Das Keyboard: feel the noise

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.


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.


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?

This 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. 

5 Replies to “Das Keyboard: feel the noise”

  1. Mod­el M
    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](http://www.clickykeyboards.com).

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

    1. 1984
      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](http://www.clickykeyboards.com) 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. 

      1. Mod­el M
        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.

        1. Mod­el M/Update
          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.

          1. Adapters
            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.

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