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.