The new Model F Keyboard is the best Mac keyboard I've tried [Review] | Cult of Mac

The new Model F Keyboard is the best Mac keyboard I’ve tried [Review]

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Straight-down shot of the Model F on a desk.
It’s a dramatic and radical keyboard that feels right at home with a Mac.
Photo: D. Griffin Jones/Cult of Mac

I’ve been on a quest to discover the perfect Mac keyboard. I’m looking for a compact keyboard with modern Mac styling — and the best key switches money can buy.

That’s when I discovered Model F Labs, whose keyboards are truly one-of-a-kind. They offer plenty of normal designs — but I ordered one in silver with blank unprinted keys. Keep reading to find out why I ordered what I did, why I love it and why I’ll be keeping it on my desk.

Hands-on review of the new Model F Keyboard for Mac

The 80s were a radical time… for computer keyboards. Every conceivable idea was thrown at the wall, for better and for worse. One concept nearly lost to time was a crazy design using buckling springs — but not if Joe Strandberg can do anything about it.

Joe is selling brand new versions of the legendary Model F keyboard today. I tried one out.

Model F Keyboard

Silver and gray Model F Ultra Compact

Ultra Compact F77

  • Excellent key switches
  • Highly customizable
  • Modern design with right numberpad

The Model F keyboard

The IBM Model F was a mechanical keyboard, but not a traditional one by any means. Every other mechanical keyboard uses a tiny microswitch for that trademark clicky feel — the Cherry switches have been deemed the de facto standard. They’re often used in name-brand keyboards and imitated in budget keyboards.

Model F with the classic design in beige.
You can order a new Model F in all sorts of styles. This one is the compact layout in beige.

The Model F, however, is a buckling spring keyboard. Instead of a plastic key sitting on a microswitch, it’s a plastic key sitting on a skinny metal spring. You push down on the key with your finger, the spring bends under the pressure, pushes down a metal lever, and you have typed a single letter.

You wouldn’t tell just by looking at it that anything unusual is in there. It presents exactly the same as any other keyboard… until you start the magical experience of typing.

Typing on a Model F

IBM originally manufactured this design to be the most comfortable keyboard ever made, bar none. And it’s damn near successful. The key feel is simply sublime. The click is perfect.

I’ve been typing on this keyboard for a few months now. I never get tired of the feeling. Some keyboards with really firm keys, like the aforementioned Matias Mini Tactile Pro I reviewed last year, strain my hands after a day with a lot of writing — not so with the Model F.

My wife insists I include in the review that she finds the noise to be absolutely obnoxious. It’s one of the loudest keyboards I’ve ever heard. Because of the buckling spring mechanism, it’s a very metallic sound that echoes and rings, not your usual clickety-click. Every key press, no matter how gentle, sounds like you’re bashing it out with the fury of a thousand suns.

Another benefit, though, is that this keyboard is incredibly reliable. All of the crucial parts of its simple mechanism are made of metal, so the wear is minimal over time. The Model F is built with “well over five pounds of steel and other metals,” so it can work “as good as new when it’s time to pass it on to your grandchildren.”

Design

Taking it out of the box, you immediately notice that this thing is heavy. Of course, the original had an all-metal body, as it hailed from IBM, former manufacturer of mainframes and industrial electronics. The modern version is no different — this thing weighs more than most Macs.

This made me realize that I have a habit of adjusting my keyboard throughout the day to match my posture. With my Apple Keyboard, I use my pinkies to adjust the position and angle here and there. The Model F isn’t budging so easily. I set it at a good angle for my natural seating position — it isn’t moving unless I pick it up and move it.

The MacBook Air, iMac, MacBook Pro and MacBook circa 2016.
The Mac product family circa 2016.

I ordered a color combination that I thought would best fit a Mac setup. As someone who joined the Mac world in the mid-2000s, I consider the quintessential color of Apple hardware to be light silver and black. The space gray stuff looks neat, and I appreciate some bright colors, but light silver and black is what will always feel the most Mac to me.

The Model F alongside MacBook Pro, Magic Trackpad and LG display.
Silver and black.

The silver paint is a pretty good match to the aluminum finish of the MacBook Pro and the Magic Trackpad sharing space on my desk. If you’re really eagle-eyed like me, you’ll notice that certain lighting conditions give the Model F a bluer reflection than the warmer tone of Apple’s products.

