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ABS's M1 mechanical keyboard

Steel springs with a gentle touch
— 7:00 PM on March 25, 2009

Some of you might already know ABS as a manufacturer of expensive pre-built gaming PCs. So, what's an enthusiast and self-confessed keyboard snob doing reviewing one of its products? Believe it or not, the company also has a notable following as a maker of mechanical keyboards. After my brush with Metadot's Das Keyboard Professional, I was curious to test another modern keyboard with mechanical key switches.

A few traits make this keyboard stand out compared to the venerable IBM's Model M and its more recent followers (including the Das Keyboard). For one, ABS uses tactile but non-clicky key switches. You'll still find a spring inside each individual key—no cheap rubber domes here—but actuation doesn't produce a distinct clicking sound. The only clicking or clacking you'll hear while typing on the ABS M1 is the sound of keys actually bottoming out and springing back to their original positions.

At $69.99, the M1 is also quite a bit cheaper than the $129 Das Keyboard and roughly the same price as Unicomp's Model M replicas. That makes it quite affordable as far as nice mechanical keyboards go. So, how does it match up against the competition?

Check out my rock-hard ABS
The first thing you'll notice when taking the ABS M1 out of its box is the build quality. This is a heavy keyboard—ABS quotes a weight of 3.53 lbs—with an unusually compact design, which makes it feel very solid. Coupled with the two pairs of 1.6-inch-wide rubber feet, the weight also ensures the device won't glide around your desk uninvited. That's always good.

ABS's design choices make one thing clear: this is a keyboard for typing; that's it. The firm has stuck with the traditional 104-key layout, apparently making a point of leaving out frilly (and not-so-frilly) additions or relocating keys for no reason. You'll find neither media buttons nor mounted LCD displays here, and even discreet little perks like a USB hub didn't make the cut, unlike on the Das Keyboard. That strict utilitarianism manifests itself in the keyboard's aesthetics, too, which have more in common with the interior of a German car than with a typical gamer-oriented device.

There's still room for improvement, though. The giant ABS logo on the top-right of the frame looks a tad gaudy, and the caps lock, num lock, and scroll lock LEDs could stand being dimmer. On the upside, you can use those to temporarily blind any critics who might question your new keyboard's good looks. (Seriously, the LEDs are bright enough that you probably shouldn't be looking at them dead-on.) I'm also a little disappointed with the length of the USB cable. The "braided" cord looks nice, but since it's only around 4.7 feet long, you may need an extension if your PC isn't sitting directly beside or under your main display.

With all that said, the external design is only of secondary importance to what lies beneath—the mechanical key switches. If the folks on the forums have their facts straight, this keyboard uses tactile but non-clicky Alps key switch copies. ABS itself is a lot less verbose, simply touting the mechanical nature of the switches and providing a diagram of the design on its website:

Here's what the switches looks like in the real world:

I've already extolled the virtues of mechanical keyboards in my Das Keyboard review, but this specimen is of a different breed than the Model M and its clicky followers. Since the action is non-clicky, you don't get precise auditory feedback and that little jolt after each key actuation. Still, the M1 does deliver some tactile feedback—you can feel the spring collapsing and hitting that threshold—and there's still plenty of clicking, although again, that originates from the keys bottoming out and springing back up.

With clear auditory feedback taken out of the equation, you might think this keyboard feels about the same as a typical rubber-membrane keyboard, where little rubber domes replace mechanical springs. And you'd be wrong. The M1's keys have a different response curve, and the action feels much more solid. It's hard to describe, but to me, typing on a rubber-membrane keyboard feels distinctly more gummy (and paradoxically less smooth). But enough about key switches and keyboard design geekery. Let's talk about whether this thing is actually any good.