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Classic Keyboards -- The Good, The Bad and the just plain Ugly.


Omega-TI
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Okay, Atari Age has a WIDE-RANGE of hobbyists and experts when it comes to classic computers and gaming systems. Now this is not a question that any poll can answer, so I ask you, the people who have used these keyboards over the past few decades...

 

Figuring tactile feel, feedback, key travel and looks:

 

1) What was the worst keyboard to use?

2) What what the nicest keyboard to use?

 

Figuring construction and durability:

 

1) What keyboard to you feel was the biggest piece of c**p to ever be manufactured?

2) What keyboard do you think has held up the best over the decades?

 

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Worst keyboards, probably ZX80/81/Timex Sinclair 1000, which offered zero tactile feedback. Right up there is the one for the Mattel Aquarius, which, despite having reasonably responsive keys, had keys that were too small and oddly placed. The VideoBrain keyboard also had very odd placement (although it was a good keyboard otherwise) as did the original Commodore PET.

 

Best keyboard is easily the early IBM PCs. Reasonably close are the later Apple II/IIGS keyboards. Most keyboards of the 70s - 80s fall somewhere between the Apple II and Mattel Aquarius in terms of quality.

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My favorite keyboard of all time is the Apple Extended Keyboard II. Just a fantastic keyboard. I love them so much, I bought two a few years ago to use with my modern Macs. To do this, I had to purchase an ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) to USB convertor to allow me to plug the keyboards into a modern Mac. Unfortunately, using this setup I would periodically lose keystrokes. Happens with both keyboards, so I'm pretty sure it's a problem with the adapter. I type very fast, and this would only happen when I was going at full speed. I could not figure out a way to resolve the issue, so I had to abandon those keyboards.

 

IBM's Model M keyboards, which use a buckling spring mechanism, are also fantastic. Over the years I have purchased several new Model M-style keyboards from Unicomp, and I highly recommend them. More recently, I have been using Das Keyboard Professional keyboards with Cherry MX Blue switches.

 

Worst keyboards are anything membrane, such as the Atari 400, Odyssey 2, and Timex Sinclair 1000. The only thing worse for me to type on is an iPad screen. :D

 

I might be a bit of a keyboard snob.

 

..Al

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I might be a bit of a keyboard snob.

Me, too! I freely admit it. I won't use anything other than a Model M with my PCs, either from IBM or from Unicomp, preferably a Classic 101 without the Windows keys. I also appreciate the Atari 1200XL keyboard, although they seem to require a lot of maintenance, and the aluminum-cap keys tend to easily show their wear. Another keyboard I like: the Tandy 102, which has a full-stroke keyboard, a rarity in a class of portable computers that predominantly use low-profile scissor switch keyboards.

 

I feel bad picking on the old T/S-1000 membrane keyboards, since they were obviously chosen to fit a price point, but my typing experience on those was probably my worst. The Aquarius keyboard and other chiclet keyboards are only slightly better, but if you use the Aquarius mainly for games, and the keyboard as a secondary input device to the hand controllers, it's serviceable enough. Today's cheapie rubber dome PC keyboards are generally unpleasant, too: they're so flimsy and spongy, and the ones from the late 90s are loaded with stupid "Internet buttons" which are ugly and all but useless today. The mushiest keyboard of all would have to be an unmodified Atari 130XE/65XE keyboard. They look nice, so their poor feel is especially disappointing.

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On the modern front, can't stand today's generic black PC keyboards. Flimsy as hell and they're black! Where in the hell did all the white/beige keyboards go? :mad:

 

Actually do like Apple's latest! Flat white caps are actually pretty tactile, allowing for some speedy typing. Pretty comfortable and no surprise I guess since Apple's made some of the best keyboards (and computers) for years and years.

 

BITD, couldn't stand the Aquarius or Atari 400 (despite looking cool in that McDonalds cash register way) keyboards. Timex Sinclair sucked too... any "keyboard" that was of the membrane family.

 

Least favorite of all? Typing on this damned iPhone touchscreen keyboard! :lol:

 

(just realized my response is much like Al's - I suspect most people here that use a keyboard are going to feel the same way!) haha

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Another keyboard I like: the Tandy 102, which has a full-stroke keyboard, a rarity in a class of portable computers that predominantly use low-profile scissor switch keyboards.

