IBM Model M: Review of a 26-Year-Old Keyboard
November 6, 1991, twenty-six years ago, is when this IBM Model M keyboard was produced. So why is a 21-year old millennial such as myself using it, or even writing about it?
If you’re outside the clickity-clackity niche of keyboard enthusiasts, you may not know that the IBM Model M is legendary for its extreme durability, very noisy sound profile that is very satisfying to some, and classic look and appeal, among other things. On the note of its durability, this Reddit user puts it best:
Before we continue with this review, you may want to learn a thing or two about the Model M, and what it’s all about.
A brief history of the Model M
1933 was the year when IBM purchased the Electromatic Typewriter Company, which allowed them to acquire the patents they would need to eventually become one of the biggest names in the typewriter industry. Fast forward to 1981, and IBM had already been a major manufacturing authority in the realm of computing for several years, and had now introduced the Model F keyboard, an 83-key buckling spring keyboard that was paired with the original IBM PC.
The Model F serves as the predecessor of the Model M, and is still sought after by enthusiasts today, so much so that one Joe Strandberg has brought them back, and is now producing and selling them himself, starting at $325. Anyway, at the time of its launch, the IBM Model F cost $600, and not a lot of people had that kind of money. Enter the Model M.
The IBM Model M was introduced as a more cost-effective keyboard than its predecessor and used the then-industry-standard 101-key layout. It used the same buckling spring key actuation method and like its predecessor, was built to last decades, not years. These keyboards were produced in the United States, United Kingdom, and Mexico, from 1985 up until they were discontinued in 1999. It saw different iterations throughout those years, and manufacturing duties went from IBM themselves, to Lexmark, to Unicomp.
Now that you have a rudimentary understanding of the origin story of the Model M, let’s get into the review. The particular variant of the Model M we’ll be taking a look at is Part No. 1391401, which was the basis for most of the other variants, and is the most common one you’ll find on the grey market nowadays.
Design and Construction
The basis for the very strong and durable build of the Model M that actually allows it to last for decades, is its heavy steel backplate and tough plastic frame and outer shell.
It uses a 101-key layout which isn’t too far from today’s 104-key standard. The only keys “missing” are the pair of Windows keys and the Fn key. The lack of those keys may severely affect some users but personally, it’s actually not so bad.
The key caps themselves are very thick and in fact, come in two layers. The top layer has the actual lettering, while the bottom layer is the one that actually makes contact with the spring. This allows you to freely remove the top layer for cleaning or replacement, without damaging the spring mechanism.
The lettering is printed using a process called dye-sublimation, which uses heat to transfer dye onto the material, making it permanently part of the plastic, and extremely resistant to wear.
Flipping it over to see the bottom, and we have two flip-out feet made of the same tough plastic as the rest of the frame. Also found here is a label that most importantly indicates the part number, and the actual “birthday” of your keyboard.
Even from these photos, you can tell that the Model M is indeed very hefty, and with the cable, it weighs in at about 2.5kg. That’s heavier than a 15-inch MacBook Pro 2017.
The type of keyswitch actuation mechanism used by the Model M is a buckling spring.
When a key is pressed, a spring that sits between the keycap buckles, making a hammer pivot forward, striking an electric contact under a membrane sheet on the PCB, which then actuates the key. This provides a tactile feel and distinct sound, which lets the user know precisely when a keystroke has been registered.
The typing experience is severely different from the keyboards we’re used to today. The tactile feel of the keys is definitely very satisfying, but long typing sessions can be very tiring as the keys are very heavy by comparison. The sound is very distinct and has its own character, unlike other mechanical key switches such as Cherry MX Blues. In terms of volume though, they are somewhat similar.
Be prepared to use either the legacy port on your PC’s motherboard, or buy a USB adapter, because this keyboard uses a PS/2 connector.
The cable is reminiscent of the thick coiled cables of old, corded phones.
On the other end of the coil is an SDL port and connector. It’s a very old type of connector that if not taken care of, can break easily. If any part of your Model M does break, it will probably be this one.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way by saying, a Model M, or any buckling spring keyboard in general, is not for everyone. Some users may not be able to live without the Windows or Fn keys, or find the keys way too heavy, or not be willing to deal with PS/2 connectivity. However, if you’re into vintage things, love a very clicky keyboard, or are a keyboard enthusiast in general, then a Model M is a must-have. It will not last you years, but decades, and to echo the Reddit user we quoted in the introduction, you will probably die before it does.
Now, this begs the question, where do you even get one? You can still actually buy original Unicomp Inc. manufactured Model M’s over at their website here. You can also try ClickyKeyboards, an online shop that sells the keyboards themselves, as well as parts. After those, the only other place you can really look is the grey market, like eBay, or even Facebook groups like the Mechanical Keyboard Market PH. These boards generally do not come cheap, but if you’re lucky, you might be able to snag one for only Php3,500 like I did (bought secondhand).