Ah, computer keyboards. Once expensive, heavy, and loud contraptions, they’ve slowly turned into cheap commodity items. A basic Logitech keyboard will set you back less than $10 nowadays, and you might never give it much thought. As for users with more ample budgets, they’ll usually splurge on devices with rows of media keys, split “ergonomic” layouts, built-in LCD displays, or wireless laptop-style designs.
For a small number of enthusiasts and veteran typists, however, the perfect keyboard isn’t the cheapest or flashiest you can pick up at Best Buy. Those people believe keyboard designs peaked some time in the 1980s, when IBM started offering the 1391401—or Model M—with its computers. “Everything that’s come out since then is garbage,” they might tell you while adjusting their glasses and brushing crumbs from their beards. And if you’ve tried a Model M, you might just nod your head in agreement.
What does this have to do with Metadot’s Das Keyboard Professional? Simply put, the Das Keyboard and Model M share a similar design philosophy: emphasizing tactile and auditory feedback over other attributes. They both produce loud, mechanical clicks after each key press, and they both have bare layouts with no media keys or other frills. There’s one big difference, though. While eBay brims with vintage Model M keyboards priced as low as $30, the Das Keyboard carries a $129 price tag. Is it really worth that much, and can it compare with IBM’s cult keyboard?
What makes the Model M “click” is the so-called buckling-spring design. An actual metal spring lies waiting under each key. When depressed, that spring buckles and activates the key switch, which in turn produces the trademark clicking sound—so you really feel and hear the successful key press. Or, in the words of U.S. patent 4118611, “The sudden snap action provides a tactile feedback to a human operator due to the sudden decrease in force as will be described more specifically later, and also produces an audible feedback since the sudden pivoting of the rocker member 4 produces a clicking noise.”
The Das Keyboard feels similar, although it uses a different mechanical switch design engineered by Cherry. There’s still a metallic (stainless steel) spring inside each key, and keys still click, but the Cherry key switch has a shorter travel time and requires slightly less pressure. According to the diagrams I collected below, the Das Keyboard’s keys should depress when subject to around 56 g of force after 1.2 mm of travel, while the Model M will need approximately 70 g and a 2.3 mm displacement. If you ever used one of the old Apple Extended II keyboards in the 1990s, the Das Keyboard may feel familiar—both units have similar enclosed key switches.
By contrast, most consumer keyboards out there are based on the dome-switch design, where a rubber membrane with “bubbles” replicates the feel of springs. If you’re in front of a regular desktop keyboard right now, go ahead: pop out one of the keys and look under it. You’ll probably see a grimy rubber dome staring up at you. That dome doesn’t cost much to manufacture, and it generates very little noise when it collapses, but it also has a gummy feel that produces far less tactile feedback.
So, because dome-switch keyboards don’t let you hear or feel exactly how much force you need to depress a key, you might find yourself pushing too hard or too softly. That can mean either more fatigue or more typos. Some users try to alleviate those shortcomings with split ergonomic keyboards, which place your hands in a more natural position, but those don’t really solve the feedback problem—although they can feel comfy enough to type on.
I don’t have any statistics handy, but I can throw some anecdotal evidence at you. (Take that however you please.) I’ve been typing 2,000 words a day five days a week for around three years on a 1989 Model M, and my fingers, hands, or wrists never get tired. When I was using a Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro and typing less each day, I suffered from finger pain and annoying wrist tingling on a regular basis. I actually type faster on the Model M, as well, even though my touch-typing technique hasn’t changed.
I therefore believe the spring-based mechanical design provides a more comfortable typing experience, although I can’t deny the shortcomings. Shoving springs inside each key increases cost and weight, and it makes the keyboard loud. You probably won’t care if you’re a recluse rattling away in your basement, but other people probably will care if you try that around them. Then again, folks got by just fine in the typewriter days—it may just be a matter of habit.
Before we move on, I should mention one last upside for the mechanical switch camp: longevity. I wasn’t kidding when I said my Model M is almost 20 years old now. Despite its age, it still works perfectly. Keys never stick, get gummed up, or fail to register, even if I sometimes have to oil up the space bar mechanism to prevent it from squeaking. I challenge you to find a dome-switch keyboard that continues to feel great after two decades (or even one). That’s an especially important consideration for the Das Keyboard, since it’s so much more expensive than regular wired keyboards.
Taking a closer look at the animal
Now that the boring part is out of the way, let’s have a look at the Das Keyboard Professional. The first two keyboards to bear the Das Keyboard name catered to an exclusive niche, since they had completely blank key caps. That made them inaccessible to all but experienced touch-typists.
By contrast, the third-gen Das Keyboard is available both with and without marked key caps. Metadot dubs the blank version Das Keyboard Ultimate, but we’re looking at the version with marked key caps today—the Das Keyboard Professional.
Without the blank keys gimmick going for it, this keyboard really needs to stand out because of its tactile comfort alone. That’s apparently what Metadot had in mind, because the Das Keyboard Professional really doesn’t have many frills. You get 104 normally placed keys (including Windows keys), three LEDs, a dual-port USB 2.0 hub, and that’s pretty much it. Much of the company’s attention seems to have gone into the details, like the glossy finish, stylish lock indicators, 6.6-foot USB cable, support for up to 12 simultaneous key presses, lack of “F-lock” nonsense, and of course, the clicky key switches.
Incidentally, prying off key caps needn’t involve a screwdriver or very much brute force. The caps simply slide off the little cross-shaped key switch nubs, although they stay securely in place unless you actively try to tamper with them.
