They say that the first step is admiting you have a problem. So be it. I have keyboard fever. Looking back, it would appear that I’ve had this addiction since my early days of computing, however, I didn’t realize just how bad my addiction to keyboards was until recently when my Apple Bluetooth Wireless keyboard suddenly stopped functioning. A few simple Google searches and I found myself deep in the weeds and realized I had bottomed out.
OK, I think I’ve worn that analogy about as thin as pancetta, but I truly do love keyboards and there is no doubt that I have recently gone off the deep end with them. Like anything I love, I always feel compelled to share it with others, hence this series of blog posts. Series? Oh yeah, ya heard me.
Let’s Start From The Beginning
My first keyboard and my first computer were one in the same — a Commodore 64. The C-64 used mechanical key switches which gave it a distinctive “clacky” sound when you typed. It’s a sound that anyone who grew up in the early days of computing can easily remember. My C-64 lasted me all through college and it wasn’t until the early 90’s that I made the leap to a 486 PC and a new mechanical keyboard. [EDIT: Actually, I just found the keyboard online! It was a Focus Electronics and featured ALPS mechanical switches.]
Over the years technology evolved and I moved from desktops to laptops and along the way lost touch with having a mechanical switch under my finger tips. I become more accustomed to typing on the membrane keyboards used on portable computers. I used a laptop as my primary machine for so long that I didn’t notice the switch to membrane keyboards had moved to the desktop as well. I knew I didn’t care for desktop keyboards very much, but I was mostly on a laptop so I didn’t pay much attention.
Enter The Model M
In 1999 I was doing some consulting work at a client site and shoved in a box collecting dust on a back shelf was an IBM Model M. I didn’t know what a classic keyboard it is/was at the time, I just knew I liked the sound of it when I pushed the keys — I wanted it. After asking around, no one seemed to care if I took it home, in fact it felt as if I was doing them a favor, so I got the keyboard for free.
The Model M became my primary keyboard at my home office and I loved typing on it. That tactile feel of having a keyboard respond so succinctly is such a joy and then of course there’s that much beloved “clacky” sound. Maybe the sound takes me back to fond memories of my first computer, when everything was new and exciting. Simlar to how certian smells take you back to memories of home, or a special childhood memory. Regardless of the reasoning, I love the feel and the sound of that keyboard.
The IBM Model M uses what’s called a buckling spring switch, which has quite a following. Seriously, it is a legendary keyboard for mechanical keyboard nerds. For those looking to get their hands on one, most people look to eBay, or ClickyKeyboards.com to find a vintage/classic model. However, Unicomp has new models complete with built-in support for USB and a Windows key. For those on a Mac, there’s even an Apple replacement keyset.
The Move To Mac OS
I attempted to continue using my much beloved “Clacky” when I made the switch to Mac OS in 2006, but found the lack of an Command/Apple key to be a deal breaker for me. As a Windows user I didn’t find the “Winkey” that useful, in fact I found it to be in the way, but in Mac OS I found that I used it all the time.
My first Mac was a laptop and I would connect it to a monitor, keyboard and mouse when I was in my home office. At the time, I decided to opt for the Kensington Slimtype keyboard since it was made for the Mac and had a layout similar to the keyboard native to the MacBook. Had I known that there was an mechanical option from Unicomp, I problably would have stayed with the mechanical.
After a couple of years, some of the keys were beginning to stick and the Kensington was showing definte signs of wear. I began looking at what Apple had to offer and found the Apple design was definitely to my liking, very clean and minimal. I tried a couple of them before settling on the Apple Keyboard (A1242), the wired model that did not include the number pad.
Stumbling Into Tenkeyless
At first the idea of not having a number pad seemed a bit odd if only because every keyboard I had ever owned included it. However, I had been using laptops as my primary computing device for years and grown acustomed to not having one. Additionally, since I’m right handed, I discovered that being able to have my mouse more aligned with my shoulder was more comfortable.
