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.comment: The Search for a Truly Great Keyboard

The Weak Link

February 7, 2001

Computer makers, and makers of computer upgrades, go to a lot of trouble to produce very high quality monitors, some really nifty trackballs (which would be even better if they'd bother to produce Linux-specific drivers; for instance, my Kensington Expert Mouse would be a lot cooler if its programmable buttons were programmable under Linux), and all sorts of other wonderful stuff. But the area that's largely left behind is the one most in need of attention, because it is the one thing with which we all must deal: The keyboard.

And that's a shame. Keyboards are probably replaced more frequently than any other piece of hardware. They get full of all kinds of crud and corruption -- it takes a strong stomach, sometimes, do disassemble and clean one of the things -- and none is really happy for long if swimming in Coca Cola or coffee. No, those keyboard condom things aren't the answer -- they destroy the sensation. Face it: Keyboard replacement is something that happens and is going to happen. And face, too, the fact that the aftermarket keyboard supply is just terrible, unless you want to go hunting in extraobvious places. The standard replacement keyboard at local clone shops or computer stores is so flimsy that you can grab each end and by applying just a little torsional force reduce it to shards of flimsy plastic usually found elsewhere only in packaging materials. (Yes, there are now weirdly-shaped keyboards, and "Internet" keyboards; a few years ago there was a thing that looked like a mouse or a flight simulator throttle quadrant that had a few buttons, the idea being that by properly chording the buttons you could do everything you could do with a regular keyboard. All of these are [and were] relatively expensive, gimmicky, and in the final analysis beside the point.)

In the early days, keyboards were solid pieces of machinery. The original IBM-PC keyboard was a heavy and serious thing, albeit with just 84 keys. I have one in the other room, awaiting discovery of a cable that will attach it to a machine that wants an AT keyboard. You can find IBM PC-ATs all over the place, but one with its original keyboard will bring three times the price, because they keyboards themselves are so good that people have lovingly maintained them and have kept them when upgrading their other hardware. The IBM mainframe keyboards were even better -- also in the other room I have a huge and wonderful keyboard for an IBM terminal. This thing has all kinds of special-purpose keys, each sitting atop a switch that appears designed to survive nuclear attack. This Mighty Wurlitzer of a keyboard, alas, has defied all efforts to hook it up to a plain old PC.

I even have an extended keyboard, XT only, sad to say, that was made by Key Tronics, that is rock-solid (though the clickless keys are as squishy and unsatisfying as any in the genre) and that, according to the box, once cost someone more than $400.

My idea of a perfect keyboard is one that feels and sounds like that of an IBM Selectric typewriter. (For newcomers, a typewriter was a thing that connected keyboard directly to paper, and all you got out of it was characters on paper. They were very popular a couple of decades ago.) The Selectric vibrated and shook with what must have been about a 20-horsepower motor. Then, when you hit one of the keys, there was a satisfying THWACK as all of its pent-up fury was released in a powerful display of ink reaching paper. I want, but shall never have, a computer keyboard that so obviously displays immense force. I have to settle for clickiness, that phenomenon which leaves no doubt as to whether the key has been pressed.

For a decade, the clicky keyboard by which all others were measured was the Northgate Omnikey. It was made by a company, Northgate, that built clones in the era before the great hardware shakeout, when companies like Everex did battle with the upstarts Dell and Gateway. The Northgate Omnikey was so popular that the company sold it separately, and when the company went under the major concern was what would happen to the keyboard business. We could live without Northgate computers, but not without Northgate keyboards.

The Omnikey had the greatest feel imaginable. It also had, in its classic form, function keys to the left of the main keyboard in two vertical rows, as The Almighty intended. (A later version, the Omnikey Ultra, also had them across the top, but these were programmable via software, and merely aped the other function keys if you hadn't changed them.) Indeed, the Omnikey was so prestigious that there was a special configuration option for it in XF86Setup.

But Northgate is gone, and its keyboards mostly so. From time to time some company will happen upon a cache of them, and they get sold quickly. Those who have Omnikeys maintain them very carefully, disassembling and cleaning them from time to time. (Tip: If you can find one of those little cloth netting drawstring bags that women and very strange men use to launder their nylons, you can put your keycaps in one and put the bag in the top rack of a dishwasher to restore them to just-like-new freshness; take them out before the dry cycle begins.) Still, keyboards wear out, and the switch most likely to cease to function first is one you use most often -- the one under the spacebar, say, or the Enter key. Soon, Northgate keyboards will be too rare and valuable to use.

I've been through three Omnikeys in the last dozen years. My last one gave up the ghost a few months ago. There is no supplier that I can find of new ones.

Since that time, I've been auditioning keyboards. As I write this I'm literally surrounded by keyboards, from old and solid ones that began life on an ancient Wang 286 (the most beautifully built PC I've ever seen, by the way) and an old NEC desktop, various broken Omnikeys (for click and springiness comparison), and a selection of others new and old; I'll write, though, mostly about the new ones.