The phrase I’m hearing even more often than I would really like. Not so long time ago someone told me: – I do not understand those who use mechanical keyboards – they are not good‚ they just make too much noise. A good keyboard should be as silent as possible‚ and “just work” -. Unfortunately‚ he is not the only one who thinks so. In the era‚ when a Macbook Air is suggested as a “poor writer’s machine”‚ while Macbook Pro – a machine for a writer with deeper pockets, nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s tendency of laptops and even computer keyboards becoming more and more slim has a very negative impact of typing quality. In fact‚ many may not even notice this as a problem‚ before they sit and try to work with a “real” keyboard. With “real” I mean mechanical. There is a huge difference between food‚ that’s “just edible” and an assortment from the finest restaurant‚ but this is exactly the case here. Most keyboards‚ made today are just a junk food you eat and just forget about it. You can type‚ they work‚ but there is no feeling of satisfaction‚ no tactile feedback‚ no will to type on it for prolonged time. Sounds familiar? If so‚ maybe not all hope is lost…Yet.
A leap back in history – somewhere around 1970 computers started to take over the place of once dominant typewriters‚ slowly‚ but with increasing pace. This was a moment‚ when computer manufacturers tried to make their computers and keyboards feel more like working on a typewriter‚ and typewriters do have a perfect tactile feedback and satisfaction with each keypress. I’m not talking about the ancient software‚ monitors and hardware – everything is better today‚ except the keyboards. Most computer keyboards‚ made up to the beginning of 90-ties were mechanical keyboards‚ best of them made up to the middle of 80-ties. The machines were very expensive at this time‚ even a keyboard would cost a few thousand dollars‚ adjusting to inflated prices of today. This was not only price issue – that was the time‚ when all components were made of highest quality possible. Only 90-ties started to ruin it all‚ with mass produced‚ cheap‚ horrible‚ rubberdome keyboards‚ which we now know more or less as a standard today. However‚ things are still going downhill. Like it would not be enough with a rubberdome keyboard’s mushy tactile feedback‚ the key travel is decreasing along with laptops and keyboards getting slimmer in size . One of the last good non-mechanical keyboards were still made by Lenovo‚ after taking over laptop production from IBM. Many IBM Thinkpad’s have legendary good keyboards‚ with a deep key travel (over 2 mm)‚ and very comfortable ergonomics‚ such as a Thinkpad R52‚ A31P to name a few. One of the best keyboards from Lenovo’s Thinkpad line can be found on a Thinkpad T470. Still‚ the position of touchpad makes them less usable for writing than IBM’s thinkpads‚ which featured Trackpoint only – actually very usable after a little adjustment. However‚ mechanical keyboards are even better‚ than on any Thinkpad ever made. Many of them can be upgraded to work with any modern PC‚ with more or less effort. For some it means just adding a suitable‚ available adapter‚ f or others – some soldering job. The result – a keyboard you will never want to part with‚ and start regretting the time you have spent with a “mainstream” keyboard.
Before we go back in history‚ it is worth noting‚ that there are mechanical keyboards available brand new from different manufacturers, either stand alone or a part of the computer, such as laptops. Currently there are two manufacturers‚ which do make laptops with mechanical keyboards – Lenovo and MSI‚ such as Lenovo Ideapad y900 and MSI Titan GT 80. Expect them to be large‚ bulky and heavy‚ with screen size from 17 inches and up‚ with battery lasting from 2-3 hours only‚ and extremely expensive. The reason – those are so called “gaming” laptops‚ with very powerful hardware for 3D intensive applications. Should they be made for writing only‚ with less beefy specifications‚ they should have been cheaper. No one really seems to think‚ that writers would like to use mechanical keyboards for writing nowadays.
Even stand alone keyboards‚ such as Logitech G613, seen above, are usually labelled as “gaming” keyboards. There are some exceptions‚ such as beautiful‚ but expensive keyboard‚ named“QWERKYWRITER“‚ with keys and design parts resembling those found on pre-WW2 era typewriters‚ the Penna keyboard‚ and some other manufacturers‚ who do acknowledge‚ that gamers are not the only people‚ who would like to use a good keyboard. Then there are some failed examples as a FreeWrite – good idea‚ but ruined by hardware/software quality issues‚ short battery life and total lack of understanding‚ what a writer really needs from a writing device. Sorry I do not want to continue about this – it is just that I hit a sore spot now.
There are various mechanical keyboards on sale‚ but expect to pay at least something about 150 EUR or more for a good one. There are even Bluetooth mechanical keyboards‚ such as Logitech G613‚ which allows to transform your tablet into a good writer’s tool. They are good‚ but still – not good enough‚ compared to the real vintage keyboards‚ although I see some light at the end of the tunnel‚ since new projects emerge‚ such as the IBM model F project‚ where keyboards made by the same technology and hopefully quality as back then will be produced in limited production run. Given the keyboard‚ 300 dollars would be a very good price for a new IBM model F – one of the best‚ if not entirely the best keyboard I have ever used‚ hands down.
Now‚ it is time to look at the best vintage keyboards and vintage computers with the best keyboards ever made. If I miss something‚ it is because I do not own that particular device/keyboard‚ but here I would like to speak from my personal experience only – I can not recommend something that “someone told me must be good”.
An IBM Model F – the buckling spring keyboard I’m currently typing on‚ and I would not really want to change anything in it. It is heavy‚ extremely heavy‚ with a metal bottom plate. No‚ I have not converted it to work with a modern PC‚ although X-Whatsit controller is available‚ so I could convert it to a “modern” keyboard if needed.
