Unicomp Customizer UB434H6 – A Technological Review

IBM’s role in the initial development of the personal computer is difficult to overstate. The IBM PC 5150 was not the first personal computer, nor was it the quickest, flashiest and certainly not the cheapest, and yet, it legitimised the desktop form factor by bringing a reputation cultivated from their room-filling System/360 and System/370 mainframes. Today, the vast majority of personal computers are backwards-compatible with the original IBM PC specification.

While the IBM PC was very expensive compared to its specifications, there was one place where the extra expense was justified. The original IBM PC and PC/XT were designed with a high-quality keyboard incorporating buckling-spring keyswitches, but were burdened with an awkward and messy layout which was soon replaced by the 84-key Model F. In 1986, though, IBM introduced the 101-key “enhanced” keyboard layout with the introduction of the IBM Model M – a keyboard commonly regarded as the finest keyboard ever made.

Like the PC/XT and Model F keyboards that preceded it, the IBM Model M used individual buckling-spring keyswitches, which were composed of mechanical hammers which connected to springs contained within the key mechanism which buckled under pressure, activating the switches. These keyswitches were expensive, but they had their advantages. Unlike the membrane keyswitches used by the vast majority of modern keyboards, buckling-spring keys have a distinct tactile feel and loud click whenever the keys are depressed, granting a superior typing feel. These switches are also mechanically far more reliable than membrane keyboards – some Model M keyboards have lasted for twenty years with barely a change in key feel.

The Model M had other attributes which made it more than just another keyboard. It was composed of a heavy, strong plastic case and incorporated a curved steel back-plate which helped preserve the alignment of the keys. The keys were double-shot injection molded, which meant that they could never fade. Most IBM-designed models incorporated detachable cables. All of these attributes have earned the IBM Model M the reputation of the One True Keyboard.

While the original Model M is no longer available from IBM, having sold off its keyboard manufacturing division to Lexmark in 1991, a product is still available today based on the Model M patent. In 1996, a Kentucky-based company called Unicomp bought out Lexmark’s keyboard manufacturing division, which gave them ownership of the Model M design. Today, they sell the keyboard under the name of Customizer, and offer it in two colours, white and black with grey keys, and with either a PS/2 or USB connector.

The Unicomp Customizer: Heir to the One True Keyboard.

The first thing you’ll notice about this keyboard when you compare it to other modern keyboards is that it’s imposing. The Model M case design is retained, complete with the reassuringly heavy-grade plastic. The Customizer is larger on pretty much all dimensions than a mass-market keyboard from any of the major manufacturers. It’s correspondingly heavy as well; the curved steel backplate is also retained, although internet testing indicates that it’s slightly thinner than the original backplate from the IBM-made Model M keyboards.

The Customizer is also not a particularly flashy keyboard. It doesn’t incorporate shiny plastics or LED-backlit keys, instead retaining a sort of industrial presentation. There are a few aesthetic touches which seem to take away very slightly from the overall presentation – all of the keys appear to retain a small tag on the back from the injection moulding process.

That said, this isn’t a major part of the Customizer’s appeal. The Customizer retains many of the elements which gave the Model M its reputation, including the most important components – the delightfully clicky buckling-spring keyswitches. Coming from a lifetime of using mass-market membrane-based keyboards, the difference between those keyboards and the Customizer is obvious. The design of the buckling-spring keyswitches gives you instant tactile and audible feedback whenever you’ve successfully pressed a key. To those who spend a lot of time typing, this feature can be indispensable, guaranteeing that you’ll know when every key has been pressed successfully.

When I mention audible feedback, I refer to the clicking of the mechanical hammers underneath the springs. This keyboard is loud. This is one of the major features which attracted me to the keyboard – the individual clicks provide absolute confirmation as to when a key has been pressed. However, it’s not a feature which will appeal to everybody. When IBM PCs were in vogue in offices, schools and libraries, the constant clicking of buckling-spring keys was a major annoyance to many, who treasured peace and quiet over absolute tactile feel. As this comes as a part and parcel of the buckling-spring layout, it’s worth considering whether you consider this as a feature or a flaw.

Everything about the Unicomp Customizer feels like it’s been designed to last. While the keyboard no longer retains the detachable key-caps or cables of the IBM-designed Model M, everything else is designed for longevity. The aforementioned case and backplate add mass and strength to the keyboard, while the buckling-springs are expected to last at least 25 million keystrokes – enough to last even a serious typist several years more than a mass-market keyboard. The keycap labels are designed with a technology known as dye sublimation, where the ink is allowed to seep into the plastic, providing a thick layer of ink which renders the keys resistant to fading.

To all intents and purposes, the Unicomp Customizer is a worthy successor to the One True Keyboard. However, it does come with some caveats, most of them in fact derived from the fact that it’s based on the Model M patent. This is certainly not the cheapest keyboard on the market at $70 for the basic Customizer and more for some of the specialist models, but considering its heritage and the reputation for reliability, it will last longer than the other $70 keyboards on the market.

The weight and the size of the keyboard lend a sort of authoritative strength to it, and yet, it’s rather more difficult to move around than a standard keyboard, being about two-and-a-half kilograms. The most important caveat concerns the sound of the keys. Those who intend to use it in an environment with other people can expect to get some criticism from the sound of the keys, and while it offers a useful and distinctive indicator of key feedback, it won’t be favoured by all people. However, if you can get past these issues, the Customizer retains many of the qualities which have maintained the Model M’s reputation, even with the obsolescence of the computer it was once attached to.

Bottom Line: This heavyweight keyboard proves a fine successor to the exceptional IBM Model M. For serious typists, this could prove to be one of the best computer investments you’ve ever made.

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