Reviewed :: Apple Extended Keyboard II

apple’s design wizardry at its finest

Model Number: M3501
Retail Price: $163
Weight: 3.81 lbs/ 1.73 kg
Key switch type: Alps SKCM Cream Dampened
Keycaps: PBT
Keycap average thickness: 1.13 mm

Some Background

The Apple Extended Keyboard II, or the “AEK II” was introduced in 1990 as a successor to Apple’s original Extended Keyboard. Building on the design of the original, the AEK II had a similar profile, build quality, and overall design aesthetic with some fairly notable modifications. The case was redesigned with a lower profile and a more curves. A single retractable foot was added to allow users to adjust the typing angle. The Apple logo was moved from the bottom left of the case to the top left. The power key lost its standard key cap profile and became larger and flatter. The PCB and internals were redesigned. And most importantly, Apple revised the key switches from Alps tactile non-dampened complicated switches, to Alps dampened complicated switches (more on that later).

The Apple Extended Keyboard II was conceptualized by Design ID, an Irish industrial design company, and was later finalized by Frogdesign consultancy.

 

The AEK II was sold until 1995 along with Mac desktops like the Macintosh IIci and the Macintosh IIsi. The IIsi was my very first computer and incidentally the AEK II was my very first keyboard. Unfortunately the keyboard in this review isn’t my original keyboard. It was sold years ago and I’ve been kicking myself ever since!

Macintosh IIsi, my very first computer

Both the AEK and AEK II have a sturdy, oversized plastic case with, a black steel mounting plate, high-quality dye-sublimated PBT keycaps (with the exception of the spacebar), a unique keycap profile and, most importantly, some of the best switches Alps ever produced: Alps SKCMs. The AEK II came with 3 flavors of SKCM switches, depending on the year and country of origin:
– Cream (dampened)
– Salmon
– White

Alps SKCM Cream Dampened Switch
Disassembled Alps SKCM cream dampened switch

The above colors denote the color of plastic used for each Alps SKCM’s respective switch slider, and most AEK IIs shipped with dampened cream sliders (as did the keyboard in this review). I’ve never used an AEK II with salmon or white switches but I’ve seen some on Ebay and they tend to get a big premium due to their rarity. Apple Extended Keyboard IIs were manufactured in the USA, Mexico, Ireland and Japan. As I discussed in my review of the Matias Quiet Pro, “complicated” Alps mechanical key switches were a very popular choice for keyboard manufacturers in the 80’s and early 90’s. They were (and still are) held in high regard for their smoothness, tactility, sound and serviceability. Alps cream dampened switches are no exception.

The term “complicated” comes from the relatively high number of parts used in each switch, (typically 10-13 components). That’s many more than in a typical Cherry or buckling spring key switch, but certainly worth it, considering the wonderful typing experience they provided.

Alps SKCM White Disassembled
Disassembled Alps SKCM White showing the different parts

Some really excellent videos explaining the evolution and mechanics of SKCL/SKCM mechanical key switches are on Chyrosran22’s Youtube channel. There’s also a fantastic article explaining Alps key switches on Deskthority Wiki here. I definitely recommend checking them out.

Alps key switches come with many different tactile and auditory qualities, ranging from linear, clicky, tactile, locking and more. The AEK II has Alps’ tactile switches.

Different Alps switches with different colored sliders.

Sound “dampening” is achieved via two rubber hourglass-shaped bumpers on either side of the Alps key switch slider. Because the slider strikes rubber instead of plastic when bottoming out, dampened Alps switches are generally much quieter. Also, unlike Cherry switches that often use very simple o-ring dampeners, Alps’ dampening mechanism reduces sound on the downstroke and upstroke which is a major advantage.

Alps version on right with hourglass-shaped dampener and Matias version on the left

Unfortunately Alps switches are no longer being produced but you can still purchase simplified Alps clones from Matias. Their Quiet Click switches are some of the quietest key switches I’ve tested. Interestingly, if listen to Quiet Clicks via a sound recording on my Youtube channel, they sound much more like Alps cream dampened switches, but in person they sound nothing alike. Go figure.

The Apple Extended Keyboard II connects via Apple’s proprietary ADB or Apple Desktop Bus system. ADB permits multiple devices to be daisy-chained like USB. Only one cord is ultimately needed to be connected to the computer. This is an advantage over PS2 connectors, which require the keyboard and mouse to be plugged into your machine. ADB connectors look like s-video connectors and I’ve read online that you can use an s-video cable as an ADB replacement. I’ve never tried this so I can’t confirm whether or not it works. There are ADB to USB converters available online like Griffin’s iMate, even though I believe they are discontinued and no longer supported by Griffin.

Sadly, the Apple Extended Keyboard II was Apple’s final mechanical keyboard and was replaced by the Apple Design Keyboard with rubber domes. I owned an Apple Design Keyboard and it was essentially a pile of monkey poop. In stark contrast, the AEK and AEK II are considered Apple’s two best keyboards. I’d go a step further and say both AEKs were two of the best keyboards ever made. That’s right: best keyboards ever. AEKs have a cult following, and amazingly, new old-stock AEK II’s can still be purchased on Ebay. I happen to own several and it always boggles my mind to discover that 25-30 years later, there still exists unopened boxes of keyboards floating around in the world.

Review

Note: for this review, I not only used this keyboard exclusively for 2 weeks prior, I also used the AEK II to write the review itself.

Packaging

Looking at the Apple Extended Keyboard II packaging is like being time-warped back to the early 1990s. As was customary for all Apple packaging during the 90s, there were no loud colors, no star bursts, no marketing jargon. The raw cardboard box features a monochromatic image of the AEK II with what looks like a stippling Photoshop filter applied. There’s the name of the keyboard in Apple Garamond, Apple’s favorite font at the time, and some basic product information. Overall I think the packaging looks really good considering how old it is, and the raw cardboard has an eco-friendly vibe to it. I think Apple should give up its glossy packaging and go back to raw cardboard.

Inside there’s minimal packaging materials: some foam corner blocks, a clear plastic bag, a function key template strip, a thick coiled ADB cord, and basic product and warranty information.

Case Design

The design of the AEK II was influenced by Apple’s “Snow White” schema. I won’t go into the details of the Snow White design aesthetic and if you want to know more, Wikipedia has a really good article here.

