On collecting and modern keyboard innovation
Thomas, the guy behind the Chyrosran22 YouTube channel, sums up how keyboards changed during the last fifty years and takes a look at the explosion of innovations that have happened in the field over the last few years.
Published December 8, 2022
(Mechanical) keyboards have a long and strange history. In the 70s and early 80s, even a bog-standard computer keyboard would set you back, adjusted for inflation, hundreds of dollars. This might sound strange nowadays, but it was a trifle compared to the cost of the computers themselves. The keyboards, like the computers, then, were expected to last for a very long time — and were built to, too.
However, as the cost of computers decreased, the cost of their peripherals had to come down as well. Keyboards would, over time, lose their steel plates, high-performance switches, quality materials and keycaps, and shrivel up into the rubber dome-laden, cheap plastic rubbish that most consumers are used to now. The quality that was once taken for granted had to make way in favour of the cheapness of the rubber dome menace. A standard office keyboard nowadays only costs a few dollars to produce and ship; a far cry from what it used to be.
Although often chided for being garish, superficial fashion accessories, the trend of "gaming keyboards" is most definitely one of the primary reasons for the resurgence of interest in mechanical keyboards. One of the first (and most well-known) gaming keyboards of this type was the Razer Blackwidow, back in 2010. Ever since then, mechanical keyboards have become more and more mainstream, with a vast array to choose from. Although cheap rubber dome or chiclet keyboards are often still the office norm, a simple mechanical keyboard can be had for as little as $35 — if branding isn't something you particularly care about.
However, sparkly new RGB 'boards are not the only choice on the market. For many years, buying "vintage" keyboards has been a thing. Originally these tended to be dirt cheap, as collecting mechanical keyboards was — let's be generous — a "niche" hobby. Even new old stock (brand-new, unused, but from a different time) keyboards could be had for pennies; a fantastic deal considering these old keyboards were still from the era where people cared about what they typed on. Their quality would, in many cases, vastly exceed anything made today, yet for a fraction of the price. With some work, these could be converted for use with any modern computer.
Of course, with the rise of popularity of mechanical keyboards, these vintage alternatives couldn't keep their low cost forever. Their cost peaked a few years ago; I've seen the Dell AT101 (one of the most common Alps-based mechanical keyboards from the 90s) go from a board that people could hardly give away to one that commanded a price of at least $100 apiece. Although those are now a bit cheaper, you're still looking to pay at least that for a good IBM Model M keyboard — and considerably more if you want one of the rarer or more desirable models.
Although there are of course exceptions, a general rule of thumb for keyboards is: the older it is, the more well-made it often turns out to be. The Model M keyboard — arguably the most famous keyboard of all time, a steel-backed behemoth coming in at over 2 kg with a divine typing feel — was a cheap, membrane (!) based alternative to its predecessor, the Model F keyboard, which used capacitive switches and even more steel in its chassis. The Model F itself was yet again a cheapification of the "beamspring"-based Model D keyboards that IBM used in the 1970s; they used what I still consider the best-feeling switches of all time, plus the quality of their construction was absurd (my IBM 4798 "beamship" weighs in at 6.8 kilos — I daren't even imagine how heavy the 259-key IBM "Beamhemoth" is). Despite being around 50 years old, a USB conversion made it able to be used on a modern computer, and it still types like a dream. That thing is older than me, and aged considerably more gracefully.
Although nowadays almost all mechanical keyboards use Cherry MX or one of its countless clones — Kailh, Gateron, TTC, Holy Pandas, Zealios, etc. — most enthusiasts aren't aware that this is just one single design in a sea of many hundreds of others. Many will stem swap, housing swap, lube and otherwise mod these switches into oblivion, but effectively it's still the same switch with very little physical change. Most keyboard switch designs have gone the way of the dodo and are only found on old, sometimes highly obscure and rare keyboards, but the difference between these and MX is often vastly greater than between stock MX and even the most extensively modded MX-type switches. Even relatively similar designs, such as NMB's Series 725 "Space Invaders" switches, or Alps Electric's SKCL/SKCM series (both contemporary competitors of Cherry MX from the mid-80s!) are so different from stock MX that it feels, at times, rather bizarre to watch what feels like the majority of the community obsess trying to achieve the greatest (yet in reality often microscopic) changes in the same single switch out of what must be thousands of (radically different and yet largely ignored) designs out there.
