Archive for Month: January 2017
Another early 2016 interview with a major tech news site about the Brand New Model F Keyboards project
Below are my replies to their questions:
1. It’s tough to fully convince someone of the appeal of the Model F keyboard in just words – you have to try one out to really understand the advantages of buckling springs, including the smooth key travel of the Model F keyboard and the sharp, satisfying click when a key has been pressed. I feel this project appeals to different people for different reasons but one major reason is that it is the very first, and so far only, project to restart production of IBM’s legendary buckling spring keyboards, now that the patents have long expired and have gone to the public domain. It offers the only alternative if you want a keyboard with one of the most widespread mechanical keyboard switches since the 1980s that is not based on Cherry MX.
Here are the main perspectives of appeal for this project in my view:
–The typing experience: The Model F keyboard offers the best typing experience. If you’ve never typed on a Model F or Model M (its significantly cost reduced successor that replaced almost all the metal with plastic) it is difficult to convey the experience. IBM’s venerated buckling spring switch technology was developed in the 1970’s and is at the core of the IBM Model F. This keyboard switch has a delicate yet incredibly tactile response that makes typing a pure pleasure. If one of your readers is new to mechanical keyboards, the buckling spring switch is what other mechanical switches are modeled after and compared against (especially those blue and green switches!). Many consider the buckling spring the best switch for typing, with anecdotal claims that using a buckling spring keyboard reduced fatigue and improved accuracy (I have personally passed 100+ WPM on my Brand New Model F prototypes with a few typing tests).
–The quality perspective: The Model F is probably the highest quality, mass produced keyboard anyone has or ever will type on. You have the solidness of the keyboard: It is a heavy keyboard that weighs 5-10 pounds depending on the model and has a metal case, steel inside plates and buckling springs. Compare this to a mostly plastic Cherry MX style keyboard that sells for $100 to $200. Then you have the legendary IBM moniker and its connotation of the highest quality of goods and a reputation for extreme durability. Many 1980s and 1990s IBM keyboards are still fully functional today. IBM’s Model F keyboard from its PC AT computer even works natively with today’s PS/2 ports, as long as you buy a passive 5 pin DIN to PS/2 adapter. Then you have the quality of the key caps – they are made with PBT plastic which does not yellow or degrade as quickly as low grade ABS plastic common to many keyboards. Also the key legends are dye sublimated onto the keys, meaning the ink is deeply infused into the cap instead of pad printed on top of the keys (the latter method often leaves sloppy looking or illegible legends and shiny/slippery key caps over time that make the user less productive with the keyboard). The interaction of all of the metal plates in a Model F as a user types produces what many describe as a musical quality of the keyboard where each key sounds slightly different (the buckling springs in my project – at least for the prototypes – are actually made of a specific material that is commonly sold as piano wire!).
–The legacy/historical perspective: Tens of millions of IBM buckling spring Model M and Model F keyboards were made over the 1980s and 1990s and many people fondly remember using that great clicky keyboard at work or at home. Some may remember when they upgraded their IBM computer to another brand and only then noticed how much they missed their clicky keyboard! Even as people upgraded their computer equipment over many years/decades, the one thing many people held on to was their IBM buckling spring keyboard, which is unique in an industry where planned obsolescence is the norm. I do hope that these keyboards survive the test of time. So many products people buy today develop issues in a few months’ or years’ time and are meant to be disposed of; it is great to be able to buy something made today that you can use every day and it will be there for you to use 10, 20, 30 years from now. I hope this F77/F62 project will be like that. I do not want to compromise a project like this by lowering standards and cutting corners to make it inferior to an original because it is something I want to be able to use and something that is on par with the original Model F keyboards that I use daily – that is why I insist on materials and production processes that meet or exceed original standards and tolerances, including lots of metal!
–The technical perspective: Building from the quality perspective, the Brand New Model F keyboards project improves upon the original F’s by offering the great Model F technology in a modern 60% and 75% style layout that can be factory customized (ANSI, ISO/international layouts, HHKB style layouts, unprinted keys, etc.), full NKRO (N-Key rollover) capacitive switch sensing, native USB connectivity with no special driver required for Win/Mac/Linux/Android, and open source firmware and GUI software to fully customize your keys, function layers, and macros.
–The ability to get a Model F brand new, fully assembled and configured, and native USB is also a big factor – most people prefer not to clean out 30 years of gunk and hair from a used keyboard off an online auction site and spend hours washing and restoring it just for the privilege of using an IBM Model F keyboard in all its prime. And then they need to figure out how to buy a teensy or Model F USB controller board, program firmware onto it, and configure that firmware – it’s just too time consuming but up to now it was the only way to use the best keyboard possible. Also many Model F keyboards came with strange layouts that were difficult to get used to, such as the IBM XT keyboard.
