Thursday, December 22, 2011

My New Das Keyboard

Newegg briefly ran a huge sale on Das mechanical keyboards, so I decided to shell out the money and pick one up. This post will cover my background with keyboards and switches, and then provide some information about the Das.

Background (feel free to skip it if you don't care)

I've been a dedicated touch typist for a number of years, though I have fallen out of practice since leaving professional writing as an occupation and have settled into a modest 85-wpm rut. Even so, the specter of repetitive stress injury (RSI) hangs over me and informs my decisions on which keyboards I will and won't use.

For years, I was drawn to the scissor-switch keyboards, which have a short travel, light resistance and are more common on laptops, rather than the more common "rubber dome" keyboards, which dominate the desktop keyboard market, due to the reduced fatigue on my fingers and wrists. A few years ago, though, I began using my grandfather's original 1989 IBM Model M keyboard, which features the delightful "buckling spring" mechanical switch, and was instantly won over. Rather than lug it back and forth from home to work every day, I asked my employer to purchase a Unicomp Customizer, which retails for approximately $80.
Diagram of a buckling spring switch.

The Unicomp is a joy to type on and feels identical to the original Model M I use at home. However, both keyboards suffer from 2-key rollover, which means that certain keys conflict with one another when pressed, such that the keyboard will ignore any further keypresses, sometimes with as few as 2 keys pressed. This is no big deal when typing because typists never need to press more than one key at a time (except for modifiers, like shift, of course). However, when playing computer games, rollover (sometimes known as "ghosting") becomes a serious problem, which is what led me to shop around for a gaming-specific keyboard.


The Das Keyboard Model S Ultimate

After poring over Overclock.net's exhaustive mechanical keyboard analysis and review thread, it seemed to me that there is a segment of the market that could be considered equivalent. These keyboards all use various permutations of the Cherry MX microswitches and provide N-key rollover (i.e., you can press as many keys as you want and they will never conflict with one another) when connected to the computer via PS/2 (via USB, they are all limited to 6-key rollover, which is a limitation of the generic USB keyboard driver, apparently). Out of the many options, I decided to go with the Das since it was on a hefty sale and I had a spare Newegg gift card to make it even cheaper.

Foreshortening makes the Model M
appear larger, but they are roughly
the same size.
Of the Das models available, I had my choice between blue and brown Cherry switches. According to reviews, the blues are tactile (meaning your fingers feel a haptic click when the switch actuates) and clicky, while the browns are tactile and non-clicky. I have grown accustomed to the clickiness of my buckling springs, so the blues were attractive to me. In practice, the clickiness is nice and familiar and the resistance is surprisingly even less than I'm used to from my buckling springs.

This pic shows the difference in pitch.
While the Model M is rounded, the Das
is straight and flat. I don't really notice
the difference during use, though.
For anyone who is familiar with arcade buttons, the Model M feels like clicky Happ buttons, while non-tactile Cherry blacks would be more like Sanwa buttons (no haptic feedback for when the button actuates). Tactile Cherry MX switches, like the blues and browns, are somewhere in between, probably more like the Seimitsu clickies.

Though I am a touch-typer, I would have preferred to get labeled keycaps on my Das, but the model with Cherry blues and keycaps wasn't on sale. In the future, I'll probably pick up a handful of colored/labeled keycaps, just to give myself a few more landmarks. Perhaps the letter 'P' and/or the hyphen key, and maybe a Tux keycap for the 'super'/Windows key...

An area smoothed by high traffic on
my Unicomp after barely 1 year of use.
Other aspects of the keyboard are all top-notch. The USB ports on the side provide handy access for plugging in a mouse or thumb drive, though the placement of the ports can interfere with mousing on cramped keyboard trays, like mine (see the bottom-right corner of my pics). The keyboard housing is solid, well-constructed and easy to clean, though the glossy, piano black finish really attracts and holds fingerprints. On the other hand, this type of finish won't develop smooth spots in areas of high traffic like the stippled/matte finishes would, so there's a trade-off.


Final Thoughts

Overall, I'm very pleased with the Das. For typing, I guess I still prefer the buckling springs, but the Das is most definitely satisfactory and still blows away any scissor-switch or rubber dome I've encountered. I would recommend this keyboard to anyone who is interested in a solid gaming keyboard that can do double-duty as a very competent typing keyboard.

In a typing comparison, I am able to achieve my same 85 wpm on the Das as with the buckling spring keyboards (as measured by TypeRacer), though the lighter actuation pressure on the Das leads me to bottom out on it more often. However, I think this is something that I could get used to over time and could potentially end up increasing my speed somewhat, once I grow accustomed.

If you would like to learn more and/or are considering taking the plunge on a mechanical keyboard, the aforementioned Overclock.net thread is full of information for potential buyers. To learn more about keyboards in general, the wikipedia has an excellent article covering the various technologies. If you have any questions about any of the keyboards mentioned in this post, feel free to leave a comment.

Update (3/07/2012): I talked my employer into picking up a Das Professional S(ilent) for me. This keyboard uses the Cherry MX Brown switches and features labeled keycaps, unlike the Ultimate I have at home.

While the switches are definitely quieter than the Cherry Blues, they are far from "silent" and are probably only a little quieter than my Unicomp. I'm pleased with this, though, since I like the clickity-clack anyway; it just annoys my office-mates a little less now. Additionally, the Browns require a slightly higher actuation pressure compared with the Blues, putting them more on the level of the Unicomp/Model M.

Typing feels light and sure. This is a very comfortable keyboard and I think most anyone will be pleased with it for typing, probably more so than with the Blue microswitches.

Here are a couple of pics:


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