Keyboards, Keyboards

tactile pro

Update 2008-05-08: Jake Seliger just posted a review of the Unicomp (Model M-type) Customizer

Update 2008-05-06: Found the geekhack.org forums, which provided some nice feedback on different mechanical keyswitch models.

Update 2008-05-01: I’ve compiled most of people’s suggestions in a follow-up post.

This is why I love The Talk Show: in Episode 20, Dan Benjamin and John Gruber spend an entire hour discussing keyboards, specifically the Apple Extended and Extended II . If you’re someone content to hammer away at a sponge-y membrane keyboard like the ones that ship with virtually every computer these days, then dedicating an entire hour listening to two guys talk about keyboards seems insane. If, like me, you’ve spent years looking for the ideal keyboard, then starting today’s podcast was like being in the desert and seeing a faint reflection, (just there!) over there on the horizon. Could it be water?

I had hoped the podcast would bring news of a new, magical keyboard, one combining the precise feel of mechanical keyswitches (like the old IBM buckling-spring Model Ms or the aforementioned Apple Extended line) with the lower noise of scissor switch or membrane keyboards. Sadly, they confirmed my own suspicions: in a perfect twist of irony, computer makers have let the single most important input device stagnate.

I have a few good keyboards, both of which are mentioned in the podcast. The Matias Tactile Pro pictured above is what I use at home, and I like the feel of the mechanical keyswitches. Unfortunately, the super-clacky metallic ringing is a little too much noise for the office, even one that blasts music over office-wide wireless speakers. I’m don’t know how the feel compares to the revised Tactile Pro 2.0, but I will say that I enjoy this keyboard the most of all the ones I’ve tried the last few years.

Not wanting to force everyone around me to wear headphones all the time, I switched to the Macally iceKey, which uses scissor-switch keys like you would find on a laptop. The feel is pretty good and snappy and noise is fairly low, so it makes a decent compromise. It isn’t a pleasure to type on, however — if it were a hockey player it’d be a good second-line player: 25-30 goals a year, maybe 35 in a contract season. But that’s about it. I tried the new low-profile Apple Aluminum keyboard for an afternoon, but the feel was inferior to the iceKey so I’m right back where I started.

Benjamin and Gruber end the episode with an offer to buy mint-condition Apple Extended/Extended II keyboards from whoever still owns one. I’m casting an eye to the future, however. Experiments like the programmable, LED-tastic Optimus Maximus are great, but surely it’s time for some company out there to start putting some thought into core keyboard technology again — something with a precise mechanical feel that’s also well damped for sound. Something like the Leica of keyboards — built like a tank, mechanically precise, and whisper quiet.