Tuesday 21 May 2019

In Search Of The Perfect Keyboard

Oh, how I dream of the old IBM keyboard!

An original 1981 IBM keyboard
I began using PCs way back in the early ’80s. Technology has advanced greatly since then. But the one thing that was better then than now was the keyboard. The IBM keyboard set the standard. A good, solid click and keys that never faded. The keyboard of my old Olivetti M24 was excellent too.

Most keyboards these days are flimsy things. And worst of all, the letters on the keys keep fading away. They do for me anyway. Maybe that’s because I am a heavy keyboard user – I write or program for many hours every day. Or maybe it’s because (as I’ve heard some people claim) I am one of those people whose skin acidity happens to be detrimental to keyboard keys.

Anyway, recently I decided the time had come to replace an old keyboard (a VicTop which cost £29 in 2017 – this model is no longer available but various other Chinese-made ‘mechanical’ keyboards appear to be very similar). Although it was a cheap keyboard, it is remarkably solid, has a lovely ‘clicky’ feel and in the couple of years I’ve had it, has been absolutely reliable. But some of its keys were wearing so badly that I could no longer see which was which.

Ideally I wanted a keyboard with ‘doubleshot’ keys. A doubleshot key is one that is constructed from two layers of plastic. One layer contains the raised shape of a character such as ‘A’. The other layer is, in effect, poured on top of this to form the rest of the key surface. So if ‘A’ was moulded in black plastic and this was covered with white plastic, you end up with a black key with the letter ‘A’ in running through it in white (like the words through a stick of British seaside rock).

Once upon a time, every half-way decent keyboard had doubleshot keys. These days most keyboards just have the letters  ‘painted’ or ‘stuck’ onto the key, which is why they wear off so easily. Some slightly more resilient keys use ‘laser etching’ which means that the characters are etched into a small groove. These won’t actually wear off completely but they can fade.

Filco Majestouch Ninja
It turns out that keyboards with doubleshot keys are now as rare as hen’s teeth. So eventually I settled for an alternative: a keyboard with no letters at all on the top surfaces (so they can’t wear off!) but instead with letters on the front surface – the vertical surface that faces you as you sit at the keyboard. This was the Filco Majestouch Ninja. It’s quite an expensive keyboard (£130 inc. VAT) but it has a nice solid click (look for Cherry Blue keys if a good click is what you are after) and, while it does take a while to get used to the blank key tops, after a couple of days I barely noticed the difference.

VicTop keyboard with its original keys
This left me with my trusty old VicTop keyboard which, in spite of its faded keys, I was reluctant to throw away. I decided to have a go at refurbishing it by replacing the faded keys with doubleshot ones. Bizarrely, even though it’s hard to find a keyboard with doubleshot keys already fitted, replacement doubleshot keys are easy to find. I bought some keys in the good old Olivetti colours (at about £38 inc VAT these cost more than the keyboard itself but much less than a new Ninja keyboard).

VicTop keyboard with replacement Olivetti-style doubleshot keys
It took me about an hour to replace the old keys. And my refurbished keyboard is now pretty close to ideal. I don’t know whether my new Ninja keyboard will outlast my cheap refurbished keyboard. What I can say is that both keyboards are now as near to perfect as I could hope for.

Though I still dream of an old IBM keyboard…