The black keys look really nice. They have a light sandy texture on the surface but a smooth mirrored finish on the sides. They show dog hair and dust very well. Whether you’ll be annoyed that you always have to pick dust out of it to keep it looking nice or whether you’ll be glad to know that it’s clean because there’s nothing showing is a deeply personal matter you will have to reconcile yourself.

A Model F keyboard alongside a Macintosh Plus keyboard.
Not pictured: ergonomic design.

I dislike how thick the case is. This is the “ultra compact modern” model — it reduces the bezels around the board, but evidently it is still chunky sitting off the desk. I’m no Jony Ive — I don’t need an obscenely thin keyboard, but the Model F is really pushing it. It’s about as thick as the original Macintosh keyboard.

Fussing over modifier keys

Close-up of the Model F
Cool? Absolutely. Practical? Of course not.

Here’s where I’ll lose some of you. As you’ve seen in pictures, I chose blank keycaps. While you can order the Model F with a Mac key layout printed on the keys, they get one thing critically wrong: the modifier keys are in the wrong order. Outwards from the space bar, a proper Mac keyboard should go Command (⌘), Option (⌥), Control (^) on both sides.

A standard PC keyboard that you plug into a Mac will reverse Command and Option on the left, and there’s no consensus as to what goes on to the right. Some keyboards have a right-click key, some keyboards throw in Function over there.

I knew when I ordered the keyboard that I was going to remap a lot of the keys using Karabiner, so I went with blank keycaps. If the labels aren’t going to be accurate, I’d rather not have any at all.

I fancy myself a decent typist, but it still took a lot of getting used to. I had to learn to let go and reach out with my feelings, but I got there. I’m still slightly dodgy on the numbers and their symbols, but I find that if I go with my instinct, I’m pretty accurate.

Features

The Model F connects via USB-C. In 2023, any device that moves beyond the old Micro-USB is already off to a good start in my book.

I really wish it had some USB ports on the back. Almost every wired Apple keyboard has done this in the past. It makes sense: your keyboard is barely using any of the data bandwidth on the USB connection. This is especially true with USB-C, which supports hundreds of megabytes of data transferred a second on even the slowest of standards. Why not make your keyboard a little USB hub? You can earn back the port you lose by plugging in a wired keyboard — especially if you have a laptop with a small number of ports.

Ordering a Model F

Ordering a Model F keyboard
You have a lot of choices to make when ordering a Model F.

There are a lot of decisions you have to make up front in terms of what, precisely, you want. It’s good to have a lot of choice here because this is a keyboard that’s designed to last you your entire life.

I ordered the Ultra Compact F77 version for its arrow keys and slimmer package. The case color is Regular Gray; the keys are Black Unprinted (ANSI Enter). I got the Standard layout with the Home/End/PageUp/PageDown + cursor keys on the right block.

Using Karabiner, I remapped some of the useless PC keys to get back some of the essential Mac functionality. I edited the keys Insert, Num Lock, Print Screen, Pause and Scroll Lock to Mac media controls: Fast Forward, Play/Pause, Volume Down and Volume Up.

Final thoughts

Straight-on angle of the Model F
All things considered, I’ll be keeping this keyboard on my desk.

This keyboard is not perfect. The lack of ports is annoying since I still have a MacBook Pro, but that should hopefully change soon enough. In the future, I might design and order custom keycaps with San Francisco lettering and SF Symbol icons. The chunky thick bezels aren’t something I can easily change short of cutting a hole in my desk to lower it.

But you can’t beat those buckling spring switches. I’ve typed on a lot of keyboards in my day, both Mac and PC. Nothing is quite like the Model F.

★★★★☆

Model F Keyboard

Silver and gray Model F Ultra Compact

Ultra Compact F77

  • Excellent key switches
  • Highly customizable
  • Modern design with right numberpad

Model F Keyboard

Beige and off-white Model F62 Kishsaver

Kishsaver F62

  • Excellent key switches
  • Highly customizable
  • Classic compact design

Model F Labs provided Cult of Mac with a review unit for this article. See our reviews policy, and check out other in-depth reviews of Apple-related items.

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