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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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  • dupe? (Score:1, Informative)

    by w98 ( 831730 ) * on Thursday September 08, 2005 @05:19PM (#13513150) Homepage
  • by Dogun ( 7502 ) on Thursday September 08, 2005 @05:39PM (#13513358) Homepage
    You can still get buckling-spring keyboards at Nothing beats the feel of a buckling-spring, I find myself agreeing with the reviewer.

    One of the features of a truly good keyboard is the ability to be serviced by its user without destroying the keyboard - after spilling pizza, coke, and cereal all over it, I expect to be able to take off the keys and mop up the remains of my ill-advised snacking over the keyboard. This feature (ability to perform simple repair/maintenance like this) is commong to buckling-spring keyboards, but I have to ask, is it a possibility on this one? Is this one of those bubble matrix ones, or what?

    Just wish I had more information on Das Keyboard.
  • by lax-goalie ( 730970 ) on Thursday September 08, 2005 @05:40PM (#13513364)

    The May posting was a product annoucement-type story. This posting is actually a review.

    While "dupe" is usually the way to bet, around here, you bet wrong this time. Thanks for playing...

  • Re:dupe? (Score:3, Informative)

    by hackstraw ( 262471 ) * on Thursday September 08, 2005 @05:43PM (#13513388) []

    I will not use naughty language like I did before, but for me to find the dupe it takes: Apple+L TAB das keyboard RETURN

    Do they do this for attention or something? Surely they have used google before. Slack bastards.
  • Re:So... (Score:5, Informative)

    by boa13 ( 548222 ) on Thursday September 08, 2005 @05:48PM (#13513420) Homepage Journal
    Why in the world does it cost $80?

    Actually it doesn't. It seems like it's just a regular, $21.50 Keytronic E03600QUSUSBB-C keyboard, without any key labels.

    Read the Keytronic description []

    Do you recognize this diagram? []
  • by baboon ( 4086 ) on Thursday September 08, 2005 @06:34PM (#13513753) Homepage okeytop.html []

    And, yes, they have charcoal grey, too. Or better yet, a model with barely visible labels for the occasional search for the Print Screen key.

    I can testify that the HHKB Lite is a great keyboard. I have two.

    Has anyone tried a Pro model?
  • Re:Top Ten (Score:2, Informative)

    by CatsCradle ( 788004 ) on Thursday September 08, 2005 @06:42PM (#13513798) Homepage
    Want to do something more practical? Get a Braille keyboard and learn that while typing. It's a skill, right?

    Hmmm... Good idea. oard []
  • Re:Top Ten (Score:4, Informative)

    by poor_boi ( 548340 ) on Thursday September 08, 2005 @07:26PM (#13514014)
    Painting a keyboard black sucks:
    1. you have to find some paint that won't rub or flake off.
    2. you have to spraypaint the keys carefully enough to not gum up the functioning of the keys: I'm looking at my "unblank" keytronic keyboard right now and it has less than 1/16" between the keys.
    3. you should find some some black paint whose surface feels nice enough to rest under your fingers for 8 hours a day
    4. my "unblank" keytronic keyboar's key writing is actually both painted and tactile. E.g. the white inscriptions on each key are subtly raised up from the rest of the key. This means that even after you "paint" your keyboard, you may still be able to see the key inscriptions, reducing the 'cool factor'.
    5. it's hard! when you're an uber-geek, you're making bank anyway... the time you spend making your own half-baked chincy "painted black" keyboard will probably pay for the real deal: "Das Keyboard"

    And finally, let me conclude: Keytronic keyboards are not avaible from your neighborhood CrapUSA or Bogus Buy. Those guys sell horrible, cheap keyboards at outrageous markups.

    If you're looking for a quality keyboard, order from Keytronic (or a Das Keyboard if you feel like paying for the 'cool' factor.) Keytronic puts pride, quality, and engineering into their product and it shows. I spent months researching where to buy 'quality keyboards' after being burned by craptastic keyboard after craptastic keyboard from CrapUSA and other like-retailers. The end result of my research pointed me at Keytronic keyboards, and I haven't been disappointed.

    By the way, if you happen to know a manufacturer / retailer of QUALITY keyboards, please reply to this post and let me know, I'm interested in creating a community keyboard review site and could use some first-hand info. =)


  • Re:ALL the keys? (Score:3, Informative)

    by dasunt ( 249686 ) on Thursday September 08, 2005 @07:42PM (#13514105)

    I had been professionally trained to touch-type in school.

    However, it was MUDs that honed my skills. Speed and accuracy is rewarded in MUDs. Typos can be fatal.