Being not just a keyboard enthusiast, but also a collector, I am fortunate to have a wide library of reference material for this. At about 350 different models spanning more than five decades, my keyboards range from keyless to 189% form factors, from flimsy plastic crap to metal bricks, from horrible to type on to heavenly, from beige to black to blue and all other colours you can imagine, and from metal contact-based like MX, Alps etc. to membrane, Hall effect, optoelectric, magnetic reed, magnetic valve, inductive, capacitive etc. I have keyboards not just to type on, but also to play around with. And many of these offer types of keyfeel that enthusiasts would drool over — if they only had the chance to try them out.
Thankfully, the popularity of mechanical keyboards has reached a critical enough mass that developers have slowly been trying out new things. A few years ago, Ace Pad Tech and Steelseries have brought back Hall effect switches; these have now been optimised and several companies offer these new, absurdly smooth linear switches.
Bloody and Wooting have done something similar by bringing back optoelectric switches, and these are also freely available. No longer do you need to dive into eBay listings, e-cyclers, dumpsters and second hand shops to get god-tier linear keyboards from the 70s and 80s; you can buy them brand-new online, and in modern chassis, with all the conveniences of such. Better still, these "contactless" linears have arguably even surpassed their vintage forbears in smoothness and keyfeel.
Clicky switches and especially tactile switches are harder to design, and need more work still. Kaihua's invention of the clickbar switch caused a major paradigm shift away from the now-standard click jacket-type MX-like clicky switches. These clickbars are an original design with no vintage origin, and are a highly competent alternative. Razer's optoelectric switches have a most intriguing — and quite pleasant — click bolt version of their optoelectric switches, Outemu have made snap-action switches, and there are remakes of Model F capacitive buckling spring keyboards, and recently even of beamspring keyboards, on the market. A second, redesigned round of the latter is to follow in the new year.
ZealPC now sell an MX-compatible switch with an Alps-type click leaf; a very special design, as it allows ready and reversible interconversion between clicky, linear and tactile modes using only a single switch type. Clicky switches, it seems, are soon to follow a similar Renaissance to linears.
Tactile switches still need the most attention, partly because it is not easy to come up with any design that is tactile but not clicky, and also because arguably even throughout history, very few good tactile designs have existed, and so there is little to start off from. Oftentimes, tactile designs are a kind of "reined in" variation of a clicky design, and this restraint can be felt in the end result. MX-type switches in particular use a very primitive means of generating tactility; a simple, tiny notch in the slider, against which the contacts brush when pressing a key. This generates a slight disruption in the key travel, which is felt as a small tactile bump, although personally, I think that's a generous description of a barely noticeable event, and not a very clean-feeling one at that.
Very few switch designs have managed to make for tactile events that feel both "clean" and genuinely tactile. The notch-type design was brought to excessive proportions with the advent of Box Royals, a switch that felt balky and not very elegant, but now, maybe, we are getting there as well. With the semi-return of Alps switches in the form of ZealPC Clickiez, a tactile version seems possible, and this could make for a fantastic return to form, as Alps click leaves were singularly well-suited to generating tactility. A bizarre, 3D-printed "magnetic levitation" switch design that uses no springs at all but instead relies on a trio of magnets is also highly promising. So perhaps there is hope for the future after all. And of course, the good old Topre is still a niche, but highly prized (pun intended) option in this segment.
Overall, it seems we are at the cusp of many great developments for mechanical keyboards. The time when people care what they type (or game) on seems to slowly return. More and more offerings appear on the market, and both retro and modern developments are at one's fingertips (again, pun intended). The time where you could easily score fantastic vintage boards for loose change may have passed, but perhaps, in the future, we won't need them as much.
Thomas RanChyrosran22 / Chyros
|Location||Utrecht, the Netherlands|
|Niche||collector, esp. vintage and/or weird|
|Fav. switch||Alps SKCM Blue|
|Fav. profile||IBM, OEM|
|Other hobbies||travelling, gaming, airsoft|
Published on Thu 8th Dec 2022. Featured in KBD #106.