IBM Model AT F Keyboard Tour

IBM-Model-F-Header

This is a bit of a departure for this blog, since it deals with a full-sized keyboard. However, this keyboard tour provided a unique experience that allowed me to sample a key switch that may never be available in my preferred form factor. So although the core focus of this blog is the compact keyboard, I think it’s good to step outside your comfort zone and try new things now and again.

About The Tour

In April of this year, fellow GeekHack member AKIMbO posted an offer to send out an IBM Model AT F keyboard on tour to a handful of trustworthy members to try first hand on what it feels to type on the Model F buckling spring keyboard. I was lucky enough to be selected for the tour. As a member of the tour, my responsibility was fairly minimal: 1. Pay for the shipping to the next person on the list (approximately $16) 2. Write up a review of the keyboard

As a huge fan of the buckling spring mechanical switch, I was very eager to try out this keyboard and jumped at the opportunity to get on the tour. I’ve waxed poetically here and here about how much I love typing on “Clacky”, so no need to rehash. Suffice to say that I love the switch and was very curious how different the Model AT F differered from the Model M.

About The Board

The IBM Model AT F is the most famous keyboard of the Model F Series released by IBM and was the first keyboard to use the buckling spring mechanical switch. The series was started in 1981 and the Model AT F was released in 1984. The Model F was a successor to IBM’s beam spring technology which allowed IBM to reduce the overall weight and cost of manufacturing over it’s previous keyboards. It featues 84 keys in a much different layout than what most people have grown accustom to with the later 101 standard estabilshed by the Model M series.

IBM Model AT F keyboard

Key layout isn’t the only difference between the Model F and the Model M, the buckling spring itself is different. In a nutshell, a buckling spring switch consists of a spring attached to a hammer which is housed in a plastic barrel. The basic design is the same in both models, but with the F, the barrels are individually mounted, the hammer is larger and uses capacative contacts to activate a key, versus the membrane used in the Model M. For more information on the differences, I highly recommend Deskthority’s Wiki Entry on the subject.

Just as the Model F introduced cost savings from previous versions, the later Model M introduced even further cost savings. Given that my only experience with the buckling spring has been with later models, having the opportuinity to try an earlier model was quite enticing. Would the older Model F be superior to it’s less expensive siblings, or were the cost savings just a by product of refining the technology?

It’s A Tank

The keyboard arrived during the first week of June, 2013 and the first thing I noticed was the weight – the keyboard is a tank. Granted, I’ve grown accustomed to the size and weight of a 60% compact keyboard, so any keyboard is going to look-and-feel substantionally larger and heavier, but this board exceeded my expectations. I wish I had weighed the keyboard while I had it, but at any moment I expected it to transform into an Autobot and tell me I had to save the world from the Decepticons.

model-f-foot

One of the best examples of the weight is the way the “feet” are designed. There are huge flat knobs on each side of the keyboard which raise and lower the feet to change the pitch of the keyboard. Most people are familar with the flimsly feet that flip out from the bottom of your keyboard, but these levers lock the feet into place with a solid “thock” when you move them. It’s amazing.

Once I got over the shock of the weight, I set about connecting it to my iMac and taking her for a spin. AKIMbO included an adapter that allowed me to connect the keyboard via USB and after the customary quick setup that initates with all new keyboards I plug in, I was off to the races and typing away.

The Feel

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve typed on my Model M and unfortunately, I had loaned Clacky to fellow GH member, Kaporkle so that he could create a 3d render, which is coming along nicely. This was unfortunate because I didn’t have a recent frame of reference to refer to. All of my other keyboards were ALPS or Cherry MX and thus I had to rely on older sense memory that may not be the most accurate. I couldn’t do a side-by-side comparision. That being said, I did type on my beloved Model M for many years and used it off-and-on over the past year, so my previous typing expereince wasn’t too far in the distant past.

If I had to sum up the feel in one word? Snappy.

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The feel of the Model F had a certian pop to it that is hard to describe. It reminded me of the Model M, but if felt much more repsonsive and the return on the keystrokes seemed faster. The key caps are identical to the Model M key caps, so there wasn’t much difference in that regard in terms of feel, or texture, but the responsiveness from the springs was really, really nice. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I actually prefer the Model F to the Model M.

