This FAQ collects some resources for the G+ community Tactile Keyboards. It’s intended to be an easy introduction to the topic with links to more in-depth documents. A glossary of frequently-used jargon terms is included.
What is a tactile keyboard?
A keyswitch is tactile if it has a bump in its response to finger pressure at or near the engagement point where the keypress registers and before the key bottoms out at the end of its travel. A keyboard is tactile if it is made with tactile keyswitches.
Why tactile keyboards?
In brief, they’re ergonomically superior, requiring less effort per keystroke once your fingers have learned to interpret the tactile feedback. Also the mechanical keyswitches they’re made from are generally much more rugged and durable under heavy use than the more common rubber-dome keyswitches.
You can read a more detailed apologia at Why Tactile Keyboards.
A tactile keyboard is most likely to benefit you if you’re a computer programmer, writer, or in some other job that requires you to type day-in and day-out. Affection for tactile keyboards is particularly common and strong among programmers.
Some tactile keyboards are marketed as high-end equipment to serious on-line gamers. The reduced effort is believed (rightly or wrongly) to shave precious milliseconds off one’s response time.
What are the different kinds of tactile keyboards?
The most important distinction within this category is whether the keyboard is also clicky - that is, gives auditory as well as tactile feedback within microseconds of when a key makes contact.
The archetypal tactile keyboard, the IBM/Lexmark/Unicomp "Model M", is very clicky. Many tactile-keyboard fans swear by it and will use nothing else - even used 30-year-old Model Ms are sought after and can command high prices at auction. The design is still manufactured under the Unicomp brand name.
Another tactile-clicky design that cast a long shadow was the Northgate OmniKey, a line of keyboards similar to the Model M that was produced between 1987 and 2005 by an otherwise undistinguished PC manufacturer. After Northgate folded,these continued to be sold for a few years under the "Avant" brand name. OmniKeys and Avants are now harder to find than Model Ms, but in their day had a fanbase nearly as fervent. Examples are still in production use in 2013, often jealously guarded by their owners.
More modern tactile designs are usually (but not always) silent.
The tactile properties of keyboards are mainly consequences of how the keyswitches (the active parts under the keycaps) are designed. You can learn the basics from reading the glossary later in this document; a much more detailed technical explanation of keyboard and keyswitch types is at The Mechanical Keyboard Guide.
Much more on the revered Model M design can be found at the Model M Wikipedia entry. Usual caveats about Wikipedia apply.
What are the drawbacks of tactile keyboards?
The main drawback of tactile keyboards is that they have to be made with true mechanical switches, and are significantly more expensive than the dome- and scissor-switch designs used in most keyboards today. They have higher manufacturing costs per unit due to increased mechanical complexity, and because they’re a minority taste the production runs are smaller, pushing up prices.
Not everybody instinctively learns to use the feedback tactile keyboards provide; some people just find them pointlessly stiff and unpleasant. Sometimes more experience will change this.
Some people find the Model M family too noisy and are better served by tactile but non-clicky devices.
The Unicomp USB variant of the Model M has not had a design refresh in a long time, and sometimes has interoperability problems with modern USB chipsets. Some Unicomp USB variants also seem to be prone to cabling problems due to insufficient strain relief at the keyboard end. See the Model M Troubleshooting Guide for eetails.
I don’t understand the terms used to talk about keyboards
We’ve already covered "tactile" and "linear". Knowing these aadditional terms will be helpful for reading Tactile Keyboards posts:
The trajectory of a keyswitch from the top (when a finger begins pressing) to the bottom when it reaches its mechanical limit. Travel distance is usually between 2 and 5 mm.
The opposite of tactile. A linear keyswitch produces constant resistance until it stops at the end of its travel.
A clicky keyswitch produces audible as well as tactile feel at its engagement point. Clicky keyboards are made from clicky keyswitches. All clicky keyboards are tactile, but not vice-versa. (We contemptuously ignore a few exceptions that electronically simulate a click using a speaker.)
The opposite of clicky. A silent keyswitch may produce some noise when the key bottoms out, but generates none at the engagement point.
Proportional to the force required to push a keyswitch from top of travel to its engagement point.
