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 geekhack.org 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.
Flexin’ your ABS like you just don’t care
Typing on the ABS M1 is a somewhat unusual experience. This thing doesn’t feel like a regular rubber-membrane keyboard, as I just said, but neither does it feel like an old-school clicky keyboard or a laptop keyboard. Although the non-clicky, tactile key switch type isn’t unique to this device, it’s definitely not common. For me, that meant spending a few days adjusting and making quite a few more typos than usual.
There’s definitely something compelling about the experience, however. The M1 couples a gentle, almost silky-smooth key action with a crisp bottoming-out. In other words, your finger meets very little resistance as it pushes down, but the keyboard isn’t afraid to make a clacking sound and send a jolt through your finger when the key has gone as far as it can go.
I’ve seen some folks criticize the notion of purposefully bottoming out keys while typing, since it implies pushing harder than needed, but the M1’s very subtle tactile feedback makes that hard to avoid. It’s definitely not like the Model M, where you’re free to stop and move on to the next key after you’ve heard the trademark click. Here, you’ll find yourself going all the way. I’m not sure it involves any extra effort, though, since the travel distance and the keys themselves are both relatively short.
I can see why ABS markets this as a gaming keyboard, too. The smooth, non-clicky action makes it less awkward for your fingers to dance rapidly across the W, A, S, and D keys in a simulated firefight, while the tight enclosure leaves plenty of room for a gaming mouse on the side, and the wired design keeps latency nice and low.
ABS also claims the M1 can register six simultaneous key presses, but I haven’t been able to reproduce that consistently. Holding down “QWEASD” or “ASDFG” produces no output, although the device is happy enough with “ASDJKL.” (For what it’s worth, the Das Keyboard cheerfully registered as many keys as my fingers could hold down on the home row.) If you’re wondering about those bad Newegg reviews where users say the M1 doesn’t let them hit simple key combinations like “CTRL-S,” I haven’t run into any such problems. In my experience, the M1’s key rollover is more or less average.
Before I share my verdict, enjoy a video of me typing on the M1. I shot similar clips for the Das Keyboard and Model M, which interested—or merely bored—readers can find in my Das Keyboard Professional review:
The M1 is clearly fairly loud despite the non-clicky key switch design. My digital camera doesn’t capture it, but this keyboard also produces a faint, wind-chime-like ringing sound very much like the Model M’s after some keystrokes. I assume that sound is caused by the springs inside each key switch resonating and possibly interacting with the (likely metallic) back plate. Regardless, the M1 is definitely not the quietest keyboard in the world, but it’s a little quieter than IBM’s 1980s behemoth, and I still find its clacking sounds satisfying.
While we’re on the subject of noise, the M1’s space bar began squeaking intermittently after a few days of use. A quick spray of silicone lubricant did away with that, but actually removing the space bar required a little too much force for my taste. That goes for the other key caps, too. Don’t expect to be able to pop these off quickly whenever you feel like cleaning the keyboard.
So, should you run out and buy an ABS M1 right now? That depends. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it myself. On the one hand, I do enjoy the tight enclosure, the short and slightly wider-than-usual keys (compared to the Model M’s, at least), and the relatively low resistance. That makes typing quite a smooth experience, and the action feels very pleasant when you’re playing a game.
On the other hand, the absence of distinct clicks and clear tactile feedback can be a little unsettling, and I believe it makes the M1 feel less “precise” than keyboards with clicky switches. Obviously, you can tell you’ve actuated a key when a character pops up on the screen. However, I had more trouble with tasks like typing in a credit card number or manually copying some text from another location, when I wasn’t always sure if I’d pressed some keys hard enough. Also, for some reason, the M1 caused me to produce a number of typos where I swapped letter pairs—like writing “psot” instead of “post” and “lses” instead of “less.” Thankfully, that subsided after a few days.
Switching back to the Model M after spending a few days typing on the M1 exclusively feels a little weird, however. The IBM keyboard has somewhat narrower keys that require more pressure to hit, and it just doesn’t feel anywhere near as smooth or as, well, sophisticated as ABS’s product.
All things considered, I think the M1 will please folks who don’t necessarily like clicky keyboards but still want something more durable, more solid, and with a less gummy feel than typical rubber-membrane keyboards. This device doesn’t sound (or look) like a typewriter, nor does it have anything in common with tricked-out multimedia keyboards from Logitech and Microsoft. The M1 is all business, and although I’d prefer it if it used clicky key switches, I can definitely see its appeal—especially since the $69.99 price tag is pretty reasonable for such a quality device. Now, if ABS could only make the cable a little longer and use non-blinding lock LEDs…