It’s not quite perfect though. I did noticed that there was a pronouced “ping” sound when typing. As I typed on the keyboard, I could hear the sound of the spring ringing as I typed. If I were going to put this keyboard into my main rotation, I would probably do the floss mod to reduce this sound. If it changed the feel too much then I would remove it, but reducing this extra ping would be a high priority for me.

The other thing I would change is to reduce the spring tension on the spacebar. AKIMbO left the spacebar un-modded, thus as it was originally intended and that thing was a monster. I’m a big fan of heavy switches. My main board uses Cherry MX-Black and MX-Dark Grey switches, but I had to completely spank the spacebar to get it to actuate. It felt like I was attempting to play slap bass. I’m glad he sent it out un-modded because I don’t know that I would have believed just how heavy it was without trying it.

Usability

What caused me to stop using my Model M was the fact that it lacked a Winkey. The Model F of course lacks this key as well and it also places the Alt, Control and Caps Lock key in different places. Given that I’ve become a huge fan of the 60% layout, those are really the only keys that affected me when using the keyboard in terms of placement.

layout

For basic typing, I really had no issues with the layout, with the notable exception of the backspace. With the Model F, it’s a 1x key and I found myself accidentially hititng the “\” key quite a bit. I might be able to adjust to it over time and as long as I wasn’t doing a lot of editing that required control, win, or alt keys, I think I would have no problems using this keyboard. Alas, any aspect of my computing experience requires using the winkey constantly and the control and alt keys are a close second, so I don’t think I could make this a primary board.

Conclusion

If you like a clicky switch, then in my opinion, this is the gold standard.
I freaking love this keyboard switch! It may be 30-years old, but I don’t know of any switch produced since that has matched the feel and responsiveness of the Model F buckling spring. If you like a clicky switch, then in my opinion, this is the gold standard. The Model M is a close second, which is big words coming from me, because before this keyboard tour, I always believed the Model M buckling spring to be the best. What can I say? We have a new king in town! Well, in my town at least.

If you’d like to see a comparison of what the switch sounds like, I did a quick sound sample video comparing standard Cherry MX-Blue, Jailhouse Blue and the Model F in the video below.

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Unfortunately, as fantastic as the switch is, the 80’s layout is a deal breaker. There is simply no way that I could use this keyboard on a regular basis. Layout and missing keys render this form factor unusuable in my everyday work. That doesn’t mean I can’t dream though. I’ve now modified my fantasty keyboard – 60% ANSI 125 with Model F buckling spring switches. If such a keyboard were ever to exist, there is no doubt in my mind that I would move heaven and earth to put it under my fingertips.

Special Thanks

I am very appreciative of AKIMbO for being so generous with a true gem of a keyboard and for being so patient for my review. He provided me with a very unique experience that will plauge… err… haunt… umm… influence every other keyboard I ever type on. Thank you.

Should he decide to ever launch a subsequent tour, I highly recommend that you take full advantage and sign up. In fact, you might have to fight me for a spot on the list because I might just have to give her another whirl!

Update

I cross posted this review on GeekHack and Parak was quick to point out that my “dream keyboard” may not be as far away as I thought.

  1. There is a method to change the layout to ANSI, albeit a somewhat difficult one. This would resolve the layout issue that I mentioned under the “Usability” section of the review.

  2. Even more exciting, and I can’t believe I forgot this, but the KishSaver uses the Model F style buckling spring and is in a 60% layout. Granted, there are next to impossible to find and they don’t work with modern computers at the moment, but there is a ultra-slim chance that you could conceive of a 60% Model F in the future. In other words, there’s a chance


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  • I’m curious–how did your mac recognize the number pad? Were you able to use the arrow keys, or number pad only? Thanks.

    Reply
  • mashby
    May 7, 2015

    Brent — sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

    To be honest, I don’t know. As a 60% user, I don’t typically use the number pad and I failed to test it for this tour.

    Reply
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