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Unicomp's Ultra Classic buckling-spring keyboard reviewed

Back to the future

Over a decade before I was born, IBM began manufacturing a keyboard that became a legend: the Model M. As any mechanical keyboard fan who lived through the last decade knows, the Model M's claim to fame is its buckling springs. As former TR staffer Cyril Kowaliski's example of the Model M proves, that switch design has stood the test of time.

Unicomp acquired the rights to IBM's buckling-spring designs in 1996, and it's been producing variations of the Model M with buckling springs intact for over 20 years now. However, the keyboard market has changed drastically since the Model M's first debut. Mechanical switches and slim chassis now dominate the keyboard enthusiast landscape. I've spent some time with Unicomp's Ultra Classic to determine whether it can hold its own in the modern keyboard market for gamers and typists.

The Ultra Classic isn't quite a "true" Model M like you would get by stepping back in time to 1984. Its chassis is quite a bit slimmer than old school Model M keyboards. Those looking for a true blast from the past will be happy to know that Unicomp does sell the Classic, which retains the bulk of the original boards. The Ultra Classic comes in a number of configurations that differ by color, bottom row layout, and connector. This particular model sports a black body with two-tone keycaps. The red escape key cap and yellow WASD key caps were purchased separately.

The original Model M had enlarged Alt and Ctrl keys compared to today's keyboards and no Windows or Menu keys. On the left side of the board, Unicomp stuck with the enlarged Alt and Ctrl keys and squeezed a small Windows key in between.

The spacebar itself has been shrunk below standard length in order to accommodate a standard-sized Windows key and small Menu button. Oddly, the Windows key, not the Alt key, sits directly next to the spacebar, so the Alt key can remain in its original position. I personally like the shrunken Windows key between Alt and Ctrl; it minimizes the possibility of accidentally pulling up the Windows menu in the middle of a game. I also almost never use the keys on the bottom right of the keyboard, so I don't mind the non-standard layout.

That said, muscle memory is crucial to effectively using a keyboard, and that means many who do use these keys most likely won't appreciate their unusual placement on this board. I can understand that Unicomp wants to preserve the layout of the original Model M, but why not offer a version of the keyboard with a layout that adheres to the industry standard?

This Ultra Classic is equipped with a USB connector at the end of a two meter long rubber-coated cable. Versions with the archaic PS/2 connector are also available if universal connectors just aren't your thing.

The upper-right-hand corner of the board plays host to Unicomp's logo, as well three indicator lights for Num Lock, Caps Lock, and Scroll Lock. The icons accompanying these lights are rather generic and unnecessarily big. Unicomp seems to concede that these icons might be a bit of an eyesore for some. Stickers that cover up this area are available on Unicomp's website for a dollar fifty.

A look at the side of the Ultra Classic makes the curvature of the board's base plate clearly apparent. Many mechanical keyboards nowadays have angled switches to slant the rows similarly to older curved-base-plate keyboards, but the effect usually is not quite as drastic or ergonomic as boards with actual curved base plates. I honestly don't have a real preference here, but I do have a complaint with the implementation of the curved base plate in the Ultra Classic. There is so much space between the top row and the row below it that reaching up to hit escape is a chore. Even though Unicomp has already cut down on the size of the Model M with the Ultra Classic, I'd like to see a version with even less space between the two top rows and without the protrusion that sticks out the back of the keyboard.

The bottom of the keyboard features two flip-out stands that give the board a bit more height in the back, slanting the keyboard toward the user. Unfortunately, the stands don't inspire much confidence in the construction of the keyboard. They harshly click into place and loosely wobble around in their housing when flipped out. Once the keyboard is set down on the stands, they keep the board propped up without any movement, but there is no doubt that they are cheaply built.

My lackluster impression of this board's build quality doesn't end with the flip-out stands. The bottom of the keyboard has some strange bumps and inconsistencies in the surface, perhaps artifacts of the case-molding process. These imperfections don't seem to have any adverse effects, but they do suggest less attention to detail than one might see from a Corsair or Logitech board.

Other mold marks abound throughout the Ultra Classic. Many of the keycaps have uneven bottom edges, and all of the keycaps on the board still have visible flashing left over from their formation and separation. Unicomp calls its keyboards "hand-made," but rustic charm isn't a feature we typically expect or prefer in modern computer hardware.

Even if we move past these cosmetic defects, the keyboard does not have the highest build quality in general. Unicomp boasts of the Ultra Classic's steel baseplate, and it certainly is solid, but the rest of the keyboard's build is not quite up to the same standard. The keyboard creaks and gives way a bit when pressure is applied to the plastic top plate. The creaking doesn't ever come out when gaming or typing, and the keyboard is still sturdy enough to hold up to lots of abuse. However, the Ultra Classic's build quality isn't quite on par with that of the major players in today's keyboard market.

The flaws in the key caps are bizarre given that they're otherwise of high quality. They are made of PBT plastic rather than the cheaper ABS plastic used by most keyboard manufacturers. Furthermore, the keycaps are reinforced by internal structures and relatively thick. TR Editor-in-Chief Jeff Kampman can also attest to the major upgrade in typing feel that PBT keycaps offer over run-of-the-mill stuff.

The sides of the keycaps have a glossy finish, while the tops have a gratifying finely-grained texture. The legends are dye-sublimated, as well. Dye sublimation actually ensures that pigment is sunk into the plastic instead of resting on the surface where it can be worn away over time. Other than the uneven bottom edges and small nubs, the keycaps are excellent.