Vintage Mechanical Keyboard: IBM Model F “AT”

Posted: August 31, 2017 in keyboarding

(Great thanks to my friend Dave who let me borrow this keyboard to do the review. Good luck getting it back, my friend! I’m fleeing the country with it!)

Much has been made of the wonder and beauty of the IBM model M keyboard. They are often held up as the best typist’s keyboard of all time.

And, for many, that’s exactly what they are. Or, at least, they are the best keyboard they’ve been able to use. Before the Model M, there was a similar set of keyboards that used the buckling spring technology that defines the Model M. These, the Model F keyboards, were employed in the XT and AT eras of the IBM PC. Thus, these are old keyboards, ones that take a bit of effort to find and get working today, all these many years later. Imagine any other element from the early to mid 80’s computers still being applicable to today’s tasks. Think of any? Yeah, there aren’t many afoot.

A Little History:

A guy named Richard Hunter Harris invented the buckling spring mechanism that was used on the Model F, then on the Model M. In the F, it was employed with a capactive switch below it, while the M made due with a membrane switch that required an actual physical action to employ. This changes both the sound and the feel of the keyboards, though they obviously have a strong familial resemblance.

The Model F is simply a little smoother, a little higher in pitch, and a little lighter. Just a bit. Still not a model for those who don’t want to put forth any effort.

The Model F came out in 1981, and was produced in some form up until 1994. That said, the Model F largely fell into obscurity after 1986, when the Model M came out. It was used in a lot of different keyboard types and applications, but the best known are probably the XT, the AT, and the 122 Key Terminal board.

The AT keyboard that I have for review is in great shape, and has no poorly-working keys. I can’t tell you if it differs from when it was new, but it doesn’t betray its age in any mechanical way.

The AT layout went with, not surprisingly, the PC AT era computers. These were predominanly 80286 PCs. The layout carries Function keys on the side, numbering from one to ten. No Windows keys, because that wasn’t yet a thing. Caps lock, Control, Alt, Escape, and a few other keys are in different places. There are no arrow keys. The space bar is the biggest thing you’ve ever seen.

The AT carried a 5-Pin DIN connection, and “spoke” the AT keyboard language. This means that it could take two-way communication from the PC, such that the Num Lock settings and so on could be set on the computer side. The somewhat more modern PS/2 keyboard interface (that purple, round connection that is largely disappearing now) talks this same language, so it is possible to adapt the AT keyboard to a modern computer.

Getting It Working:

I discovered that my current desktop computer didn’t have a PS/2 port after bringing a few old ‘boards home to try. Yep. It’s a fairly current, fairly high spec Dell XPS, and it doesn’t feel that it needs to bother with ancient connections that are not plug and play.

Hmm. I wondered if I could bridge the gap. Not being willing to be held away from my goals by a simple matter of incompatibility, I reared back my head and yelled, “To the Internet!”

After having taken a look around, I found that it wasn’t difficult to find an adapter that went from PS/2 to USB. At the same time, I also found a few adapaters from DIN to PS/2 (which, actually, was also called “mini DIN”). The big question in my mind was whether or not one adapter running into another adapter would work. I’d seen stuff like that fail. A lot.

Well, the good news is that everything went along swimmingly. The bad news is that it cost about $20 to get the two adapters. Thus, making it possible to use this ancient keyboard cost as much or more than a whole keyboard of no pedigree.

But…but…it was worth it. Oh, great shivering paroxysms of joy. It was worth it. (Er, spoiler alert.)

All the Feels:

So, let’s talk about where this thing ranks in terms of keyboards. Well, let me be frank. It’s pretty much the best thing I’ve ever had my grubby hands on. The sound, the feel, the almost unheralded sense of solidity you get with this mighty beast? Yeah. It’s amazing. Maybe ten or twelve percent better than a really good Model M. If you like buckling spring keyboards, or enjoy the higher-effort switches in the modern market, this thing is going to give you dreams of longing if you ever get to try it.

However, it isn’t perfect. The layout is odd in the current era. It lacks buttons. Other buttons are in odd-ball places. The Shift key on the left side has some binding issues. It has the Big Ass Enter Key and tiny backspace. The space bar is absurdly high effort. It’s even louder than a Model M. (For me, this is not a negative, unless I had to use it around other biological organisms. Not kidding, this would drive house pets to another room.) For a lot, some part of the typing experience may be a bit too high effort.

All that said, this is an amazing device. I think of it like a Vincent Black Lightning or something. It requires some things of the user. It has some drawbacks. It is also legendary and totally amazing at the thing that it does.

Final Thoughts:

The Model F is not going to be for everyone. They are harder to find and more difficult to employ in a modern world than the Model M, which can be had new from Unicomp, with USB interface. If you’ve tried an M and didn’t like it, the F won’t necessarily change your mind. On the other hand, if you are already a fan, this one will serve as kind of the epitome of that idea.

I’m sure that, when I was a young man, I had a chance to used these keyboards. I probably didn’t notice, because I didn’t touch type. That, and whatever IBM did was sort of just the expected business norm at that time. The world hadn’t moved on and become a sadder, cheaper place yet.

Could I use this ‘board as my daily driver? Yes. With caveats. At home, sure, and especially if I did a limited amount of typing on it per day. I can’t tell you for sure, but the higher effort nature of of the ‘board might begin to cause fatigue after hours of typing. All in all, the great things about the Model F far outweigh the shortfalls. It may be the ultimate clicky keyboard. Ever. If it isn’t, it’s certainly on the podium.

Cheers, and Happy Typing!

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