30 April 2008


Keyboard nerdery: the Apple Extended Keyboard II and IBM 101

Apple Extended Keyboard II triple threatAlmost five years ago, I wrote about my favourite keyboards. Alas, things have changed somewhat: most of the links in my original post are broken, and Apple has stopped making the old transparent black-keyed Pro Keyboard and now produces some interesting but very different super-thin models instead (in between, the company made a tolerable but ho-hum white keyboard that also acted as an excellent crumb tray).

This week, John Gruber and Dan Benjamin wax rhapsodic on their podcast about the ancient Apple Extended Keyboard II, pictured. I have three, as well as two Apple Keyboards (not the Keyboard II) that use the same keys, several miscellaneous USB keyboards, a decent basic PC PS/2 keyboard, and a treasured IBM 101. The 101 is currently hooked up to my eMac with a PS/2-USB adapter, with keys remapped with the Mac's System Preferences.

IBM 101 buckling spring keyboardThe Extended Keyboard II and the IBM 101 are the twin holy grails of keyboard nerds. Unfortunately, my EKIIs have been sitting in a cupboard for years because I never got around to buying an adapter to make their Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) connectors work with newer USB Macs. But now Gruber and Benjamin may have inspired me to track one down.

I spent many a year pounding my fingers on an Extended II, in university and as a freelance technical writer. The IBM 101 is a very different beast, also built like a tank but with a more metallic, punchy feel, and an audible note to its astoundingly loud typing sound. As yet no one has been able to replicate what's good about these devices, so if you're a serious computer typist, you'll need to track down a vintage one.

And no, you can't have mine.

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I have three Apple Extended Keyboard II's. All other keyboards seem cheap, mushy, and flimsy by comparison. I rotate them out from time to time so I can clean the one that's been in use. I purchased an extra iMate ADB to USB adapter, too, when I realized those would probably become rare items as well.

Behold my desk at work, with the coveted keyboard!
"in between, the company made a tolerable but ho-hum white keyboard that also acted as an excellent crumb tray"

God, yes! And I thought it was just me being messy.

Dust trap, crumb tray, and fluff magnet. You don't want to see what mine looks like. :)

I still have the old beige-grey (I struggle with the concept of that colour, but Apple made it possible in the 90s!) Apple extended keyboard that came with my (beige-grey) LC III. In fact, I still have the LC III in a box in the shed. Can't bear to part with it, but I know the time is coming for it to go.
I remember the original IBM PC keyboard, and the IBM PC AT keyboard (is this the 101 kb you refer to?) They both had a nice, but definitely noisy feel to them. Very positive feedback that inspired quite fast typing. IBM DisplayWriter keyboards were similar if memory serves me correctly .... IBM must have had a whole division designing these things for their terminal devices .....

Fortunately they were much lighter than the IBM 3270-style keyboards they were spawned from (now there's a mental image you don't want to have!!!!).

Steve Taylor
Melbourne, Australia
Those all go back to the venerable Selectric typewriter. Which was all-metal, and weighed a ton. Not exactly portable, but great for hurling at assailants who break into your office. Or Olympic weight training.
I've gone from the AEK2 to the IBM Series M, and I'm never looking back, unless something comes up with similar feel and just as wide as the main letter portion of the keyboard.

This weekend, I actually dug my two AEK2s out of the garage to send them to a better home.
What USB adapter do you use? I've tried two, both with less than 100% success.
What I loved about the IBM keyboard was the precision of the keystroke registration. The keystroke is sent to the computer at precisely the same time the key clicks. Not before and not after. I do wish it wasn't quite as noisy though, but I won't take those mushy-keyed lookalikes. Like a tank is right. Just detach that cord, and you've got a weapon.
The IBM keyboard I remember was the original PC one, circa 1982 or so -- a guy in my dorm had an IBM PC, and I thought the keyboard had a nice feel but was horribly, gratuitously loud.

(And it had a bizarre key layout, with the backslash to the left of the Z, right where my pinkie expected the Shift key to be, so I found it impossible to type on. Glad to see they fixed that by the time of the 101.)

I also went through several Apple Extended keyboards in my day. I've got the Crumb Tray now, but would like to get something with a smoother feel. Too bad the Tactile Pro 2 got such bad reviews.
I actually have a couple of IBM "Model M" keyboards. Their quality is simply unmatched. Unfortunately, they're missing the extra Windows and Context-Menu keys that came along in 1995. In my work I've come to depend heavily on the Context-Menu key in Windows, and on a Mac you've gotta have the Control, Option, and Command keys next to one another. So, sadly, my Model M keyboards remain in storage.

A nice advantage of the Mac is that it's keyboard layout hasn't changed since the release of the Extended Keyboard back in 1987; it works as well today on a modern Macintel as it did on the old 680x0 Mac II from 20 years ago.
How spooky -- soon after posting my previous comment, I ran across a picture of a brand new Dell computer with exactly the same crazy backslash key:

To answer Anson, the USB-PS/2 adapter I use is some generic model from London Drugs here in Vancouver, with two PS/2 connectors (for keyboard and mouse) and one USB plug. It works without drivers on the Mac.

I'm tracking down a Griffin iMate as the ADB-USB adapter for the Apple keyboards. John Gruber reports having used it with success for years, also with no drivers required on the Mac.
clickykeyboards.com sells PS2-USB adapters tested to be compatible with the IBM Model M.

I have one... they're ugly but they work solidly.

You can also get new runs of the Model M from Unicomp, complete with "Windows" keys.

