

By all accounts, the Unicomp switches are every bit as good as the old IBM switches, but the keyboard cases themselves are much lighter than the original Model M, with more plastic and less metal. The typing experience is supposed to be excellent, but the unboxing experience may leave something to be desired.

I have four Model M keyboards: three of the smaller «Space Saving» models and one full-size Model M. They all provide an excellent typing experience, but they lack an important element: an extra key to the left of the spacebar. The Windows key on a Windows PC or Linux box may be superfluous, but using a Mac missing any of the Command, Control, or Alt keys presents a problem.

The Das Keyboard was reputed to be the next best thing to the original Model M. The box for the Das Keyboard «Model S» even directly draws that comparison: «

Das Keyboard compares to the legendary IBM Model M. Its best-in-class mechanical gold-plated key switches provide a tactile click that makes typing a pure joy.

Aside from questions of how IBM feels about Das Keyboard using their trademarks, that’s a high bar to set for one’s own product. So how does the Das Keyboard actually stack up against the original Model M?

Overall construction

It’s hard to beat an old IBM product for solid construction. Many have joked that the Model M can be used as a weapon, and for good reason. I wouldn’t want to be hit by one. The Model M is solid and heavy with a lot of metal in its construction. There is nothing in any way flimsy or remotely flexible about it.

The folks who made Das Keyboard didn’t try to live up to that standard. The Das Keyboard is by no means flimsy, but even a strong plastic shell fails to inspire the same confidence as the hefty construction of the Model M. No doubt that they wished to keep the weight down for a variety of reasons including shipping costs.

Furthermore, few people pick up their keyboards and carry them from place to place, so the only time one really feels the weight of a keyboard is when one takes it out of the box or perhaps adjusts its place on the desk. All that is really necessary is enough weight that it will not shift its place just by using it.

By this and similar tests the Das Keyboard is more than adequate. If it does not overwhelm with the confidence that comes with a piece of industrial hardware, it is still much more substantial than the keyboards which are shipped with most computers.

Appearance

Das Keyboard has a smooth, glossy finish with hard edges. One can see one’s reflection in the surface of the black keyboard. It’s sleek and compared to the Model M it is modern, though it reminds me more of the objects in science fiction from two or three decades ago more than it does any recent trends in design or even recent speculation about the design of objects in the future. It’s a good-looking enough keyboard, but I don’t see it being nominated for industrial design awards.

One admittedly minor quibble about the Das Keyboard is the choice of typeface for the keys. Obviously the models of Das Keyboard with blank key caps won’t have that issue, but I’m not quite that hard-core a typist that I can get away with never being able to see which keys are which. Sometimes I lose my bearings and have to look back at the keys. The more mistakes I make the more likely it is that I will keep hitting the wrong keys and sometimes I just have to look down for a few seconds in order to get back into the flow of typing. The blank key caps are tempting for someone who flirts with the idea of switching to the Dvorak configuration, but that’s not a compelling enough reason to swap out my key caps for blanks.

The typeface is a rectangular, all-lowercase one which isn’t all that legible. Perhaps that is supposed to be a compromise between blank key caps and having the clues needed for some people’s typing, but it seems more likely to be someone’s idea of «modern» based on the science fiction of the 1980s. Yes, it’s a very minor quibble, but as someone who notices typography it’s one that I have to ignore.

Extras

The Das Keyboard for Mac has a few nice features. Compared to the Model M, of course, even having more than two modifier keys next to the spacebar is a «bonus» feature. Almost any keyboard made in the last two decades can make this claim too, so Das Keyboards doesn’t get special recognition for this. It is, however, a reason one might use Das Keyboard rather than a Model M, especially with a Mac.2

Das Keyboard sports a built-in two-port USB hub. Not a feature unique to Das Keyboard of course, but as more and more keyboards are being made as wireless models, it’s a feature of note for someone who had forgotten how nice it is to have some USB ports handy up on the desktop. Yes, it’s easy enough to put a hub on the desk, but the ports on the keyboard are handy for occasions when one wants to, for example, plug in a USB flash drive to copy some files without further cluttering the desk with equipment. Critical? No. Nice to have? Yes.

Yes, but how is it as a keyboard?

ImageThis is the real question. How is the typing experience? For those who are familiar with keyboards probably all I need say here is «Cherry MX Blue» which refers to the kind of keyswitches that the Das Keyboard utilizes. The Model M utilizes patented «buckling spring» keyswitches which produce a unique sound and feel. Cherry MX’s «blue» switches are meant to have similar characteristics, but their workings are very different and they really are not what I would call drop-in replacements for the bucking spring switches.

The Model M keys require a bit more pressure to activate and have longer travel than the Das Keyboard’s Cherry MX switches. The required pressure of the keypress of the Cherry MX switches is more even through the whole of the keystroke, which might appeal to some but I find to be a drawback. Again, a large part of the reason for having a «clicky» keyboard is the positive physical feedback. There is a very slight but noticeable resistance at the point of activation, but it is nowhere near the definite signal given by the Model M.

The Model M switches resist increasingly until the switch activates, when the pressure against the finger releases almost entirely. The gradual increase in pressure cushions the finger despite the greater force needed, and the release gives a clear physical indication that the key has been activated. This makes it easier to stop pushing down and release the key, making it easier not to bottom out the switch on the backplate of the keyboard. This is the principle behind using a clicky positive-response keyboard in the first place. While it may seem that higher-pressure switches would be bad for one’s fingers, bottoming out is much worse.

