02/08/2001

Real keyboards. I’ve written a lot about keyboards in the past. I’m picky. I’m a good typist, or at least used to be before my wrists went the way of Bo Jackson’s hip (with all due respect to Bo Jackson; that’s not to say I could type like Bo Jackson could run or throw or hit a baseball), and the majority of keyboards are absolutely abominable. Maybe that’s because I learned to type on manual typewriters–no, I’m not that old, my high school was just that far behind–but I need some feedback from my keyboard. The first computer keyboard I could touch type on was the old-fashioned IBM PS/2 keyboard. I eventually learned how to handle the abominable cheap oatmeal pieces of junk, but I never learned to like them.

IBM’s buckling spring keyswitches evoked strong emotions; people either loved them or hated them. Other highly regarded keyboards generally used keyswitches made by Alps Electric; they were a little quieter and a little softer but still gave some feedback.

Those who managed to get them swear by their Northgates, or the present-day Northgate clones, the Creative Vision Avant Stellar and the Ortek MCK-142, both of whom boast of their Alps keyswitches and claim the true Northgate legacy. I understand their feel is just slightly softer than the IBM. I had a keyboard with that kind of feel; I believe it probably used Alps keyswitches. I didn’t like it as much. My sister took a liking to it so I let her keep it. I just kept buying used IBM PS/2 keyboards, the older the better. The older ones are theoretically less reliable because of potential heavier use, but they feel better. But two of my IBM keyboards are acting up now, so what to do? Do I really want to buy more used ones that are prone to go south all too soon? An original unused Northgate OmniKey sells for an Imsai price these days; they’re almost priceless. (I see some used OmniKeys on eBay right now for $50; even used ones rarely end up selling for that.) A clone will set you back $130. I’m willing to pay a fair sum for a good keyboard, but I’m a little wary of spending 10-12 times the cost of a normal keyboard on something I haven’t ever used before. I suspect I know their feel; IBM lightened up their feel towards the end, just before they stooped to everyone else’s level and started bundling $12 keyboards with their systems. I suspect the Northgate clones feel like those late-model IBMs, and I want something a little firmer.

Zeos used to sell highly regarded keyboards (from what I’ve gathered, they were actually made by a Taiwanese company called Nan Tan, who’s still in business but seems more interested in making commodity $12 keyboards these days), but Micron bought Zeos years ago and jettisoned the keyboards. Nobody talks about Zeos keyboards anymore. I only used one of those once, and I don’t remember it being the bomb, but I remember it being a lot better than, say, a run-of-the-mill NMB keyboard. Supposedly they used Alps keyswitches as well, so the feel was probably a lot like a Northgate.

I was learning far more about keyboards than I ever wanted to know, but I still couldn’t find anyone who would sell me a decent keyboard for a two-figure price. Then I stumbled across www.pckeyboard.com . That’s Unicomp, a small company out of Lexington, Kentucky. The significance? IBM made keyboards there. They spun off Lexmark, and Lexmark made keyboards there. Real keyboards come from Lexington, Kentucky, just like real baseball bats come from Louisville, Kentucky. I don’t know what springs to mind when anyone else hears the word Kentucky, but those are the two things I think of.

In 1996, Lexmark quietly sold their keyboard technology to these guys, who quietly sell IBM lookalike/feelalike keyboards for about 50 bucks. They sell both the so-called “enhanced” models (no thanks) and models with the old-fashioned, loud, patented buckling springs that go clackety clack. They also fix IBM keyboards. I like this. For half the price of an MCK-142, I can have what I really want. They even claim to have a 104-key model with Windows keys, which would be really nice, but I can’t find it on the Web site. I’ll have to call. I’d buy two or three 104-key buckling spring keyboards in a heartbeat because I constantly use the Windows-M and Windows-R keyboard shortcuts. I usually redefine one of the ALT keys as a Windows key using Microsoft’s Kernel Toys, but that doesn’t help you in NT, and it’s good to have two ALT keys. The ALT-arrow key combinations get awkward if you redefine the right ALT key, but ALT-F4 gets awkward if you redefine the left ALT key.

They apparently also had a programmable IBM feelalike in the past, but I can’t seem to find pricing on that one either. Programmable macros along with the IBM feel would be true luxury. I’d probably willingly pay $150 for that, as frequently as I re-key certain strings of characters.

It looks like I need to make some friends in Lexington.

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