Model F keyboard gets a modern reboot

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.

Comments closed
    • Jigar
    • 2 years ago

    Been using Mechanical keyboard since past 7 years but recently shifted to [url<]http://accessories.ap.dell.com/sna/productdetail.aspx?c=in&l=en&s=dhs&cs=indhs1&sku=580-AEKD[/url<] Never going back to Mechanical keyboard /Runs away.

    • Aquilino
    • 2 years ago

    Come on! No RGB? No neon? Not even a couple of fluorescent fans on the sides with USB 3.1 Type C Rev 2 connectors? I need lots of bandwidth for my laser-gamer headphones!!!

      • CuttinHobo
      • 2 years ago

      The keyboard is too retro for that. What it needs instead is built-in status display that is equally nostalgic. Maybe a small, amber CRT? This 3″ screen adds a whopping 25 pounds, but it’s worth it!

        • just brew it!
        • 2 years ago

        Or at least [url=http://www.mouser.com/ProductDetail/VCC/A1A/?qs=sGAEpiMZZMucm%2f%252bFOY0TQhPZClhLEOAyzHNdSZM1TUs%3d<]neon glow lamps[/url<] for the Caps/Num/Scroll lock indicators!

    • Captain Ned
    • 2 years ago

    Build me a 101-key 1391401 (i.e. none of that abhorrence known as the Windows Keys) using Model F construction methods and native USB and I WILL pay the price.

      • just brew it!
      • 2 years ago

      TBH I’ve come to accept, and even [i<]appreciate[/i<] the Windows key. Since Linux tends to use it sparingly it makes a very useful modifier for global hotkeys, since key combos that include it tend not to conflict with things that are already mapped by the application or OS. I even got custom Linux "Tux" keycaps for my RK-9000s, to replace the stock Windows logo ones. 😉

      • morphine
      • 2 years ago

      Isn’t that what’s being advertised here?

        • Captain Ned
        • 2 years ago

        Nope. Either a 60-key or 77-key layout. No Model M edit block or completely separate Num Pad.

          • bhtooefr
          • 2 years ago

          You can get the right side configured as an edit block, apparently. But, still, no numpad in that config, and no function key row.

      • Krogoth
      • 2 years ago

      Same here

    • Chrispy_
    • 2 years ago

    I don’t understand why people are still attached to these beige keys and awkward, outdated layouts.

    The actual switches are nice but when you’re paying $400 do you really have to put up with a 35-year-old layout that lacks an Escape key, F1-F12 keys, a break/pause key and the whole home/end/ins/del/pgup/pgdn cluster.

    Media keys aren’t necessary, but at least the Escape, Break, and F-Keys are kinda mandatory these days; A keyboard without those is basically just a novelty item.

      • willyolioleo
      • 2 years ago

      Seriously, the key mechanism may be great, but why keep the ancient layout?

      • bhtooefr
      • 2 years ago

      60% keyboards are actually a big fad nowadays (that’s why this project is using an ancient 60% design, and not a newer layout), and there’s various ways that you can map the keyboard to get those keys when needed – map one of the keys to Fn, and then underneath the Fn key, you have your missing keys. (Also, how often is [i<]Break[/i<] used nowadays? Escape and the F1-F12 keys, yes. But Break? And, the 77-key version can have the navigation/editing cluster that you ask for, in one of its configurations.) As far as beige keys, [i<]that[/i<] is largely a side effect of what's actually available in buckling spring keycaps. They're a hideously complex shape to mold, and only Unicomp has tooling for them nowadays. Unicomp usually uses dye sublimation for key legends, which only works to put a dark legend on a light key, not a light legend on a dark key. Double-shot is right out due to the complexity, so that leaves lasering (which Unicomp for whatever reason hasn't done), and various printing methods (which Unicomp tried, found to be unacceptable quality with the processes available to them, and gave up on). Upshot is, if you want black keys from Unicomp, they're gonna be blank. If you want legends, they're gonna be light grey with sparkles (WHY) or beige.

        • Chrispy_
        • 2 years ago

        I guess it’s a common windows shortcut key,
        I do actually pause running scripts and batch files,
        It gets used a lot with VMware and Hyper-V
        I like mapping it to “pause” in games because it’s out of the way.

        Of the keys I listed, break is probably the one that’s least important but at the same time I use break enough that even having to press Fn and another key to access is annoys me. Usually because it’s part of another multi-key combo.

      • just brew it!
      • 2 years ago

      Yeah, I’m with you. Give me Esc and Fn keys, drop the price by half, and *maybe* we’ll talk. As it currently stands, it’s more of a retro/hipster novelty thing.

