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Professional Mechanical Keyboard Comparison E-mail
Reviews - Featured Reviews: Input Devices
Written by David Ramsey - Edited by Olin Coles   
Sunday, 27 September 2009
Table of Contents: Page Index
Professional Mechanical Keyboard Comparison
Mechanical vs Non-Mechanical
IBM Model M Keyboard
Unicomp Customizer 104 Keyboard
Avant Stellar Keyboard
Das Keyboard Ultimate Keyboard
Deck Legend Keyboard
Dell SK-8115 keyboard
Enermax Caesar keyboard
OCZ Alchemy Elixir keyboard
Final Thoughts and Conclusion

Dell SK-8115 keyboard

Expensive mechanical keyboards are all well and good; but let's take a look at some examples of what most people are actually using to see how they compare. We'll start with the Dell SK-8115, a keyboard included with many Dell computers sold to business and industry. You'll see in almost any business that uses Dell computers (in fact I saw two of them recently at the local Round Table Pizza). Dell refers to it on their web site as "USB keyboard for select Dell systems", whereas other sites refer to it as the "Dell compact USB keyboard". It's a standard 104-key layout with a very narrow bezel (thus the "compact" designation); the only oddity in the design is that the Windows key, alt key, space bar, and menu key are all about half again as deep as you'd expect, with the bottom edge of the keyboard bulging out to accommodate them. This surprising design touch actually does make a difference; using these keys felt easier and more natural.

dell_sk8115_keyboard.jpg

If the IBM Model M defined the computer keyboard of the 80s, this represents the standard computer keyboard of the 21st century. Constructed of thin, lightweight black plastic, with absolutely nothing that could be construed as an "extra feature", it's a pure typing keyboard, and Dell sells it new for $21.99. There are two customer reviews of the keyboard on Dell's web site and they both give it five out of five stars. There are no macros, media keys, backlighting, et cetera; it's just a very basic keyboard. So how does it compare to a mechanical keyboard for feel and usability?

After spending an hour or so typing on this keyboard, I was surprised to find that it's not as sublimely horrible as I'd expected. The keys are full-stroke desktop-style keys rather than the laptop style keys that are becoming more common on desktop keyboards, the key layout is nicely sculpted, and the rubber domes are assertive enough to imbue this keyboard with as much "key feel" as you'll ever get using this technology. The compact size is a plus if your desk space is at a premium. I couldn't type as fast and accurately on this keyboard as I could any of the mechanical models, but it's entirely usable. In fact, my wife, who's a professional programmer, thinks it's one of the best keyboards she's ever used.

Durability is an unknown, although it's likely to be far less than a mechanical keyboard. But durability wasn't a design criteria with this keyboard: it was designed to be cheap yet usable; just enough to keep a typical consumer going for a year or two, and if it dies, who cares? A new one is only $21.99!

EDITORS NOTE: It cost me less than $8 per unit to buy a 25-pack case of Dell SK-8115 keyboards, making them disposable.

Price $21.99
Interface USB
Switches Rubber dome
Sculpted Yes
Warranty Unknown, but who cares? It's $21.99!
The Good Cheap, compact layout, sculpted keys
The Bad No USB hub, rubber dome switches
Sum-up You could do worse. A lot worse, actually.



 

Comments 

 
# RE: Professional Mechanical Keyboard ComparisonMatt 2010-07-26 23:36
I got my Customizer 104 yesterday. I'd been getting pain while typing on my old keyboard but today on the Customizer is the first day of pain-free typing I've had in months....it's great.
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# RE: Professional Mechanical Keyboard ComparisonChristian 2011-05-27 04:13
I miss the Cherry G80 on the list. Almost as old as the Model M, still in production in a great variety of models (chipcard reader, finger print sensor, etc) and still with this great feel. As an extra feature it brings the knowledge, that if it doesn't work properly it isn't broke (actually I don't think you can break it) it is just really dirty. In this case, I put all non-electrical part in the dishwasher and put it back together.
By the way, mine has still this big round connector found in the old AT machines before the PS2-connectors where introduced and no Windows key.
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# RE: RE: Professional Mechanical Keyboard ComparisonDavid Ramsey 2011-05-27 07:45
I didn't have any Cherry-branded keyboards because Cherry (while they supply mechanical switches for many other vendors' keyboards) doesn't have a consumer retail presence any more; you can still get their keyboards, but they're aimed at industrial users, POS systems, and the like.
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# RE: RE: Professional Mechanical Keyboard ComparisonChristian 2011-05-27 08:52
First of all: Nice to see a comment answered that quickly at an article almost two years old.

On the topic: It is sad to hear that Cherry isn't present in the consumer market in the US anymore. Here in Germany you can buy Cherry products in every good online store as well as the small retailer around the corner. But I admit they sell G83s, it maybe harder to get an G80 here as well.