Also, the click of the Das Keyboard appears to be somehow augmented. When the key caps are removed, the switches can be depressed directly. The sound is much less pronounced. With the Model M, the sound of the keyboard is the sound of the activation of the physical switch. If anything, the key caps slightly deaden the sound. Practically this makes very little difference—I haven’t detected any delay between the click and the activation.

However, if all other things were equal,3 a quieter keyboard would be better. The Model M’s sound is inherent to the mechanism. The Das Keyboard’s click is an added artifice. If it doesn’t change the feel, then making the click louder just because people enjoy hearing the click seems silly, especially for office situations where one’s typing noise might be a problem for those around you. As much as I enjoy hearing the click, the feel of the keyboard is what matters and ultimately what makes a keyboard faster or ergonomically less of a problem.

Is the Das Keyboard a step down from the Model M? Well, yes. But it’s not a huge step down. The Cherry MX Blue switches are good, but they don’t have the feel or the sound of the Model M. In a world full of mushy silent keyboards the Das Keyboard is excellent. Without knowing who is reading this, it is a good bet the Das Keyboard is a much better keyboard than you are using now. Even for someone using a buckling-spring keyboard, the advantages of the Das Keyboard may make it a compelling choice. There are always tradeoffs.

I’m still undecided. The Model M provides a better typing experience but the Das Keyboard’s features, none of which is by itself compelling, together make it tempting to continue using. One option is to put the Das Keyboard in my messenger bag and use it with my laptop, but that defeats the purpose of having an ultralight laptop. For the moment, both the Model M and the Das Keyboard are plugged in to my desktop computer and I am alternating between them to see how it goes.

Bottom line: anyone looking to replace a Model M with the Das Keyboard will likely be disappointed, but almost anyone else will find Das Keyboard to be an excellent choice and a significant upgrade. Also, it ought to be noted that anyone using a Windows or a Linux machine probably wouldn’t miss the extra modifier keys on the Model M. If you’re looking for a really good keyboard, Das Keyboard will be a good choice. If you’re looking for the best possible typing experience, find yourself a Model M or a Unicomp with buckling-spring switches.


Free Shipping for Das Keyboard

  • 1. It’s unclear even why the choice was made to go with German-sounding branding. The company’s information page claims the original Das Keyboard was created «specifically for über geeks» and there may not be any more to it than that.
  • 2. I have mapped the physical Caps Lock key to the Control function to see how quickly I get used to it. I probably hit Caps Lock by accident a thousand times for every time I actually want to use it anyway.
  • 3. I’ve never seen any situation in which all things were equal

Comments

I am currently using an IBM Model M keyboard dated 1984. I have a couple of other Model M spares tucked away in case the “best ever” keyboard ever fails, but it has made it 30 years of heavy use so far. With every new computer I get, I give the new keyboard away and use the Model M. For a time I remapped the right-side Alt key as the Windows key, but quit doing so as the Windows key is not heavily used and offers no unique features. Mac users like Steve may need the extra key.

If you ever want to try a “real” keyboard, used ones are readily available at http://www.clickykeyboards.com.

Thanks for the review about a subject dear to my heart….er, fingers.

Wow, is that a «Silver Label» Model M you have? My fullsize is a «Black Label» 1391401 dated January 1989. My guess is that you gave it to me when I bought the PS/ValuePoint.

I’m finding that using CapsLock for the Control key is not that hard to get used to. I have some muscle memory from over 15 years of using emacs—that C-X C-S save combination is hard to retrain but I’m doing OK. I’m also retraining myself to use the Alt key in emacs for Meta instead of the Esc key. And wondering whether I should learn to stop worrying and love vi.

I second the ClickyKeyboards recommendation. As I have four Model Ms (as mentioned three of them are «Space Saving» models) if I buy another keyboard any time soon it will be a Unicomp.

Sorry, I actually picked up the keyboard to check and find that the one I am using is dated November 1986. White label, p/n 1390131. I have five more stashed: four p/n 1391401’s dated June 1987, May 1989, August 1990, and May 1991, and a p/n 1378160 dated May 1994 that has an embossed Ambra logo and a non-detachable cord.

If you need one, give me a shout. I can’t imagine needing all of them. These keyboards aren’t indestructible; when I worked for IBM I fixed a few of them. Usually caused by people cleaning them and prying the whole keytop off instead of just the removable keycap. They snap together easily if you know the simple trick of doing it with the front of the keyboard tilted up 45-90 degrees so gravity guides the spring into the right position.

I don’t think I need more Model Ms at the moment; I have more keyboards than working computers! So hang on to yours until such time as I need one.

What I might take you up on is if you have AT/XT-to-PS/2 adapters lying around, or Model M cables with the PS/2 end. All but one of my keyboard cables has the old AT/XT connector. I know I used to have adapters, but who knows where they are now.

The bad news is: until I wrote this review I was really pleased with my Das Keyboard. I’d been typing on the Apple Wireless chiclet keyboard—which is one of the better mushy zero-travel keyboards around but it is still a mushy zero-travel keyboard. But now that I’ve used the Model M again for a few days going back to the Das Keyboard is sadly unsatisfying.

I used to have those adapters (Din5 Female to Mini Din6 Male) but can’t find any. I suspect I gave them away when I unloaded all of my other obsolete stuff. All my keyboards have the PS/2 connectors, but it would be cheaper to just order an adapter from any of the Newegg/RadioShack/Amazon stores than it would be to ship a cable or keyboard from here. Amazon sells them for $5-6 shipped.