      Edit: I’m not willing to deal with the wonky layout just to have switches that *might* feel better in real-world use than MX blues. I’m sure it’s more durable, but my RK-9000s have lasted more than half a decade so far, and barring unexpected failures of the controller electronics I expect them to keep on going for a good while yet.

        • Captain Ned
        • 2 years ago

        Wonder how many shipped units it would take to bend down the cost curve?

          • just brew it!
          • 2 years ago

          Probably more than they’d realistically be able to get before reaching critical mass. These are just one step below bespoke units at this point, and the mechanical complexity likely puts a lower limit on manufacturing costs unless you’ve got a large enough production run to make it worth training an entire sweatshop worth of workers in a 3rd world country.

      • Pancake
      • 2 years ago

      12 function keys? I’ll raise that to 24 “Cmd” keys with my IBM 1390572 terminal keyboard circa mid 80’s rescued from a dumpster at university in 1989. Complete with twin row of left function keys that could be repurposed these days as gaming shortcuts.

      That served as the keyboard for my home-brewed National Semiconductor Series 32000 master control processor which was built from scavenged and donated silicon chips and whatever I could scrounge. Floppy drive controller? An old WD1770 lying around. An unwanted Motorola 6845 CTC would serve well as timing chip for home brewed graphics (640×200 2-bit or 320×200 4-bit with double buffering or single buffered interlaced mode). Got a free engineering sample for a DRAM controller (helped to be an engineering student).

      Hooked the old keyboard to a single-trace 10MHz CRO which was all I had to figure out what the wires did and then work out how to drive the little jigger. Good times. Good times.

        • just brew it!
        • 2 years ago

        Better get an 18-button mouse to go with that 24 “Cmd” key keyboard: [url<]https://www.wired.com/2009/11/18-button-open-office-mouse-makes-a-keyboard-look-minimal/[/url<]

      • Wirko
      • 2 years ago

      A black keyboard and mouse fits nicely in your office if you also have a black desk, black floor, black walls, black ceiling, and black everything else. And if you don’t?

      • slowriot
      • 2 years ago

      Hey a keyboard topic we agree on!

      • BillyBuerger
      • 2 years ago

      It doesn’t lack any keys. Sure, it comes in smaller layouts then “normal” full sized keyboards. But, it’s fully configurable. So you can put any key anywhere you like. For instance, it is interesting that they show the ~ key in the upper left in all of their pictures. But most 60% keyboards have the Escape key there. Which you can do with this keyboard. If you need the Break key, then you could always map that somewhere else. There’s a lot of unused keys on a full sized keyboard. I mean, do people actually use the F1 key? The only time I hit that when it’s by accident. I generally remove that key to avoid that annoyance.

        • Chrispy_
        • 2 years ago

        The key you are talking about is not the usual escape keys. it’s Usually ~ or ¬ depending on your region.

        The escape key goes on [b<]THE ENTIRE MISSING ROW ABOVE IT[/b<]; count your keyboard, it has six rows of keys and this one only has five. 99.99% of all keyboards have six rows of keys, even laptops and most ultra-compact designs. The Model-F is just plain [i<]missing[/i<] an entire row, plus several other keys!!

          • BillyBuerger
          • 2 years ago

          Are you stalking me? How do you know how many rows my keyboard has? But as it is, you are wrong. My keyboard has 5 rows and the escape key is right next to the 1 key. [url=http://www.billybuerger.com/pub/G20%20Atomic.jpg<]Here is a picture of my OLKB Atomic keyboard[/url<] if you are interested. Now that being said, I do prefer to have a 6th row on my keyboards for the escape key and my volume keys. But I can get by just fine with out it. I can access any key you have in your full sized keyboard through my custom layers. But the point is that this keyboard isn't meant for the masses. It's a niche product for an enthusiast community that cares about this stuff. And in that community, keyboards without the 6th row are very common. 60% keyboards are probably one of the most common style which is what the F62 is aimed at.

            • slowriot
            • 2 years ago

            why why why why why I just don’t get it why why why why

            I’m even a TLK user and I just don’t get these designs at all. I get its a “niche” community thing but there just seems no point to it in the first place other than novelty. And in terms of travel… I still don’t get it. I live in terminals and text editors and I see that thing and my fingers cry. I would think anyone who wants to take their keyboard with them is in a profession where they type a lot and that’s especially where these designs blow my mind because they seem awful from a usability perspective for programming, writing, etc.

