Vintage Mechanical Keyboard: IBM Model M #1391401

Posted: October 3, 2017 in keyboarding

The IBM Model M is a vaunted, classic design. Perhaps the crown jewel in the pantheon of easily-had vintage keyboards. And, may I say, deservedly so.

Being the owner of a Unicomp Ultra Classic, I already knew what buckling spring keyboars with membrane switches felt like. I hadn’t, however, had a chance to really play with a classic one since they’d been standard fare in front of actual IBM computers. That’s a long time gone, y’all. The 80s. I was just a wee lad then. No more than, like 240 or so.

My friend, Dave, had a few old keyboards kicking around. He let me borrow them, and asked if I could tune them up and get them working again. I said, “Heck, yeah,” and off I went.

The Model M he gave me had no cord, and it looked a bit rough around the edges. Not filthy, but the keys were dirty, and the whole thing loked like it could benefit from a going over.

Dave let me know that his aspiration was to find a way to make the keyboard a high-visibility device for his father, whose vision isn’t what it used to be.

On the case, I researched how best to get this stuff going. And, not surprisingly, Unicomp had what I wanted. They had a cap set in bright white, with big, block legends, and they had replacement cords that would fit the plug design on the back. Credit card smoking, I was off to the races.

IBM keyboards of this era have two-piece key caps. The top part is thin PBT, while the interior piece, which has the slider element that sits over the coiled spring, is a thicker, beefier piece of PBT. Together, they’re quite a heavy plastic element, and lend something of the solid element that people love so much about these keyboards. It does make them a bit more laborious to take apart, but not too bad. A normal key puller works fine, it just has to work twice as much.

It took me perhaps an hour to install the new cable, test all the keys, and install the new key caps. Everything worked fine, and I quickly got down to typing. I can’t say there’s really any qualitative difference between the original IBM and the Unicomp. They feel and sound just about the same. The build, however, is a different story. The original M I have here, built in 1988, is a huge and heavy beast. I’m not going to say that the Unicomp is small or light, because it isn’t. The original, though, is bigger in all the dimensions, and dominates a desk surface. The fact that it works with absolutely no sense of wear after all these years might give you some clues. None of the switches stick in the slightest, or have a weird force curve. Everything feels just as tight as it must have on the day it left the factory.

The new key caps fit on without any problem, but for two stabilized keys on the numeric keypad. Those use a different stabilization technique, with a metal bar, rather than the conical stabilizer that became common in the later years. With a conical insert, I’m sure I could get those installed, as well. Also, the key set didn’t come with a space bar, which I think is fine, because the OEM spacebar still looks great and doesn’t detract from the looks, to my eyes.

What do we get out of it? Well, you get a keyboard that looks and functions almost like brand new, and one that has the cache of a vintage piece. Really, the only thing it lacks is Windows keys and a Menu button, but both of these things can be overcome with a few mouse clicks. The typing feel is just what you’d expect, with a stiff, solid action and great tactile feel. A typist’s keyboard. It’s good and loud, again, as one would expect.

If you don’t mind putting forth a little effort in the typing process, there’s a lot to be said for one of these old bad boys. They are essentially inestructible, and they are fantastic typing tools. Remember that the old ones will be PS/2, so you may need a USB adapter for them in the modern idiom. Other than that, not much bad can be said.

I would say that, if you can find one for cheap at a yardsale or recycling center, jump on it. Buying them off of Ebay is probably the most expensive way to do it, and you may be just as happy with a new-built ‘board. If you love the idea of the old “M”, but want something with zero miles on the odometer, look at Unicomp. They’ll sell you one, still built in the USA, for reasonable money, as these things go. All the feels, none of the worries about ancient hardware.

Cheers, and happy typing!

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