This particular keyboard happens to be in near perfect condition. I got it on eBay for a fairly heft sum of money, but I think it’s worth it since it’s essentially brand new. There’s no blemishes or yellowing on the case whatsoever.

The Apple Extended Keyboard is hefty, especially by today’s standards at 3.81 lbs. It has a rigid case with very little flex. This is partly due to the thick plastic and metal mounting plate. Amazingly the AEK II’s case is secured with only 1 screw. While you’d think that would make it easy to disassemble, the rest of the case is fastened with plastic clips around the front edge.

Like many keyboards from the 80’s and early 90’s there’s gobs of thick, high-quality beige plastic, or “platinum gray” according to Apple. The Apple Extended Keyboard II isn’t shy about occupying a lot of real estate on your desk, and it looks downright sexy, like it could be in NASA’s mission control or something. The margin of plastic around the keys is enormous, and the overall size of the keyboard gives an impression of luxury and spaciousness. When compared to modern TKL, 75%, even 60% boards, the AEK II is downright colossal. It’s easy to forget that other keyboards from the 80s and 90s were just as large, if not larger. I’m the type that tends to place objects on the keyboard case above the function keys such as business cards, my bluetooth headset, even credit cards when I’m buying stuff online, so I love all the room the AEK II has to offer.

There’s a lot of space between the R1 keys to accommodate a very useful plastic template. It’s secured by two plastic cylinders above the Escape and Power key. You can label each of the function keys if you choose. It’s really too bad keyboard manufacturers don’t include something like this nowadays. Luckily I still have mine and I like the way it looks. Rather than write directly on it, I use a label maker to add function key reminders. The template comes pre-labeled with Undo, Cut, Copy and Paste, most likely for some Microsoft product like Word or Excel. You can flip the strip over to reveal blank spaces if you’d rather not display the pre-labeled ones.

Function key strip with pre-labeled function keys
Very useful function key plastic template

On the top left of the case is Apple’s iconic rainbow logo embossed into the plastic. I think it looks beautiful and I often stare at it lovingly. If you think about it, Apple could have chosen a one or two color logo for their products and no one would have given it a second thought. Instead they opted for a much more expensive logo and it was worth it if you ask me.

Colorful Apple logo on top left-hand corner of case

On the top right are the Num Lock, Caps Lock, and Scroll Lock lights, each with green LEDs. I’ve never actually seen the Num Lock and Scroll Lock lights turn on, and I’m honestly not quite sure how one accomplishes this on a Mac. Apple’s OS doesn’t support those particular keyboard functions and I find it really odd that Apple included them on this keyboard. Did they think Windows users would use an AEK II on a Windows machine?

Num Lock, Caps Lock and Scroll Lock lights

The side of the AEK II’s case is gently curved, following the profile of the keycaps. The ergonomics of this keyboard are excellent and the curve of the case underscores the unique keycap profile. Apple products are known for looking modern for their time and this keyboard is no exception. In fact, it still looks incredible by today’s standards. If I were to design a modern keyboard, I would definitely consider getting inspiration from the AEK II’s case design.

On either side of the top is an ADB connector. One is for plugging the keyboard into your computer, and the other for connecting a mouse or other ADB device. Luckily I have a Griffin iMate converter that allows me to use Apple Extended Keyboard II on my Mac. The coiled ADB cable is detachable and is covered in a very high quality plastic that still looks brand new, even though it’s almost 30 years old. I’m surprised Apple decided to hardwire keyboards after going away from ADB connectors, but then again, I’m surprised by a lot of the keyboard-related decisions Apple made post AEK II. Detachable cords are definitely the way to go.

ADB cable with its original packaging

On the bottom of the case is a extra-wide rubber pad to prevent the keyboard from slipping. It’s almost comically wide. There’s also Apple’s adjustable mono-foot that increases the angle of the keyboard by adjusting a plastic slider. I think this is a more sophisticated design solution than traditional flip-out feet. Some people ridicule the mono-foot, but I think it’s simple, well engineered and elegant. There’s a drain hole for spills and high-quality product labels with a barcode, serial number, product information and more.

Mono-foot half-way extended
Mono-foot fully extended

 

Product label on bottom of keyboard

 

Layout

It’s safe to say the word “Extended” refers to the keyboard’s full-size layout. Maybe the name “Apple Full-Size Keyboard” just didn’t make the cut. Prior to selling the AEK and AEK II Apple sold the much smaller Apple Keyboard, which didn’t have a function row or a nav cluster. Apple’s early keyboards remind me of 60% or even 40% layout keyboards popular nowadays. Apple was big into design efficiency during Steve Job’s tenure and “unnecessary” keys were never found on Apple’s keyboards. Steve Jobs famously hated function keys, and there’s a great story of him removing them from a keyboard before autographing it for a fan. Even keyboards sold by Next lacked the nav cluster and function keys. It’s funny that today’s keyboard designs are becoming more like Apple keyboards from over 30 years ago. He may have been an absolute dick, but Steve Jobs was ahead of his time.

The AEK and AEK II were both introduced during the post Steve Job’s Apple era and Apple was probably attempting to win over business users with an IBM-inspired full-size layout. Interestingly Apple never stopped offering full-size keyboards upon Job’s return to Apple, and I’ll wager this was a major sore spot for Jobs. Even today, most full-size Apple keyboards have more function keys than their Windows counterparts, which is kind of an ironic twist.

The ANSI layout on the Apple Extended Keyboard II is nothing short of phenomenal, and I consider this keyboard a benchmark upon which all other keyboard layouts are measured. In a way, the AEK II is Apple’s own interpretation of a PC keyboard layout. Apple cherry-picked the best features producing a truly fantastic design that’s incredibly relevant even today. For instance, there’s a generous number of function keys, going all the way up to F15, but the F13, F14 and F15 keys also have the Windows functions of Print Screen, Scroll Lock and Pause. There’s also Apple’s typical numpad with small-ass Addition key, and a really useful Equals sign, right next to the Clear key (normally Num lock on PCs). This is especially handy when using spreadsheet applications like Microsoft Excel. The Help key, replaces the PC’s Insert key, although Apple no longer supports it in its OS. Replacing the Windows key is the Command Key (⌘), and replacing Alt is the Option key.

