Model F keyboard gets a modern reboot

— 3:42 PM on July 6, 2017

Keyboards—even ones with fancy mechanical switches—are cheap as heck these days, but typists of the 1980s would have sneered at the plasticky tick-tick-tick of Cherry MX switches. Back in those days, we were banging away on zinc-housed monstrosities that weighed ten pounds and used buckling-spring switches. Unicomp still sells keyboards based on the IBM Model M design, but now one man has completed his quest to revive the original buckling spring keyboard: the IBM Model F.

F62 "Kishsaver" Model F Keyboard in classic styrofoam packing

Joe Strandberg—better known around the web as Ellipse—is the creator of the Model F Keyboards project. Genuine Model F keyboards require a lot of work before you can connect them to a modern computer, and given their $300 pricetag (almost $700 in today's money), they weren't exactly common to begin with. Since original Model Fs are hard to find in any sort of working condition, Strandberg has taken it upon himself to recreate the design after spending years repairing and restoring them.

What's the difference? The Model M keyboard is mostly made of plastic, and while it does use a form of buckling spring switch, the spring generates most of the sound and operates a membrane-type mechanism. The Model F keyboard predates the Model M and was built out of steel with a powder-coated zinc outer casing. The switches it uses contain a buckling spring that triggers a capacitive mechanism, not entirely unlike the switches in Topre's Realforce keyboards.

F77 Model F Keyboard with blank keycaps

The sound and sensation of the metal plates under each key thwacking into the board's PCB are arguably the greatest factor driving nostalgia for the Model F keyboard. Some typists do prefer a quieter design these days, but there's no denying that typing on a Model F feels great, in my personal experience. The keys themselves require a bit less force than the ones on the Model M, too—around 60 g, similar to a Cherry MX Black switch.

The capacitive nature of the Model F's switches also means they are more durable compared to the later, membrane-style switches. IBM rated the switches in the Model F for 100 million strokes per key, about four times the rating for the ones aboard the Model M. That sort of endurance is so long that it practically means "forever," but in combination with the slightly lower actuation force and the meatier key feel, it means that keyboard aficionados widely prefer the Model F over the Model M.

F62 Ultra Compact Model F Keyboard

Unfortunately, over 35 years past their release date, working Model F keyboards are almost nonexistent (though I have a few stashed away by happenstance). When you do find one for sale on the web, it will command a high price. That brings us back around to Ellipse's Model F Keyboards project. The new clackers are an evolution of the Model F, pairing the solid design and capacitive buckling-spring switches of the originals with with slightly modernized layouts and USB connectors.

There are two versions—the F62 has a compact 62-key "Kishsaver" layout, while the F77 has some additional keys on the right side that can be used as a numeric keypad. Either version can alternatively be purchased in an ultra-compact variety that trims most of the external casing and has a modern look to it. All models are available with industrial grey or black finishes, while the larger classic version can also be had in the original beige color.

F77 Ultra Compact Model F Keyboard

One thing to note is that the Model F Keyboard project sells the boards without keycaps, since the hardware hackers that make up the target demographic for machines tend to use their own custom layouts. However, you can purchase a keyboard together with a set of with standard-colored keycaps (in shades of beige), with letters or without, or all in black. The F-series keyboards use standard Unicomp caps, so if you're an IBM keyboard fanatic you probably already have a set anyway.

Whichever model you choose, prices range from $325 for a bare keyboard (without keycaps), and up to $399 if you want one with a custom serial number. The keyboards won't ship until later this year, but the final round of orders stops at the end of this month. If you want one of the "the best keyboards ever made," head over to the Model F Keyboards site and order one.

Tip: You can use the A/Z keys to walk threads.
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