Yes! I still have one of those! I could type on one of those all day, such great little machines. :)

 

Today's cheapie rubber dome PC keyboards are generally unpleasant, too: they're so flimsy and spongy, and the ones from the late 90s are loaded with stupid "Internet buttons" which are ugly and all but useless today.

Agreed. For some time it was difficult to find decent keyboards at all. That's what led me down the road to the Apple Extended Keyboards, and later the Unicomps. The vast majority of keyboards today are just horrible. I think that's partly the reason we have some great choices today when it comes to keyboards. Yes, they are more expensive than the commodity crap keyboards, but given how much typing I do on a daily basis, they are well worth the price of admission.

 

The mushiest keyboard of all would have to be an unmodified Atari 130XE/65XE keyboard. They look nice, so their poor feel is especially disappointing.

Yeah, they aren't great keyboards, nor were they very reliable. I have an old photo somewhere (taken about 25 years ago?) when some friends and I had a party where we fixed tons of XE keyboards. I should dig that out.

 

One of my favorite Atari keyboards is the one that came with my Mega ST. :D

 

..Al

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Actually do like Apple's latest! Flat white caps are actually pretty tactile, allowing for some speedy typing. Pretty comfortable and no surprise I guess since Apple's made some of the best keyboards (and computers) for years and years.

I cannot stand Apple's latest keyboards and actively avoid them. Unfortunately, you can't really do that with a laptop keyboard. There was a time, many years ago now, where their PowerBook keyboards were the best, bar none, on a laptop. They had decent travel, and were great to type on. Their current "chicklet" style keyboards are just terrible, in my opinion. I don't like the flat face of the keys, have very little travel, and they don't have great tactile feel. I haven't tried the new MacBook keyboard, but from reviews I've seen it's even worse. All this in the name of making thinner and thinner laptops. While that's cool and all, they have greatly sacrificed their keyboards as a result. The day Apple transplanted their laptop keyboards into their desktop keyboards, I knew they had jumped the shark as far as keyboards go. And, of course, everyone has copied that style for their laptops.

 

..Al

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This is probably too much info but for 8 bit machines...

Worst:
1. Tthe ZX-80/81/TS-1000 is hands down the worst. Flat, small, membrane and unreliable.

2. The Atari 400 would be 2nd but at least it's full sized and you can feel where the keys are supposed to be.
3. The TS-1500/Spectrum model is close behind. Small, rubbery, and were the heck is the space bar?

4. The VZ200 keyboard has rubbery keys and no space bar but the keys feel better than my TS-1500 did.

5. The Oric 1 would be next in line due to the firmness of the keypresses and key shape. For long typing sessions I might move it up the list a couple places.

 

I've never typed on an original TI-99 but I'm sure it would be among the worst.

 

The CoCo 1's isn't exactly a great keyboard. When it worked the CoCo 1 keyboard was ok other than the keys being flat and having a wide spacing. It was easy to adapt to and you could touch type on it. However, once it got dirty the keys would bind so I ended up disassembling and cleaning mine every few weeks. The "melted" keyboard that came later was about like typing on my laptop.

 

The Spectrum 2+ keyboard feels way too springy.
The Franklin Ace feels more like typing on a typewriter and I can't type as fast on it.

The best:

The best 8 bit keyboard I've used was the TRS-80 Model III. Nothing else has topped it for me and I've had over 35 different 8/16 bit machines.
For a compact machine the Oric Atmos's keyboard is very good. A huge turnaround from the first model.
The Thomson TO8 has a very good full sized keyboard... except for that whole AZERTY layout thing.
And I like the later CoCo, Plus/4 and various Apple keyboards.

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I don't know if it is muscle memory, but on most vintage computers with full size keyboards, I tend to struggle finding the right keys to push, except for Commodore computers that I've used so much that I rarely mistype when entering the commands. Is it my imagination, or does previous experience add a lot to how you perceive a keyboard?

 

Although perhaps not a dream to type on, I'm impressed by the fit of the Acorn Electron keyboard in a small case, although the Oric Atmos indeed is even smaller.