Convenient power button located on top left-hand side of case next to the lock lights

There is a power button located on the top right of the keyboard—another awesome Apple innovation that blew my mind when I first saw it in the 80s. Having a power button on a keyboard is so much more convenient than trying to find it on the back of a machine. Unfortunately this feature isn’t incorporated into modern Apple keyboards, other than their laptops. On the AEK II, even the Power key gets an Alps key switch. That’s pretty badass in my opinion.

Even the power button gets an Alps SKCM switch
Keycaps

They keycaps on the AEK II are high quality, thick PBT with the exception of the spacebar which is most likely ABS. PBT doesn’t yellow like ABS, nor does it wear or shine as much since it’s a much harder plastic. Used Apple Extended Keyboard IIs generally have pristine keycaps and a yellowish or even orangeish case and spacebar. This can be undone with Retr0bright which is both a recipe and process to de-yellow old plastics. The jury’s still out as to whether this is a temporary or permanent fix. I’ve had decent luck with it on some random ABS keycaps, but I have seen the yellowing return after about a year. The keyboard in this review has never been Retr0brighted and from my experience, keeping keyboards out of heat and sunlight avoids plastic discoloration.

Bottom view of thick PBT keycap with Alps mount

The key cap legends on the Extended Keyboard II were beautifully produced using high-quality dye sublimation and have sharp contrasting edges. Apple, at the suggestion of Frogdesign, chose Univers 57 Condensed Oblique as the keycap font, a very controversial decision. Critics strongly dislike the oblique typeface but I think it’s very beautiful. As an aside, I remember seeing an Apple Desktop Bus Keyboard, Apple’s first keyboard adorned with Univers 57 Condensed Oblique, in the mid-80s. I recall thinking it looked progressive and modern. The typeface was a subtle example of Apple rethinking the computer in different ways making other platforms seem a little boring and unimaginative.

Detail shot of keycaps shows crisp dye-sublimated legends. The homing bump is on the D key, rather than the F key.

Also somewhat controversial is Apple’s decision to put the legends on the bottom left corner of the keycaps rather than top left or center. Again, I think this looks really cool but some dislike it. Functionally, I think it’s probably best to put the legends in the middle of the keycaps especially for those who aren’t touch typists.

Another strange Apple-ism was to place the homing bump on D and K, rather than the typical F and J keys. I really don’t see any reason to do this and it always throws me off when I first start typing on an AEK II. I’d really like to know what the thought process was behind moving the homing bumps, other than product differentiation.

The key profile isn’t like any other keyboard I’ve seen, other than the original AEK’s. It’s difficult to describe so I’m just going to show it below. It’s an ergonomic design and it’s very easy to type on.

Key switches

In short, Alps SKCM cream dampened switches are magical little works of engineering art. Poems or Haikus should be written about how pleasant they are to type on. It’s an experience you won’t find with any other switch, partially because of the refined tactility, and partially due to Alps’ hourglass-shaped dampeners. Weighted at 70g, creams actually feel much lighter. The tactile bump is very subtle, and matches perfectly to the 70g weight, so you can avoid bottoming out if that’s your thing. And in case you do bottom out, not to worry. The rubber dampening bumper means your fingers won’t be fatigued after long sessions of typing. In fact, your fingers will continually want more. That’s because hours of typing is what this keyboard does best: data entry, blogging, screen plays, 8,000 page novels, it’s all-good, and your fingers tips will be happily clack-clacking away.

I’ve noticed Alps SKCM switches hate dust and heavy use, so if you’re going to buy a used AEK II, make sure it’s relatively clean with low mileage. Once they get dirty or worn out, they start to become scratchy and the typing experience downgrades quickly. If you own an AEK II, my recommendation is to use a dust cover religiously. There’s a nylon Interpro cover sold on Amazon that works beautifully and it’s only $9.

Apple opted for an Alps locking switch for the Caps Lock key and I really like this feature. When Caps lock is engaged, the Caps Lock key is locked in the down position. When Caps Lock is disengaged, it returns to it’s normal height. As a touch typist, I rarely look down at the keyboard and having a tactile indicator as to whether the Caps Lock key is engaged is fantastic.

Sound

In terms of sound, the Apple Extended Keyboard II is the Stradivarius of mechanical keyboards. The sound is glorious. While I’m not into ASMR, I probably could listen to 20 hours straight of someone typing on the Apple Extended keyboard II and be totally happy. A lot of it has to do with the dampened Alps switches, but some of it also has to do with the case design, the keycaps and how the metal mounting plate interacts with the PCB. I wish I could bottle it up and sprinkle the AEK II sound on modern-day keyboards. It’s a gorgeous soundtrack that always has me coming back for more.

Overall Impressions and Summary

The Apple Extended Keyboard II is one of those rare instances of product design wizardry whereby the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts (cliche but true). On paper, the AEK II has all the right ingredients. Full size layout, high quality plastics and materials and Alps SKCM key switches. But put them all together in just the right way, and the end result is what I’d consider one of the best keyboards around. There’s simply no comparison. Typing on an AEK II and then switching to a Cherry board is kind of revolting. I’d say the AEK II is up there with the original AEK, IBM Model M and IBM Model F. It’s a reminder of what a great keyboard can be, and should be.

Pros:
Basically everything.

Cons:
Requires an ADB to USB converter. The plastics don’t do well with heat or sunlight and Alps SKCM switches don’t do well with dust or high mileage. The homing bumps are on D and K rather than F and J.

Thanks for reading my review. I hope it was informative, helpful and enjoyable. Below is a video of me typing on the Apple Extended Keyboard II.

*A very big thank you to Deskthority for making photos of Alps switches available for this review.

Reviewed :: Matias Quiet Pro for Mac

The world’s quietest mechanical keyboard

Keyboard Name: Matias Quiet Pro
Model Number: FK302Q
Retail Price: $139.95
Weight: 2.81 lbs/ 1.27 kg
Switch Type: Matias Quiet Click (simplified Alps-clone)
Keycaps: ABS with laser-printed legends
Keycap thickness: .91 mm

Some Background

Matias is a Canadian manufacturer of (mostly) computer keyboards. They were founded in 1989 in the parents’ basemen of Edgar Matias, one of the company’s main founders. They’re better known today for keeping the simplified Alps switch technology alive, and for producing the Tactile Pro keyboard, loosely based on Apple’s original Extended Keyboard. Matias markets the Tactile Pro as a resurrection of the Apple Extended Keyboard, but I consider that a bit of an exaggeration, and not exactly true (I’ll talk about that more in my review of the Tactile Pro 4).

