ABS’s M1 mechanical keyboard

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.

Conclusion

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…

Comments closed
    • jonybiskit
    • 11 years ago

    Oh, yea i forgot the cable is a little short…

    • jonybiskit
    • 11 years ago

    i just got this! and I am typing with it right now!!! and it’s great!!! and loud lolz

    • dextron
    • 11 years ago

    and wow those LEDs are bright, don’t look into them directly and turn the locks off if you leave your pc on while you sleep

    • dextron
    • 11 years ago

    How did you pop off the key in the picture? I have had an M1 for awhile now, and I desperately want to pop off my keys so I can vaccum up the floor of the keyboard (tobacco, dust, ash collects there). If I try to pry off any of the keys, there is enough tension that I feel like I’m going to rip out the guts if I pull any harder, and I’m afraid to try pliers. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

      • bhtooefr
      • 11 years ago

      The simplest way on Alps switches is to take two wire ties, and a keyring. Wrap the wire ties around either side of the key, and tie them to the keyring. Pull vertically.

    • norbertz
    • 11 years ago

    What kind of “an enthusiast and self-confessed keyboard snob” treats n-key rollover as trivially as Cyril did for the purposes of reviewing the M1? When ABS markets a keyboard that says ‘6-key rollover’ and the USB HID spec says that it can only take 6 state-changes (even though the keyboard controller might be able to handle more), brushing off “ASDFG” cannot be allowed. Further, rollover averages among keyboards in entirety are more likely to be 3 keys than 5 or 6, given the number of 2-key/3-key we can find.

    Further, if “ASDFG” doesn’t register, it should make for a warranty call, not a review. Even worse with the M1 is anecdotes that the keyboard is not PS/2 compatible so we could never know whether it is internally n-key rollover.

    I have never liked technology ‘improvements’ that actually offer poorer functionality. The change of out-of-the-box plug and play from PS/2 to USB is disturbing, since you should double-fist a PS/2 keyboard with an n-key rollover capable keyboard and get all the keypresses, but to do the same with USB, you’d need to install a driver (otherwise HID specs force you to the 6-key limit.)

      • Cyril
      • 11 years ago

      q[

        • norbertz
        • 11 years ago

        #39, IBM/Lexmark/Unicomp doesn’t/never-has-made-the claim that their keyboard should have any specific rollover, to my recollection. ABS, however, did make such a claim.

        The same issue that supposedly separates ‘nooby membrane-keyboard-users’ from the ‘ergonomically-minded elite mechanical-switch-typists’ presents itself once again with the divide in functionality. I don’t know how those mindful of the ergonomics divide could be insensitive to the functionality divide.

        In rollover-limited keyboards, choice is taken away from us. We are to choose the combination of keys that have been assigned to us, and we can never, on some whim, take another combination. As our software, both games and otherwise, evolve into what eventually turn out to be more complex interfaces with more complex options, yet our keyboards remain the same in form, the only place we’ll be able to turn is the use of more keys simultaneously.

        I understand…you’ve just never heard your tower beep and your keys fail to register during the course of normal operation. If you ever hear that just once, though, I implore you to realize it is not some non-trivial electronic barrier that cannot be overcome but instead the same type of insensitivity that comsumers have allowed to become the basis for the cheap bundled dome-membrane keyboards that can be expected to break within a year and to cause undue stress to anthropoi.

    • albundy
    • 11 years ago

    There can be only one great keyboard…the original MS Natural Keyboard. True comfort and perfect key separation.

    • 5150
    • 11 years ago

    Screw it, I finally caved and ordered up a Unicomp Customizer.

    • Dr_b_
    • 11 years ago

    Have two of these, and a das keyboard, but i prefer the das keyboard by far, as its smoother keystrokes have a better feel./

    the ABS space doesn’t seem to fit well and doesn’t have smooth action (note the review stated having to silicon spray it to get it to stop squeeking)

    the ABS keyboard isn’t “bad” but if you are comparing to Das, then it’s not really a comparison, but then again, Das costs 2x as much. Also note that the ABS is superior to the cheap $10-20 keyboards out there, its just not as nice as Das.

      • bhtooefr
      • 11 years ago

      Except the quality control on the Das is just dreadful.

      (The M1 is actually made by the same company, Costar, but they seem to have somewhat better QC on the M1. And, the Filco Majestouch has even better QC despite being the same basic design as the M1.)

    • Shinare
    • 11 years ago

    I notice that on my USB keyboard that the number of simultaneous keypresses differs with regard to which keys I am trying to press. If I start going from left to right down the home row I get only 4 (ASDF) but if I alternate from both ends I can get 6 (alskdj). It seems to matter the region, or possibly even side of the keyboard.

    Now I just read that USB and PS/2 differs in how many you can depress at the same time, with PS/2 (surprisingly) having the ability to register MORE.

      • Usacomp2k3
      • 11 years ago

      Yup, it’s by region.

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      That’s why I still use a cheap PS/2 keyboard, and it’s better value than USB keyboards that were, or would be, 2-4 times as expensive.

    • Hattig
    • 11 years ago

    Hmm, aside from the US keyboard layout with the silly enter key sausage (from my UK point of view), the faults are:

    1) Put the damn LEDs on their associated keys!
    2) Huge-ass logo
    3) No USB hub, which must add like $1 to the BoM for a keyboard – not a problem for all though – many monitors include them.