(one 1990 Model M, one Lexmark Model M, and one black Model M with Trackpoint)
Snej: it's standard UK keyboard layout to have the '\' character to the left of the 'z'.
Have you ever used an Apple Extended Keyboard? Not version II, that is. If you did, you'd probably like it much better than the AEK2. It's way more robust and features Alps switches with tactile feedback. Much harder to find though...
I love that my 23 year old IBM keyboard still works as well today as when it was first made. I think it sets a record for longevity amongst computer peripherals!
Where can I obtain a PS2/USB adapter that works reliably with keyboards?
I'm typing this on an IBM 101 manufactured in June of 1987. It's one of three I have (one at work, one at home, one spare), and I'll never let them go. Greatest keyboards ever. All of mine were rescued from the trash.
According to Dan and John's podcast, only the very, very earliest Apple Extended (non-II) Keyboards used different keyswitches. Most of the ones out there use the same mechanisms as the Extended II. I used an original Extended many many years ago, but haven't had one for comparison so I can't say whether I'd prefer it. I do remember that it was even MORE huge than the Extended II. Even my three Extended IIs do feel a bit different from one another, and other differences from the Extended design would probably make it feel different too.

My IBM 101 is relatively new, from 1999, but still maintains those crazy "thwonk"-sounding key mechanisms and hefty weight. The keys are much more tapered then the Apple keyboards too, so while it is great to type on, it feels quite different indeed. And I couldn't use it at the office -- too many complaints from coworkers.

Finally, the PS/2-USB adapter I have works without a driver on the Mac, and it's completely generic, so chances are good almost any one will work. However, I'm not sure if you might need a driver on Windows or Linux.

Man, we are an obsessed bunch, aren't we? Could we put some of this mental effort into solving world hunger, maybe? :)
I am all about the new Apple Keyboard (the thin aluminum one).

But then, I don't like super-long travel or having my typing sound like a trainwreck - and the AK, unlike various other non-loud keyboards, has a nice crisp feel.

(My co-worker has one of the modern mechanical switch KBs based on the 101; when he's typing rapidly it brings my productivity to exactly zero because it makes thought impossible.)
I used to love the old IBM keyboards, but now that I have mild carpel tunnel syndrome, their key action is a bit too hard.

The new Apple keyboard really seems ideal - the touch is light but the feel is very reassuring. And they are a lot easier to clean than the breadcrumb tray that was the old model.

I just wish they had TrackPoint. I really loved TrackPoint because you didn't have to move your hands from the keyboard, even for a moment. It really made mousing around fast.

After a very intensive weekend-long writing and editing contract back in 2001, I also developed a repetitive strain injury in my wrists. Unfortunately I was working as a freelance tech writer at the time and had to find a way to keep typing while healing up.

Most of that involved positioning myself properly. I kept using my Extended Keyboard II, but left it as flat as possible on a desk at just the right level, with a good supportive desk chair, my feet flat on the ground, multiple mice and trackballs, a gel wrist rest, and (oddly) bicycle gloves on to keep my wrists warm and avoid direct pressure on them.

Things took more than a year to get better, but they did. With proper typing position I think you can avoid RSIs and use nearly any keyboard, including the IBM 101. However, if you already have an RSI, switching to one with shorter key throw might be a good idea.
Speaking of holy grail of keyboards, does anyone remember the Olivetti typewriter keyboards? They were just like an IBM 101 in feel, but with a very pleasing, very soft 'click' as you punched each key. If I could find a keyboard that felt like that, I'd buy 3. My IBM 101 is great, but it's sooo loud, I use it for a couple of weeks and go back to my crumb tray...
I probably should have read further to see if this is a blog about apples only, because I use a PC at the office. Also, this is really a question, not a comment. I just got a new Microsoft split ergonomic keyboard at the office and they switched the 6 to a left-hand key. That is just UNACCEPTABLE!

Are the new split keyboards out there all like that? I am not keyboard-phobic and type faster than most folks can talk, and am a CPA. So a change like that is devastating to my speed and accuracy. Anyone know?

I guess that if all the new splits are like that, I am looking for a “wave” keyboard with a built in touch pad. Anyone know of one of those with decent action? By that, I mean; not too soft but not the kind you have to hammer to register a key-stroke. On the one I am using now, if I was composing on the blog instead of in Word, you would not believe the number of words run together because I have to hammer with my thumb to get the space-bar to register, and it leaves out half the letters in words with letters that are really hard to pound with say, the ring finger or the lower keys for the index finger.

I wish I could give you some advice, but my typing (while fast) has simply evolved over the past 30 years or so -- I do not touch-type at all properly. My right hand covers about 2/3 of the keyboard, and my left the other 1/3, and some letters may get hit by different fingers depending on the letter.

What that means is that split, wave, and ergonomic keyboards have always been useless to me, whatever their configuration: my right hand keeps "hopping" across the divide with my unorthodox typing style. Thus I haven't used one of those keyboards since trying one around 1996. Anyone else have any advice?
If you like the Model M, you owe it to yourself to check out the Model M space saver (I have models 1391472 and 1392980).

It's got the exact same buckling spring keys, but a significantly reduced desktop footprint. No numpad on the right, so you can keep your mouse closer. You can find them on ebay for between $25 and $50! (And if you're crazy, like me, you can put a USB-native PCB in it so you can use it with modern computers.)
They both had a nice, but definitely noisy feel to them. Very positive feedback that inspired quite fast typing. IBM DisplayWriter keyboards were similar if memory serves me correctly .