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

Professional Mechanical Keyboard Review

There are a lot of keyboards out there. Some keyboards are wireless; others offer lighting effects, programmable displays, and drivers that remap the keyboards to configurations optimized for specific applications and games. But if you're a serious typist - a professional who thinks that a keyboard's primary duty is to enable fast and accurate typing, and not to glow prettily or adjust your speaker volume or display the number of missiles left in your launcher, then you might be interested in a professional mechanical keyboard. Benchmark Reviews looks at a wide selection of available high quality keyboards to see which might be the best for you.

The Age of the Dinosaurs

Back when a typical desktop computer cost $2,000 or more, $200 keyboards were not uncommon. Professional-level kit like the IBM Model M, the Northgate OmniKey Ultra, and the Apple Extended Keyboard were examples of the care and thought manufacturers put into a product that would last for years under heavy use. Even computers ostensibly aimed at hobbyists like the Apple ][ or Atari 800 had keyboards comprised of individual mechanical switches.

professional_mechanical_keyboards.jpg

Many of these keyboards still do daily duty in the hands of the faithful, who gladly pay high prices (as I write this, a restored Northgate OmniKey Ultra keyboard is for sale on eBay with a "buy it now" price of $399) for pristine examples.

What made these keyboards so expensive? Individual mechanical key switches, with long travel (3-4mm) mounted on heavy metal base plates; double-shot sculpted keys whose legends could not wear off, and a general quality feel set these keyboards apart from the modern variant, typically a featherweight plastic contraption using mushy, rubber-dome key switches.

What really distinguishes these keyboards apart from their modern brethren is the feel: the positive "snap" or "click" that a buckling-spring or snap-action mechanical key switch makes. The "snap" gives you tactile and auditory confirmation that the keystroke has registered and the computer has received the key stroke. With the better rubber dome keyboards, you'll feel a "pop" as the dome collapses, but that does not necessarily mean the keystroke has registered!

But individual mechanical key switches make a keyboard expensive, and a $200 keyboard makes no economic sense for a $399 desktop computer you pick up at Best Buy. Even a $50 keyboard is too much. Most OEM keyboards these days cost less than $5 to manufacture and are available at $20 or less at the retail level. Virtually all modern keyboards use some variant of the "rubber-dome" key spring, in which the spring action to push the key back up after it's been depressed is provided by a dome molded in a sheet of rubber under each key. Depending on the keyboard, the dome may be part of the actual switch mechanism, with conductive material on the underside of the dome bridging contacts on a circuit board beneath it when the key is pressed, or the dome may merely provide the spring effect for a membrane-switch keyboard.

For those of us who grew up with real keyboards, there's something profoundly unsatisfying about typing on even the best rubber dome keyboard. It just doesn't feel right. Add to this the fact that many low cost keyboards omit things like N-key rollover (the ability of the keyboard to sense when multiple keys have been depressed, one after the other, before the original key has been released), and fast typists suddenly find themselves slowing down and making mistakes. And somehow the ability to mute your computer's audio from the keyboard doesn't seem nearly as cool as it did in the store.



 

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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