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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

Avant Stellar Keyboard

I mentioned the Northgate OmniKey mechanical keyboards— and the very high prices nice examples can command— in the introduction. As with the Model M, there's a modern clone: the Avant Prime and Avant Stellar mechanical keyboards by Creative Vision Technologies. The Prime model is a standard 104-key layout while the Stellar model duplicates the layout of the fabled OmniKey Ultra key-for-key, with a duplicate set of function keys at the left edge of the keyboard and the now out-of-fashion-but-God-I-love-it large L-shaped "Enter" key. In fact the FCC ID on the bottom of the keyboard is "GT6OMNIKEY", so there's obviously something going on here.

avant_stellar_keyboard.jpg

According to the Creative Vision Technologies web site:

Creative Vision Technologies, Inc. (CVT) manufactures high quality; state of the art, custom built computers as well as the “Avant” programmable keyboard for today’s extremely competitive market place.

Their "state of the art" desktop computers are all Pentium IV based models, while the servers use first generation Xeons running on 133mHz busses with ECC SDRAM memory. But that's OK, we're interested in the keyboards, not the computers.

The Avant Stellar is easily the largest keyboard you'll see today: its extra function keys made it a good two inches wider than most, and the 70s-era pencil tray at the top (the recessed area to the right of the "Avant Stellar" label) make it taller as well. You'll want to make sure you have enough room for this beast, especially if you're using a separate keyboard drawer or tray:

avant_stellar_on_tray.jpg

It's only available with a PS/2 interface, so you'll need a USB adapter if you plan to use it on a modern system. A thick metal baseplate gives the keyboard a heavy, substantial presence, and a two year warranty provides some peace of mind. The large Enter key means that the vertical bar-back slash key moves to a new position to the right of the right shift key, which shrinks slightly to make room.

Like its legendary forebear, the Stellar supports macros of up to 20 characters per key, as well as key remapping (for example, switching the Caps Lock and Control keys) and setting the key repeat rate. Software for programming the keyboard comes on a 3.5" diskette, and said software does not work with any version of Windows beyond XP. Fortunately, the software is just a convenience item since you can program/adjust the keyboard's features directly from the keyboard (there are no drivers required) provided you download the manual on how to do so from the web site, since it's not included with the keyboard (OK, it might have been on the diskette, but I don't have any computers with diskette drives, so I couldn't check.) Interestingly, for the purposes of macro programming and re-mapping, the top row and left side function keys are handled separately, so you can program useful macros into every left-side function key without affecting the operation of the top function keys.

The keyboard must be in "macro mode" for macros and remapped keys to function; an LED in the up-arrow key serves as an indicator that you're in "macro mode":

stellar_macro_mode_led.jpg

Mode changes persist across reboots and power-downs, which is nice. Also nice is the inclusion of a keycap puller and replacement Control and Caps Lock key caps so you can switch these keys to their "proper positions" should you choose.

The key action is lighter than the Model M and the Customizer keyboards. The vendor does not specify anything about the key switches other than that they're "mechanical", but they feel like Cherry MX series switches to me. Pulling a key cap reveals a switch with a white plunger, which matches one version of the Cherry MX switch, so that's my guess.

Price $189.00 (over $200 with shipping!)
Interface PS/2 only
Switches Cherry MX
Sculpted Yes
Warranty 2 years
The Good Extra function keys, programmable macros, large "Enter", long warranty
The Bad Too large for some keyboard trays, very expensive, no USB
Sum-up The Hummer of mechanical keyboards



 

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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