Equally notable is Edgar Matias’ conception and production of the “Half Keyboard,” a keyboard that only requires one hand to use. It’s a really cool idea and I wonder how difficult (or maybe easy) it would be to type using only one hand. I hope to give it a try one day but they’re extremely expensive at $595 USD. Doh! It looks like the Matias logo has a silhouette of the Half Keyboard behind it (pictured below), and my guess is the Half Keyboard is a very special product to Matias (or at least Edgar).

Matias logo
Matias logo with (what appears to be) silhouette of half keyboard in background.

Listening to an interview of Edgar Matias it sounds like he was probably a fan of Apple’s keyboards during the 80’s and 90’s (as many of us were) and took notice (as many of us did) when Apple initiated the cheapification process of their keyboards. In a really awesome move, Edgar picked up where Apple left off and started producing Alps mechanical switch keyboards, and later, keyboards using Matias’ own mechanical switches, which are essentially simplified Alps clones. Thank you Edgar!!!

A bit about Alps switches

Introduced around 1983, Alps SKCL/SKCM mechanical switches were the choice of many keyboard manufacturers in the 80’s and early 90’s. Those of us who are old enough to remember using Alps boards hold them in high regard for their smoothness, tactility, sound and serviceability.

Alps SKCM Orange
This is my all-time favorite switch, the Alps SKCM Orange.

Better known keyboards that used complicated Alps switches were the Dell AT101 “bigfoot” and Apple’s “extended” keyboards. My very first keyboard was an Apple Extended II and I remember my best friend had an Apple Extended. I remember hours typing away on AOL instant messenger or some random BBS, listening to the wonderful, rhythmic sound they produced. It was all good stuff.

“Complicated” Alps were given their nickname due to the high number of parts used in each one, (typically 10-13 pieces). That’s more than in a typical Cherry or buckling spring switch, but it was definitely worth it, considering the wonderful typing experience they produced.

Alps SKCM White Disassembled
Disassembled “complicated” Alps SKCM White showing the many different parts.

In the 90s and early 2000s, manufacturers looked for ways to make inexpensive switches. As such, Alps developed a “simplified” version of their switches, using fewer parts, and therefor lowering costs.

Simplified Alps weren’t as refined as their complicated brothers, and within about a decade, Alps discontinued manufacturing switches all together, eventually turning production over to Gold Star Alps in Korea, and Forward Electronics in Taiwan. Neither joint venture lasted long and by 2012 (sadly) Alps key switches were no longer in production.

For some really good videos explaining the evolution and mechanics of SKCL/SKCM mechanical key switches are on Chyrosran22’s Youtube channel. There’s also a really good article describing Alps key switches on Deskthority Wiki.

Alps key switches come in many different colors, each one signifying different tactile and auditory qualities, ranging from linear, clicky, tactile, locking and more.

Alps switches
Various colored Alps SKCL/SKCM switches

Matias relied on Alps for their keyboards and later, Forward Technology. As production dried up, Matias then committed to an order of one million switches to keep production going. But even that didn’t prevent Forward’s Alps production from ending in 2012. At that point, Matias decided to develop their own key switches, based on the simplified Alps design. Matias became the de facto modern day Alps key torch bearer and kept the dream alive, which is fortunate for those of us who love the Alps design.

It took Matias two years to develop their own cloned version of Alps and they improved Alps’ design in a number of ways. First, they made the switch housing from clear plastic which permitted light to shine through to the key cap. This allowed Matias switches to be tactile or clicky, AND backlit, something Alps key switches weren’t capable of. Second, Matias used gold-plated contacts in the switch plate, upping the lifespan to 50 million keystrokes. Third, Matias used better materials and production methods, reducing the “pinging” of simplified Alps, and creating a more refined, more reliable product.

All this brings us to Matias’ current switch offering: Click Switches, Quiet-Click Switches, and Quiet-Linear Switches.

Matias switches from left: Quiet Click Switch, Quiet Linear Switch and Click Switch.

The Quiet Pro keyboard uses Matias’ Quiet Click switches, which isn’t the best name in my opinion since they don’t actually have click leafs in them. Rather they have a tactile leaf and rubber dampeners. They should probably be called Quiet Tactile switches to be more accurate, but maybe that doesn’t quite have the same marketing ring to it.

Review

Note: for this review, I not only used this keyboard exclusively for 2 weeks prior, I also used this keyboard to write the review itself.

The Quiet Pro by Matias is marketed “the world’s quietest mechanical keyboard,” and that might be true, depending on your definition of what a “mechanical keyboard” is. Some would call Topre switches “mechanical,” and Topre makes some super quiet ones, like their silenced ones. To others, Topre switches are just astronomically overpriced rubber domes and therefor not mechanical.

Regardless of your definition of “mechanical” I would even venture to say the Quiet Pro is one of the quietest keyboards available, period. I’ve heard many rubber dome keyboards that are significantly louder than the Quiet Pro. For those looking to use a mechanical keyboard in a hushed office this might be the keyboard for you. Matias achieves the lack of sound via a rubber dampeners on each side of the plastic slider, which are shaped like an hourglass, illustrated below.

Matias Quiet Click slider with rubber dampeners on left and Alps SKCM Cream slider with rubber dampeners on right.

One advantage of having an hourglass dampener on the slider as opposed to Cherry’s very basic o-ring mod, is that it dampens sound on both the downstroke and upstroke. But unlike other keyboards with dampened Alps-style switches, Matias managed to design the key caps and key switches in a way that prevents the keycaps from striking the key switch housing, or switch plate, effectively making them “float,” even when bottomed out. It’s an interesting design, and for my money, I think it’s a little too quiet. I like a little more auditory feedback when typing, and the only thing one hears when typing on the Quiet Pro is the “thud” of rubber on plastic. To my ear the Quiet Pro actually sounds more like a rubber dome keyboard than a mechanical one. Strangely enough, if you listen to the video at the end of this review on my typing demonstration, it actually sounds like an Apple Extended Keyboard II. Maybe my ears aren’t sensitive enough to pick up on the “mechanical” sounds. Bottom line, it sounds slightly louder in the video.

