IBM 42H1292 and 1391401 keyboardsReview date: 15 August 1999. Last modified 16-Jul-2012.
I know it's wrong to get excited about a keyboard. I feel so dirty. But I can't help it.
The object of my perverse desire is an IBM model 42H1292 buckling-spring 101 key industrial heavy duty keyboard, available from www.pckeyboard.com for $US49 (versus a full retail price more like $US69). Don't accidentally go to pckeyboards.com; that's Wombat Keyboards, whose products may well be excellent but who are not the guardians of the One True Keyboard.
Unicomp, which owns the no-terminal-s pckeyboard.com, bought the IBM keyboard technology from Lexmark, the IBM subsidiary that now makes nothing but printers but used to make keyboards as well. They're making their own, and also selling old stock; I bought three new-in-box 1996-vintage 'boards. Unlike many elderly keyboards, their cable terminates in a PS/2 connector, not the fat 5 pin DIN connector that older PCs use and which requires a clumsy adaptor to work with newer machines.
If you can't find a 42H1292, try getting a 1391401 instead. It's much the same thing, but with a plug-in cable.
The big deal about these old keyboards is their lovely, positive key-click. When you use a keyboard that doesn't have a good positive click, it's hard to tell when you've depressed a key properly. You have to watch the screen to make sure you don't leave letters out, or you have to really hammer the keyboard, which is not good for your hands.
Most of the mid-priced keyboards these days use some variant of the "rubber dome" switch technology, which gives a definite little popping sensation when the dome buckles, but doesn't necessarily give you an actual letter at the exact same moment, thanks to uncertain contacts. The old buckling spring tech absolutely positively does give you the letter when you feel the click. These keyboards feel very much like an old IBM Selectric typewriter - there are plenty of these ironclad behemoths still in service, and they may herniate anyone that has to move them but they're darn nice to type on.
These old 101 key 'boards also lack the three extra Windows keys that inhabit the space bar row in more recent designs. When Windows keyboards first started showing up they annoyed the heck out of me, because I was forever hitting one of the bring-up-a-menu buttons instead of Control or Alt or, occasionally, Space; the Windows keys generally crowd the bottom row enough that the space bar has to be considerably narrower. Windows keys were also a huge pain when you were playing DOS games from Windows; hit one and you'd switch back to Windows and freeze the game, which was no big deal for single player but didn't win friends in four player Command and Conquer matches.
I'm now pretty used to Windows keyboards, but I still never use the Windows keys. They do give you easy access to various oft-used commands - the two main Windows keys bring up the Start Menu and can be used with other keys to easily run various programs, while the single Application key almost always just duplicates the function of the right mouse button - but there are other ways to do everything the Windows keys do, and I don't miss them at all.
The keyboard suddenly became less important around about the time that mouses started being commonly used. Before that, the keyboard was the only day-to-day input device for almost all computers, and most users were tapping away at the things a great deal. Keyboards mattered. People cared. There were actually advertisements in computer magazines in which manufacturers bragged about how kick-ass their keyboards were.
The boasts were justified. There have been various technologies dreamt up over the years for keyboards, all trying to make the 'board feel nice to use, last well, and not cost a million dollars. The "buckling spring" keyswitches in this IBM 'board and some other old-style units are widely acknowledged to be the best ever developed in every regard, except cost.
They've got not-too-light but not-too-heavy key weighting, they've got the kind of positive click that I imagine you'd feel on the firing button for the Death Star's primary armament, and their demonstrated service life, despite extraordinary abuse, is preposterously long. Essentially, if you don't take to one of these things with a hammer, it'll probably outlast you, even if you spend all day, every day, typing.
That's not to say that they're perfect. The buckling spring mechanism, with a little vertical spring that buckles with a click as the key-switch does its thing, does not make for quiet typing. They're not compatible with room-mates who want to sleep, and they're death if you want to sneakily use someone else's computer. That's not to say that they're deafening, but you sure can't hear a pin drop.
Some people dislike the buckling spring keyboards because they think it takes to much effort to push the keys; I don't see it, myself. Perhaps all that noise gives people the impression they're pushing harder.
The attractiveness of Real Keyboards faded with the arrival of mouse-based user interfaces. Suddenly all of that basic housekeeping typing became unnecessary. Programmers and data enterers and writers still typed like crazy, but everyone else could point and click their way through many tasks.
And when you don't need to use the keyboard all day, you don't really care how good the 'board is, as long as it doesn't stop working. Big heavy indestructible keyboards like the 42H1292 and 1391401 became an unsupportable expense for the average personal computer, and they died out. Current "IBM" keyboards don't use the buckling spring technology; they're "rubber dome" type 'boards, like pretty much every other reasonable-quality keyboard these days. This is fair enough; computer manufacturers can't afford to overengineer parts of their computers that not many of their customers really care about. But if you do care, you owe it to yourself to find out what you're missing.