If you can't get one in the US without a problem, than you were right not to test it. But as you said in the article, a keyboard is a very personal thing, and it makes you a little sad when your favourite is not included in such a test
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# MegakeyboardVakesakeum 2011-06-22 11:10
Khhhhhhh!!!! It seems i nearly become a keyboard geek with this awesome device :)
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# Unicomp vs Original Model Masalina 2011-08-17 05:45
I bought two of the Unicomp keyboards because they were advertised as being Model M clones. I have old Lexmark Model M's as well, and the Unicomps are junk by comparison. The plastic of the bodies is cheap and brittle whereas the old Lexmarks were made of ABS plastic. The keys stick and on one the TAB key triggers by itself. Since the key switches are of a monolithic design (one large plastic panel of key switches) they cannot be replaced individually, like the old Model M's. The Unicomp keyboards may LOOK like the original Model M's but they are of much lower quality. I'm not happy with them at all. Caveat Emptor.
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# RE: Unicomp vs Original Model MDavid Ramsey 2011-08-17 08:06
I've been very happy with the Unicomp keyboard I had-- the Customizer with grey keys mentioned in this test. What model did you have these problems with?
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# RE: RE: Unicomp vs Original Model Masalina 2011-08-18 05:17
Mine is exactly the same model as yours: 42H1292U. Just now, before replying to your post, I had to swap one of the function key plungers with the TAB key that's been giving me trouble. I think the problem is deeper than just the key plunger, but we'll see.

So have you compared your Customizer with an older Lexmark-manufactured Model M? To me the Unicomp is like so many things made these days; they're like stage props compared to the things they're made to resemble.

According to the history of the Model M at Wikipedia, Lexmark made the keyboards /for/ IBM, so they were held to IBM's standards, but when their contract ran out and they sold the patents to Unicomp there was no more impetus to maintain those standards.
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# RE: RE: RE: Unicomp vs Original Model Masalina 2011-08-18 06:09
P.S. I need to correct myself slightly here. Above I said "According to the history..." when I should have said "Going by the history..." The Wikipedia article does not imply that Unicomp lowered its standards; that's just my opinion.
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# RE: RE: RE: Unicomp vs Original Model MDavid Ramsey 2011-08-18 08:08
None of my 3 Model M keyboards say anything except "IBM" on their labels, so I'm not sure if I have any Lexmark-manufacturered units. The key feel of the Lexmark is slightly different, so perhaps the mechanism was changed at some point. I sold the Lexmark a while back to a friend who's a graphic designer and she still loves it. I suppose you could have simply gotten a lemon; it does happen.
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# RE: RE: RE: RE: Unicomp vs Original Model Masalina 2011-08-18 18:23
I think only Lexmark made IBM branded Model M's, so if yours have the IBM badge then they are probably Lexmarks. (The label on the underside might give more info.) Regarding the different key feel, that may be due to use of different materials rather than design. I've had both the Unicomps and the Lexmarks open and they seem to have exactly the same design. Yes, I believe these are lemons, but lets remember that I bought two of them and both have problems. That's not a good batting average.

Anyway, thanks to your article I've been able to check out other brands of keyboards and have just ordered a DAS "Professional S." My thinking is that if it ever gives me trouble I at least have the option of replacing its Cherry MX blue key switches myself. I'm proficient enough at soldering so it shouldn't be a problem.

Thanks for the reviews, asalina
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# Chief Opinion OfficerOpinionated Guy 2012-08-25 11:13
For the record, Lexmark *IS* IBM.

In 1991, IBM sold its printing / imaging business to an private equity firm, and that became Lexmark. They got the keyboards, too. This is much the same as the way IBM's personal computer / laptop division was spun into Lenovo.
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# I betchakemohomo 2011-08-21 05:38
I bought six UNICOMP keyboards. Surely, quality is terrible.
#1 almost no problem (customizer 101)
#2 F2 keycap is slightly corrupt (customizer 101)
#3 Backspace is noisy, tenkey '8' is not smooth
#4 locking mechanism of stand is weak
#5, #6 no problem (new spacesaver 104PC). The key feel is lighter than customizer.

But UNICOMP is cheaper than original. I have several model M (three Lexmark and one 1390120). The key feel is different, but I also love UNICOMP's feel though quality is quite low.
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# RE: I betchaDavid Ramsey 2011-08-21 08:16
I could only judge the sample I had. There are many companies making mechanical keyboards today, more than there were when I originally wrote this review two years ago. You should be able to find some very nice keyboards from the likes of Deck, Razer, Filco, and others.
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# Keycaps look pad printedPete 2012-01-17 21:00
The arrow keys in your shot appear to be pad printed and basically looks like a sticker. I wonder how well these sold since the keyboard snobs would have noticed that? I would really like function keys on the left but not on top, like that old IBM model I think it was the F. Have not found one in my research. I looked at a lot of these pricey new mechanical boards but decided to go with a nice refurb Model M for far less money. Couldn't be happier with it except for a bit of looseness on the backspace. Good write up though.
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# I meant on the Avant boardPete 2012-01-17 21:05
I didn't realize this was for all pages so I meant the keys on the Avant.
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# RE: Professional Mechanical Keyboard ComparisonDavid Ramsey 2012-01-17 21:13
I don't have the Avant keyboard any more, but it does look as if you're correct, at least for the up arrow key. It's a moot point since the keyboard appears to have been discontinued.
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# Every day at workAnthony 2012-02-29 01:26
This is my every day keyboard at work, as a web developer. I need it's "classic layout" to type at full speed, and it gives a nice click stroke/depth/impact. A colleague spilt coke all over it, and I'm ordering another today.
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# Do NOT buy a unicompunicompsucks 2012-08-15 12:23
Purchased this keyboard. Constant usb cut out, no other keyboard has this problem.

Spent shipping cost, while under warrenty to have it repaired. They charged me 40 dollars to fix it because it was 'not covered'.

Got the keyboard back, same random turn off problem
DO NOT BUY A UNICOMP
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