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Blog posts and video from Steven as he “COMBS” through the minutia to discover tech, retro-computing, physical computing, gadgets and sci-fi.

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9 July 2017

REVIEW: Relive the 1980s with a Unicomp Keyboard

by Steven B. Combs, Ph.D.
tags: keyboard - unicomp - mechanical - ibm - 1980s - clickity

I’m a keyboard nerd. I enjoy trying different keyboards with different key mechanisms. I have fond memories of an IBM keyboard I used as a student worker at Murray State University back in the 1980s. While I wasn’t as obsessed with keyboards then, to the point of remembering their model numbers, I believe the keyboard in the image below was the first keyboard I ever enjoyed using.

An IBM Model F for the original IBM PC

1980s keyboard use

My student work assignment was for the dean of the college of humanistic studies, Dr. David Harrell, and he provided me the opportunity to use a high dollar IBM computer that no one else new how to use. An avid computer nerd in the day, primarily Commodore computers, it was an 80s geek dream job. During the last year of my student worker employment, I spent many hours developing student advising and bookstore management databases using dBase III. All this work was done using the IBM Model F keyboard.

My fond memories of this keyboard are two fold. First, it was the first computer keyboard I used that I considered a proper “business” keyboard and second, the “clickity-clack” sound the keyboard made as each key was pressed. The video below provides a sample of the sound on my Unicomp Model M that mimics the sound of the original Model F almost exactly.

Unicomp Model M clickity-clack demo from Steven Combs on Vimeo.

Isn’t that a great sound (although the typing is a bit of a mess)?

My search for a modern replacement

For the past several years, I’ve been trying to find a keyboard that will bring back those fond memories of the “clickity-clack” keys. The list below shares several:

The first three keyboards on the list are excellent modern keyboards. They use varying types of key switches and none of them are exactly what I was looking for, but they were close. The Das Keyboard is the best of the lot and the one that sits on my desk at work. They Cherry MX Blue switches while audible, are not as loud as the Model F. They are a bit higher pitched and softer.

The Monoprice keyboard connects to an old iMac running Ubuntu. It is a close second to the Das Keyboard and a good home office keyboard. It is almost half the cost of the Das Keyboard and a great value. The Matias is okay, but is designed to be more like an original Mac keyboard. Not my favorite of the three, but much better than most modern keyboards.

For two years I’ve used the Das Keyboard thinking this was as close as I was going to come to the original IBM model F.

My search is over (and a bit of history)

In early July of 2017, I learned that Unicomp in Lexington, Kentucky was using the same manufacturing techniques and molds to create a version of the popular 1980s IBM keyboards. “Of course!” I screamed in my head. Lexington was the home of IBM subsidiary LexMark. They made printers and keyboards. When IBM got out of the personal computer business, LexMark sold the brand to a Chinese manufacturer and in 1996, Unicomp purchased the rights and tooling to the legacy keyboards.

Its all in the key switch

The most important feature of these old keyboards is the buckling-spring key switch. The animated GIF below demonstrates this key mechanism.

It’s the buckling-spring function that creates the all important and nostalgic “clickity-clack” as you type the keys on the keyboard. Unicomp has the rights and manufacturing tooling to produce this unique switch and integrate them into their keyboards. Once I learned all this, I had to get my hands on one of these keyboards.

Time to purchase

The Unicomp website reveals that they sell their keyboards on Amazon. With a bit of Amazon credit available and a 4.5 star review, I chose the Unicomp Two Tone Ultra Classic Model M Black Buckling Spring 104 Key USB Keyboard. At $89.00 with free Amazon Prime shipping, it was in the ball park for what I would pay to try yet another keyboard. The box arrived on a Sunday morning. Later in the day, I had the opportunity to unbox the keyboard. A few of the images are below along with some observations.

Image Gallery

No fancy package here. Packing and unbox process reminded me of the 1980s complete with a crackly plastic sleeve over the entire keyboard insert.

A “real” keyboard. The way nature intended. Big, bulky and built like a tank!

No 1980s keyboard connector here. Unicomp has upgraded the classic with a modern USB connection.

Another rarity on today’s keyboards, two-position adjustable feet.

Made in the USA and in my boyhood home state of Kentucky.

You either know how to use a keyboard or you don’t. Unicomp doesn’t bother with instructions. Unicomp includes a single 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. While it may look low budget, they save on print costs and packaging to produce a quality keyboard.


Using the Unicomp Model M with a Mac Mini and final thoughts

After unboxing the keyboard, I connected it to a Mac mini and began to type this review in Ulysses. WOW!!! This keyboard feels and sounds just as I remembered. It’s a tank of a keyboard with significant weight and you can just feel it oozing quality construction. Both my Monoprice and Das Keyboard keyboards are heavy, but this one is tops them all.

Talk about a sense of déjà vu. As I type, I notice it takes much more force to press the keys. I also notice that as I become more comfortable with the keyboard, my typing is noticeably more accurate. Much more than it has been on a modern Apple keyboard. I like the retro look of the keyboard too. Some may like the space that comes from the thin keyboards on their desk, but I have room and the Unicomp in its black with white and gray key combination looks great sitting next to a black LCD monitor and a silver Mac Mini.

My final review of the keyboard? I’m in love this keyboard! I like the way it feels, sounds, types and harkens back to an earlier time when keyboards were constructed by manufacturers who care about the typing experience. I will likely have to leave my Unicomp in my home office. Using a loud keyboard in today’s office environment is probably not a popular decision. However, I can hear the co-workers now, “Hey! Combs IS finally working, just listen to that keyboard go!”

I mentioned in my last blog post that I am writing a book. The new Unicomp Model M will get significant use in November as I bang out my work of fiction during NaNoWriMo. By the end of the year, I will know more about the quality of the keyboard. Typing with this keyboard will be easier and more enjoyable than the barely passable keyboard on my 2015 era MacBook.

Get your Unicomp Model M Keyboard from Amazon for the best prices and fastest shipping. Let me know if you have a Unicomp and which model you use in the comment section below. I would enjoy hearing other’s experiences with the keyboard as well as the stories about their first time using a buckling-switch keyboard.

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