Key Switch Feel

Matias spent 2 years developing the Quiet Pro key switch, experimenting with click leaf shapes, springs, lubricants, dampening mechanisms and more. In the end, they developed something described on their website as “truly unique…” and a “tactile, yet quiet mechanical key switch.” And I think that’s a fairly accurate description. After using the Quiet Pro for over two weeks—and I’ve really thought long and hard about this— they’ve succeeded in creating a mechanical key switch that feels like a very tactile dome with slider key switch. Some people may consider that derisive, but I disagree. Sure, most rubber dome keyboards have the consistency of soggy monkey spunk, but there are some really high quality rubber dome keyboards that achieve very good tactility and key feel. So comparing the Quiet Pro to a high quality rubber dome isn’t exactly a negative to me.

The benefits to choosing Quiet Clicks are they provide a much longer lifespan and a more consistent key feel in the long run. And there IS something in there that feels mechanical, but it’s subtle.

Like rubber domes, Quiet Clicks have a tactile bump at the top, and then a quick drop to the bottom. In fact, it’s very difficult not to bottom on the Quiet Pro because of the strong, initial tactile bump. The rubber dampeners manage to make bottoming out tolerable. It’s only when pressing down on each key very slowly, that you can feel a second tactile bump, somewhere in the middle of the down stroke, presumably when the slider clears the tactile leaf, but it’s almost imperceptible during normal typing.

Quiet Click key switches are weighted at 60g, and because of their tactility I wonder if 60g is too light. Maybe a heavier spring would prevent the bottoming out effect. Alternatively, if Matias reduced the tactility of the leaf, it might make the springs feel more adequate, and prevent bottoming out. Off-center key presses are literally no problem, and Matias switches handle those with absolutely no key binding.

One final thing on Matias’ Quiet-Click switches I thought I’d mention: There is a lot of discussion on message boards talking about some quality control issues with Matias’ key switches, like key chatter and switches basically going dead. I’ve also read that Matias is working to fix those issues, and that switches produced in 2017 are better than those produced in prior years. Anecdotally, I purchased a Quiet Pro keyboard in 2016 and at least 2 keys that went bad on me. The model I’m currently reviewing is from mid-2017 replacement and has been working flawlessly so far, so maybe there’s some truth to it.

Unboxing

Matias produces some of the highest quality keyboard packaging I’ve seen. There’s high quality cardboard, beautiful color photos and they also include a plastic handle to carry it around. It’s the kind of box you’d want to hang on to and actually reuse. Everything about the packaging says high quality.

Overall Design

It took me a while to figure out where I’d seen the shape of Matias’ keyboards before and then it dawned on me. They’re basically clones of Apple Pro Keyboards (model M7803) introduced in the 2000’s. It’s odd that Matias cloned an Apple keyboard almost 20 years ago, and then essentially froze the design it in time, never giving the case a refresh. Maybe changing the tooling is just too expensive, or maybe they really like that design. If you’re going to clone an apple keyboard however, why not copy the gorgeous Apple Extended or Apple Extended II? The end result is the Quiet Pro has a slightly outdated appearance that you can’t quite put your finger on, until you realize where it came from. Ergonomically, the curved profile and key profiles does make the the Quiet Pro very comfortable and easy to type on. Also, there’s no Matias on the top of the board, which I think is kinda cool.

Apple Pro Keyboard
Apple Pro Keyboard (M7803) from around 2000.
Look familiar?
Look familiar?

Overall construction is fairly good for a keyboard made in 2017. They Quiet Pro has some heft at 2.81 lbs. It feels solid and has very little flex. The keys are mounted on a black metal backplate. The overall quality isn’t as good as keyboards made in Japan, but it’s damn near close. The case is made from a sturdy plastic that looks like it’s been painted silver. I wonder if Matias simply paints the black PC case silver when making the Mac version. In any case the silver does look pretty cool and because it’s matte, it’s good at hiding fingerprints and dust. Both Quiet Pros I own have small paint blemishes where you can see the black plastic underneath.

Here is an example of blemish in the silver paint, showing the black plastic underneath.

On either side of the Quiet Pro is a USB 2.0 port, with a third USB 2.0 port on the back. There’s no such thing as too many USB ports, so having three right on your keyboard is really useful and convenient.

Side view shows curved profile and USB 2.0 port.

The USB cable is detachable, and I’m glad to see Matias did this. It’s a very recent modification too. I own a 2016 model and it has an attached USB cable instead. The Quiet Pro ships with two 90 degree angle USB to micro-USB cables, one that goes left and that goes right. You can use your own cables, in case you have a nifty braided one, but a word of caution: some of the aftermarket cables I own don’t work well with this keyboard for some reason, and I can’t tell if it’s the cable or the keyboard. Just something to be aware of.

Micro-USB port for detachable USB cord. Notice the fit and finish isn’t what you’d see on a Japanese-made keyboard.
90-degree angle micro-USB cord end.
One of the included detachable USB cords with 90-degree angle.

On the back of the keyboard is a sticker with the serial number and model number, along with an 800 number for Matias’ customer support. There are two small rubber pads, to prevent the keyboard from sliding on your desk, and two clear plastic flip out feet that look like they were stolen from an Apple keyboard from the 2000s. They’re very sturdy and once engaged, they create a very comfortable typing angle.

View of the bottom of the Quiet Pro keyboard case.
Closeup of label.
Closeup view of 2000s Apple-ish clear plastic feet.
Layout

The layout is really good and is one of the best features of the Quiet Pro. This model has a standard ANSI Mac layout with 107 keys in total. The function row has Apple’s media keys for brightness adjustment, volume control, mission control and more. I’m a big fan of function keys and the Quiet Pro gives you 18 of them. There’s also the wonderful Apple-inspired numpad with the small-ass Addition key and also an Equals sign, which is way more convenient than pressing the Equals key next to the Delete key. There’s a Function key next to the Home key, where the Help key used to be on old Mac keyboards and there’s also an Eject Key in the function key row, which seems a little unnecessary nowadays.

