The IBM Model M, a classic in the world of mechanical keyboards. Today IBM are one of the largest companies in the world and supplies not keyboards but cyber security, cloud computing, virtualisation and other enterprise-grade services. So why did they stop making these beasts of keyboards and move on to so called “greener pastures”?
In 1984 IBM decided they needed to make a better and more cost effective keyboard to bundle with their computers. Before the Model M came the Model F, it had fewer keys and arguably a better feel. While the Model F used a capacitive PCB to actuate the keys, the Model M used a more “modernised” membrane design. Find out more here. However, the Model F was fundamentally flawed. Because of its capacitive design it costed quite a pretty penny to manufacture. The complexity of the PCB and raw component costs added a spit of polish upon every penny.
This is where the Model M steps in, it had more keys, it was built like a tank and used a layout we still cherish to this day. This is why some people call this keyboard the grand-daddy of all keyboards. This keyboard was a commercial success and made IBM more pennies than they could ever spend. It was not just a beast on the desk but left a mark on the people who used it and the history of computer peripherals itself.
Now onto the main review, after 30+ years of the first Model M every being made, how does it stand up against the test of time? The sample I’m using right now is a part #1391406 (UK ISO) and was born on the 16th of November 1989. I managed to get two of these bad boys off an old IBM technician. Sites like Gumtree and eBay are among the best places to get these quickly if you don’t want to camp out car boot sales every weekend.
First off, the layout. Standard stuff other than the bottom row (some things never change do they?), 1.25U [Control] and [Alt] keys on both sides of the 7U [Spacebar] with a spot blank left for the [Windows key]. Many believed that it was because IBM hated Microsoft at that time, but the fact of the matter was that the start menu wasn’t yet around, you would have to wait until 1995 for that. Also, no media keys are found on this Model as they didn’t exist yet, along with colour and gravity. Indicator lights are a sharp green, they are slightly unaligned from the actual cut-outs but that might be due to the angle that I sit at and the specific board I possess.
This next bit may make it or break it for you. The board has a proprietary cable and a proprietary port, you may be wondering why is this bad? It means you can remove the cable and replace it. That may seem like a benefit, but it also means that if you break the port the whole board is done for. So as time goes on this cable’s cost will inevitably increase as supplies drop. Luckily you can get these right now for about £5-£10 as of time of writing. Remember these keyboards are no longer being made. If you break the keyboard, whether it’s fixable or not, you can’t casually phone up IBM and get it repaired or purchase another one from them. This is down to personal preference but definitely a thing to consider before buying.
Needless to say this keyboard does not include a wrist rest, RGB lighting, NKRO (N Key Rollover) or “gaming” software to give you macros, or anything like that. This keyboard is just what it is, a keyboard – and it does an amazing job of that. However, if you really do want macros, gaming software, etcetera; a quick Google search will give you plenty to digest. For that it loses a few points on comfort and functionality. But if you are buying one of these keyboards, chances are that you already have plenty of other boards and spare wrist rests. However, if this is your first mechanical keyboard and you want to game, you can do so perfectly fine. NOTE: You may actually be slower than with a membrane keyboard as these switches do have quite a punch under those caps.
This keyboard uses a PS2 connector; PS2 or “Personal System/2” this sends a direct input to the CPU when you push a key. That’s pretty good if you’re not rich and don’t own an X99 motherboard with 12 USB ports or perhaps that you feel that 1000hz polling is too slow for you. But even today PS2 is still very popular, bundled with motherboards all the way from the low end up to the gaming series. Just remember, on low end or older motherboards it’s not safe to remove the keyboard on the go as the resistors and components inside do not react well with the change in electrical current. This can lead to motherboards shorting and perhaps taking your shiny new CPU with it. Whatever port you prefer to slot your keyboard in, just remember that there is no wrong choice, just the wrong choice for your current setup. If you are really that paranoid you can get a PS2 to USB adapter for about £5, they normally contain a fuse or safety mechanism. Practice safe clacking kids.