I can’t say I approve of the glossiness, since this device is after all designed to come in contact with human hands on an day-to-day basis. Even Metadot apparently expects the keyboard to collect smudges quickly, because it throws a little wiping cloth in the box. Nevertheless, the Das Keyboard looks good. That’s a welcome change from the Model M and its more recent copycats, which are about as retro as New Coke and Rick Astley music videos. Unless you’re still using a CRT monitor and an old-fashioned ball mouse, the Das Keyboard should look more at home on your desk than other clicky offerings.
The Das Keyboard is a good deal lighter and more compact than the Model M, as well. (Metadot quotes a weight of 2.6 lbs, while the Model M weighs more than double that according to my bathroom scale.) Those are nice pluses for folks with small desks and LAN party addicts. On the flip side, you can’t use the flat area at the top to store pens and other knick-knacks, and the Das Keyboard probably doesn’t make a good weapon. Keep that in mind next time you get into a fight over code formatting rules or Joss Whedon shows.
Typing on a $130 keyboard
So, what does typing on the Das Keyboard Professional actually feel like? I compared it to Apple’s Extended Keyboard II earlier in this review, and that’s not entirely inaccurate: both units have flatter keys than the Model M, and they both have less travel time and softer springs. That means you don’t have to push as hard, which (in theory) should minimize fatigue.
Surprisingly, however, I found the Das Keyboard a little cramped. That’s not because it’s any smaller than the Model M. On the contrary, the home row is actually slightly wider overall. However, Metadot opted for slightly narrower key caps with larger gaps between them. This difference amounts to something like half a millimeter per key, but it still caused me to make more typos at first. (Though perhaps the Das Keyboard’s shorter overall height also played a part in that.) Take that impression with a grain of salt: I’ve been using a Model M on my desktop for about six years, so I’m a bit like a grouchy old man asked to part with his favorite chair.
Softer feel or not, the Das Keyboard Professional’s keys are very clicky. The clicks have a somewhat higher pitch and a less plasticky sound than those on the Model M, so they actually sound a little more like an old typewriter. If you’re hoping paying $130 will get you the same feel as the Model M without the deafening noise, prepare to be disappointed. For the reasons I explained eariler, however, auditory feedback is a good thing for typists.
I expect some may want to actually see and hear the device in action, so I’ve filmed myself typing away on both the Das Keyboard and the Model M. Enjoy:
While we’re on the topic of noise, I noticed a strange issue with my review unit: the keys hum. You can’t hear it in the video, but hitting a key or slapping the underside of the keyboard produces a resonating musical sound not unlike a faint A3 note. After further tinkering, I think the noise comes from the springs inside each key. While you may not hear anything if you’re listening to music or wearing headphones, it’s definitely unsettling. I was even more unsettled when I plugged my Model M back in, because as it turns out, it also produces a sort of ringing sound—just on a higher pitch. I must’ve gotten used to it over the years, because I think it’s fainter and easier to tune out, a bit like a subdued wind chime.
All things considered, though, I think the Das Keyboard Professional feels just great to type on. It doesn’t really replicate the touch and feel of the Model M, but after about a day of use, I’d be tempted to say it’s actually a little more comfortable. Keys require little pressure to hit, and at certain moments, I feel like my fingers are simply gliding over the keyboard instead of painstakingly pressing down on each key. Coupled with the clickiness, that makes for some very satisfying typing.
Some readers may wonder why I’m comparing the Das Keyboard to the Model M and not a more recent dome-switch keyboard. That’s essentially because the two designs are like apples and oranges: clicky keyboards are in a league of their own in terms of tactile feel, and you can’t really replicate that without mechanical key switches. The Das Keyboard and Model M both feel crisp, responsive, accurate, and satisfying to use, whereas every dome switch keyboard I’ve typed on has felt mushy and spongy. If you’ve tried both keyboard types and prefer the dome-switch variety, then the Das Keyboard isn’t for you. Simple as that.
The question, then, is whether the Das Keyboard Professional is worth the $129 price tag, since you can get a brand new Unicomp buckling spring keyboard for $69 and a vintage Model M for as little as ~$30 on eBay.
Frankly, I’m a little torn. The Das Keyboard has a lot going for it: the looks, the compact footprint, the USB hub, the Windows keys, and the more comfortable action. However, I may well switch back to the Model M once I’m done writing this review. Perhaps I’m just too used to the IBM keyboard, but I’m not convinced the Das Keyboard is a hands-down superior choice. And somehow, the ringing bothers me more than on the Model M.
This is a bit like trying to pick between two slightly different flavors of delicious ice cream, though, and I think anyone turned off by the Model M’s size, looks, and clunky action definitely should consider the Das Keyboard Professional. Yes, it’s expensive, but mechanical keyboards typically last longer than their dome-switch brethren. (Cherry rates its MX switches for a “minimum” of 20 million strokes each.) Divide $129 by, say, ten years, factor in the extra comfort and possible health benefits, and the pricing suddenly doesn’t sound so crazy. Besides, Metadot offers a 30-day money back guarantee in case you’re not completely happy with your purchase.
There’s a case to be made for the blank Das Keyboard Ultimate, too. If you want to learn to touch-type, then a very comfortable keyboard without key markings seems like a great option. It’s the same price as the Professional, and it’ll let you impress your friends with your elite typing skills (not to mention annoy anyone who tries to use your computer).
I give Metadot kudos for producing a keyboard that differentiates itself from the Model M while being just as compelling—if not more so in some ways. Should Metadot produce a fourth-generation Das Keyboard, I would suggest the following changes: get the price tag under $100, make the key caps just a tad bigger and taller, lose the glossy finish, and try to dial down the ringing a little. Oh, and offer more than a one-year warranty. I think that’s a little short in light of the price tag and durable key switches.