Rarely is the statement “the best xxx in the world” used accurately and sincerely, but when it comes to the IBM Model M it is the only just way of describing it. The IBM Model M is to keyboards what Seinfeld is to sitcoms: the best one made and still the best one made (sorry to any Cheers, Friends or Frasier fans out there).
All this hyperbole I’m throwing around must now be explained. Instead of going over the history of the Model M and how it has reached its status to many as “the BEAST keyboard EVAR made” (translation: “best keyboard ever made”). I will give you
5 reasons one reason, the one true reason, why no Razer, Steelseries, WASD or DAS keyboard can beat IBM’s baby.
Look at any (non-membrane) keyboard nowadays and you will see plastic moulds called switches. You may even see different coloured ones or ones from different manufacturers. They all give a different feel. The most ubiquitous make of these switches is Cherry, who have more than 20 different types. Switches vary in stiffness and clickiness. The diagram below shows the mechanism of a Cherry MX Red switch.
If you want a good explanation of how these switches work click here. You will notice that these switches use springs. So, what is so special about the IBM Model M’s springs? They’re buckling springs. Which as the name suggest means that the spring doesn’t just compress, it bends. The diagram below illustrates how the Model M’s keys are actuated, whereas the diagram above of the Cherry MX Red switch shows a spring compresses uniformly.
I honestly do not know how this makes such a difference, but the difference is so beautiful that I don’t even bother to ask why. Typing on a Model M is like typing on a typewriter, without all the nuisances. Like typing on a typewriter you will hear someone using this keyboard. It’s probably not suitable for shared offices or late-night writing, but otherwise the sound is part of the experience.
The IBM Model M will help you type faster.
I believe this is not only because of the physical difference in the key design, but also in the experience of typing. The ping at the end of each keystroke is so satisfying that it motivates you to keep typing. I sometimes find myself typing things out twice instead of copying and pasting them because it’s such a pleasure to type on. Other keyboards (which I will admit I have not tried many) just don’t provide this. There’s also something charming about using a keyboard that was made in a time when most people had never heard the word “internet” and Apple was earning less than IBM (or most other companies for that fact).
This does have the disadvantages of old technology being well, old. There are two things you will miss most from the Model M. Because Windows didn’t have a start menu when this keyboard was first made, there isn’t a Windows key present which is annoying for us power users. Though newer Unicomp models (which are mentioned below) do feature one, I would still recommend the original IBM/Lexmark made ones with some keyboard remapping, for example to remap Caps-Lock to the Windows key. USB, like the start menu is younger than the Model M so connectivity is provided by PS/2. This means that laptops will require an adapter (make sure it’s labelled ‘active’). Though PS-2 does provide a few benefits like not using up a USB port if your computer has a PS/2 port and there are technical advantages of PS/2 which this article highlights.
So where can I buy one? No, this blog post was not sponsored (I mean I did complain about the lack of a Windows key)
Finding a Model M can prove tricky. If you can find a source then you will not regret the time you invested in acquiring one. I will say however that despite my love for this keyboard, it isn’t worth £400 so don’t just buy the first one you see listed. I managed to get mine from Bluegoose systems, after a friendly email exchange, for £80 which includes postage. If you’re looking for more sources try some listed on this forum post. If you’re in the US or Canada, finding a source is considerably easier and if you want a brand new one you could always choose Unicomp who produce still Model Ms. However, they are not the same as the original Model Ms produced by IBM and Lexmark. If you’re elsewhere on the globe, I’m afraid I don’t have any links, but tying searching for “IBM Model M sources [your country]”.
Figure 1: Animated Cherry MX images from Lethal Squirrel on Geekhack.org
Figure 2: By Shaddim – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30568410