Keyboard wars!  Yes, I know this has nothing to do with pipes, but one of the reasons I haven’t been updating the pipe blog as much in recent times is because I’ve written just about everything I can think of to write.  I try to avoid rambling on about the same things over and over again so as a result, the blog has gotten quieter.  However, this may not last, as I’m contemplating opening the theme a bit (or more than a bit) to include, well… Whatever I feel like writing about at the time, be it current events, politics, computers, gadgets, or more.  
My love affair with the mechanical keyboard is a topic near and dear to my heart.  You have to be of a certain age to remember mechanical keyboards, and the fact that I’m compelled to explain them is indicative of how much they’ve fallen off the map in recent years in favor of the quiet, membrane-style keyboards that ship with modern computers.  These membrane keyboards work on rubber domes – Essentially, the key press squishes a quiet little rubber switch that’s responsible for registering a key press.  Benefits of this are mainly confined to noise – Rubber membrane keyboards are nearly silent.  The downsides are several – The rubber domes wear, they don’t have a distinct positive “click” for each press, they get squishy, and the typing output produced is less distinct and accurate.  *Sometimes* you get your letter, sometimes you don’t. By contrast, old-style mechanical keyboards have an actual hardware switch under each key that clicks when pressed, providing an immediate clarification that you’ve typed what you wanted to.  
Now, I do a LOT of writing.  I write descriptive copy for my own website, I reply to business emails, I write two blogs, and I write a web comic… On top of maintaining and making interesting our business Facebook page, G+ page, and keeping active in the several online forums I frequent.  I’ve worn out keyboards by deforming popular keys through constant use – My old Enter key looked like a sway-backed horse in the middle where the plastic had warped.  It’s in service to this writing passion, and heavy writing demand, that I started looking for a better keyboard option.
I missed REAL KEYS.  Large, heavy, blocky keys instead of the flat key styles popular with Apple these days, which I find terribly frustrating to use due to the number of key presses I miss with them.  This led me to investigate the mechanical keyboards available today, and for the Mac there are only two real options, the Matias keyboard and the Das Keyboard.  Both use mechanical switches, both are clacky and loud, both are heavy duty, and I decided it was well past time to upgrade to one of these things.  But which to choose?  I couldn’t decide, and as this would be a very longterm business partner for me, I chose to order one of each and compare them directly, and return the loser.  
Here they are, freshly arrived.  Sexy, sexy keyboards:

The packaging is remarkably similar on each, and I’ll not go into it here as I’m not a packaging fetishist – I’m interested in the meat, not the wrapping.  My first impressions were as follows:

The Matias Quiet Pro is just that, quiet.  The key feel is good, the keys are clearly labeled, it runs off a single USB plug yet offers extra USB ports for three more devices, and the keys are each labeled not just with their letter, but also with the special characters they can create – An extra handy wonder to me, as Mac shortcuts often leave me baffled when I see them in print (Seriously, who would ever immediately recognize something like ˆ¶–√ ?)  I’d have liked to have gotten the Matias Pro but it has white keys, and that doesn’t work for people who spend most of their day in a dirty woodworking shop.  The Quiet Pro is still louder than my stock Apple keyboard but much quieter to type on than other mechanical keyboards.    
So… Black keys, great labeling, extra function keys, USB overload… What’s not to like?  Well, the downsides for me are two – That selfsame keyboard labeling that puts all the extra symbols on the keys makes reading them at a glance to be a challenge.  I’m not a touch typist and I often need to glance down as I’m clicking away, and what I see when I do is a dizzying spread of tiny little white marks.  The other demerit, and it’s a bigger one, is in “look and feel” – For a $160 keyboard, the Matias feels very $45 aftermarket Staples house brand.  The frame is a creaky, twisty piece of silver budget plastic and the whole thing looks a bit low rent… Not what you want after spending this much cash on something as esoteric as a keyboard.

The Das Kayboard, by contrast, is the black Mercedes of the pair – It looks every inch its $130 price tag.  The opaque black housing vanishes seamlessly into my black desktop and it’s a glossy surface with some nice heft to it.  Despite the nicer appearance, I was biased against the Das initially due to several annoying factors.  The makers have elected, for inexplicable reasons, to make the key lettering lower case, so where the Matias presents one with a chaos of markings, the Das gives you a squinty, stylized lettering display that takes some getting used to.  Also, it demands two USB connections, one for itself and one for its two powered USB ports.  It’s nice that the Das can actually charge USB devices that need powered connections, but who really charges their iPod from their keyboard?  Finally, and most annoying of all, the Das swaps the function of the media control keys such that one has to press FN to make them work.  This is small and yet insanely annoying for someone like myself who uses Apple’s media shortcut keys a great deal, always pausing music or adjusting volume.  The Apple layout wasn’t broken, and didn’t need fixing.
So, with all those negatives, why do I find myself merely liking the Matias and actively lusting over the Das?  It’s all in the feel – The Das’s key switches click like precision instruments and every key touch is a joy.  It feels, in short, like a real typing machine; something I haven’t had in at least 15+ years.  Sitting at the Das and listening to the singing clickety-clack of the keys is pure bliss.  One feels like a journalist, a real reporter, a writer… Like one should be cranking out blistering exposes of corruption in high places, or serious novels to tear at the heart.  It’s romantic, pure and simple, and the Das has it in spades over the Matias.  The muted keys of the Quiet Pro just aren’t quite as exact in feel as those of the Das – There’s more wander to each touch and I have to make a point to type harder to be sure that I’m not skipping letters with soft taps.  It does beat the Das in one respect, however – Key squeak.  I’ve found that continuous typing on the Das tends to produce some aggravating key squeaking that resonates on a fingernail-vibrating level.  The Das Keyboard website includes a help video describing how to grease squeaky keys, but this did little for me – A day later and they were back to the same chirpy cries.
Is the Matias bad?  No, not at all.  It’s an excellent tool, and when I finally have to choose between the two, I suspect I will pick it despite my Das lust.  The Matias chunks along happily, its key presses quiet and slightly hefty in feel in contrast to the Das’s Singer sewing machine clicks.  They’re both good products.  For practicality, features, layout and ease of use, buy the Matias.  For a love affair with an amazing machine that demands its own terms, buy the Das.  For my own part, the Matias gradually won me over throughout the week+ of this comparison despite an initially less favorable reaction.  I will, however, readily admit that one major factor of its appeal to me is pure nostalgia… It’s the most remarkable recreation I’ve tried of an original TRS-80 keyboard.  That will make a lot of readers laugh, but it cuddles my heart  like a warm blanket.  If only it came with two 5 ¼” disk drives…
Categories: Pipe Blog