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Favorite for everything: Amiga 500 (and hence 2000, 3000, and 4000.) Then Commodore 128 and 128D, Commodore SX-64, Amiga 1200, then Commodore 64.

 

I like the action and body of the TI-99/4A keyboard but I despise the layout. I used a Coleco ADAM keyboard for a while and actually rather liked it as it felt full and responsive. I enjoy the Sun type-3 and type-4 keyboards (and the Axil clones): they feel like you can just beat the shyt out of them.

 

One of my least favorites is the Amiga 1000 keyboard. Mostly because it feels smaller than a regular keyboard, but I have never measured it so it may just be perception. I do not like any of the Atari 8-bit keyboards. The feel is just off to me, and I really did not like them in my junior high word processing class. I tolerated them, but my least favorite Apple keyboards are, in order to least favorite, the Apple //e, //c, ][ and ][+.

 

Probably the most fun keyboard I have used (in terms of "classic" machines) is the mechanical keyboard at a System/34 terminal. Plus you could make them rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat with the right commands. Used to upset some of the people testing my programs when the keyboard would machine gun fire at them if they entered something incorrectly or when something bad happened to them in a game.

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I think for me The best 3 keyboards from "back in the day" had to be

 

1. The Coleco ADAM keyboard. I know, I know... But it really was a nice setup with great response.

2. The Trs-80 Model 3/4 Great firm keys, good key locations and a nice "click" when a key is pressed.

3. IBM PC/ PC XT keyboards. Who can deny that that old keyboard wasn't one of the best.

 

Now, on the bad side.

 

1. ZX81/TS-1000. Worst of the worst, but I still used them extensively for ages. The computer was really crippled by this keyboard, and I can't help but imagine that the zx81 would have been a much more useful and used computer if it had come with a decent ti994a type keyboard.

2. C64 "breadbin" Terrible keyboard angle made this computer painful for long typing sessions.

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The only old computer I have is a C64 Breadbin. All I can say is that it is probably the opposite of ergonomically designed. When you type on it, your wrists are basically suspended in the air. I guess it was too much to ask for someone to have actually tried using it before they finalized the design.

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The only old computer I have is a C64 Breadbin. All I can say is that it is probably the opposite of ergonomically designed. When you type on it, your wrists are basically suspended in the air. I guess it was too much to ask for someone to have actually tried using it before they finalized the design.

 

They're by no means great keyboards, but considering it's a recycling of the VIC-20 design and both computers were ultimately targeted at the low end of the market (with excellent overall power packed in, particularly on the C-64 side), compared to other low end computer offerings the original VIC-20/C-64 designs were actually excellent. Back then you were lucky to not get a membrane or chiclet-style keyboard at those price points.

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The 400 keyboard is low on the list but I was still able to touch type on it fairly well because I could feel the key locations. The T/S 1000 was to tiny and flat to touch type on so it would have to be the worst. The original PET keyboard was also worse than the 400 because the keys weren't positioned or spaced properly.

 

Modern keyboards seem to be going the wrong direction. The last two laptops I've purchased have flat chicklet shaped keys that are too easy to slide off of when I'm typing fast, stroke is too short and they just don't feel good on my fingers. My Dell laptop at work has the typical flat keyboard with all keys in the same plane, but at least the keys are curved so they feel ok. When I got my last laptop replacement they tried to give me the matching new keyboard for my dock setup, but it had the same "all in one plane" short stroke keys so I rejected it. My old keyboard has full stroke keys with proper angle and position. I hope it doesn't fail because I'm sure the replacement will be awful.

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Modern keyboards seem to be going the wrong direction. The last two laptops I've purchased have flat chicklet shaped keys that are too easy to slide off of when I'm typing fast, stroke is too short and they just don't feel good on my fingers.

Yeah, the only way to get a decent desktop keyboard these days is to buy a high-quality third-party keyboard, as I described above. Unfortunately, you can't do anything about built-in laptop keyboards, and I despise the direction those have been heading in, thanks primarily to Apple. I like Apple, but some of their recent design decisions are just terrible.

 

..Al

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I was quite surprised to learn that people are still paying big bucks for 20+ year old IBM Model M keyboards. Nice to think something from that era is still so well regarded. And if I ever get up early enough to go to garage sales, it will be something to keep my eyes out for!

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