I’ve always liked keyboards with mechanical keyswitches, the way “old” computers had. This may go back to my days growing up with a TRS-80: for all the “Trash-80” jokes that used to be made, the TRS-80 Model 4D, the last one of its line, had a terrific keyboard in it.1
For the last few years, I’ve been using a Unicomp Spacesaver, the direct descendant of the Model M keyboards that came with IBM PS/2s. It’s a great keyboard to type on, but it’s loud even by mechanical keyboard standards, it’s big (“Spacesaver” is clearly meant ironically2), and, let’s face it, it looks like something from the late ’80s at best. Maybe ’70s. Unicomp’s build quality is also a little wonky; the keyboard feels very solid but the case doesn’t seem like it’s quite lined up properly. And, of course, it’s a PC keyboard, and I have a Mac. This isn’t a huge issue—OS X can be set to switch the Alt and Windows keys so they’re in the “proper” places for a Mac layout—but it’s a little annoying.
Unicomp recently came out with the Spacesaver M keyboard, which does have the Mac keyboard layout and adds new Mac functions to keycaps, like volume and brightness controls. Unfortunately, the icons etched onto the keys move the aesthetic from “maybe ’70s” to “definitely ’70s.” Early this year I decided I’d buy a Matias Tactile Pro 3, sold as the modern equivalent of the Apple Extended Keyboard II (said to be the best keyboard Apple ever made, and still with a legion of fans).
The Tactile Pro 3 definitely has a Mac aesthetic, but from a few years ago rather than a modern one. It has a nice enough feel and a few neat touches (like having all the characters you can strike with the Option key engraved on each keycap), but after using it for a very short time I noticed three annoying things:
- It’s really loud. I thought the Spacesaver was loud, but the Tactile Pro has all of that plus a weird ringing.
- The keys are really stiff. With the Spacesaver I didn’t really find that to be an issue, but with the Tactile Pro I did. (This is apparently a notable difference between the Extended Keyboard II and the Tactile Pro: while they both use keyswitches manufactured by Alps Electric, the same folks behind Alpine car stereos, they’re not the same keyswitch—just as close as Matias could get.)
- The Caps Lock key doesn’t have the same tactile key switch under it; it has a mushy key switch. I remap Caps Lock to be Control, and this is a pretty annoying difference.
Even so, I persevered with the Tactile Pro for a while. It was quirky but it was a nice keyboard, even if it was hard to type on.
Then I realized that it was so hard to type on it was making my fingers hurt.
It’s always been my contention that a mechanical keyboard is less prone to causing RSI problems; haptic quality is really important, and with low-travel keys you’re effectively slamming your fingertips against a hard surface all the time, whereas you’re “floating” with a spring-driven switch. Clearly, though, this was not true of the Tactile Pro. I actually gave up and went back to the Unicomp because I began to suspect the Matias was going to do real damage.
Then came the Das Keyboard. I’ve heard people talking about their Mac model, so I took a chance and ordered it this month.
The feel of it is the nicest of the three keyboards. It doesn’t require much pressure to type on but it’s still got a real sense of “snap” to the key presses. And while it’s certainly not quiet, it’s notably quieter than the other two.
The most “controversial” thing about it seems to be its appearance: the keys are matte black, the case is glossy black, and the keycap typeface is unduly stylized. But—and I confess this may just be the position of someone who’s been typing on big mechanical keyboards for years—I disagree with those calling it big, ugly and especially retro. It could be made a little smaller, but you’d be talking about shaving millimeters off the bezel and (perhaps) height, not inches. For a mechanical keyboard, this borders on sleek. The styling, whatever you think of it, certainly isn’t very retro—again, look at the Spacesaver and, to some degree, even the Tactile Pro for a real retro keyboard.
As for ugly, that’s subjective. Of these three keyboards, I think the Tactile Pro is the prettiest, but that doesn’t make it a true thing of beauty nor does it mean the other ones are hairless wiener dogs. With Mac-owning reviewers, I think what’s really meant by this is that the Das Keyboard doesn’t have an “Apple-like” aesthetic sensibility. It doesn’t, but that could be remedied pretty simply: Leave the keyboard black, and make the case silver. That pretty much is the current Apple color scheme, after all. (Making a white keyboard, like the Tactile Pro, is a bad idea; white shows dirt very easily, and fingers pick up dirt very easily. This is a suboptimal combination.)
I do have a few quibbles. I understand that the cable takes up two USB ports because it has a powered USB hub in it, but I don’t need a powered USB hub in my keyboard. And frankly, if you’re going to put USB ports on the keyboard at all, have them face out the back, not the right side. Some of us have keyboard drawers, and if I wanted to use my Kensington Expert Mouse trackball with this thing I don’t think I could fit it next to the Das Keyboard because its own cable would be blocking it. I’d also lose the little angle at the top right—which I suspect is there solely because of the powered USB hub. (That I don’t need.) And it’s worth noting that there’s no Bluetooth model. For me, that really isn’t an issue—I consider the main advantage of Bluetooth to be portability, and I’m not hauling this thing around with me—but if you really hate wires, you’re out of luck. (Or you can, you know, get a keyboard drawer. I have a lot of wires in my system, but they’re all mostly hidden.)
But all in all? This is a great keyboard, and the downsides are minimal. No, it’s not fashion-model thin and beautiful like the current Apple keyboards, but unless you have a really tiny desk it’s not that huge. The aesthetic is a bit alien but—again, unless it’s vitally important to you that your keyboard be able to double as a cheese slicer in a pinch—it’s not ugly. And most importantly, the feel is absolutely fantastic.
I’ll probably follow up in a few months with an “extended life” report, focusing on whether this makes my fingers hurt, too. (I don’t think it will, though.)
(Image from Das Keyboard’s website.)
I later found out that most keyswitches in the TRS-80 line were—like the Apple Extended Keyboard II and the Matias Tactile Pro—made by Alps. The TRS-80’s were related to the Extended Keyboard II’s, not Matias’s. ↩
Actually, the Spacesaver is smaller than the original Model M style, which Unicomp still sells as the “Customizer.” ↩