It was one of those “Doh!” moments where you wonder why you didn’t discover this sooner. With the number pad (aka ten key) on the right side of the keyboard, my right arm would extend out somewhat awarkdly. Without a ten key, my mouse fit comfortably next to the keyboard and reduce my arm strain immensily.
Of course if you’re left handed, then this isn’t an issue and you get the best of both world. Alas, I’m not and found the new keyboard a switch that I’m now unwilling to move away from.
There is an offical title for these kind of keyboards. They’re called “tenkeyless” for the simple fact that the ten key is missing. I didn’t know this was a thing when I made the choice to get the smaller keyboard from Apple, but now I’m a huge fan.
In 2010 I upgraded to a 27″ iMac and it came with a wireless keyboard that was identical to my wired version and I liked the loss of clutter by removing the cable a nice change. For just under 3 years, it’s been my primary keyboard and the form factor was a delight to use, although I still longed for “Clacky”.
Memories Of The Model M
Back in March of 2012, my good friend Mike Rohde purchased a Das Keyboard, a new generation of mechanical keyboard that has garned a lot of interest in writing circles over the past year. Rohde had a writing project coming up and felt that the Das would be a helpful tool for the job.
Mike Rohde finished his project just recently, it’s a book released by PeachPit Press entitled The Sketchnote Handbook and I highly recommend it.
Hearing about Mike’s new keyboard prompted me to explore going back to “Clacky”. I wrote all about it here, but suffice to say that it wasn’t a good fit. Technically the system worked on both my iMac as well as my iPad, but there were far too many compromises for me to consider switching to it other than for a specific writing project.
At the time I was still happy using the Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, so I didn’t give it another thought, but after an unfortunate event involving my fist, my Apple keyboard stopped working.
Wait A Minute – A Fist?
Yes, the Apple Bluetooh Keyboard can not take a punch.
I was having a bad day. One of those times when everything seems to be fighting you and you can’t move forward. You ever have one of those dreams where you can’t reach your desitation, or can’t run away from danger because your feet have turned to glue? Yeah, well, it was like that.
Everything I touched that morning involved at least two steps backwards and after the umptenth time of mis-hitting a key, or my keyboard not resopnding to my thoughts instantly, I lost my cool and punched it — hard.
The keyboard never recovered. My Mac notified me that it had lost it’s bluetooth connection with the device and after multiple power cycles it was clear that it would no longer connect. I had killed it.
Interpreting this as a clear act of defiance, I proceeded to take the keyboard over my knee. Not my proudest moment, I must admit, but it was quite satisfying seeing the sissor keys explode off the keyboard and fly to all corners of my office like freshly popped popcorn.
For some of you reading this, you may feel that this destruction was completely unnecessary. I respect your opinion, however, I have a firm philosphy that if technology doesn’t perform as it should, then it must pay. And in my defense, my IBM Model M has been known to take quite a beating. 😉
Wired Back Up
Luckliy my little temper tantrum did not disrupt my productivity for long. Tucked away in a desk drawer was the Apple Wired keyboard from years ago and I was able to plug it in and get back to work.
Although the layout was identical, there was a distinctive sound difference that I immediately noticed. There was a definite deeper tone and a slighly heavier feel to the keys. It was still a membrane keyboard, but it felt a bit more solid.
Once the urgent matter that had been plaguing me all morning was over, I went Googling to see just how much a new Apple Bluetooth keyboard was going to set me back. My guilt over my outburst had me considering spending the $70 immediately to replace my disgrace, but as I continued typing I wondered if this wasn’t a blessing in disguise.
The Bluetooth version would remove having to have a cable draped across my desk, but I was starting to really become found of the rediscovered sound and feel of the wired one. Mulling over the choice, I opted to not make a decision immediately and sleep on it.
Peering Down The Rabbit Hole
With a new day there also came a new thought, “I wonder what other brands of keyboards are out there?” Surely there are competitors to Apple that are less expensive, or have more features. Peering down the rabbit hole of my search results, I thought, “It wouldn’t hurt to just take a peek.”
Little did I know how deep the rabbit hole went…
To be continued