The Dongola Times

(Anachronistic) Dispatches from the Kingdom of Makuria.
02nd of September, 2015

On the Unicomp Keyboard: The Collapse of Standards, Economies, and Empires

I am writing this on a new Unicomp 104-key bucking-spring switch keyboard. It is the best keyboard anybody can get on the market right now. If it has any inherent problem with it, it is solved by changing one’s attitude or environment, not by changing keyboards. There isn’t anything better out there. All the good keyboards are mechanical. If anybody has a problem with that, they need to change the response to the mechanical keyboard, rather than change the keyboard itself. But, alas, all mechanical keyboards are aiming at the Model M as the ideal, whether they know it or not, and they all fall on a continuum between the Model M on the good end, and the worst rubber-dome keyboards on the other end. Bearable non-mechanical keyboards (I think I know of one from Topre, for instance) are still on the bad end, but not at the extreme. Most rubber-dome keyboards are lumped together at the extreme bad end. The Unicomp keyboard, because it uses the Model M’s bucking-spring switch, achieves the ideal. Everything else—and I own actively use all sorts—is a failure of some degree or other.

Firstly, it should be considered criminal to teach kids to type with anything but a keyboard that gives tactile feedback, because once they learn the evil habit of bottoming out keys, they hardly unlearn it. And bottoming out keystrokes is the worst typing habit, because it destroys the fingers that do it, on top of resulting in slow typing. It is fine if an adult makes stupid choices, of course, but kids should be spared it. Ideally, no computer should be released with anything simulating a keyboard while being inferior to a Model M; this should just be considered part of the cost of a good, normal, functional computer; and the noise and clickiness of a good keyboard, where that cannot be avoided, should be considered part of normal computer-usage—as it is for the typewriter. (Silenced guns are good indeed, but noisy guns are normal. So with drills, so with hammers, so with nearly every useful hand tool. Keyboards are hand tools.)

So, yes, you should start all kids off with something like MX Brown switches, at worst, and bucking-spring switches at best. The problem with MX Blue switches is that they go great lengths to incorporate the audible feedback, essentially just dropping it on top of MX Brown switches, while in fact that cue and response should be absent unless it is just part of the functioning of the switches, as it is in the bucking-spring switch. We should not pursue the audible feedback for itself, but exploit it where it occurs. MX Blue switches seem to suggest that there is something wrong with the tactile-only MX Brown switches, which is not the case. Even the most-silent of rubber-dome switches would be perfect, if it didn’t require the sin of bottoming out.

So, here I sit, typing away at a newly-delivered Unicomp “Model M” keyboard. It just may well be the best keyboard one can get from Unicomp, because it has a trackball, which, though not as good as a Logitech M570, is good enough that it liberates me from having to plug in the only thing I always plug in—freeing up a USB port, which are worth their weight in NYSE:AUX, these days. It doesn’t have two extra USB ports, like the Das Keyboard alternative I have, but nobody should blame a keyboard for not being a USB hub, especially after it has provided an integrated mouse. The mouse is twitchy and unsteady at times—this may be my problem, to be resolved with more practice—and the trackball actually resists coasting, which is unfortunate. —But it is otherwise a very good mouse, so I am glad to replace the alternative.

I bought a keyboard cover with it, but it is designed for the 102-key layout. I can’t really use that, and I think they do not actually have covers for the 104-key layout. This is a small issue, concerning accessories, not the keyboards itself, so I will let them off the hook. Nevertheless, it exposes the problem that this is simply not a modern keyboard. This is good, because standards have collapsed dramatically since the days when desktop PC keyboards had 102 keys, and were large and majestic, evidently the interface to all that processing power, and designed for the user, who will spend much of his life earning bread with it, rather than the “procurement department officer” or something. They were full of mechanical engineering, and by their nature they were robust and reliable. Today they are after-thoughts that ruin the fingers that earn the computer in the first place, and they are created like optional peripherals, rather than integral components of the computer system.

And this is just a symptom of the general collapse in the standards and economies that are most-closely related to the modern computer, mirroring the collapse of the empires with which those standards and economies are associated. There are, for instance, fewer computer-related jobs in the United States of America in this decade than there were in the decade before the Model M keyboard started being produced. In the 1980s, every computer came with a mechanical keyboard, and the Model M was simply the best one of them. Today, Apple pretends that sheen and chrome—merely good design, even excellent design—can make up for functional depravity. But if it is up to, say, the computer-related jobs in China, then what do the Chinese even know? Their first exposure to a computer system industry was when Americans wanted it cheap, as is the wont of empires in collapse. In that case, they were even asking for rubber-dome switches from the get-go, such that China, the source of every other computer, the only remaining producer of American-branded computers of names old and new, from Apple to IBM, HP to Dell, has never produced even one bucking-spring switch keyboard. Yet, given the trend and trajectory, China has already replaced America as the empire with whose economy computing standards are associated. It will never be as great as the American one, of which it is merely a vague echo, an entropied and sickly clone, an inconsistent fake, and cheap knock-off. The bucking-spring switch keyboard is, actually, still exclusively manufactured in America—so, indeed, the collapse in standards represented in the Unicomp keyboards (more on which later) is itself a shiny-clear reflection of the collapse of America herself.

