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Das Keyboard: Hit Any Key 479

Black hardware just can't help looking cool (think TIE fighters, NeXT Cubes, and the hard-to-find black SE/30 case you might have lusted for in 1994), but have you ever wanted an all-black keyboard? Das Keyboard, from Austin-based Metadot, fills the craving for those so afflicted, and by "all-black," I mean something very nearly that: except a small white label ("Das Keyboard") in the upper left corner and labels for the three usual indicator lights -- num lock, caps lock, and scroll lock -- there's nothing but black to see. The keys are unlabeled in any conventional sense, though the index-finger keys of the conventional home row (F and J) are marked with the usual small bumps; theoretically, this should make typing more accurate after a time, just because cheating with one's eyeballs isn't a possibility. It's the aesthetic opposite of the recently announced Optimus keyboard; this is high minimalism applied to the modern keyboard. The truth is, I wanted to like Das Keyboard. It looks cool, and the concept sounds, well, sound. The thing itself left me a bit disappointed, though; I've outlined my reasoning below.

The problem with inviting comparison

Metadot borrowed from the best in the design of their keyboard: dimensionally, it's just about a dead ringer for an IBM Model M. Compared to my 1984 Model M, Das Keyboard's chassis is less than a half-inch shy of the M's longest dimension, and that half inch is shaved off the the outermost edge; key size, curvature and placement are identical to that of the Model M, at least to the limit of the measuring instruments mounted to each side of my nose. (The underside looks quite a bit different, though: A fair amount of Das Keyboard's undercarriage is just empty space, because the plastic underneath follows the curve of the keys themselves, leaving a small wedge of air.) The board's 6-foot USB cable (nice and chunky) exits to the rear through a neat slot straight up from the Caps Lock indicator. However, the dimensions are unfortunately where the resemblance ends, because the great thing about older, mechanical-action keyboards like the Model M is not so much how they look, but how they feel beneath the hand. Instead of the clacking, snapping action of buckling-spring keyboards, manufacturers have mostly moved to cheaper, less-complicated membrane keyboards, some of which feel better than others. My impression on opening the box and giving the black keyboard a lengthy groping was that the Das Keyboard's action is a bit squishy. To be fair, in the current keyboard market, most of the competition feels no better, and many competitors feel worse. Some people prefer the feel of membrane keyboards, though, so don't take my word for it -- taste in keyboards is idiosyncratic at best. As membrane boards go, Das Keyboard is on the good side of average.

About that extreme makeover ...

So what does the all-black color scheme do for one's typing speed? According to the company, by taking away the crutch of key labels, the user is forced to learn better typing skills and concentrate on their computer's screen.

This may be true for some people, and it sounds like a good theory, but in several weeks of use, I never quite swam, and mostly sank. Whenever I'd hit a wrong key (which was often), I found myself either hunting-and-pecking or craning my neck to peek at a conventional keyboard a few feet away for guidance. I'm an untutored typist, but several years of moderately heavy keyboarding mean I'm at least not a newcomer to entering text with a keyboard -- I even rather enjoy it, most days. However, maybe I'm just a slow learner, but I haven't had as much frustration with a keyboard since I played with a Twiddler a few years ago. Maybe I glance at my keys more than I realize on my conventional keyboard, or maybe it's simply that I had a hard time getting used to the feel of the board, but in the end I ended up disappointed with my speed using Das Keyboard. That's not to say that a better typist would feel the same; maybe I'm just not to the threshold of typing skill that Das Keyboard requires.

According to a company representative, the keys on Das Keyboard are divided into several distinct groups, each with their own response. I tried in vain to detect the difference between keys in various groups, and think I faintly detected it, sometimes. But the difference between any two of the keys on this keyboard (harping, I know) seems far less than that between any of Das Keyboard's keys and its equivalent key on a mechanical-action board. An exception is the space bar, which really did take the promised extra effort to press down: this is a welcome change, and I hope other keyboard makers license (or at least copy!) the idea, because I tend to keep my thumbs on the space bar. (I'd like to see a mechanical-switch version of Das Keyboard, which would retain the neat looks but do away with the milquetoast response.)

My muscle memory isn't what it used to be

The upshot, at least to me, is that Das Keyboard has a feel slightly better than the run-of-the-mill keyboards on offer at mass-market retailers, and much cooler looks, but costs a bit more than those differences justify, at least to my wallet. The industrial approach of this keyboard would be a perfect match for a gaming or overclocking system built for clean, industrial looks, and a better deal than most "high tech" sculpture, but I'm unconvinced that it's truly a practical improvement. If I wanted a keyboard with the claimed advantages of an absence of key-cap labels, I think I'd hit local thrift stores until I found a model that felt acceptable to my hands, and pick up can apiece of spray paint and lacquer.
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Das Keyboard: Hit Any Key

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Established technology tends to persist in the face of new technology. -- G. Blaauw, one of the designers of System 360