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.
Buckle, buckle, toil and trouble
Now for the star of the show: buckling springs. I’ll give a basic explanation of buckling spring switches for those unfamiliar with this mechanism. A spring sits atop a pivoting hammer that snaps down and activates the switch when the spring is pushed down and forced to buckle in on itself. The buckling of the spring is responsible for the switch’s name and the loud click that emanates from the switch when activated.
Buckling springs are similar to tactile mechanical switches in that they both activate when the resisting force is overcome, rather than activating when the key bottoms out. Unicomp suggests the fact that buckling spring switches activate before the keys bottom out means that you can type without bottoming out the keys. However, my testing suggests the springs buckle when the key is so close to bottoming out that it is almost impossible to type without bottoming out. Many mechanical switches activate with more distance left between the key and the base plate.
Unlike tactile mechanical switches, whose actuation force is constant, the force required to push down a buckling spring switch builds until the spring buckles. The force required to activate a buckling spring switch is somewhere between Cherry MX Blue and Green switches. My Cherry MX switches of choice are Browns. Browns require a lighter actuation force than Blues and Greens, so buckling springs require more force than I usually prefer. However, my preference for Browns is largely due to my being a gamer. If I were primarily a typist and not much of a gamer, my switch preference would likely be different.
The force required to activate buckling spring switches and the noise they produce make every single key press while gaming feel like something big and important must accompany it. However, many of my key presses while gaming are small, quick adjustments to my in-game movement. It feels a bit off to me for each of these little adjustments to be initiated by a heavy key press and announced by a loud click. In fact, if I’m just gaming, I love using Cherry MX Speed switches, which have no tactile bump at all and bottom out faster than most other mechanical switches.
All that said, buckling springs are a joy to use when typing. Unicomp claims that your typing accuracy will be improved when using buckling springs, and as skeptical as I was of this claim, I have to admit that I do type more accurately on the Ultra Classic than on my Cooler Master Masterkeys Pro S. It isn’t a huge difference, but each key press is crisp and unmistakable. You definitely won’t be accidentally activating any keys with buckling springs. The tactile bump and click of each key press are indubitably satisfying and tell my brain that I have indeed input a letter. The click of buckling springs is rivaled only by mechanical switches with click bars.
The last aspect of the Ultra Classic that should be covered is key rollover. Key rollover determines how many keys can be simultaneously pressed and properly registered at once. It used to be that keyboards with USB connectors were limited to 6-key rollover with four modifier keys. Some mechanical keyboards used to ship with PS/2 adapters in order to support N-key rollover (NKRO). NKRO allows any number of keys to be simultaneously pressed and registered. However, many mechanical keyboards now feature NKRO over USB.
Oddly, Unicomp does not support NKRO over PS/2 or USB. The PS/2 controller in Unicomp keyboards limits them to seven- or eight-key rollover. However, Unicomp also cites the USB protocol standards as the reason its USB keyboards are limited to six-key rollover, despite the fact that USB protocol standards are no longer a problem for NKRO over USB. It seems as though it is entirely up to Unicomp whether or not its keyboards feature NKRO, and the company seems to have chosen not to support it.
There is more to this story, though. I was able to confirm with AquaKeyTest that the USB version of the Ultra Classic can correctly register six keys and four modifying keys at once, but it only works with certain key combinations. I was not, for example, able to get the keyboard to register ASDJKL, but I was able to get it to register ASFJKL. It is incredibly rare that anyone would actually need more than six-key rollover, but it seems as though the Ultra Classic is not fully capable of even that many simultaneous key presses.
Personally, I haven’t run into a situation where I have been unable to perform an action due to the flaky six-key rollover on the Ultra Classic, but it is worrying for those who play games that require serious simultaneous key-smashing.
Unicomp is keeping the buckling spring alive with its lineup of Model M-inspired keyboards. The $84 Ultra Classic offers that classic switch feel in a body that is considerably smaller than the old Model M keyboards of days past. However, the keyboard market is not stagnant, and I think Unicomp has fallen behind the major industry players in a number of important areas.
First and foremost, the build quality of the keyboard is not what it could be. The flip-out stands are flimsy, the keycaps are roughly-finished, and the plastic chassis is creaky and riddled with cosmetic imperfections. The keyboard could also be slimmed down even more to make it less bulky and make the top row more accessible. Unicomp has not kept up with key rollover trends, either. USB protocol standards no longer limit keyboards to six-key rollover, so the company may need to update its internal circuitry accordingly. Even if Unicomp decides to stick with six-key rollover, testing with my sample suggests the company’s current implementation is spotty and needs to be smoothed out.
Unicomp seems to be primarily riding on the merits of buckling springs to sell its keyboards, and hey, it actually kind of works out for the company. Buckling springs are undoubtedly excellent switches, and Unicomp pretty much has a monopoly on them, so it can keep selling its keyboards without spending time and money on R&D.
That said, I think Unicomp would be better off in the long run by bringing its keyboards up to modern expectations for fit, finish, features, and cosmetics. The mechanical keyboard market has absolutely exploded over the past few years, and we now enjoy far more options than we did in the dark days when mechanical switches were as rare as hens’ teeth.
If the Ultra Classic was just another keyboard with mechanical switches, I would consider it a mediocre to bad keyboard given all the other options on the market in the same price bracket. I can’t in good conscience give it a TR Recommended award because of the build-quality issues I observed, despite how great I think it is for typing. Heck, if Unicomp made a tenkeyless Model M with NKRO and a slim, stronger chassis, I’d have no choice but to give it a TR Editor’s Choice award.
In the mean time, if you are a serious typist that likes heavy-ish tactile switches, is intrigued by buckling springs, and won’t mind the somewhat quaint build quality and the possibility of issues with key rollover that I observed, I suggest giving the Ultra Classic Model M a shot. You can pick it up for $94 from Amazon or for $10 less direct from Unicomp.