  • Re:Top Ten (Score:5, Informative)

    by austad ( 22163 ) on Thursday September 08, 2005 @07:46PM (#13514141) Homepage
    You can dye plastic. RIT actually works on some types of plastic, and some autoparts stores sell dye meant for plastics. I'm sure you can find what you need by searching for it though.

    Just dunk the whole damn thing in a bucket of dye and dry it off under a heat lamp for a couple of days. I've washed keyboards in the dishwasher before and dried them that way, and they still worked just fine.
  • by corngrower ( 738661 ) on Thursday September 08, 2005 @08:02PM (#13514307) Journal
    Actually it was IBM who switched the CAPS-Lock and the Control keys. The HHKB has the keys in their original position, as any old UNIX guy will tell you. For us old vi users, the HHKB keeps the CTL key where it belongs.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 08, 2005 @08:12PM (#13514386)
    I wonder why you linked to Happy Hacking without mentioning their Blank Keytop model [] that more closely relates to the article. They even have it in Charcoal Black [].

    "Why does it cost $260?!" you might ask. Well the answer is that it uses capacitive keyswitches [] for both the greatest durability and tactile feel. They register key presses when a metal plate on the key moves between two parallel plates on the board that discharges a capacitive charge. Therefore there is no contact taking place to register the key press and therefore no wear on any contact points. To give tactile feedback each key has a standard mechanical spring mechanism (i.e. IBM Model M - note that Model M does NOT use capacitance, though).

    There you have it. The ultimate luxury geek keyboard. It also has the CTRL key swapped with CAPS LOCK by default and the ESC key is where ~ would be on a US layout (to the left of '1'). A good bonus for UNIX nerds that have to work on a variety of boxen and don't want to setup the keyboard every time. Yes, hardware nerds can accomplish the same thing with some solder and wire. But for us software nerds that make a good salary it's a nice bonus.
  • Re:Top Ten (Score:3, Informative)

    by 1u3hr ( 530656 ) on Thursday September 08, 2005 @09:43PM (#13514946)
    Unfortunately I don't think there's anywhere you can buy those oldschool spring / mechanical keyboards "new" anymore.

    Yes there is. See Dan's Data [] which links to a few, such as Unicomp []. I've got an original Model M, but you may need to modify it [] for recent mobos.

  • by thelizman ( 304517 ) <hammerattack AT yahoo DOT com> on Thursday September 08, 2005 @09:44PM (#13514950) Homepage
    I would probably kill someone for a Model M. Granted, nobody I knew. It'd have to be some poor decrepid third world street urchin. But I'd do it.

    You cannot comprehend the satisfaction of the tactile feedback those keyboards delivered. For people like me - that is, people who type so damned fast all you hear is the rustling of keys - the assured click and forceful return of a keystroke on those old units is like music.

    I'm a GenXer, too, so this isn't just crank nostalgia. I was still wetting the bed when these keyboards were rolling off assembly lines. When I first met one in a pile of junk in a backroom at a municipal IT department at City Hall, I wretched at the notion that I'd have to adapt the CB-mike style DIN plug to a sleek, compact, and modern PS/2 port. But necessity sometimes brings about unexpected benefits - the Model M I was forced to use became a pleasure. I had fewer carpal tunnel flare ups. My fingers cramped less. Most unintuitively, I became more productive with the older keyboard. Oh, and don't forget buttons F1-F23. That's right, a double row of function buttons waiting to be programmed with macros.

    I tried to steal that keyboard. I had hatched several elaborate plans to abscond with the taxpayers property. In the end, I gave in to my moral penchant for respecting the sanctity of property. I have regretted it since.
  • Re:Top Ten (Score:4, Informative)

    by Alcoholist ( 160427 ) on Thursday September 08, 2005 @09:47PM (#13514970) Homepage
    Keytronic even sells them in black! Paint over the keys with nailpolish or something.

    As near as I can tell the Das Keyboard is a 3600 series Keytronic keyboard. Just without any printing. Even their diagrams for the "Individually Weighted Keyswitches" look similar:

    Das Keyboard []
    Keytronic []
  • Vinyl dye (Score:2, Informative)

    by Animakitty ( 603425 ) <> on Friday September 09, 2005 @05:07PM (#13522176) Homepage
    The autostore paint you're thinking of is generally called 'Vinyl Dye', or upholstery dye, and it works on many common plastics. (Experiment. It doesn't work on *all* of them.) It won't chip, flake, or even blob up while you're spraying. You can always paint over it with another color, but you won't be able to dye anything that's been painted previously. It's good stuff, and I prefer it to spray paint when altering the color of anything plastic. (Drive bay covers and drive faceplates, for instance.)

"Say yur prayers, yuh flea-pickin' varmint!" -- Yosemite Sam