Apple-inspired numpad with small-ass Addition and Equals.
Keycaps

The keycaps are thin (.91mm), black ABS plastic with laser-printed white lettering. While the keycaps are cheap and (frankly) the weakest link on this keyboard, they do have a couple of notable features. First, they’re laser-printed white lettering on black plastic. I’ve seen black laser-printed lettering on white keycaps but the inverse is more uncommon. Matias claims that because the lettering is lasered, it won’t wear off. I’m not so sure that’s true. Also, Matias prints the main character for each key as well as the alternate characters or symbols that require the Option key for the bottom right character or Option-Shift key combination for the top right character. This is very useful, especially for someone like a copywriter, graphic designer, or anyone trying to locate the “∞” or the “æ” characters for example. One frustrating thing about Alps keycaps is that they’re damn near impossible to find Mac layout custom ones.

It looks like Matias uses the same condensed font that Apple did in their USB keyboards from the 2000s, only they opted for the regular typeface, rather than italics. I think this is a big improvement—I never really cared for Apple’s choice of italics on their keyboards, except for the ones from the 80’s and 90’s. Lastly, the Caps Lock key has a LED light window that allows light to shine through the keycap. I think this is a really cool feature and a nostalgic nod to old Alps keyboards.

Overall impressions

So overall, what do I think about the Quiet Pro? To answer that question I first need to take a step back and talk about Matias’ Tactile Pro keyboard. The Tactile Pro is marketed as “ ‘The best keyboard Apple ever made’ rises again,” and is compared to Apple Extended Keyboard. By extension, one might assume (as I did) the Quiet Pro—with dampened tactile Alps-like key switches—is therefor a reincarnation of the Apple Extended Keyboard II. But if you purchase the Quiet Pro, thinking you are buying a modern-day Apple Extended II, the you’ll be sorely disappointed. It took me a while to get that concept out of my head. The Quiet Pro feels and sounds nothing like the Apple Extended Keyboard II which is disappointing at first. The key switches aren’t nearly as refined or smooth as the original dampened Cream Alps, the key caps are much thinner and aren’t PBT, the case isn’t as sturdy, and in general there’s nowhere near the typing experience. But that’s not how Matias markets this keyboard so it’s a little unfair to compare it to the Extended II.

On it’s own merits, I think Matias has successfully produced an extremely quiet mechanical board with good tactility an a smooth key feel. If you’re the kind of person that needs a little more auditory feedback, then the Quiet Pro might be a little too quiet. Going to the Tactile Pro is like going to the complete opposite end of the noise spectrum, and I think it would be great if Matias offered a keyboard somewhere in the middle.

The more I use this keyboard, the more I started to appreciate the feel and all the little details that make it a great keyboard. Admittedly, I’ll be sad to move on to another keyboard for my next review. If I had to chose one keyboard as my daily driver for the next 6 months, the Quiet Pro would be on or near the top of my list.

Pros

It’s very comfortable to type on for extended periods of time. It has a great layout for Mac users. The case is generally well made, with the exception of some minor flaws in the paint. The 3 USB 2.0 ports are super useful. The detachable USB cord is awesome, and the fact that Matias chose micro-USB rather than mini-USB means you have a lot more after-market cables to choose from. And while it gives you a good tactile experience, it comes with almost no auditory feedback, which I consider a pro for those who work in a shared space. The smoothness and tactility of Matias’ Quiet-Click switches is light years better than anything Cherry or it’s “Clones” produce. The only switch I can think of that is smoother or that sounds better is Topre, but Topre boards are typically weighted at around 45g or less, so you don’t get quite the same tactility. Bottom line, I would recommend the Quiet Pro for someone like a copywriter, programmer, someone who does data entry or anyone else that does a shit-ton of typing all day. Because of the full layout, I’m not sure this would be a good keyboard for gamers who generally steer towards TKL or smaller.

Cons

The keycaps are piss-poor thin for a keyboard that costs over $100. The case design is a little outdated unless you’re a big fan of  Apple keyboards from the 2000’s. Lastly, it’s a little too quiet in my opinion.

Thanks for reading my review. I hope it was informative, helpful and enjoyable. Below is a video of me typing on the Matias Quiet Pro.

A very special thanks to DESKTHORITY for providing photos of Alps switches that I used in this review.

Reviewed :: Unicomp Spacesaver M Black

It’s the inside that counts

Keyboard Name: Unicomp Spacesaver M Black / Brilliant White
Model Number: UW4ZP4A
Retail Price: $94
Weight: 3.31 lbs / 3.3 kg
Key switch type: Buckling spring
Keycaps: PBT with dye sublimated legends
Keycap thickness: 1.69 mm

A Brief-ish History

In 1985 IBM introduced the Model M keyboard as a cost-effective successor to the earlier Model F keyboard. The Model M was made and sold from 1985 to 1996. Nowadays, it seems ridiculous to think the Model M was a less expensive alternative to anything. But at the time, IBM wanted to make their keyboards more affordable to home and business users. IBM shaved costs by substituting many of the metal components used in the Model F with plastic ones. They also slightly cheapified the Model F’s “Buckling Spring” over a capacitive PCB key switch by instead, using a buckling spring over rubber and plastic membrane key switch for the Model M (yes, I know this is grossly over-simplified).

 

IBM Model M
IBM Model M Keyboard

By today’s standards though, the Model M was basically built like a brick shit house and is still widely regarded as the gold standard of keyboard quality and user experience. IBM essentially over-engineered the Model M. Case in point: many people still use Model Ms today. A quick search on ebay will turn up lots of used (and very functional) Model Ms for sale, and even some new-in-box ones.

Model Ms in their various iterations can be characterized by a thick, plastic case, a thick cobalt-plated steel backplate, a nice, thick, detachable coiled cable, durable, removable dye sublimed PBT keycaps and IBM’s famous buckling-spring key switches. Here’s a simple diagram that illustrates how a buckling-spring key switch works:

IBM Buckling Spring Key Switch
Animated diagram of buckling spring key switch

Essentially the coil spring “buckles” under pressure, causing it strike the side of the key switch barrel. Simultaneously the buckled spring drives a pivoted rocker actuator or switch down to create a capacitive action, or in other words, turning the switch from “off” to “on”. These two actions—the buckling of the spring and the depressing of the bottom actuator—give buckling spring key switches their gorgeously unique sound and tactility.

Companies have produced similar(ish) key switches in spirit, like Cherry MX Blues and Blue Alps key switches, and they are sometimes compared to buckling springs. But nothing really comes remotely close to the unique sound or incredible tactility. There is no comparison.