            • BillyBuerger
            • 2 years ago

            Ha, I can understand that if you aren’t used to the layout, it seems weird. The general idea is that with the smaller layouts, your hands don’t need to leave the home row and should be more efficient and help with RSI and stuff. I personally started playing with the idea as it seemed there was a lot of wasted space on a normal keyboard. I looked at my space bar on my Cherry MX Board 3.0 and noticed the ABS shine was all happening in one spot. The place I hit the space bar 99 percent of the time with my right thumb. This meant my left thumb was doing basically nothing. Some keyboards have a split space bar so that you can have different functions for each. Such as Enter or backspace. For me, I took this chance to use my left thumb to start trying out additional layers. So my right thumb is space and left thumb activates my secondary layer which is where I then put my function, navigation and other keys that are generally far away. After getting used to that, there was no need to have those keys separately as I never used them.

            So that’s how I ended up where I’m at with small keyboards. Of course, now that I’m used to this layout, typing on other “normal” keyboards can be a bit difficult. But it’s not impossible. And the vast majority of the time I’m sitting at my computer at home or at work where I have my own keyboards.

      • Krogoth
      • 2 years ago

      It is a keyboard for hardcore typists and/or people who grew-up with actual typewriters.

      • anubis44
      • 2 years ago

      The lack of an escape key is a deal-breaker for me, too. I’ll stick with my Model M’s. The F is actually a bit too stiff, even for me!

    • Srsly_Bro
    • 2 years ago

    Are we in the Nostalgia era? Where people who grew up with this old junk — including ancient consoles — can’t seem to move on? I’m tired of seeing this old trash. I have a disdain towards most old items that were replaced for a practical reason.

      • bhtooefr
      • 2 years ago

      In this case, the “old junk” was replaced because it cost too much, not because it was worse.

      Now there’s enough of a market that wants better, so it’s being resurrected.

        • bthylafh
        • 2 years ago

        $300-odd is outside my price range anyway, but if I was willing to spend that much I’d rather have the F keyswitches in a modern 104-key layout with a USB connector.

          • bhtooefr
          • 2 years ago

          Well, these do have USB at least.

          Modern layout, though… yeah, no.

          Really, what’d get me to buy one is a TrackPoint, I think, and maybe some more keys – a TKL, or something closer to a laptop-like layout, maybe. That’s not happening, though. I thought I’d buy one when the project was announced, but decided against it – just too much money for something that isn’t perfect.

        • VincentHanna
        • 2 years ago

        Giant, heavy, not particularly ergonomic, no modern features like anti-ghost or on the fly remapping, And the wobbly-spring-inside-a-shoe IBM model F switch barely even counts as mechanical by modern standards…

        So, be specific, what is “better” about this vs a modern $100 mechanical and/or ergonomic keyboard? What does it do better? Reduce impact? Is it faster? Please, do tell.

          • bhtooefr
          • 2 years ago

          Model Fs inherently have N-key rollover, so anti-ghost isn’t needed. It’s the Model M that doesn’t have NKRO.

          On-the-fly remapping, [i<]these[/i<] have it, because they've got a modern USB controller with that. (IIRC he's using the xwhatsit controller, which I have on a beam spring board. You want giant and heavy...) And, it's a touch wobbly, but it's very nicely tactile and that tactility is quite precise (at least based on the Model Fs I have, not these reproductions). It just feels that much sharper and more precise than a Model M (an example of a buckling spring $100 mechanical), and the force curve is more favorable in my experience (less initial force, meaning that it's less fatiguing to me than most Model Ms). With the compact case, it's not that giant either (and the compact layout helps compensate, too). Heavy, though, yes, very.

          • Captain Ned
          • 2 years ago

          @ VH:

          There are many people who make their daily bread pounding out words on a keyboard. Some are coders, some are journalists, some are, like me, part of the regulatory State writing endless reports. Those of us who have been chained to a keyboard for the past 30 years to keep the mortgage paid and the kid in college simply want the best typing experience that’s available. Since there’s not much use for IBM Selectric typewriters these days, it’s fallen to IBM keyboards.

          I used a Model F on the IBM PC 5150 Dad bought just as I went to college. When I left college and joined the work world I hammered away on Model Ms attached to all sorts of IBM PS/2 models. When I took my current job, and for the next 10-12 years, I used IBM/Lenovo Stinkpads that tried to bring the typing joy of an F or an M to a laptop keyboard. When that joy disappeared I had one of my Ms at work until laptops grew to dispose of the PS/2 port and I don’t dare lose the one good PS2-to-USB adapter I have (not sure I can still buy another).

          It’s why the promise of the retro Lenovo Stinkpad has me excited because it’s been far too long that I could type with relative freedom and lack of errors on the dreck that passes for today’s laptop keyboards. It’s why I will happily pay whatever price is required to acquire at least 1 (if it ever happens) M built like an F (along with the native USB; I care nothing for gaming issues).