As mechanical keyboards go, it has only two flaws—indeed, only one, and its implication.
The flaw is that it is a copy of the Model M, rather than the real thing. The implication is that, apart from the bucking-spring switch itself, everything else is something stuck in a crappy time-warp between the 1980s and the day today. A major symbol—literally—of this being-stuck is that the “Windows key” has on it the logo of Windows 98. Most other keyboards have gone through two or three iterations of that; there is no chance that the Unicomp keyboard will change it any time soon. I bet even the USB connection is USB 1.0, while the other mechanical keyboard I use is USB 3.0.

The moulds used by Unicomp are the original ones that were used by the Model M, and it shows. But all that is good about a keyboard that is not the Model M, but works like one, is the bucking-spring switch, not the shape or look. Today they have many variants on the general design, and it would not be bad to have a “tenkeyless” keyboard with bucking-spring switches, but that could not sensibly be the original Model M design—and should not be.
I know that the concern may be about patents and “intellectual property” and shit, but that is always just a stupid excuse. The day I can do it, I will stick bucking-spring switches under a normal modern design, moulded fresh, and see who can do anything about it, whining “I pee! I pee!” and shit. It is a pity no Chinaman has done this already; but I guess it will have to wait for me.

Moreover, the body itself is not as hefty, thick, heavy, and imposing as the original Model M was. This is not a problem for me, personally, and some people actually would have hated the better-made original, but it makes Unicomp’s continued use of the original mould a sad mockery of good workmanship. They—Unicomp—confess that the moulding quality is not comparable to other new keyboards, because they use the same old moulds of the original Model M keyboards, which are quite aged by now. Now, it is good that they retain the original Model M design faithfully, even at the expense of perfect-finish moulding. But given that the current keyboards are made of a flimsier plastic than the original reveals how shallow the focus is, on their part; for it was never—or, at least, should never be—about the shape of the product. Maybe a core part of their business is supplying replacements, but this all underlines the collapse theme: they seem to have reached that point, in the lifetime of a collapsing system, where recycling and reusing is easier than originality. If they had a robust replacement for the Model M, alike in everything of consequence, but modern and different in the shape and design, just changing connectors and so on would allow those who still have to use the original Model M to replace it, reliably, with the new Unicomp. This would be good workmanship, rather than barbarians recycling, stripping, or mimicking the temples and aqueducts of classical civilisation. It would, in essence, allow the Model M to become obsolete and be replaced by an equal or better thing that looks different. But if you had a Model M, and then had to replace it with the Unicomp, it would be hard to ignore the collapse represented by the flimsier body. Again, this is not an issue for me.

The keycaps do not lift off, like they did in the classical Model M, so if you expect to re-arrange the keyboard layout after market, you are in for a huge disappointment. They do! Since the Internet is lacking in sound instruction on this, I will just add this one, from a response from Unicomp support:

The keyboard is made with 2 piece cap and stem assemblies. You should be able to remove the cap using a small screw driver and pry/pop it off from the rear of the cap.
To remove, place a small screwdriver under the front edge of the key and pry upward lightly. Be careful not to flip the key across the room when it comes free. To install a key, rock the keyboard front to back so the spring pivots freely into the center of the chimney area. It doesn't have to be perfectly centered, just not touching any of the sides. At this point, place the stem of the key into the chimney with the spring riding up into the center of the stem. Press down until it snaps into place. Actuate the button and feel the tactile switch. If you don't feel the snap, remove the key and do it again.

Sensible people, these days, do not use QWERTY. It is as wrong a default as MS-DOS on a PC: you can justify it historically, and it would still be a stupid excuse. QWERTY was wrong on the day it was invented—it was the wrong solution to the stuck-keys problem in typewriters, and even worse because it was a sufficient solution—and it is even more-wrong now when there is no utility to it whatsoever.
Yet, though I use Dvorak, I am now typing on QWERTY because I have to enjoy this here keyboard anyway. Thank God that mastering Dvorak, seven or eight years ago, never made me slower on QWERTY. (Oh, it feels good to be touch-typing again, on Dvorak, on such a sound keyboard!)

So, there we are. I am waiting to see if I can get more information on turning this into a Dvorak keyboard in the field. If I cannot, I could always just blot out the offensive characters and write Dvorak on them. (I am not really a touch-typist; I do refer to the keyboard, although only rarely. This may be what allows me to retain fluency on QWERTY and Dvorak.) Now that I have ranted thus, I just may feel better about whatever I next decide to do with this here keyboard; even getting a replacement.