As time went on, Model Ms were progressively cheapened as IBM opted for thinner materials. Also, the aesthetics of the keyboard changed slightly over the years. Then in 1991, IBM transitioned part of their manufacturing business including printers and keyboards to a company called Lexmark in Lexington, Kentucky. Lexmark continued making Model M keyboards under license until 1996, when the relationship ended.

Model M made by Lexmark
Model M made by Lexmark circa 1995

At that point, some of the Lexmark employees formed a new company called Unicomp. They bought the tooling and manufacturing equipment Lexmark had used to make Model Ms. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Unicomps are still manufactured to this day in Lexington Kentucky. You could say that Unicomps are Model M “clones,” but I really think they are real-deal Model Ms, albeit changed over years of design modification. Unicomp markets their keyboards as “the original Model M” and that’s essentially true.

So all of this history and discussion of legacy begs some very legitimate questions to the casual non-keyboard enthusiast? Like, who cares? The answer is because all of this makes the Unicomp a really, really unique, and interesting keyboard.

Review

Note: This review is for the Mac version of the Unicomp Spacesaver. There are some differences between the Mac and PC version, but I think this review will suffice for those thinking about buying either.

Note: for this review, I not only used this keyboard exclusively for 2 weeks prior, I also used this keyboard to write the review itself.

Upon unboxing the Spacesaver M, the first thing I noticed is the heft. The keyboard weighs in at a respectable 3 lbs 5oz. Not too shabby for a keyboard made in 2017. The brown shipping box has no identifying information other than the shipping labels and small Unicomp adhesive label with Unicomp’s logo, ship date, and part number.

Inside it’s the same. A thin piece of loose-fitting plastic wrap, a couple of cardboard inserts, a receipt and some basic information on how to troubleshoot shipping-induced issues. Mine came with additional blue keycaps in the box that I purchased separately. And while the packaging is sparse, it gets the job done. My keyboard had no noticeable damage from shipping and only one loose keycap. Super easy to reattach.

When I picked up the Spacesaver M, I immediately noticed the case felt like it was made of thin, cheap plastic. It squeaked and creaked with the slightest touch—It wasn’t best first impression, and honestly, with just a few additional screws Unicomp could probably fix this problem. As far as I can tell, the case is held together with 3 screws at the top, and probably some plastic clips on the bottom. And the bottom of the case is where the majority of the creaks come from. Once the Spacesaver M is sitting on your desk however, it feels solid, and the thinness of the case is basically a non-issue.

I also noticed a lot of “blemishes” in the plastic. There are shiny spots and depressions that look like Unicom’s tooling might be getting old or damaged. This has been noted by many reviewers in the past, and my keyboard certainly lived up to the Unicomp reputation for poor fit and finish.

There’s also a bizarre rectangle patch just below the spacebar which serves no apparent function. It looks like a vestigial component of previous model M that is no longer needed, but Unicomp never bothered to remove. Maybe someone can can explain to me what that is or why it’s there.

** Update: Geekhack user “csmertx” was kind enough explain the source of this mysterious rectangular patch. In his words, “…the rectangle is there because the Spacesaver M, Ultra Classic, and Endura Pro are assembled with the same casing. The latter model features a TrackPoint and LMB/RMB below the spacebar. Basically a vestige of M13 production.” Details can be found on Deskthority but essentially, it’s a relic of an old mouse button.

There’s a strange rectangular notch below spacebar that looks like a vestigial component that is no longer needed.

On the top right are a caps lock light and function light. Both are illuminated with attractive, bright blue LEDs, similar to what Topre uses on its Realforce keyboards. Caps lock and function lights are identified with the same label that also features Unicomp’s logo.

Unicomp logo badge
Shown is the Unicomp logo badge with Caps Lock and Function lights above.
Logo

I’ll preface this by saying I don’t normally fixate on logos, and I mostly feel that logo design can be very subjective. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. But I kinda feel obligated to talk about Unicomp’s logo. I’ve given this some serious consideration over two weeks it’s basically come down to: Either the Unicomp logo is the most bastard-ugly logo in the grand history logos, or it’s so ugly, it’s actually cool. I’ve considered some theories as to why the Unicomp logo looks the way it does.

Unicomp could be trying to say, “We’re keyboard manufacturers, not graphic designers. See? And, we’ll back it up with even uglier legends on our key caps, AND even more with incredibly bizarre caps lock and function lock symbols next to our logo. Or maybe they’re betting we’ll still buy their keyboards regardless of the logo. Or maybe Unicomp is just totally oblivious and don’t realize that they have an ugly logo, or just don’t really care. I’d love to have someone at Unicomp set the record straight on this matter.

All that being said, after staring at “Unicomp’s” blue unibrow, with that super-weird red dot eyeball, for almost two weeks, I have come to see it in a different light, and with a fonder eye. It now stares back at me and says, “I basically don’t give a fuck about appearances. It’s the inside that counts.” In the end, I respect that. Unicomp should sell logo t-shirts. I’d probably wear one.

Here is the Unicomp logo and lock lights.

On the bottom of the case are a couple of small rubber pads to prevent slipping, some small flip-out feet to adjust the height, a cheap adhesive label that looks like it was printed on a laser printer with serial number, and a very useful cable management system with “gutters” that allow the attached USB cable to extend from the right or left side of the keyboard. Nice touch.

The Spacesaver M’s small flip out feet and USB cable gutters
Layout

The full-size layout is well designed, with a few touches that will make Mac users very happy. First, the function keys go all the way up to F15. In my opinion there is no such thing as too many function keys. True, some keyboards, like Apple’s own full-size keyboards go all the way up to F19, but having 15 function keys is enough and makes the keyboard very useful. Other nice layout touches are the numpad with Equals, Clear, and small-ass Plus keys. Anyone who uses Excel understands how useful it is to have an Equals key on the numpad rather than having to hunt for the one next to Backspace.

Unicomp was also kind enough to have the proper Command, Option and Control keys in the right locations, as well as various media and OS X keys at the top function row. Lastly they included the semi-useful Eject key (who has anything to eject these days?), and placed the function key logically between Option and Control. All-in-all I’d say this is a legit Mac user keyboard, and I find it very straight forward and functional. It’s certainly not a PC keyboard that was poorly adapted to the Mac platform. It’s the real thing.

