Inside the World's Greatest Keyboard

July 9th, 2008 by Benj Edwards

Inside the World\'s Greatest Keyboard - PC World

Today, PC World published the latest in my line of workbench tech autopsies. This time I dissected the venerable IBM Model M Keyboard, which some call the greatest keyboard of all time (obviously, I agree with them). While I took all the pictures as usual, the caption bubbles on a couple of the slides are courtesy of PC World's art department. Here's an excerpt from the introduction:

IBM's Model 5150 PC, released in 1981, was a classic, perhaps the computer most responsible for launching the PC revolution. Sadly, however, its keyboard did not live up to that standard. This 83-key model was IBM's first, and critics hated it, complaining about its awkward layout and nonstandard design. Stung by the criticism, IBM assembled a ten-person task force to craft a new keyboard, according to David Bradley, a member of that task force and of the 5150′s design team. Their resulting 101-key design, 1984′s Model M, became the undisputed bellwether for the computer industry, with a layout that dominates desktops to this day. As we peek under the hood of this legend, you'll soon see why many consider the Model M to be the greatest keyboard of all time.

It's no secret that the title "world's greatest" ultimately comes down to a matter of opinion. Like the 10 Worst PC Keyboards of All Time, many people are bound to disagree. That's OK. Feel free to share your picks for the greatest (or simply your favorite) keyboard of all time in the comments below.

(By the way, if you liked this piece, you might also enjoy checking out my previous teardowns of the Apple IIc and the TRS-80 Model 100.)



17 Responses to “Inside the World's Greatest Keyboard”

  1. d finky Says:

    Best ever made. Even had a slot on top for pens/pencils. Used these
    all the time back with green screen IBM's at UCONN in 1985 !!!

  2. GeorgeR Says:

    That was really interesting stuff. I remember using model Ms in school, i've never had the pleasure of owning one myself though. I might just have to rectify that.

  3. medarch Says:

    I just checked the date on my own keyboard… it's 08/15/91 ! It's a Smith Corona Acer of the exact same layout as the Model M. And it's also built like a tank.

  4. Anachostic Says:

    I'm not a fan of noisy keyboards, so I wouldn't like the M. However, I can appreciate a well-made keyboard and my choice is not anything found in a chain store. It's a KeyTronic. My preference is the large-L Enter layout, as opposed to the IBM standard. No frills, no drivers. I have yet to have one fail on me. The only reason I replaced my old one is that it had the DIN plug, so I upgraded to USB.

  5. Bjorn Nitmo Says:

    Isn't world's greatest a subjective thing? Personally, I'll take a Sun type 5 over an M any day.

  6. Kitsunexus Says:

    "Isn’t world’s greatest a subjective thing?"

    Can't you read?

    "It’s no secret that the title “world’s greatest” ultimately comes down to a matter of opinion. Like the 10 Worst PC Keyboards of All Time, many people are bound to disagree. That’s OK. Feel free to share your picks for the greatest (or simply your favorite) keyboard of all time in the comments below."

  7. Giovani Zancan Says:

    I agree that this keyboard is one of the best keyboards ever meda, here at the University museum of computers we have one.
    But one thing that I'd like to ask; this one that I have here has a RJ45 plug (to be used on an IBM terminal), so there's a way to chynge that pjug to use on modern computers? (even a DIN plug would be great)

  8. Benj Edwards Says:

    I believe so, Giovani. If you find a Model M cable with a DIN or PS/2 plug, then it should work on your keyboard. There are some exceptions, where certain IBM terminals had proprietary keyboard standards that might be incompatible with the Model M. But in general, if the keyboard looks like a 101-key extended AT keyboard (like the Model M), it's probably compatible.

    That being said, getting a DIN or PS/2 cable for the Model M might be difficult. It will likely be easier to buy another Model M with the cable, or use a cable from a broken model M than to find a cable by itself.. Another option is to wire up a cable yourself, which should be relatively simple, but it's not really an option for people unfamiliar with electronics work.

    Good luck.

  9. SB Says:

    Model M's are still being produced by a company named Unicomp. Their website can be found here: http://pckeyboards.stores.yahoo.net/

    It's the same factory that originally made the keyboards when the IBM factory moved to Kentucky. The Customizer 101 is exactly the same as a Model M. The Customizer 104 is a newer version, with the only differences being that the Customizer 104 comes in black, has a USB connector, and features a Windows key. I have numerous White/Grey/Blue label Model M's and I can attest to the fact that the Unicomp ones have the same feel and quality as the originals- Because they ARE Model M's :P

    The USB connector on the Unicomp keyboards come in handy, too. There are adapters for computers without a PS/2 ports, of course, but if they are not powered adapters, they sometimes do not work because the Model M draws too much power (see Newegg reviews, for examples).

    Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicomp

  10. SB Says:

    Oh, I should point out that the Unicomp keyboards are more like the blue labels created by Lexmark. They have the drain holes along the bottom, the keys are one piece (they don't have a separate cap), the plastic doesn't seem as hard as the older models (of course, it's all relative- you can still kill a man with it), the cord is not detachable, etc. So it's not exactly like the silver/grey label model M seen in this article, but for all intents and purposes, it's essentially the same thing. Unless you are a Model M nerd, like me :)

  11. Kitsunexus Says:

    dude Benj you should make Giovani a cable and charge $25+shipping.

  12. Giovani Zancan Says:

    Thanks Benj, I'll probably try to make a cable on my own, I just hope not to break this wonderful keyboard ^^"

    And Kitsunexus, since I live in Brazil, it would be kinda expensive for the shiping XD

  13. Captain Angry Says:

    Believe it or not, my company (warehousing) still uses a terminal variant of the Model M on coax-networked IBM Infowindow green tube terminals. Here are some pictures of Model M technology I deal with every day:

    http://img370.imageshack.us/img370/6176/modelm1pw9.jpg
    http://img240.imageshack.us/img240/8373/modelm2fg8.jpg
    http://img118.imageshack.us/img118/4549/modelm3rm1.jpg

    I never really considered these to be a great keyboards, but now that I think about it, in jobs past when I had to swipe a keyboard to borrow in the dust covered rack room in the bowels of some rural Safeway, I usually went for the Model M on the old server, because it would still work no matter how much dirt was on it. This is a KB with true grit!

  14. Eric Says:

    Haha, that's my keyboard. I had no idea it was the greatest one ever made. I do know it's the greatest one I've ever owned though:D

    It'd be handy to have a windows key, but it's worth not having one for a great keyboard.

  15. Eric Says:

    PS. picked it up at my local computer shop for a buck in the bargain bin;D

  16. Nash Says:

    Hahaha! it's funny, i'm typing on one right now. ive been browsing this blog, seeing peripherals i wish i had to add to my computer, not even thinking this whole time i've been typing on a 25 year old keyboard.

    the thing is a tank though! easily the best keyboard i've ever had (if not the loudest!)

  17. Anonymous Says:

    I'd been wanting a Model M since working as an intern at IBM in the 80s. Our default mushy keyboards at work just don't cut it. Thanks to the Internet, 25 years later I found out about the Unicomps & bought a Spacesaver last summer. To me it's the best blend of old-world & new. It is USB & has a Windows key, yet feels and sounds the same (and is made with the same tooling) as the Model Ms.

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