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
Keycap average thickness: 1.13 mm
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!
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.