A Tale of Two Model Ms

It was the best of keyboards, it was the worst of… wait, no it was the Best of Keyboards, period.

Unicomp Classic and IBM Model M

A long time ago, someone brilliant at IBM (IBM was full of brilliant people) came up with an idea for a keyboard.  This keyboard was constructed of steel and plastic.  It was murderously heavy.  No, seriously, you could kill someone with it.  It had replaceable, cleanable key caps.  It used a buckling spring mechanism over a capacitive PCB and was designed in the early 80s to allow people to type all day long on these new “Personal Computers” that IBM was producing.  It was called the Model F.

The Model F’s were pretty complex bits of machinery themselves, and as with any bit of complicated engineering, there are always ways to make them better, or less expensive to produce.  Thus mid-way through the 80’s, IBM re-designed the Model F slightly and debuted the Model M.  The Model M was nearly identical to the Model F, thought it used a membrane rather than a PCB underneath the keys.  Additionally, the body of the Model M was made from injection molded plastic, rather than the painted plastic of the Model F that was prone to cracks and failure through abuse.  There were other improvements or cost saving measures (depending on how you view it) and that became, arguably, the greatest keyboard ever made for computers.

The Model M was introduced around 1985 and built by IBM until the early 90s when IBM sold off parts of it’s manufacturing and design teams with Lexmark picking up the bits of the company that made keyboards.  Lexmark continued producing the Modem M into the 90s.

I picked one of these up at the IBM junk shop at the RTP campus when I worked there.  The Junk Shop (my term) was a wonderland of outdated equipment of all manner.  You could pick up oscilloscopes, microscopes, old computers, office furniture, equipment and all manner of things that the company no longer needed.  As I perused the aisles of junk, one day, I noticed a curled cord with a PS/2 plug on the end sticking out from a pile of old boxes.  Underneath that was a worn IBM Model M keyboard.  I paid, if I recall correctly, about $3.00 for this old workhorse.  It was born on 13 July 1989 and was model 1391401, the most common variant of the Model M.

I returned to my desk in the SuperLab and after digging up a PS/2 to USB adapter, plugged the old Model M into my Thinkpad and never looked back.  I’ve used that keyboard daily for nearly 10 years now whenever I am at my desk, be it at IBM, or now at my home office working for Canonical.  I’ve used my Model M on Thinkpads, on desktop machines, servers and evan on a MacBook Air and it worked flawlessly until a week or so ago when, frustratingly, the M, B and Space keys stopped working.  Sadly, after 26 years of faithful service, my IBM Model M was ready for retirement.

This started the quest for an adequate replacement.  I searched High and Low for another Model M, finding them everywhere, but often for a significantly more than what I paid for mine back then at the Junk Shop.  Frustration mounted until I stumbled across a company called Unicomp, which, as it turns out, now owns the rights and designs to the IBM Model M that both IBM and Lexmark produced.  The decision was made and that afternoon, I had ordered and received the shipping notice for a new Unicomp Classic M, based on the same designs as the IBM Model M that I loved.

The Unicomp Ms are based on the same designs as the old IBM M’s, as Unicomp owns the designs, having purchased them from IBM.  So with that in mind, they should be identical, and they almost nearly are.  The issues I’ve encountered are more in build quality than anything else.  My IBM Ms were all very heavy, very solid keyboards.  The Unicomp models are also weighty, and honestly not that bad in terms of quality.  However, the cases have some fitment issues making them just a bit creaky, especially in the corders.  But they’re fresh, new, and have that satisfying clicky sound that makes buckling spring keyboards so great.  And they keys and mechanisms are solid, and stand up to all manner of abuse.

My Unicomp Model M lasted for a year and a half before I broke it.  Unfortunately, unlike the IBM Ms which came with drain holes and could stand up to a lot of abuse, the Unicomp M I had seemed a bit weak when it came to spilled coffee.  My morning cuppa was it’s downfall ultimately.  Half the keys stopped working after that so I was forced to revert to a cheap, wireless backup keyboard until I could source a replacement.

Ultimately, I ended up with a Unicomp M of a slightly different design.  The new one is just a bit slimmer (it’s not quite as deep as the Classic M) and includes a TrackPoint built into the keyboard.  I had hoped that the TrackPoint would be the same as the IBM TrackPoint which were pretty solid pointer devices, once you got used to using them.  Unfortunately, the Unicomp parts are less well built, so the TrackPoint feels loose and inaccurate.  It’s annoying, and I don’t care to use it for anything needing precision, but it makes it easy to swap between console windows without having to reach over for my trackball, so I won’t complain too much.

I’ve now had four Model M keyboards.  They are arguably the best keyboards ever made, the design is ancient but still relevant, especially in this age of cruddy chiclet keyboards and non-feedback designs that have no soul.