Keyboards like these are so expensive partly because IBM insisted on making them in places better known for liquor production than for cheap computer gear (these ones were made in Scotland), but mainly because they use discrete keyswitches. Every single key has its own switch. If one goes dead, you can replace it.
Well, that's the theory, anyway. I removed the case from one of my 42H1292s after receiving an e-mail from someone (hi, Stewart!) who'd taken one to bits and couldn't get it back together again. My own inquiries were stymied pretty quickly, though; all you need to get the four case-fixing screws out is a 5.5mm nut driver (maybe 7/32nds, Imperial), and disconnecting the 'board assembly from its main cable and earth wire is trivial...
...but the curved steel backplate (which is responsible for most of the keyboard's impressive weight) is fixed to the plastic switch-holding assembly with lots and lots of melted-over plastic studs...
...which I could drill out or grind off, if I felt really enthusiastic.
I'll tell you if I ever do.
Cheaper keyboards use a flexible plastic underlay printed with conductive tracks, which terminate in little pads. Rubber domes with conductive patches on the underside are pushed down by stalks on the keys, and bridge the pads on the underlay. The domes may be moulded in one big sheet of rubber, or separate entities. Either way, the whole arrangement's a lot cheaper than 101 individual keyswitches.
On the down side, and apart from the less positive feel of rubber dome 'boards, the underlay is susceptible to wear and contamination. If you knock your Coke over on an IBM keyboard it's entirely possible that you'll short some keyswitches and need, at the very least, to do a thorough tear-down and wash before the 'board will work again. But keyswitch 'boards don't care much about non-liquid assaults; dandruff and dust and crumbs and all the other schmutz that accumulates in keyboards generally completely fails to make it into the keyswitches, which don't care much even if it does.
The bottom line
I bought three 42H1292s. Including the air mail shipping, they ended up costing me $US253, which worked out to $132 Australian per keyboard. US buyers, of course, wouldn't face such exciting shipping charges (did I mention they're rather heavy?), and would be able to get them rather closer to their $US49 list price, which presently works out as $AU75 or so.
Needless to say, right after ordering these ones I found some cheaper, at Tredex, which presently has 'em new-in-box for $US19.
A reader (thanks, Shad Smith!) also clued me in to the fact that IBM themselves still had buckling spring 'boards available to the discerning customer, as part number 92G7454 for the big-plug AT version with PS/2 adapter, or 92G7453 for the native PS/2 connector version. You could get 'em from ShopIBM here, or from buy.com here (92G7454 only, it seems, for both), but they're not there any more. The prices were $US75 and $US64.95 respectively, though, so they weren't for bargain hunters.
Since you can get ordinary brand new keyboards here in Australia for, oh, $AU20 or so, the amount I paid might strike many people as a step down the road to a place where very calm people give you a liberally upholstered room of your own and eating utensils made from wood. People who think this, though, either don't do much typing or have never typed on one of these 'boards.
There is, and can be, no argument. The old-style buckling spring keyboards are, for usability and durability, the best ever made, and I for one don't mind paying top dollar for 'em. There will be PS/2 keyboard connectors on PCs for quite a while yet, and adaptors if and when everything goes USB, so I'm not worried about them becoming obsolete. I wouldn't be surprised if I'm still using these 'boards more than ten years from now, on whatever the heck bazillion-MIPS box I'm running then, and that kind of lifespan in a computer component is practically unknown.
The old Northgate Omnikey 'boards, now reborn as the "Avant" and made by Creative Vision Technology, are a favourite of many hard-core keyboardists, partly because feel the same and are just as battleship-tough as the IBMs (they use the same Alps key-switches) and also because they're programmable, via outboard software. The flagship model has extra function keys, and lets you set the keyboard up however you like, with all sorts of macros and key reassignments. Given that the things sell for $US149 for the plain edition and $US189 for the extra-function-keys variant, though, you'd bloomin' want them to be something pretty special. For most people, the old IBMs are more than enough.
Since the current Avant programming software doesn't work on Windows NT or UNIX systems, though, the Omnikeys are somewhat limited in their appeal to proper geeks. The keyboard settings are saved in the 'board, so they can be programmed on one machine and moved to another, but that's not a very elegant solution.
Using these keyboards has made me aware of just how lacklustre even a good rubber dome 'board is. I used to think my old Honeywell rubber dome keyboard was a nice bit of gear. And it is, I suppose, by the standards of the truly spongy cheapo-'boards most people use today. But the IBM makes me want to type stuff, because it just feels so nice to do it.
Call me a pervert if you like. I don't care.
You can find a wide variety of IBM keyboards on eBay; if all you want is an ordinary Model M in good condition that's not so far away that shipping triples its price, there are often good deals to be had.
Beware, however; some suspiciously cheap "model M" keyboards don't actually have clicky keyswitches. Also, "terminal" keyboards with some kind of registered jack or other non-PC connector are unlikely to be usable with a PC at all.
Six years later, and they keep on trucking.