- island keys
A style of keyboard in which formed keycaps protrude through a perforated metal or plastic plate, rather than simply abutting each other separated by a very small gap. Recent Apple keyboards are like this. The term "chiclet keyboard" is sometimes incorrectly used for these.
- dome switch
A very common, very cheap style of keyswitch consisting of a hollow rubber or metalized dome with contacts at the top and bottom that meet when the dome is compressed by finger pressure. Usually manufactured in arrays in a formed rubber sheet. Silent and linear, low stiffness. Most modern keyboards use these. Tactile-keyboard fans despise them.
- scissor switch
Shorter-travel variant of the dome switch often found on low-profile keyboards such as most of Apple’s. So called because the keycap is connected to the dome by a plunger cradled by two pieces of plastic that are hinged together like scissors blades. Tactile-keyboard fans often find these somewhat less nasty than bare dome switches.
- membrane keyboard
This is what the keypad on your microwave oven uses. Linear, silent, less than a millimeter of travel, effectively zero stiffness. Never found on real keyboards.
- chiclet keyboard
A variant of the membrane keyboard in which the keys are chiclet-shaped rubber nibs bonded to the upper membrane. Even people who like dome-switch keyboards usually consider these shoddy and nasty; they’re not deployed unless lowest cost is absolutely imperative. In recent years this term has sometimes been misapplied to any low-profile keyboard with island keys.
- mechanical switch
A keyswitch with a mechanical plunger assembly, springs, and contacts. All tactile and clicky keyswitches are mechanical, but not vice-versa. Mechanical switches are more durable than dome switches, often surviving multiple decades of heavy use. They are also (alas) much more expensive.
- buckling-spring switch
The creme de la creme of mechanical keyswitches, found only on the IBM Model M and close relatives such as the modern Unicomp. Tactile and clicky_ with a relatively long travel; too noisy and stiff for some tastes, but the unique feel and sound inspires near-fanatical devotion in its fans.
- Cherry switch
A brand name for the most widely used line of mechanical keyswitch. Several different Cherry variants are named for colors (with the switch casings actually in that color) and offer different stiffnesses and combinations of tactile/linear/clicky/silent behaviors. Cherry Blues and Greens are tactile-clicky and generally considered the closest in feel to buckling-spring switches. There was an earlier Cherry White, now rare, that was also tactile-clicky. Cherry Browns, Clears, and Greys are tactile-silent.
- ergonomic keyboard
Loosely used for keyboard layouts and case designs that try to support support a more natural, relaxed position of the hands and arms than allowed by the conventional rectangular QWERTY design. Ergonomic keyboards may be split or angled in various creative ways, or arrange keys in arcs better fitting the hand’s range of motion.
- 101-key layout
Layout on older American keyboards, without the Windows and Menu keys. Original Model Ms defined this layout.
- 104-key layout
What a modern American (ANSI) PC keyboard looks like - with right and left Windows keys and a context-menu key.
- 105-key layout
The 105th key is the distinct Alt-Gr found on European (ISO) keyboards, replacing the right-hand Alt. It’s mainly used for composing accented letters not found in ASCII.
A keyboard with most of a standard PC 104-key layout (including function and arrow keys) but the numeric keypad and its duplicate function keys lopped off.
Removes the navigation-key cluster (arrows, Page Up, Page Down, Insert, Delete) from the tenkeyless layout.
Removes the function keys from the 70% layout.
- daily driver
The keyboard one normally uses for production. As opposed to others one might be experimenting with, have in one’s past, be intrigued by, or just take on road trips.
Where can I get a tactile keyboard?
Variants of the Model M are still sold (though not officially under that name) by Unicomp, which makes them in the same factory with the same tools as when IBM originally produced the design in the 1980s. These are the only keyboards in production to use true buckling-spring switches.
Some people may also value the fact that you can get the Unicomp in a variant with a nipple mouse, a feature otherwise almost impossible to find on a full-sized keyboard. This means you can move your mouse pointer without taking your hand off the home row.
Unicomp proclaims "Anything else is just an imitation!" and it is generally conceded that they have a point. On the other hand, the Unicomp designs are conservative to the point of stodginess and have accumulated some minor problems (referenced above).
Several other vendors make tactile keyboards using newer (non-buckling-spring) mechanical-keyswitch designs.