          Sometimes a keyboard is exactly that. A typewriter.

          • RAGEPRO
          • 2 years ago

          They do have n-key roll-over and are fully programmable with custom layouts.

      • just brew it!
      • 2 years ago

      Physically, the legacy buckling spring mechanisms were fantastic. The retro layout and the price are what make these keyboards problematic.

      Tactile mechanical key switches rule! People who grew up using rubber dome keyboards and (more recently) smartphones/tablets just don’t understand… LOL.

      (This post was typed on a keyboard with Cherry MX blue switches!)

        • Srsly_Bro
        • 2 years ago

        I have a basic Corsair K70 with Cherry MX Browns. What can a $300 keyboard from 35 years ago do better than a decent modern mechanical keyboard from today? This smells like old people drooling over outdated cars because they grew up with them. Please correct me if I’m wrong. Thanks.

          • just brew it!
          • 2 years ago

          Buckling spring was arguably the pinnacle of PC keyboard switch development, and the Model F’s capacitive matrix was the pinnacle of buckling spring designs. Everything since then has been a compromise of some sort, in the name of cost and/or noise reduction.

          Does that make it worth $300 today? IMO no, especially with the retro layout. MX switches are very good, and much more affordable. Once you pass the $100 mark, paying more for a keyboard becomes a matter of diminishing returns.

            • bhtooefr
            • 2 years ago

            And you can get a new Model M for about $100, too, from Unicomp. Is it as good? No, nowhere near. I’d still get one over a Cherry MX-based board, though (I’m really not a fan of MX, though).

            • just brew it!
            • 2 years ago

            I prefer a good Cherry-based keyboard over the Unicomps. Been there, done that.

          • Captain Ned
          • 2 years ago

          AFAIK, the fastest typists ever measured used [url=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_Selectric_typewriter<]IBM Selectric typewriters[/url<]. The Selectric occupied my late single-digits to my early teens, and I got pretty good on one. The Model F and the Model M were specifically designed to allow that same typing speed (by using the same feel on each key) as the Selectric. For one that's never spent hours at a Selectric, F, or M, the purchase is silly. For those of us who spent our youths through early work years on them, the onset of the cheapie rubber domes was a disaster. I will admit I've not tried a Cherry, mainly because I have no need to purchase another keyboard (I've got 2 Ms that I swap out every 3 years or so for a laundering), so I could be missing something. That said, JBI and others like me of similar age still come from the era when the primary interaction with a computer was the keyboard, so we've got some opinions on them.

            • just brew it!
            • 2 years ago

            [quote<]I will admit I've not tried a Cherry,[/quote<] Blues are like a Model M "lite" -- slightly less tactile, slightly less loud, slightly less stiff springs, slightly shorter stroke length. With thin-gauge o-rings (my preferred way to use them these days) the noise and stroke length diminish a bit more (but the tactility is unaffected). From what I've read, Cherry greens (without o-rings) are probably a pretty close approximation to buckling spring.

            • Srsly_Bro
            • 2 years ago

            Fair enough. I stand corrected. Thanks, Ned.

            • bhtooefr
            • 2 years ago

            Fun fact: It’s impossible to type at more than 186 words per minute on a Selectric.

            This is because of mechanical reasons. Essentially, the IBM Selectric mechanism runs at, I believe, 465 RPM, and I want to say it can fire twice per revolution of the main shaft (not entirely sure on these numbers). That translates to 15.5 characters per second (I am sure on that number) or 930 characters per minute. Five characters per word translates to 186 WPM.

            Mind you, with stroke storage (or what we’d now call some sort of 2-key rollover), the Selectric let you have another key depressed while it was printing the first key’s character. The third key, however, has to wait until the first keypress is done printing, before its arm is allowed to drop into the stroke storage system.

            Upshot is, the fastest typists back in the day actually preferred IBM [i<]typebar[/i<] machines. Typebar machines are much harder to type fast on - multiple typebars in flight can easily result in typebar clash if your cadence isn't perfect - but if your cadence [i<]is[/i<] perfect, you [i<]can[/i<] keep those bars in flight without clash, at arbitrarily fast speeds.

            • Chrispy_
            • 2 years ago

            I learned to touch-type on the old Model M keyboards at school. Whilst not quite the same, you owe it to yourself to try MX switches.

      • anubis44
      • 2 years ago

      You don’t seem to understand that this ‘old junk’ was the most over-built, best keyboard technology possible. The newer stuff is simply a half-assed attempt to hold a candle to this ‘old junk’ using cheaper components and shortcuts.

      I still have a couple of Model M keyboards that my girlfriend and I use every day with our main rigs, and they’re also great for gaming, giving you a solid response.

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