Keyboard Review: Matias Tactile Pro Keyboard

Posted: April 13, 2017 in keyboarding
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Back in the day…

Let us, for a moment, cast our minds back to the 1980’s. The hair was big. The shoulder pads were impressive. The rise of the home computer was upon the world. Well-heeled citizens were able to pay a great deal of money for the honor of having an “actual” computer in their homes or business offices.

A few years prior, computing was wholly the province of big business, the military, and research divisions at universities. It was the era of great specialization in computing. Every one of those massive mainframe computers was a custom thing, almost built to spec. They often had their own bespoke operating system. They required a staff of people to keep them running. They were expensive beyond conception.

A matter of cost:

When computers slowly filtered into businesses and homes, they were not exactly cheap. The early IBMs cost as much as a sports car. Their keyboards would, in today’s money, cost a thousand dollars or more. Yeah. Think on that for a moment, my friends.

The economics of the age were such that all the peripherals were given a lot of development time, and were allotted significant amounts of material cost. Thus, they were built like tanks, with little to no engineered obsolescence included. They would persist for tens of millions of key presses per switch.

The Old Classics:

IBM typically made their own hardware in house in the early days. They would only sub contract out if the economics of tooling just didn’t work. Their buckling spring keyboards were and are considered benchmarks for computer peripherals. People still create custom adapters so that they can use these vintage ‘boards with their new computers. That’s how good they are.

Apple computers had a less cohesive strategy with regard to how they approached their keyboards, but most of their famous early models utilized switches made by ALPS, which was a Japanese company who made a whole range of different electronic switches (I believe that the still make switches for some applications to this day). The ALPS range was probably the second most lauded key switch type, behind the IBM.

Between the two, they were used in the vast bulk of the keyboards on the vast number of desks through the early nineties. Unlike the buckling spring technology in the IBM keyboards, ALPS key switches could be created in linear, tactile, and clicky styles with fairly small differences in their design. In a lot of ways, it was more the ALPS switch that served as the archetype for the dominant key switch of today, the Cherry MX series. In more than a few cases, the color scheme’s indications are even shared in common. Thus, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of these switches.

The Apple Extended  Keyboard:

I will confess that I have never been an Apple guy. I’ve used them, of course. The first personal computer I ever got to use was the Apple IIc, I believe. Green monochrome monitor. That’s about all I remember. I have been told that, in the kingdom of Apple keyboards, the model called the Apple Extended keyboard was considered the greatest of their products. It utilized the ALPS switch, and had many great things to commend it. I remember its charactaristing typing sound. A busy, industrious sound, without any “ping” or unpleasantness. Unlike the old modem sound in my roommate’s Apple, which would cause grown men to weep and beg for mercy.

From then to now: 

Beyond the AEK, I am under the impression that the quality of Apple’s keyboards went on a downturn. This was not novel to Apple. In general, cost cutting measures took a great toll on the quality of keyboards throughout the computer industry. The technology of choice, starting in the 90s, was the rubber dome switch. While this technology can and has been implemented with good results, it is much less expensive and far less complex to assemble. It lends itself to lowest common denominator build quality.

At this point, fast forwarding to the modern day, it is quite difficult to find a keyboard included with a PC or Mac that is anything better than passable. A modern Mac is an expensive piece of equipment, but when I’ve been in a position to use their new keyboard, I was not overly impressed. At all. To me, the cheap keyboard included on the Chromebooks I’ve owned were just as good. So, then. Even on premium offerings, you’ll likely be on your own to get something that really takes care of you.

Can we just…have awesome again?

In the last several years, we are seeing a renewed interest in good quality keyboards. Many of these are built for PCs, rather than Macs, with the key layout and badging for the PC user. I should indicate that it is fairly easy to make a Mac work with a PC keyboard. You just have to make sure that the key mapping is such that the modifier keys do the appropriate thing for your OS.

Both the gaming style and the business style mechanical keyboards tend to reflect the aesthetic sensibilities of the PC side of computing. The Mac user who wants an awesome keyboard is somewhat limited in terms of what is available, and what has some “Apple” feel to it.

Here we find the Matias keyboard entering the arena. Available in both PC and Mac layouts, it tries to have the feel of the Apple Extended, while being modeled after the keyboard that was included in the 90s EMac (remember the tinted, transparent plastic on the case, so you could see inside?). At least, that is the impression that a non Apple person brings to it. I could be a bit off on exactly what style is evocative of what era. I’m trying, folks, but I’m vaguely out of my depth in some of the Apple history stuff.

Matias has developed a switch that is a slightly-modified version of the ALPS switch. They were forced to do this when ALPS got out of the keyboard switch game many years ago. While not identical to the ALPS switch in design, sound, or feel, they are quite similar. Essentially, they are a modernized, slightly redesigned version of the latter-day, simplified ALPS switch.

