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IBM spoiled me for hardware quality. I've gone through many computers, including a TRS-80, Heathkit H-89, Commodore Vic-20 and C-64, and countless PC's but my first original IBM PC will always be my favorite because of the sheer quality of the box and the keyboard. There's nothing, to me, like the un-mistakable feedback from typing on an IBM keyboard, and the solid feel of it.

I believe that IBM's biggest mistake in the home market early-on was to distribute their IBM PC Jr. with a "chiclet" keyboard. To me, it would be like Mercedes Benz releasing a cheaper model with a car body made of all plastic. One of the major things that set IBM apart from the many clones that quickly appeared on the market was the low quality of the cases and the keyboards.

Only after years of virtually no choice did I give in to the cheaper keyboards that came with today's PC's, although I at least get ones with back-lit keys (I am visually handicapped).

Did IBM have a patent on their tactile feedback mechanism, or were clone makers just cheap?

During the late 80's and early 90's my boss bought me two genuine IBM keyboards, one for work and one for home, and I treasured them both. To this day, I get frustrated because unless I'm looking directly at the screen, I cannot be certain whether or not I pressed the keys hard enough or not every time.

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    Those fantastic "clicky" keyboards were IBM Model M keyboards (later Lexmark, and licensed to other OEMs like Dell). You can still buy them on ebay or whatever; last year I sold two that I had been hanging on to for about 20 years. – Greg Hewgill Mar 1 '18 at 19:30
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    You can get modern mechanical ("clicky") keyboards with back lighting, but they're not cheap. Think low to mid 3 digit prices in USD, depending on features and quality. You have to really want one. – mnem Mar 1 '18 at 19:46
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    "it would be like Mercedes Benz releasing a cheaper model with a car body made of all plastic" -- erm... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smart_(marque)? – Jules Mar 1 '18 at 21:18
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    You're not limited to buying what Dell bundles with their PCs. Mechanical keyboards with tactile feedback have enjoyed a resurgence over the last decade or so as they're popular as gaming keyboards. You can find them for sale at your local electronics or office big box store. Dell even sells them but you have order them separately: dell.com/en-ca/shop/… – Ross Ridge Mar 2 '18 at 9:48
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    @GregHewgill didn't the Model F ship with the original IBM PC? Different layout and slightly different key action than the Model M, though otherwise very similar. – Tommy Mar 2 '18 at 18:31
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Cost was certainly a part of it, but sound was another. Mechanical switches make more noise than rubber-dome and electromechanical, and as computers became more of a fixture in houses (and offices), I think that this became an issue. The fact that mechanical switches cost a lot more was probably the deciding factor, though.

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    They cost much more but last longer too...you could repair key by key back in the day. – Rui F Ribeiro Mar 2 '18 at 12:50
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    Certainly, but OEMs selling cheap PCs aren't generally looking at post-warranty repair considerations! :-) – ErikF Mar 2 '18 at 12:59
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    not sure if noise is the driving factor in why these became less common, but everyone who has had to share an open-plan office with a clicky-keyboard user has my extreme sympathies. – scruss Mar 2 '18 at 20:20
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    It's definitely possible to get mechanical keyboards that are quiet, both today and in the 80s. Today Cherry has several models of switches that are clickless, so were the mechanical keyswitches used in the Apple II series and others of the era. – fluffysheap Mar 2 '18 at 23:02
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    @RuiFRibeiro That's not quite true. Discrete mechanical switches (Cherry) can be repaired, but the much revered IBM Model M uses a membrane switch which is as repairable as modern desktop keyboards. – user71659 Mar 3 '18 at 21:35
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As things become cheaper, people learn to tolerate lower and lower quality.  This happens in many fields of endeavor.  The voice quality people tolerate from today's mobile phones would have been generally unacceptable to land-line telephone engineers in the 1990s.  The typographic spacing people have learned to to from automated typesetting equipment would have been regarded as inept in the 1800s [it's too bad nobody wrote a rebuttal to A Mac/PC is not a Typewriter entitled A Mac/PC is not a Linotype].  And the quality of keyboards people have learned to type on has fallen below what would have been expected on from even a cheap 1980s computer.

