Ul­tra Clas­sic

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A true typ­ist’s key­board, in­spired by the springy keys of the IBM Model M

IF THERE’S SUCH a thing as a ‘leg­endary’ key­board, IBM’s Model M is the clos­est thing to it. Launched in 1984, it be­came pop­u­lar for its dura­bil­ity, eas­ily swap­pable key­caps and ‘buck­ling-spring’ switch mech­a­nism, which gave a uniquely lively and ex­tremely tac­tile key­press.

Sur­viv­ing units can still be found either as col­lec­tor’s items or in ac­tive use by en­thu­si­asts, but first-party pro­duc­tion has long since ceased. Luck­ily for fans of the old-fash­ioned ways, US firm Unicomp still makes Model M-style key­boards us­ing the ex­act same buck­ling-spring mech­a­nism.

While you can get an even more faith­ful re-cre­ation in the Clas­sic 101, the Ul­tra Clas­sic aims to be a bit more prac­ti­cal, us­ing a smaller, lighter chas­sis that takes up less room on your desk. It’s still ex­tremely bulky by mod­ern stan­dards – not ter­ri­bly wide, but very tall and thick – and thanks to an in­ter­nal steel back­plate it’s rather heavy as well. This makes it tricky to rec­on­cile with tiny ta­bles, or any kind of hot­de­sk­ing sit­u­a­tion.

Still, when you’ve got the room, it’s easy to see why the orig­i­nal Model M was so pop­u­lar. Be­cause the keys are ef­fec­tively spring-loaded, they have just the right amount of re­sis­tance on a down­ward press and pop right back up again on re­lease, so the key­board al­ways feels sharp and re­spon­sive when typ­ing quickly. Per­fect ac­cu­racy comes more or less im­me­di­ately.

In ad­di­tion to the phys­i­cal feed­back, there’s very clear and dis­tinc­tive au­dio feed­back too; it’s a com­bi­na­tion of the spring buck­ling against the side of the mech­a­nism, and a ham­mer tap­ping against the un­der­ly­ing elec­tri­cal con­tact when forced down by the spring. It feels and sounds un­like any mod­ern me­chan­i­cal or mem­brane key­board we’ve used – which is un­der­stand­able, con­sid­er­ing it’s em­u­lat­ing some­thing from the 1980s.

The down­side is that, noise-wise, the Ul­tra Clas­sic is down­right anti-so­cial. We first started us­ing it in open-plan of­fice space, and al­most im­me­di­ately started at­tract­ing in­cred­u­lous looks from nearby col­leagues, such is the vol­ume of its clack­ing keys. It’s even louder than Cherry’s MX Blue switches, which is say­ing some­thing. The Ul­tra Clas­sic, there­fore, is best kept at home.

Be­sides some creaky plas­tic around the edges, this key­board also shares the Model M’s en­vi­able tough­ness. Even the in­ten­tion­ally re­mov­able key­caps don’t budge un­less you give them a firm pull, though this fea­ture isn’t as big a sell­ing point as it is across the pond. While the Ul­tra Clas­sic is easy to get in a UK lay­out, we couldn’t find re­place­ment key­caps from any UK sell­ers, so you’ll need to im­port them if you want to switch things up.

We also wish Unicomp had made a few more mod­erni­sa­tions. There are no me­dia keys or USB ports, which may have an­gered IBM purists but would have made the Ul­tra Clas­sic a bet­ter choice for many more users. Its high ask­ing price fur­ther seals its fate as a niche prod­uct.

That said, it’s clearly proud to be a niche prod­uct, and that’s some­thing we can re­spect just as much as its heavy typ­ing prow­ess.

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