With a Matias keyboard, there are three types of switch. One is a “quiet” switch, which is tactile force curve without an obvious click. A “light action” or “silent” switch, which is also tactile, but with a very light resistance. Finally, there’s the tactile pro switch, which is both tactile and clicky. That’s what we’ve got here.

We are in click city, right where we want to be.

Upon first exploration: 

I have the PC version of the keyboard, as I have no Apple stuff of my own. Unboxing the keyboard, I find that it is a moderate version of the full size form factor. 108 keys, full number pad, navigation cluster. In the old days, this would be a “space saver” design. The different models in the Matias line come in pearl white, gloss black, and silver. The PC version is gloss black.

I have come to find that gloss black is not my favorite when it comes to anything where it can gather dust or be touched by my grubby little hands. It looks great and Darth Vader-like…for about a minute, then it is scratched and dusty for the rest of time. A new ‘board has to offer me something special to entice me to buy it, should it come in said glossy black.

The finish on the keyboard was known to me when I ordered it, so I have nothing that I can complain about. I would like a matte finish version with the PC layout, though. That would be my pretty awesome. Actually, if we’re thinking about what our ‘druthers might be, I’ll say that I’d prefer a full aluminum top plate, with a brushed finish. That is not an option, so I take what can be had.

When first putting hands to the keyboard, I had a moment of doubt and fear.

There is a particular feel to this keyboard that I find a bit disconcerting. Here is how it manifests. The key caps on all the 1×1 (normal) keys have a lot of mechanical play in them. Thus, if you put your finger on the key top, then wiggle it around, there is probably half a millimeter of travel in all directions. Hmm. Not awesome.

Cherry switches tend to control the key caps much better, and thus feel more solid upon first interface with your hands. Then there’s Topre-switch keyboards, which have a solidity that I have not seen in any modern switch of any kind. But let us not cloud the issue with talk of Topre, as they are a thing unto themselves, to be dealt with in other articles.

Typing Feel: 

When I started typing, I noticed right away that the Matias ALPS-style switches had a feel that was quite unlike anything else I had tried. They are quite loud, but not as loud as a buckling spring. They are heavier than most switches, but not quite as heavy as, again, the buckling spring. Their sound is authoritative, low, and consistent across the switches.

Unlike the Cherry MX Blue or Green, they do not have a lot of high frequency “tizz”. Rather, their click and their bottom-out sound are far more “genuine” to my ears. I find the sound quite compelling, and to give me all the “feels” that I expect when I use a clicky mechanical switch. When up and running at a good clip, it kind of makes the sound of a large bag of pistachio hulls being shaken together. It’s one of those sounds that, the more I hear it, the better I like it. I just want to type faster, so that the sound will keep happening.

Give unto us thy judgement: 

Ah, you want the important stuff. I see. All right. I’ll play your game. My initial concern about the slop in the key caps was proven to not be reflected in the typing feel. There was no key friction or stick if I didn’t hit each key perfectly on-center, nor was there a sense of being unable to find myself in space.

Really, the key movement was one of those things that seemed like it would be an impediment, but proved to fade into nothing when the typing happened. Which is great. I don’t have a lot of experience with ALPS boards, and it is possible that many of them had this sort of feel. I don’t know. I imagine that some of that comes down to the key caps.

Switch action is quite different from any other switch in my collection. The closest in most metrics would be the buckling spring design used in my Unicomp Ultra Classic. This makes complete sense, as both ‘boards are, to all intents and purposes, homage boards to the golden age of keyboarding at the computer.

The Matias tactile switch has just the slightest amount of give at the very top of its travel, then the tactile bump comes, and the key accelerates downward, making its joyful clatter. The amount of tactile response is right up there with the best of any switch I’ve used. Very communicative. Very satisfying. In a lot of ways, the act of typing on the Matias is getting almost everything right. Well weighted, without feeling too stiff. Tactile, without feeling odd or rough. As a final thought here, I will say that there is no sense of grit, friction, or pushback to be found here. Just the tactile feel and the wonderful sound.

The Caveats: 

But…there’s always a but. I think that, for a lot of typists, they might find the effort on this ‘board to be a bit higher than they’re used to. I will say that I have been typing on it using a setup that is not entirely perfect, and that a good bit of the typing experience can be attributed to the ergonomics of your desk/chair/posture combination.

Still, if you’re used to a soft key feel, this might take a bit of getting used to. I would say that it is only a bit more effort than a Cherry MX Blue. Not as heavy as a buckling spring keyboard, and due to the small amount of softness at the top, there’s a feeling like the keys let you ease into their travel.

I am also not in love with the key caps. I think the legends are a little weird, and that the key caps could be of better quality. I’d like to see thicker, denser caps, as well as a font that, to me, was a little more aesthetically pleasing. I should remember, though, that some of these choices were made with a different aesthetic sense in mind. The slightly thin font for the key legends is evocative of the Apple Extended, without actually being that awful italic font. The legends are on the lower left, rather than upper left or center of the key top. The font does have a bit of that vintage Apple vibe. None of which really keys into my subconscious.