However‚ I see no need here‚ since I think it fits perfectly with an IBM 6580 – IBM’s first word processor‚ using eye soothing green‚ slow refresh phosphorous CRT screen‚ and a separate‚ giant 8 inch disk drive‚ which can hold two 8 inch floppy disks‚ each holding around 1 MB of data. Let’s return to the keyboard – this is an early model F‚ non-PC compatible‚ since first PC was made a few years later. The keyboard is built like a tank‚ the keys have perfectly good‚ balanced tactile feedback‚ and they even have different pitch sounds‚ depending which keys are pressed‚ so it does sounds more like a music when I start to type. The white‚ shiny keys have not lost any of their charm‚ although the keyboard is almost 40 years old‚ and it feels like it can work for 40 years more without a problem. Due to a serious weight‚ it always stays on a table in place‚ and has no tendency to slide or move around when typing. Can be used as a blunt weapon if needed for an emergency I guess.
IBM model M – more plastic‚ lighter‚ more muted sound than model F‚ but also a buckling spring keyboard‚ very good tactile feedback‚ and I can perfectly understand those who swear by it – they have not used a model F! Jokes aside‚ IBM model M has a PS/2 connector‚ so it is much‚ much easier to connect it to a modern machine – just plug it in a PS2/USB adapter‚ and there you go. A very good keyboard for anyone who enjoys prolonged writing or likes rhythmic sound of the keys when typing some documents. Time from time this keyboard is available for sale as NOS‚ but it is not very cheap (not overly expensive either). Anyway‚ if you can not hook up a model F‚ go for a model M‚ and you will not be disappointed. If needed ‚ it is possible to go fully vintage – hook up this keyboard to an old 286/386 PC‚ and you will have a perfect distraction free writing PC‚ maybe something similar to George R. Martin uses to write “The Game of Thrones”.
There is also semi-portable route. IBM did make some models of PS/2 portables with IBM model M keyboard‚ and red plasma screen‚ such as an IBM PS2 P70. Just do not expect the floppy drive to work – they will not work on most of them‚ so you will need to use either Iomega Zip drive or a Laplink cable for a data transfer‚ but it can be done‚ and is really not a big problem after all is set.
Now‚ let’s look at some of the portables with mechanical keyboards. As a first one‚ the list would not be complete without a Tandy Model 100/102. They do have a nice mechanical keyboard‚ a very good contrast LCD screen (Sorry Alphasmart does not even comes close)‚ and they are very good for the task they were once most often used – for writing. There are only two problems. First – a limited memory – 32K‚ part of which are already taken by the operating system. It can be solved by adding a memory cards (80K)‚ but they are a rarity by themselves‚ and are protruding from the back of the device‚ making it more cumbersome to use. Second – a data transfer. Best to do with a Tandy floppy drive – there is a program on a PC‚ which allows to copy all documents to a hard drive. A pity‚ that these floppy drives are a rarity‚ and drive belts often will need to be replaced. If connectivity and memory problems are sorted out‚ Tandy portable becomes a great tool for writing short stories on the go‚ and uploading them on a PC at the end of the day. 4AA batteries last a long time in this unit‚ and are always readily available‚ should the need arise.
A little bit on the heavy side‚ but still a portable – IBM 5140‚ first portable PC made by the blue giant IBM. It has an excellent keyboard with brown ALPS switches‚ the tactile feedback is somewhat on par with an IBM model M‚ although model M will be a bit more “clicky”. There are some who managed to convert this keyboard to work on a modern computer‚ but no kits are readily available‚ maybe this is even better‚ especially because the machine itself is a pleasure to work on – believe me‚ 2x720K is perfectly enough for writing‚ the first diskette contains operating system and word processing software‚ and 720K on the second floppy is free for your data. This machine has a non-volatile RAM – RAM contents are not erased when powering down the machine‚ so you can continue to work as soon as you turn it on‚ just where you left. Plain text format allows you to fit an entire novel into a single floppy. Best Word processor for this one – PC-Write‚ which is available in abandonware downloads. Just make note – floppies can fail‚ so back up your data either to another PC‚ or an external zip drive (there is a driver available from Klaus Pelch website). There were two versions of this PC – first – an LCD display without brightness control – only one slider on the right side of the screen‚ and with improved “Supertwist” backlit LCD screen. If serious about writing on this vintage PC‚ you should look for this particular model‚ although do note‚ the screens are easily interchangeable – you can always replace the non-backlit screen with a backlit one in a couple of minutes or even less.
Toshiba T3100e – What can I say – it is just a marvel. Yes‚ it does not have a battery‚ it is old‚ heavy‚ but it has great red plasma screen with great contrast‚ and a very good‚ snappy mechanical keyboard. Typing on it does not require any significant effort. The plasma screen does not gives a significant eye strain‚ it is just that the world will look different for a while after a longer typing session. It has a huge 20MB hard drive‚ which will allow you to store many novels‚ along with an operating system of choice – it can even run Windows 3.1‚ should you need a graphical interface‚ and can run Microsoft Word 1.1. Saving in RTF format allows you to transfer the document on a modern machine along with a formatting. Otherwise‚ you can run Word 5.5. for DOS‚ which is Freeware now‚ and is really a very good word processor with many features‚ although they are not really needed for drafting.
There are other good machines with a mechanical keyboards‚ such as Zenith laptops‚ with dual floppy drives‚ and Sharp MZ-100‚ a dual floppy beast with a mechanical keyboard‚ but all of the machines mentioned above do have better keyboards and are more often available in good working condition‚ if you do not loose your patience‚ and buy the first machine you see.e
It really does not matter if you agree with me or not in this – at least now you know there might be another opinion you can think about‚ and even if you will never buy a mechanical keyboard‚ or a computer with it – do not miss the chance to type on one‚ if there is an opportunity – it might open your eyes.
P.S. In any case, even if you do not agree with me, stay away from this particular keyboard – it simply must not exist at all!