Here are some vendors to investigate. Most use the same line of "Cherry" keyswitches; there are a few less common brands such as Topre and ALPS.
Resells vintage IBM Model Ms scavenged from various sources. Sometimes you can find there its even rarer (and still prized) predecessor, the IBM XT keyboard.
Various vendors on eBay sell used and reconditioned Model Ms.
A retailer specializing in mechanical-switch keyboards and accessories. Carries lines from over a dozen vendors.
- Happy Hacking keyboards
A compact, tactile, non-clicky keyboard with a keyboard layout specifically designed for programmers (in particular, the Control key is where Caps Lock lives on most keyboards). Uses Topre switches.
- WASD Keyboards
This company offers the most keyboard customization options I’ve ever seen - layout, switch type, keycap colors, keycap graphics can be mixed and matched at little or no extra cost over the baeline product. The product gets good reviews. Buckling-spring fans will be interested to know that Cherry Greens are among their standard options.
The Professional is both tactile and clicky; other products are tactile-silent. One variant, infamously, has blank keycaps and can thus only be touch-typed. All use Cherry switches.
Adesso has a line of Cherry-based tactile keyboards targeted at the gaming market, some clicky.
- Truly Ergonomic
Expensive but interesting design mating tactile-silent keyswitches to an innovative ergonomic layout. Variants use Cherry Red and Brown switches.
- Elite Keyboards
Some devices in the Elite Keyboards line use mechanical switches. All are non-clicky; some extra-quiet models are tagged "Silent".
- Diatec Majestouch keyboards
Diatec sells a line of Cherry-based keyboards under the "Majestouch" brand.
- CoolerMaster Keyboards
CoolerMaster makes several keyboards aimed straight at the gaming market (black cases, LED highlights and backlighting, names like "Devastator" and "QuickFire") featuring Cherry switches. One even features the elusive Cherry Green, stiffest and clickiest in the line.
This list is not complete; there are a lot of small vendors targeting the gaming market that seem to appear and disappear like mayflies. Most are producing fairly interchangeable Cherry-based designs in snazzy black cases. You can learn as much about these as you want to at r/MechanicalKeyboards and geekhack.org (see below).
What’s a Model M fan to do in a post-Model-M world?
Probably buy a keyboard stuffed with Cherry Green or Blue switches.
For many years the tactile-clicky Cherry Blue was the most popular option for people pining for the buckling-spring feel. But Blues have their engagement point a bit below where the tactile bump happens; in Greens, like buckling-spring switches, bump and engagement coincide. Greens also have stiffer action resembling a really old-school keyboard.
Cherry Greens only began to become generally available in 2013. At time of writing (early 2016) it’s still unusual for a keyboard vendor to offer an all-Green keyboard. (WASD is a notable exception.) One report from a user on Tactile Keyboards says:
However, he then says he prefers the lighter action of the Cherry Blue.
Where can I learn more?
- Care and feeding of the IBM Model M keyboard
Just what it says on the tin; applies to Unicomps as well. Particularly good stuff about how to clean the beast.
- The Mechanical Keyboard Guide
The Guide is well worth a second look after you’ve skimmed some vendor sites. It’s a treasure trove of detailed information. As of March 2016 it has one significant gap; it doesn’t cover the Cherry MX green switches, a stiffer variant of the clicky MX Blue often used along with it for spacebars and large keys.
- How to Choose the Best Mechanical Keyboard
This guide does cover Cherry Greens, with a lot of detail about different keyswitch types and a generally good overview of other issues.
- Keyboard Technology
The Wikipedia page on keyboard technology includes descriptions of many keyswitch types, including obscure and unusual ones not mentioned in this FAQ.
A subreddit on mechanical keyboards, heavy into pictorial keyboard porn. The "Reddit Mechanical Keyboard Buying Guide" goes into more detail on modern gaming-oriented keyboards than this FAQ and seems to exhibit good judgment.
- Deskthority Wiki
A wiki about input devices focusing on mechanical keyboards, not all tactile. Has the most comprehensive vendor list I’ve found.
- A Dictionary of Keyboards
A longer glossary of keyboard terminology.
Keyboard hacking for the truly obsessive. A very active forum focused on keyboard modding and (as it says) "pushing the limits of small-scale manufacturing".