One can replace ALPS key caps, though the number of possible replacement manufacturers is quite small, compared to the Cherry MX style switches. Other than the new market, there are a few old ‘boards, like the Dell ATT 101 series, that have good quality ALPS key caps you might harvest. I am afraid that there may be some specialized keys that they don’t adequately replace, though, so you might have to look for a few custom keys to fill out the set, or deal with a few off-theme keys remaining.

If you’re touch typing, the look of the keyboard isn’t very important, but there is an element of aesthetics involved in really digging on a piece of hardware. I am shallow that way. I like them just a little better when they’re pretty.

Most of my quibbles are fairly small and somewhat beside the point. I will admit this. To my hands, I think I would rather type on one of these Mattias boards than I would most other mechanicals, and all rubber domes/scissor switch low profiles/etc..

Does it climb the podium?

As clicky tactile switches, they put the MX Blues on the shelf in a moment, unless you’re simply unable to expend the extra effort they require. I would say that they’re second only to the buckling spring switches in my Unicomp in terms of feel and joy, but they are a bit easier to acclimate to, as the Unicomp demands that you be on your game and type like you mean it.

Speed? Well, again, it is hard to tell. I think that it’s possible that this is one of the faster ‘boards that I have. Not as “go ahead, dude, don’t let me slow you down” as the Topre switch, not as, “I am flying, flying without wings” as the MX Brown switches, but fast and fun and great sounding.

On the computer that is currently sporting this ‘board, I have more or less decided that it has kicked the DasKeyboard that I had before it to the curb. That’s saying a little, as the Das is not exactly chopped liver. Especially considering I just re-capped the ‘board with a set of sweet PBT key caps. I just find that the Matias has more of what I’m looking for right now. That could change with different implementation, different day, etc., but I don’t think it will. I really feel that there’s some magic in this particular switch, and that it does what it does about as well as anything available.

Usage case:

This is not a gaming board. At all. It is also no good for open offices where it’ll make your coworkers want to kill you. It’s going to be great for the person who types a lot, likes the clack of the keys, and has the space to let ’em roar without drawing aggro from nearby organisms. Bonus points if you’re an Apple fan.

A word on quality control and part failure:

I have heard that there are some quality control questions about the Matias keyboards, but I haven’t encountered anything like that myself. In my experience, electromechanical things tend to break at a couple different intervals through their use. Trust me, I work around tech all day, every day, and I know from whence I speak.

First, no matter how well a product is made, there will be a level of attrition right at the beginning of a product’s life. In the first few days, there will be a small percentage of things that just don’t work. From there, you’ll lose a part here or there to iffy build quaity or quality control. Things like poorly done solder points, parts that didn’t quite get machined or formed correctly, or your “weakest link in the chain” element of the device failing. From there on, it’s down to abuse taking the rest, right up until the mean time between failures threshold begins to be reached with the least robust components in the system.

My particular Matias has easily survived its maiden voyage, and nothing really concerns me about how it’s acted so far. I don’t plan on beating it like a rental car, nor do I expect to put it through harsh climatic trials. The switches are rated for a duty cycle that would take me a great long time to even begin approaching, even if I used this keyboard to the exclusion of all others. Hey, I like it, but I’m not married to it. I will freely admit to having a wandering eye and a curious mind. It’s allowed.

In any case, I would say that, if the possibility of getting a lemon is foremost in your mind, make sure that you review the return policy at the outlet where you purchase it, and keep the box until you know that things are copacetic.

Is it worth it?

That is always a difficult question. I think, for the right person, it is. If you are a typist who likes a very tactile feel, and a keyboard with wonderful audio feedback, this could be love. There are a lot of really good keyboards at lower prices out there. The Unicomp, for one. I see that as perhaps the most compelling alternate choice. That, of course, is a PC-sourced ‘board, through and through. Nothing could be less Apple than the keyboard that came on IBMs, made on the same tooling it was in the ’80s. Cherry MX switch keyboards abound, and are typically less expensive. The new generation of inexpensive Cherry-clone equipped keyboards are even cheaper. The Matias is many times the price of a ‘board using Chinese-made clone switches. (Spoilers, those are darned good ‘boards.)

I would say that the direct competition in that range of “real” switches would be the Cherry MX Green switch. It is stiffer and has a stronger click than the blue switch. I think the Matias switch is cooler, but for someone who doesn’t favor the style of the Matias, or wants to do a lot of hot-rodding in terms of custom key caps and the like, the switch might not be enough of an incentive.

As with all of these things, if you can get your hands on the ‘board for a day, or even a few hours, a lot of the unknowns that I can’t answer for you will quickly clarify. This is a mostly subjective game. All the ‘boards have keys that send letters to the computer. It’s just how you want it to feel and sound and look as it does so.

Cheers, and happy typing!

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