There’s a certain kind of computing nostalgia that holds that the art of typing has been steadily wussified since the late 1980s, when the venerable IBM Model M and Apple Extended Keyboard went out of favor.
These keyboards, it is held, were the last of a breed of keyboards for men. Like a vintage Underwood typewriter, these mechanical marvels were made for those who meant for their words not just to be heard, but to be felt: the hefty chunk of each key smashing into the mechanical switch underneath shouldn’t just make a letter light up on a screen; it should land with such authority it shakes your teeth loose.
For the last month, I’ve been trying to become one of these burly typist he-men. I put my Apple Wireless Keyboard — as pale, thin and pretty as the world’s most anemic twink — and have instead replaced it with the Das Keyboard Model S Professional for Mac. Now when I type, it sounds like ten tiny John Henrys working away under my fingers, pounding spikes through the invisible gold-plated key switches beneath each key.
It’s not really for me. Not most of the time.
Before we get too much further, a brief history lesson. Back in the 1980s, most computer keyboards were fully mechanical. In other words, every time you press a key on an old Apple Extended Keyboard, that key is pressing a real switch underneath. As such, mechanical switch keyboards have a certain pleasing chunkiness to them in both tactility and sound that more modern keyboards — most of which use membranes and active-switch matrixes — lack. They’re also more expensive to make, but if you take care of a mechanical keyboard, it’ll last you a lifetime.
The Das Keyboard Model S Professional for Mac is such an accessory. It has everything you’d expect from a modern keyboard — two built-in USB ports, dedicated media control keys, Command + Fn keys, and so on — but it uses German engineered, gold-plated mechanical switches to actually send the signal that a key has been pressed, giving every keystroke a sort of Herculean might. Or that’s the pitch, anyway.
At first blush, I found typing on the Das Keyboard Model S to be an ego-fulfilling experience. I am a professional writer, after all, and for a writer, there’s an appeal in the notion that the words you’re writing have such authority and force your neighbors can hear them being put down. Typing on the Model S makes you feel like your words literally have weight. And why shouldn’t they? When you’re writing a fiery editorial or a passionate letter to your lover, you reason, it should be accompanied by a sort of Faulkner-esque sound and fury. The words should land so hard it hurts.
But this only goes so far. Even for those of us who make our living writing several thousand words a day, not everything one writes should fire off like a pistol shot. And that’s the problem. After a while, the disparity between the weight of what you’re writing and the weight of the Das Keyboard becomes almost comically absurd. Should that email I’m sending my girlfriend with a picture of a cute bulldog eating frosting really sound like an Arctic blacksmith hammering a sword out of a meteorite at his forge? Should the 140 characters I wrote on Twitter regurgitating some in-vogue meme be given all the gravity of the Large Hadron Collider gearing up to smash apart the very building blocks of our universe? When a friend sends me a funny YouTube video and I type “LOL” in response, should each of those letters land as explosively as a shotgun blast dealt point blank to the titanium-coated brain cavity of some futuristic cyborg? No.
Even if you are someone who wants all of his typing to sound like someone firing a tommy gun into a bucket of steel bearings, though, it’s hard to wholly recommend the Das Keyboard Model S Professional for Mac. For one thing, the design couldn’t really be more antithetical to Apple’s iconic visual style. For another, the media keys are triggered by the Function key, both of which are positioned on the right side of the keyboard, which can make doing something as simple as hitting pause or skipping a track far more trouble than it should be. Finally, although it’s branded as a Mac keyboard, the Das Keyboard lacks shortcut buttons for most of OS X’s built-in functions, like calling up the Dashboard or triggering Exposè; in fact, as far as we can tell, the only thing that makes the Das Keyboard Model S Professional for Mac a different product than the regular Model S Professional is that it has Option + Command keys instead of Alt + Windows keys. When you’re spending $130 on a keyboard specifically branded for Mac, the fact that it has not been designed to even offer the same degree of functionality as the keyboard that ships with every iMac is a disappointment.
After a couple weeks of typing with the Das Keyboard, I realized why Apple had abandoned this sort of keyboard design. There’s a reason why Apple is still filing patents for technology to make typing quieter. Mechanically satisfying as the Das Keyboard (or IBM Model M, or Apple Extended Keyboard) might be to type upon at first, the entire idea of a loud, explosive keyboard is at odds with the fundamental thesis of modern interface design. Interacting with a computer should be as frictionless as thought: whether you’re typing on your Mac or using your iPhone’s touchscreen, you shouldn’t ever feel like you are using a tool to interact with a computer. The Das Keyboard may be a glorious throwback to the analog mechanics that dominated the golden age of computing, but you can never forget you’re typing on one.
The Das Keyboard Model S Professional for Mac is a very good keyboard for caffeinated coders working late into the night, novelists working on their hopeful masterpieces, angry political bloggers smashing out a screed, and so on… but probably not for everything they write. Like me, they’ll probably find the Das Keyboard an extremely satisfying thing to use sometimes, but overkill for most of what you do with your keyboard each day: trade IMs with friends, post Facebook updates, type in URLs, etc. The Das Keyboard is like pulling out a jackhammer — you just don’t do it to push a pin into a corkboard.