I am not old enough to have ever come across an original IBM Model M in an office. But in my sophomore year in college, after hearing how great it was to type on these old keyboards, I looked up an old model on eBay. For the next two years, every 1985 essay I wrote was hammered onto a vintage keyboard. I never took it to libraries or lectures (I’m not a monster), but my sophomore roommate must have been pretty happy to see the back of me that summer.
At the time of writing, you can still find plenty of decades-old IBM Model M keyboards for sale online, or you could buy a new $ 104 Model M from Unicomp, a company with roots in the Lexington keyboard factory that sells many of the original Model Ms. produced. The new Model M is big, bulky, and features the same buckling spring shift mechanism that made its predecessor so much fun to type on. It’s not hard to imagine this plate sucking up cigarette smoke and coffee on the desk of an 1980s office worker.
When people ask me what I like about mechanical keyboards, I usually respond by saying something about how timeless their designs are. IBM keyboards produced in the 1980s still feel great for typing, and there’s a good chance that many mechanical keyboards made today will last longer than the computers they are connected to. But feeling good at typing isn’t all a modern keyboard has to do, and that’s where the new Model M falls short.
The new model M is available in different configurations. While the case only comes in black, the keys come in gray or, as we have here, in white and gray. It is available with an old-fashioned PS2 connector or more modern USB. (Unfortunately, the cable isn’t detachable like many modern mechanical keyboards.) It is available with layouts suitable for a variety of countries, including the US, UK, Denmark, Finland / Sweden, France, Germany, Norway and Spain. If you’re going for an American layout there’s the option of getting the keyboard with a slightly longer space bar, and Unicomp will also ship the keyboard with a Mac layoutSome of these options incur an adjustment fee. Unsurprisingly, there isn’t an option for wireless connectivity, just like there wouldn’t have been in the mid-1980s.
Even for a full-size keyboard, the new Model M is bigThere is at least 2 cm (0.78 inch) of plastic trim around the four sides of the keyboard, and even between the sections of the keys themselves, there is more empty space than most modern keyboards. It’s a bit narrower and shorter than my ’80s model M, but not much. It’s also a lot lighter and doesn’t feel as sturdy as my original model. It’s not thin; it’s just not built like a tank like the old keyboards were.
There are obvious practical drawbacks to such a large keyboard, and typists with limited space should look elsewhere (or perhaps Unicomp’s more recent Mini M. if you’re willing to give up the Numpad and could use a detachable USB cable). But if you need a full-size keyboard and you have even a bit of limited space, the new model M is not a good choice.
The overall design of the new model MI could take or leave. It has some sort of retro charm, but the Unicomp logo at the top right is dated in an ugly way rather than charmingly, and the blue LEDs that light up when you have Caps Lock or Num Lock enabled are an eyesore.
All in all, while the build quality isn’t quite as good as an original Model M, Unicomp’s keyboard feels solid by modern standards. The keycap legends are printed on using color sublimation, so they won’t wear off quickly, and they have a slightly rough matte texture that feels nice under the fingers. They are quite long and gradually increase in height from the front to the back of the keyboard, with square edges and a slight curvature from side to side. (I’d say they’re closer to OEM in general than Cherry profile keycaps.) There are a few raised bars on the J and F keys to help touch typists find their home row, but they’re subtle and must getting used to.
The quality and style of the keyboard’s PBT keycaps are important because alternatives are not nearly as easy to find as they are for Cherry-style switch keyboards. Unicomp sells replacements through its online store, but if you are someone interested in buying one of the wildly designed keycaps available on the internet, please note that few of them are compatible with the new model M. I also found that the keycaps were not as easy to remove and replace as the keycaps on Cherry MX-style switches.
It all means that the new Model M isn’t the best keyboard for tinkerers. There are no Cherry MX-esque switches to desolder and swap out, and you won’t be tempted by a seemingly endless supply of new keycaps to buy online. That doesn’t matter to the vast majority of typists, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you’re curious about the weird and wonderful world of custom keyboards.
When you buy a new Model M, you buy it for the typing experience it offers out of the box. Fortunately, that experience is one of the best there is. The keyboard’s heavy keys take some getting used to (I find that typing with my wrists in the air instead of resting on my desk helps a lot), and soon the tactile click of each keystroke leads you to a reassuring rhythm. The fact that each key is slightly harder to press than most other keyboards meant that I made a typo less often, which made it easy for me to get into a good flow and just enjoy the process. At its best, the new Model M sounds like a glorious cacophony of keyclaps, and it feels as good as it sounds.
People like to give advice on what kind of switches you should buy a keyboard with based on what you will be using it for. If you’re a typist, Cherry MX Blues is said to be a good choice, while gamers may be better off with Cherry MX Reds. MX Browns are considered a mix of both. For the most part, I think this kind of advice can be a bit prescriptive. I know people who game on Blues and type on Reds.
But when it comes to buckling springs, I really think these are switches for typing and typing only. That pressure you have to apply to press each key is fine while typing, but it can get tiresome if you hold down a key while playing a game.
Another drawback to consider is their volume: buckling springs are noisyThey are so loud that not only is it a problem if you plan to use the keyboard in a shared dorm room or office, but their loudness caused problems for me on Zoom calls as well. I had to mute myself on a recent conversation to avoid disturbing everyone with my clicks, and on other occasions I had to turn up the volume on my speakers to hear a press conference while typing notes. Another time, I managed to completely screw up a recording of an interview because you could only hear the sound of me while an interviewee spoke.
If all you do on your computer is type, the new Model M does it brilliantly. But when you have to use your computer for other things, like playing games or making phone calls, the keyboard’s lack of versatility becomes apparent.
I loved using my IBM Model M, and there’s no way I’ll be saying goodbye to it anytime soon. But soon after I finished school, I switched to a more modern keyboard with much quieter Cherry MX Brown switches. Ultimately, I needed my computer’s main control edge to be good at things that weren’t just typing.
Like its predecessors, if you use the new Model M for what it was designed for, namely typing, there are few other keyboards that do as well. People have been slapping bendy spring keyboards for a good reason for decades. But the Unicomp keyboard is as uncompromising as any Model M from the 1980s. It’s too loud for modern office or video calls, and the stiff switches aren’t great for gaming.
But if you’re looking for the best typing experience at any price, the Unicomp New Model M is one of your best options. You just need to understand exactly what “regardless of the cost” is.