    My current keyboard has purple LEDs, that’s quite nifty.

    My work keyboard makes baby jesus cry.

      • bhtooefr
      • 11 years ago

      You can get a Filco Zero in Japanese layout, which has a “correctly” shaped enter key for those of you used to the ISO layout, and the clicky version of those switches. 🙂 (Or, if you prefer Cherry switches, get a Japanese Majestouch.)

      And, it also fixes the logo issue, the Filco logo isn’t nearly as obnoxious as the ABS logo.

      • StuffMaster
      • 11 years ago

      I wish they’d move the lights further away from the keys, they’re too close…

    • continuum
    • 11 years ago

    Still loud? Well, not as loud as a Model M but not as quiet as my old beige Dell QuietKey? Sigh…. so close!

    • Krogoth
    • 11 years ago

    I still love my Unicomp remake of Model M. 😀

    • bhtooefr
    • 11 years ago

    Of course, once you’ve opened the ABS M1 can of worms, then there’s the Diatec Filco Majestouch.

    Same basic keyboard, with Cherry switches – your choice of black (linear, which means not tactile OR clicky, but very durable – rated for 50 million key strokes) or brown (ergonomic soft-tactile – very light weight, still tactile, but not clicky.) There’s also a couple variants with blue switches (same as the Das Keyboard,) and there’s a variant of the Tenkeyless model called the Filco Zero with white (clicky+tactile) Alps switches, much like the ABS M1, but with sound as well. (From what I hear, they feel the same, though.)

    From what I hear, they paid for higher QC than ABS did (which is why you get the odd ABS board that can’t do Ctrl-S, for example.) And, they’ve got bluetooth, N-key rollover, and N-key rollover “Tenkeyless” (no numeric keypad) variants, in addition to a “regular” variant. The N-key rollover versions are PS/2 and USB, FWIW – N-key rollover only works properly on PS/2.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 11 years ago

      Sounds awesome except for this:

      q[

        • bhtooefr
        • 11 years ago

        It’s a Japanese company. Need I say any more?

        (The only visible branding of that name is just a “FILCO” logo that’s much more understated than the ABS logo on the M1, though.)

      • Jambe
      • 11 years ago

      It appears they don’t have any US retailers — is this right? Also, this bit from their website is discouraging:

      /[

    • BooTs
    • 11 years ago

    The need to start putting raised edges or something on WASD when they want to call something a gaming keyboard. I don’t care where F and J are when I’m shooting things.

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      I don’t want bothersome raised bits on my WASD, I can position on it any time, light or dark, in a fraction of a second after locating Alt and the spacebar with my thumb where that belongs.

      In fact, I start typing by first positioning to WASD, I don’t know how to use F or J as basepoints.

    • bdwilcox
    • 11 years ago

    Watching Cyril crush the keyboard with those giant mitts made me think of this joke:

    So a bear walks into a bar and says to the bartender, “I’d like a gin and………………………………………………………………..tonic.”

    The bartender asks, “What’s with the long pause.”

    The bear looks at the end of his arms and says, “Whaddya want? I’m a bear.”

      • Cyril
      • 11 years ago

      It’s the keyboard that’s small. My hands are about (or maybe slightly below) average. 😉

        • nerdrage
        • 11 years ago

        q[

    • MadManOriginal
    • 11 years ago

    Item #3 in the keyswitch diagram is…

    Steam !

    Talk about retro! With steam powered key switches this is the i[

      • ssidbroadcast
      • 11 years ago

      LOL, wow that totally flew past me until I read your comment.

      “Behold, the power of /[

      • FireGryphon
      • 11 years ago

      Yeah, what’s the deal with the steam, Cyril?

        • Turd-Monkey
        • 11 years ago

        I noticed it when reading also, my guess would be that they meant ‘stem’.

        Maybe poor translation from whoever is manufacturing the switches for them?

          • MadManOriginal
          • 11 years ago

          Wow, serious responses to what was obviously a joke.

          Yeah I know they meant stem, that was clear to me when I posted #16, but why pass up an opportunity to make a funny?

        • Kent_dieGo
        • 11 years ago

        I think “Stem” was the intended word.

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      You can break the keyboard if you let out some steam.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 11 years ago

        You mean the MAGIC steam?

        Or perhaps this is Vavle’s sneaky attempt to get in to hardware. Their key will make keys obsolete!

          • Meadows
          • 11 years ago

          Nah, the Valve has given us enough puns for a lifetime when “it released Steam”.

    • Kurotetsu
    • 11 years ago

    The last few keyboards I’ve bought (‘few’ being the last 3 or 4) were all cheap garbage that stopped working after a few months (and, interestingly, they were all Microsoft keyboards). This looks like a good buy for someone looking for a solid, long-lasting keyboard. It’d be even better if it came down a few bucks. $69.99 is a little steep I think.

    Lack of a USB hub isn’t an issue, just buy a separate one. They’re certainly cheap enough.

    • FireGryphon
    • 11 years ago

    Sweet review. The keyboard looks pretty hot. I prescribe a length of black duct tape to fix the gaudy logo issue.

    • pogsnet
    • 11 years ago
    • DrDillyBar
    • 11 years ago

    A USB hub away from awesome.

      • grantmeaname
      • 11 years ago

      Blue LEDs are not awesome. Especially blinding ones.

        • DrDillyBar
        • 11 years ago

        Scotch tape, maybe electric.

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