Friday, August 30, 2019

The joys of an antique keyboard

Apple Extended Keyboard (AEK) photo by bujcich
The best tech I’ve bought this year is a keyboard made in 1987.

Having sailed past the 40-year mark a few years ago, I’m an older geek. Also, I’m a sentimental geek. If I had some sort of infinite garage, I’d store every piece of electronic gear I’ve ever owned, a personal personal computer museum. Maybe once a year I’d play Ultima IV on my old Apple IIgs, or run Alias Sketch! on the Quadra 840av. It would be a fun few hours of geek nostalgia.

Obviously you wouldn’t want to attempt to do work on those ancient artifacts. I’ve been known to cling to old technology, but at least my computers are from this millennium and, crucially, can run the current generation of apps and operating systems. Even if you could somehow get one of those old machines to run modern software, you’d find their processors unbearably slow, their memory and storage ridiculously tiny, their CRT screens uncomfortably small, and their mechanical mice clumsy, even with a freshly cleaned mouse ball.

Notice I didn’t say anything about the keyboard. Unlike everything else in computing, keyboards have hardly changed. The standard desktop keyboard layout solidified in 1984 with the IBM Model M. Steve Jobs banned arrow keys from the original Mac keyboards, but they eventually appeared on the Apple Extended Keyboard in 1987 and the layout hasn’t changed since. Get a PS/2 or ADB to USB adapter and you can still use these keyboards today.

And how do the old keyboards compare to a modern one? Wonderfully, I would say.

Modern keyboard enthusiasts are usually gamers, and the high-end keyboards they splurge on are mechanical-switch keyboards. Mechanical because each key has an individual switch with moving parts, as opposed to rubber membrane dome-switches you find in the cheap, mushy keyboards included with a new PC. Well, guess what: most keyboards made before 1995 were mechanical. Not only do the old keyboards hold their own against their modern counterparts, they’re often far superior. (Don’t get me started on the “butterfly switch” keyboards Apple currently sells.)

Photo by bujcich
I had previously not given a ton of thought to keyboards. I was proud to have Apple’s top of the line Extended Keyboard II in the pre-iMac days, but I unceremoniously dumped it when Apple switched to USB keyboards, dazzled as I was by their colors and translucency despite their mushy dome-switches. Years later I got a Matias Tactile Pro Keyboard, advertised as a modern replica of the original Apple Extended Keyboard (AEK). When it eventually wore out I thought to myself, “Why not try the original?” A few clicks on eBay and an authentic AEK was mine. Even after all these years I still paid less than its original retail price of $163.

Together with the mouse, the keyboard is how you use a computer. It’s your input, the thing you actually touch. What you see on the screen is the output. Improving your keyboard, mouse, and screen can drastically improve your computing experience, and therefore your overall quality of life.

IBM Model M photo by Raymangold22
Mechanical keyboards click and clack. Each one has its own feel and sound. Personal preference dictates which one you will favor. Most of the difference between mechanical keyboards can be chalked up to the make and model of the switches they use. There are a variety of different brands and flavors of switches; some of the most prized ones are no longer manufactured. Maybe, like me, you prefer an AEK with its Orange Alps switches. Or for a totally different but equally satisfying feel, there’s the IBM Model M with its buckling spring switches. Or maybe you would rather have a modern keyboard with switches by Cherry or Matias. Some switches click when you press them, some clack when the key bottoms out. There are different types of keycaps, keyboards that light up, and on and on. After following this rabbit hole a little ways I am now the owner of more mechanical keyboards than I care to admit.

And then there’s the nostalgia. Every time I type on this AEK it brings me back to the 1980s. Like listening to an album by The Police, it reminds me of a time when the world was just opening up to me, a world I hardly understood. This keyboard feels like that time. A time when computers were new and exciting and the word “Macintosh” conjured up feelings of elegance, sophistication, and possibility. Maybe it seems absurd to say a keyboard could bring back feelings like that in a person, but I’m telling you it can.

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