posted by David Adams on Fri 17th Jul 2009 23:57 UTC
IconHow does the Alpha Geek establish dominance over the other techies in the herd? With a self-consciously old fashioned, expensive, and fussy computer accessory, of course! We take a look at the Das keyboard and see if it's that much better than the mushy crap keyboard that came bundled with your Dell.

In every social scene and subculture, there are different ways of establishing credibility and displaying status in the hierarchy. It's written into our genes that the pecking order must be established, and some outward manifestation of our place in the order must be conspicuously demonstrated. We're social, hierarchical animals.

In some circles, it's feats of physical athleticism or bravery that set us apart. In others, it's a sense of fashion and the means to acquire a fashionable ensemble. In another, it would be a demonstration of debating skill or deep knowledge of your subject matter. The technological elite have their own markers of social status. And like the fashion world, it can be a paradoxical mix of old and new. The most sophisticated of the geek elite have figured out that to most effectively signal your superiority, it's not enough to spend your money on the newest, hottest gadgets (after all, anyone can buy an iPhone), but the latest and greatest need to be tempered with a sprinkling of vintage affectation. This is something that tells the world that not only are you on the cutting edge, but you've been on the cutting edge for a long, long time.

  • Souvenirs of retro gaming, such as anything Super Mario
  • Over-the-top expression of love for 8-bit computing
  • T-shirts from trade shows and conferences that are ironically obsolete (NeXTWORLD Expo!)
  • Well-worn Ada Lovelace and Nicola Tesla action figures
  • And the IBM Model M keyboard.
Back in the olden days, when IBM was still a major player in the PC space, they made hardware that fit the overloaded price tags of their underpowered computers. One of the most beloved accessories of these computers was the model M keyboard, which was a heavy beast of a keyboard with a satisfying mechanical click for every keystroke. It uses a "buckling spring" design, in contrast to the membrane-type switches that a cheapo keyboard uses. People have been holding on to these keyboards for years, keeping them on their desks even as they have cycled through a dozen new, faster PCs.

IBM model M

But these keyboards were already old when the PS/2 port was new, and people plugged them into actual PS/2 computers. Look it up, youngsters! But PS/2 ports are only still around because Wintel PC users are hopelessly nostalgic and don't have Steve Jobs to browbeat them into throwing away all their old peripherals every few years just because.

Speaking of Apple, the Apple Extended Keyboard II, with a similar buckling spring design, is held in the same esteem as the model M, just by a different bunch of fanatics.

What are you to do if you need a clickety-clack keyboard to use as metaphorical urine to mark your territory? You're in luck, because Das makes a brand new USB keyboard with the beloved buckling spring key mechanism. But does it have the cachet of an actual antique keyboard? It's sort of like a new Mini rather than a "real" Mini, or a PT Cruiser instead of a real vintage car.

Das Keyboard

So which is it? Is it the new Mini, which is actually a really good car, and, nostalgia aside, better than the old mini in every measurable way, or is the the PT Cruiser, which looks interesting but is really a pretty crappy car, even for a Chrysler.

Well, to squeeze just a little more juice from the auto comparison, I took the Das on an extended road test, using it at my desk for several months. The only time I used another keyboard for a long period was when I was using my MacBook Pro on the road. Laptop keyboards are generally not as good as the best desktop keyboards, but the MacBook Pro's is a standout. The keyboard that the Das was replacing was a Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro (which also has an avid following). How did the Das stack up?

The clickety sound is somewhat annoying to my colleagues, but actually energizes my typing. When I'm typing on the Das, psychologically I feel like I'm accomplishing something. Maybe that's just me. YMMV. Ergonomically, it's got no flash: no wrist-wrest, no split keyboard, no contours. But it felt fine to me. The buttons push effortlessly and cleanly. There are no extras: no programmable buttons, knobs, or switches. Compared to the Logitech DiNovo Edge, which I also have at home, it's a pretty boring keyboard. Though I scoff at special buttons on the keyboard to launch your email or open a URL, I actually find it handy to be able to adjust the sound volume and especially to put the computer to sleep, standby, or hibernate with a button push. It does have a small USB hub built in, with two ports, but they're on the right side instead of the back. That means that if you have something sticking out of one of those ports, it's going to be sticking out toward where you move your mouse around. I didn't find that to be a huge problem, but it's an odd ergonomic choice. It does have visual indicators for caps and num lock, and they're cool looking, seeming to radiate directly out of the glossy black surface.

Pros:

  • Impeccable Geek cred
  • Solid, responsive key feel
  • No "innnovative" key placement or shape to mess up your typing
  • I like the sound
  • It's annoying to my colleagues
  • Sleek minimalist design, cool lights
  • USB 2.0 hub built-in
Cons:
  • Sound is annoying to my colleagues
  • Minimalist design = no special buttons
  • USB hub in dumb location
  • Expensive - $129
If you already have an IBM model M, there's probably no reason to switch until it breaks or you decide you want a USB keyboard with no adapter necessary. That is, unless you suddenly have an attack of good taste and can no longer appreciate the beige 1980s relic on your desk. But of course, since you're using the model M still, hasn't retro been the point all along? If you've never used a clickety-clack keyboard but have been considering picking up the affectation, should you? I'm going to say that this really is a superior keyboard, but it's twice as expensive as other superior keyboards, which may also have flashy features and ergonomic perks included. In fact, there are dozens of model M clones on the market, and many of them are in the $50 range.

I don't really think it gives me a substantially better experience than my MacBook Pro's keyboard, but of course, a MacBook Pro's keyboard is also over $100 if you have to buy one. Should you keep the crummy keyboard that came with your PC? You'd probably find that it's worth it to upgrade if you type a lot. Seriously, if you spend 1/3 to 1/2 of your waking hours intimately attached to a keyboard, an extra $50-60 to get the absolutely best one for you should be a no-brainer. Should you upgrade all the way past platinum level and up to geek affectation level? It depends on how comfortable you are with your place in the pecking order, I guess.

But I've been saving the best for last. For those of you who just need that little something extra to telegraph to the mundanes just how superior you are, Das has gone the extra mile, just for you: The Das Ultimate. With blank keys. Yes, just so you can throw it in our faces that you don't need a cheat-sheet to know what key you're pressing. If that's not worth $129, I don't know what is.

Das Ultimate

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