The keyboard itself is big, very big. You can argue a lot of space is wasted and you would be right for the most part, the space from the function keys to the top of the board is excessive of 4cm and about 2.5cm of space is left on each side. Why? To house the steel plate of course! The board overall is around 39cm wide, 21cm deep and 6cm tall with the legs out or 5cm with the legs in. Also known as 19.3” wide, 8.25” deep and 2.2” tall with legs out or 1.8” with the legs in, if you are into that kind of thing. So you might be thinking “Wow gee, why the frickal frack would I want a keyboard this big and old? Seems like waste of money and space”. Maybe you are right, but not before we get into the meat and potatoes of this review.
The feel! How does it feel? I came here just for this! That’s all I want to know!
Okay fine, I’ll tell you how it feels. In short, amazing. Just like you would expect it to. While the caps themselves are relatively thin, they are double layered. The first layer is the stem of keycap and can be snapped in and out of the keyboard, with the second layer providing the legends. The second layer snaps in with the first layer with minimal effort. They are dyed and not pad printed for those of you wondering, and yes they are PBT. The casing itself however is ABS to cut costs and stop manufacturing difficulties such as PBT shrinkage. The caps feel good to the avid user but not quite the roughness of PBT you might have been expecting. But after all of these years I can still read the legends and the caps don’t look or feel worn out. Some keys such as the [Caps Lock] and [Enter] button are dipped in certain areas as the aforementioned 2-layer design is used here. This can be seen the most clearly on the Model F.
Or so I thought, but after pulling the keycaps off they were not dual layered but instead a whole cap. God knows why they are like that. Damn it IBM.
The stabilisers on them are very good, compared to the Corsair K70 and Strafe RGB anyway. There is considerably less wobble on the [Spacebar] and [Enter] with essentially no wobble on the right shift and backspace key. This makes typing long worded paragraphs with punctuation much more pleasant. Very nice I must say. If you do decide to get this keyboard, I would highly recommend getting some quality lubricates and lubing the space bar stabilizers. This makes the key presses on it so much more smooth; even more than mx reds.
Now on to the switches, how do buckling springs feel? First off, this part is mostly opinion and you may believe that a keyboard with mx blues or browns may be better. The switches are very smooth at the start. You can feel the spring pushing back harder as you get to the actuation point. Unlike browns, or most switches in fact, they actuate much lower down; about 2-3mm down and then 2-1 mm of travel after that, making touch typing without bottoming out near impossible considering that it takes 70g to actuate and 80g to bottom out. Not much room to play with even if you are a professional typist. But if you are looking into buying this board you probably aren’t concerned about how loud the board is, as soon as it actuates you can hear the ping of the spring. It’s a sharp metallic sound and not directly comparable to anything, the closest thing I can think of would be the ping of a lighter as you push down on the button.
Not quite as loud nor sharp in sound but both the feel and sound is close, not quite…but close. This makes the keyboard a pleasure to type on if you like hearing your keyboard and annoying the neighbours. The tactile feedback is not the same as you would see on a mx brown, but instead is a sharp drop in the force needed to push down the switch. These springs are relatively heavy so you may experience fatigue on the first few days you use it. Stop immediately if you feel a sharp shooting pain or anything that you feel is unnatural. Maybe you are just too weak to wield this beast of a board. : (
So you must be wondering “wew lod, howz I can haz IBM model m?”. Well the thing is that they no longer make these keyboards like I’ve mentioned previously. In the late 90s IBM had decided to cut their budget once again! They had switched to the now “modern” membrane keyboards. The best place to get these quick would be: eBay, Gumtree or any other reputed auction/listing sites. Otherwise the best place would be a car boot sale or local second hand store. You may even snatch one of these bad boys for £5 if the seller is unaware of the gold they are in possession of. When buying one of these, make sure to see it in person before putting down your hard earned cash. They should NOT cost more than £70 a board, even if you are a very enthusiastic keyboard enthusiast. £50 is a reasonable price for a board in decent, used condition (unless it’s an SSK, but that is a whole new can of worms). A very important check is to take off the keycaps and check for rusting springs. Rusting springs will cause the key presses to no longer feel smooth but instead “gritty” and “sandy” or worse cause the spring to not buckle leading to inconsistencies, fatigue and typos. These switches are impossible to lubricate as there are no direct contact points so make sure to take good care of those springs. A new spring for one of these bad boys can fetch a relatively large sum not to mention that you will have to risk breaking that switch entirely to install it. Now go out there with your mum’s credit card and join the OG clackers.
Happy clacking! : )