9 Comments

A latakia fan · August 4, 2013 at 3:02 pm

" Now I want to make my own full briar keyboard"
Why just Briar? Morta taste better! 😀

Just an idea that may fit – or not:
I guess if you go on ebay, you may get cheap pc old keyboard. I had a friend who used to "inspect trash bin" of companies to collect the old computerq and electronic stuffs. He then make money selling the copper and reassembling several computer parts into a working one. Anyway, he get so much old style keyboard that he basically throw them away… So I guess you could just try to get an old one on ebay…
Related to the fact they would be PC instead of Apple, I guess modern computers offer the ability to remap the keys. At least, linux does… Just write (why not: encarve!) the new letter on the proper key and the job is done 🙂

Trever-T · April 27, 2013 at 12:22 am

The really bad thing about this experience is that it has introduced me to the world of keyboard modding, which was not a hobby that I needed to be exposed to. Now I want to make my own full briar keyboard – I just need to find someone willing to pay me ten grand so I can hand-carve every key from briar and meerschaum.

KenP · April 26, 2013 at 9:46 pm

You might Google "Cherry Keyboards" and look around on their site. I used to always use them back in olden times. They even have a version with the rollover that IBM users insisted on.

And blog about whatever interests you. That is what I do. Hopefully, you'll more readers though. 🙂

Trever-T · April 26, 2013 at 4:09 am

I'll be curious to see how it holds up. They could certainly do a lot to improve the general look and feel, but it types solidly and works well. The Das was way better in "fit & finish", though. That was one seriously sexy keyboard. I kept wishing I could somehow merge the two of them together to make the one perfect result.

mathuaerknedam · April 26, 2013 at 3:39 am

I had a Matias Tactile Pro 1 almost 10 years ago, and was shocked at how amazingly cheap it felt. Yes, the keys were clacky, but the case was cracked and creaky. I had it replaced once, but the replacement was the same. It didn't hold a candle to the old IBM buckling spring keyboard I had attached to the nearby Linux box.

I can only hope that they've gotten better, and that yours works well over the long haul.

Trever-T · April 26, 2013 at 2:56 am

OK, I'm glad it's not just me. I had more "missing letters" typing with the standard Mac keyboard than I've ever had before in my life. I was regularly going back over every paragraph and adding in two or three missing letters or fixing something that I'd hit by accident. I was wondering if it was just getting old or what. My typing accuracy is much improved now, on the Mattias, and was even slightly better on the Das though that wasn't enough to outweigh the things I didn't like about it.

If you don't need a keyboard with black keys, try the standard Mattias instead of the Quiet Pro – I bet the different switches would make it perform more like the Das. I just don't do well with white keys, my hands are always dirty or covered with pipe stain. And yes, the alternate characters are very handy – I can do this without looking up characters! €⁄fifl‡±—ÒÚƉŒÓÅ

Tony Costine · April 25, 2013 at 11:30 pm

Thanks for the test. It's something I've never thought that much about–even while cursing the standard keyboard. I learned how to type in high school, and when I get going I can out-type the keyboard. I also wind up not always getting every key struck.

I'm going to pick up a Matias and give it a try. I especially like having the alternate characters listed on the keys. That'll be a big help!

Trever-T · April 25, 2013 at 9:54 pm

You know, I tried one of those MS ergonomic keyboards prior to this article, but I hated it. Forced myself to try and adapt to the curved surface for about a week and a half and totally could not do it… My typing speed disintegrated and it became impossible to get anything written because I spent so much time key hunting and being hyper conscious of where the keys were. Looking at the Kinesis, I suspect I'd have the same problem multiplied. Unfortunately, I'm a bit locked in to the standard QWERTY – I do so much writing that I just literally can't afford the month(s) it would probably require for me to adapt myself to something that exotic.

Anders Mårtensson · April 25, 2013 at 9:40 pm

You should check out the Kinesis Advantage (http://www.kinesis-ergo.com/contoured.htm). Now THAT's a proper keyboard. 😉

I use the Kinesis in addition to a programming variant of Dvorak (an actually usable keyboard layout – qwerty is obsolete rubbish and has NO place on a computer keyboard, save it for the old typewriters) for any serious work I do.

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