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    To be fair to the efforts of a lot of talented people, computer typography would be a lot better were it not for Microsoft and its love of backwards compatibility (esp re: kerning in Word) and aggressive font hinting everywhere (to the extent of commissioning Cambria et al as fonts that would print more similarly to how they're mangled for display). – Tommy Mar 2 '18 at 18:37
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    @Tommy: The decline of quality typography substantially predates computers. If you examine American or British books from the 1900s and before, you'll notice that there is significantly more space following sentence-ending periods than there is between words or after abbreviations. This was recognized as improving the readability of hand-set type, but was problematic for automatic typesetting equipment. For some reason, it became fashionable to claim that "real" typographers don't put extra space after a sentence-ending period, but in reality both quality typographers and typists did so,... – supercat Mar 2 '18 at 22:21
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    ...and the people who didn't were typographers who didn't want their automated type to be perceived as inferior to quality hand-set type. – supercat Mar 2 '18 at 22:23
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    I completely disagree. What you produce in Word today would have been typed on a monospace typewriter. There's no comparison on typography. No fair comparing a full book to e-mail. Go find an academic journal article (with equations especially) published in the 1970s. Likewise, pre-digitization long distance phone calls were all analog multiplexed, and worse radio calls, all with squeals, static, cutoffs and a worse quality than basic cell phones today (hence "toll-quality speech"). – user71659 Mar 4 '18 at 21:18
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    @user71659: The quality of casual documents may have gone up, but the quality of many things that would have been professionally typeset has gone down. Telephone audio in the 1970s wasn't great but the phone companies were continually working to improve it. Long distance companies competed (at least in ads) based on voice quality--something which for whatever reason I've never seen in the mobile world. – supercat Mar 5 '18 at 3:14
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The original IBM Model M keyboard can still be bought. It is produced by the original manufacturer Unicomp, a management-buyout (I believe) from former IBM Lexmark. Their keyboards are within the $100 range and are built-to order, that is you can specify which colours and layout you want, with modern USB (or even PS/2) interfaces. Not cheap, but definitely recommended for anyone who liked the Model M (I have two of them, and with eyes closed, you can't feel the difference from an original Model M keyboard).

Von Shaddim - Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30568410

  • Same pedantic comment as above; if the author wants to go back to what came with the "first original IBM PC" then the Model M isn't quite exactly the thing because it's from 1985 onwards. If Wikipedia is to be trusted (emphasis on 'if', as ever) then it's not just a layout change but also a cost reduction of the original Model F, substituting a membrane for capacitive sensing once the springs have buckled. So the Model M must technically be very slightly spongy after the big click? I own one and can't say I've noticed. – Tommy Mar 2 '18 at 18:34
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    @Tommy Once you started getting pedantic: The tactile feedback you get from IBM keyboards (regardless of whether the actual switching is capacitive or membrane-based (mechanical) ) does not stem from the actual switching action, but rather from the tilting action of the "hammer" part. Where that actually tilts to has no effect on the feedback, because there is no movement of the hammer in the actual key movement axis (added Wikipedia picture to illustrate) – tofro Mar 3 '18 at 13:40
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Whilst the original IBM keyboards were extremely robust, they also had a bit of a clunky feel even back in the day.

I actually preferred using Cherry mechanical keyboards, less noisy and slightly softer to the touch.

Apparently you can still buy brand new mechanical keyboards with them nowadays https://www.cherry.de/cid/Mechanical_keyboards.htm

1

As laptops rose in popularity and began to replace desktops in many workplaces people simply got used to laptop style keyboards. Due to limited space they tend to be rubber dome keyboards with little key travel.

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    Cheap, full-travel rubber-dome keyboards were the norm long before laptops rose in popularity. Mechanical key switches were a niche item long before then. – mnem Mar 2 '18 at 9:11
  • Sure, but those older rubber dome keys were still tactile. Not as nice as mechanical ones, but also very different to typical modern laptop style ones. – user Mar 2 '18 at 11:58
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I don't have anything official to back this up, but probably one significant cause of the death of loud clicky keyboards is gaming on the PC. Its main interest was for business professionals who type documents all day.

You can play games on a clicky mechanical keyboard just fine, but the clicking is loud and annoying and there is no way to silence it. Just imagine trying to play the "first person sneaker" game Thief with a storm of clicks from the keyboard as you stealthily move around, playing the game in a darkened bedroom. Annoying!

I would probably throw the clicky mechanical keyboard out the window in frustration after trying to play Grand Theft Auto 3 on it and having it constantly clicking as I play the game.

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    I really don't think that's a reason - Modern gamers tend to play on computers that typically sound like a Saturn V at launch due to the amount of air they need to push through the machines, they wouldn't even hear a mechanical keyboard. Also, most mechanical keyboards that you can still buy today are sold as gaming keyboards – tofro Mar 30 '18 at 20:33
  • @tofro I thought the trend in PC building recently was silent cooling and liquid coolers... – Dmitry Kudriavtsev Jul 12 '18 at 3:54
  • The sound level was comparable to a Selectric which was what they replaced. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Sep 30 '18 at 9:12

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