Keycaps

They key caps are excellent—some of the best around. Thick PBT plastic (around 1.69 mm in thickness) with dye sublimated legends. Because the keycaps are durable PBT, they presumably won’t yellow over time or wear with use as quickly as EPS. They are made from two pieces of interlocking plastic similar to the original Model Ms, illustrated below. The characters are sharp and crisp and I especially like the contrast against the white keys. Popping them out and replacing them is about as easy as it gets. Just use a wire puller and with minimal effort they snap out, and in agin.

Spacesaver M dye sublimated PBT keycaps in brilliant white with blue ANSI key mod
Spacesaver M dye sublimated PBT keycaps in brilliant white with blue ANSI key mod are super crisp and easy to read.

When I originally received my keyboard, some of the blue keycaps I ordered had lettering and legends that weren’t properly aligned. The worst ones were the Page Up and Page Down keys shown below. Unicomp is renowned for their customer service and they lived up to their reputation on this issue. One email with a photo was all it took to get replacement keycaps in the mail within a few days. Nice.

Key switches

I’ve spent some time talking about the original Model M key switches in the history section so I won’t go too much into the details again. As far as I can tell, these are pretty much the same as what the Model M used. For anyone who hasn’t typed on a buckling spring keyboard, I highly recommend trying one. While hard to describe, I will say the tactility and sound is beyond satisfying. Also, they’re very mechanical and very loud, so probably not the best for a shared office space. I believe Unicomp uses 60-70g springs in their key switches. Not the stiffest on the block, but they provide good resistance and allow fingers to rest on the keys without accidental key presses. Once depressed however, it’s near impossible not to bottom out. I think this is inherent in the buckling spring design. Because the actuator sits over rubber and plastic, bottoming out doesn’t feel harsh or sharp. Instead it’s pleasant and cushioned. And once released, the key rockets back up to the top as it resets itself in the chamber in a very satisfying way. Off-center key presses are zero problem with buckling spring switches. I couldn’t get keys to bind at all, no matter how much I tried.

Animated diagram of buckling spring key switch

Because of the unique sensation and long key travel, it took me a couple of hours to get used to typing on the Spacesaver M. At first, my cadence slowed down, partially due to the novelty of the sensation, and partially because each key was so much fun to press—like I was savoring the experience. But after a few days, I noticed my typing speed increased drastically, with fewer errors.

All-in-all, I’d say the key switches are probably the best feature of this keyboard, especially if you do a lot of typing. It’s the closest sensation to an old typewriter I’ve experienced from a modern keyboard. I’m not so sure I’d recommend this keyboard to gamers because of the long key travel, stiffness of the springs, and lack of N-key rollover. That being said, it’s no surprise that buckling spring key switches are still viable today, and I think they are probably the best new switch available on the market for typists, in terms of tactility, reliability, and smoothness.

Sound

Buckling springs are loud. I certainly wouldn’t use the Spacesaver M in a shared office environment, unless it in the company of typewriters or something. And while they aren’t the best absolute best sounding key switches I have ever heard (that title probably goes to complicated Orange Alps), they’re very near the top of my list. To be clear, it really sounds good. Because this keyboard sounds almost like a typewriter, I always feel like I should be in a smoky office environment from the 60s or something. Seriously, typing on this thing makes me want to smoke a cigarette. Cigarette anyone?

I have a theory on what makes a keyboard sound great. A lot of it has to do with the key switches (obviously), but a lot of it also has to do with case design, backplate design, key cap design, and materials used throughout. This makes it difficult to talk about key switches and sound in isolation. A keyboard should produce (in my opinion) a full range of sound to be the most pleasing to the ear, kind of like a pair of good speakers. In simple terms, that means balanced amounts of treble, midrange and bass. Whenever a keyboard produces only narrow frequencies of sound, the audio feedback is either one-dimensional and boring, or downright annoying. Greentech Blues, for example, make nothing but a high-pitched, loud plastic “tick” sound. My review of the Das Keyboard Professional 4 will spend some time discussing them in detail. Five minutes of listening to Greentech Blues and I’m ready to throw my keyboard through a window (or into the nearest incinerator). Good God. Similarly, silenced Topre boards can produce a bassy “thock” that can be a little boring at times. Yes, I know both of these statements are a little polarizing, but to each his own I guess. To me, the magic happens when there’s a full range.

The sound of the Spacesaver M is very satisfying, but it isn’t as deep or bassy as older Model M keyboards and I think it’s probably because of the thin plastics used for the case, and thinner metal backplate. There’s a hollowness or echo that you can hear. Nonetheless, it’s an overall good sound, and hours of typing doesn’t get tiresome or annoying. At the end of this review is a video of me typing on the Spacesaver M for reference.

Summary

Overall, I think the Spacesaver M is an exceptionally good keyboard, and a good value, despite some of its shortcomings. Sure, the thin, creaky, plastic case doesn’t inspire confidence, and the manufacturing quality control could be better. And yes, some the legends and symbols are downright ugly. But after a while, these shortcomings start to become strangely endearing in a weird sort of way. The Spacesaver M also has a lot of really good features that aren’t offered anywhere unless you buy used. A proper Mac layout, extra-thick dye sublimated PBT, keycaps, and a typing experience that is very fun and highly addictive… All for under $100. Plus, I think it’s really cool that Unicomp is keeping the Model M spirit alive, even if it has cut some corners along the way. Yes, you can go out and buy a used Model M, but they aren’t cheap, and they don’t have a completely modern layout, not to mention no USB connectivity. So bottom line, I would certainly recommending using one, especially for those who do a lot of typing and are OK with a lot of sound.

There are a few things that I think Unicomp could change that would make some really big improvements. For instance, a thicker, better made case would make a huge difference. I emailed them a while back suggesting that they make a premium version, with a nicer case but never received a response. At the very least, just adding some additional screws to the case would help. The addition of a detachable USB cable and some additional USB ports would be fantastic and probably wouldn’t add a whole lot of cost. Lastly, Unicomp should probably hire a graphic designer to spend a little more time on some of the key legends and super awkward Caps Lock and Function Lock light symbols. Heck I’d do it for free if they asked. Just don’t touch that Unicomp logo!

Thanks for reading my review. I hope it was informative, helpful and enjoyable. Below is a video of me typing on the Unicomp Spacesaver M.