In 1984 IBM introduced the legendary Model M, a beast of a mechanical keyboard that utilised a unique buckling spring key switch to make sweet love to the user’s fingers, along with a lot of noise. Unicomp’s Ultra Classic is the Model M’s direct descendant, and it’s almost as good as the original.
If you’ve worked in an office environment prior to the turn of the millennium, there’s a good chance you’e run into one of IBM’s finest keyboard creations.
One of the earliest Model M keyboards.
Back in the day, this was the keyboard you wanted in your cubicle. The Model M was built tough. Its particularly loud keys demanded respect, and the tactile feedback (and pushback) made frequent typing much less of a chore.
The feel and sound of the keyboard is largely thanks to the buckling spring key switches. Most key switches in use today are self-contained units consisting of an enclosed mechanism and some sort of stem. The buckling spring model is a hole in the keyboard with a spring inside of it. Pressing a key buckles the spring, causing the keyboard to register a keystroke. The distinctive sound is created by the spring hitting the inside of its channel.
Gif via Shaddim on Wikipedia
It’s a simple and durable design, built to last and able to withstand even the most ravenous over-keyboard eater.
In 1991, IBM divested a number of its hardware operations, including printers and keyboards, to an investment firm that would go on to form Lexmark. In 1996 Lexmark’s contract to create IBM keyboards expired, and manufacturing rights were sold to a group of ex-Lexmark employees, who formed Unicomp. The Lexington, Kentucky based company has been putting out their version of the Model M for over two decades.
Look at that little spring. Hello, little spring. So cute.
The Ultra Classic is a slightly slimmed-down take on the original IBM Model M, trimming the plastic from the top of the board to create a sleeker, lighter unit. If you want the full effect, go for the pure Classic. I like the extra room.
- Connection : USB
- Cable length : 2m
- Number of keys/buttons : 104
- Switches: Buckling Springs
- Length : 17.9 in (455 mm)
- Depth : 7 in (180 mm)
- Height : 1.96 in (50 mm)
- Key Caps: PBT Polymer
- Legends: Dye Sublimated
- Weight : 1.6 kg
- Compatible : PC
- Gross Weight : 2kg
- Manufactured in Kentucky
- Price: $US84.00 ($110)
What’s So Great About It?
The Sound: I purchased the Ultra Classic from Unicomp on the recommendation of a member of the mechanical keyboard Reddit, who was responding to my stated desire to have a keyboard with a nice, loud “thunk” to it. Listen to this beauty. Mind the hands.
This is a loud keyboard, but it’s the best sort of loud. I’ve been using it for several weeks now, and every time I lay my fingers on it I’m 20 years old in the laptop phone support call center of Digital Equipment Corporation, only without the deep and unending despair.
That said, the Ultra Classic is not a keyboard for a quiet evening. It will not make your roommate, spouse or cubicle neighbour happy. But you’re always making them happy. What about your needs?
The Response: The buckling spring key switch delivers outstanding tactile feedback. It’s almost too fancy a term to describe what’s going on here. As soon as you depress the key and get that delightful click and bump, the spring propel your fingers to the next target. It’s giving your fingers a pat on the arse (it makes sense in my head) and saying, “Go get ’em, tiger.”
For those familiar with Cherry MX switch feels, it’s sort of like the tactile MX brown and the clicky MX blue got married.
The Look (Pre-Customisation): It’s right there in the name, isn’t it? Classic lines, chunky keys — it’s lovely, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Not only do the keys look nice, the legends are dye sublimated, so they’re basically part of the plastic. You could type on them for three decades and they’d never fade.
Double Layer Key Caps: Here’s a neat trick
The key caps on the Unicomp Ultra Classic are in two parts, as they were on the IBM Model M. This makes it easier to swap out caps without potentially screwing with the spring mechanism.
What’s Not So Great?
The Odd Blemish: While the Ultra Classic is solid and sturdy enough, occasional blemishes in the plastic might give the impression that it is not. The biggest hurdle I had to overcome before purchasing this keyboard was pictures on the internet showing off marks like the ones on the underside of my unit.
The marks on my Ultra Classic were limited to the underside, so the only items exposed to it are small coins and lint. Just know that the case might not be perfect.
Customisation Options: All the pretty keyboard keys are made for Cherry MX or Topre switches. There aren’t many options out there for the buckling spring set. Mind you, “not many” doesn’t mean none. Unicomp themselves offer various colours of keys for order, which is how my Ultra Classic ended up looking like this:
Non-printed colour keys are a dollar apiece from Unicomp, while whole blank standard sets (white, black) can be had for $US20 ($26).
If you hunt diligently you can even find some lovely custom jobs on places like Etsy.
The Unicomp Ultra Classic is a monument to the staying power of well-engineered mechanical keyboard technology. You wouldn’t use a 30-year-old monitor to play World of Warcraft. You couldn’t load Windows 10 on a hard drive made three decades ago. Remember mice with little balls in the bottom? Computer mice. Stop that.
In the Unicomp Ultra Classic we have a mechanical keyboard that’s essentially the same as one crafted in 1984, and it’s just as satisfying today as it was way back then.