–The upgrade over a Model M: Most people who enjoy buckling spring keyboards know about IBM’s Model M clicky keyboards, and not the superior earlier model, the Model F. While the Model F was replaced with the cheaper and now easier to obtain Model M, the Model M made some sacrifices on build quality and tactile response, replacing almost all metal with plastic. Out was the incredibly sharp and firm click of the Model F’s flippers making direct contact with its large printed circuit board. In was the Model M’s tiny pivot plates hitting a rubber mat and underlying plastic membrane sheets with a relatively dull thud.
2. The process and history of the project: I have been a collector of IBM buckling spring keyboards for years and was able to acquire a number of Model F keyboards through my network of IT recycler contacts, but no 62-key “Kishsaver” Model F keyboards (Kishsaver refers to a nickname given to keyboards that Deskthority contributor Kishy described in detail on his web site and helped reintroduce to the public a few years ago). (A note on the naming conventions of this project: While the brand new Model F keyboards from this project can support any number of keys, I chose model names that reflect their original key counts; hence they were named F62 and F77.) To no avail I spent a while looking for more 62-key F62 Kishsavers and 77-key F77 keyboards. Given the high demand for Kishsavers and 77-key Model F keyboards and the non-existent supply, as well as my own interest in a Kishsaver, I looked into what it would cost to bring these great keyboards with metal cases back into production, working on the CAD files and discussing ideas with a number of very smart people including professional engineers, PCB designers, and product designers, some of whom have contributed to the DT/GH/reddit forums. I was also inspired by the significant interest and discussions on the forums regarding bringing back the Model F buckling spring keyboard. This project is definitely not a one man show – I could not have done this project without the help of so many community members, especially xwhatsit for inventing a reliable capacitive controller replacement for Model F keyboards, as well as others whom I have not yet asked if they would like to be publicly recognized. I have learned a lot along the way about manufacturing, PCBs, materials, micrometer measurement, CAD (computer aided design), and about the specifications of Model F keyboards. This is a unique project in that it is the first one to bring back Model F buckling spring technology, which has been out of production for essentially 25+ years. The buckling spring patent expired long ago, opening the door to “generics” but no projects involve brand new buckling spring keyboards made from 100% new stock. I had to pay for all the tooling, CNC milling and molds – with no guarantees of success. Another forum member pointed out that the Cherry MX and other custom keyboard projects have lower production costs as the individual key mechanisms are pre-made, unlike Model F components. I have been working with my China contacts for about a year and a half on a number of projects so it was not difficult for me to work with them on this project. My past projects included mass production of xwhatsit’s PCB’s that allowed older IBM keyboards to be USB, have full NKRO, and function on today’s computer equipment.
3. I think there are many factors for the increased interest in mechanical keyboards. One is definitely the expansion of the number of computer and gaming enthusiasts and the gaming and mechanical keyboard communities that have flourished in recent years (including reddit.com/MechanicalKeyboards
4. I am a big fan and collector of the IBM buckling spring keyboards. My very first keyboard was an IBM Model F. The first family computer was an IBM PC (5150) or IBM PC XT (not sure the exact model) with its IBM Model F XT keyboard. In recent years I’ve used the 122 key Model F keyboard as my daily driver thanks to Soarer’s great work with his converter and Fohat’s guide to refurbishing and adjusting the F122 layout to more of a 1391401 Model M ANSI layout. In 2014 xwhatsit helped me to bring his Model F keyboard controllers to mass production and assembly in China at a significantly lower cost. From a young age I have had a great interest in computers and have done a lot of typing on Model F keyboards. I have taken them apart and repaired/restored a number of them. But no related background for me; I am not a professional programmer or CAD person. The professional and/or enthusiast-level background of those who have helped me with this project include programmers, PCB/hardware designers, engineers, product designers/inventors, and other Model F keyboard fans. Without them this project would not have been possible.
My full interview with a major tech news site
Here is a February 2016 interview about the Brand New Model F Keyboards project. Here are my replies in the interview. You can see the published press articles on the Press/Forums page.
First time bringing a product to market? Nope – I handled two group buys for xwhatsit’s keyboard controller PCBs (one in late 2014 and one last year). I worked with xwhatsit (Deskthority and Geekhack) to confirm the recommended parts for his open source designs and then found a great partner in China to work with, a partner I am using with the current project to bring back the IBM Model F keyboard. This initiative was the first one that mass produced xwhatsit’s PCBs. Xwhatsit’s controllers were the first widely used controller replacements that enabled the original metal case Model F keyboards to work with modern-day computers. This is the first major project I’ve been involved with though. I could not have undertaken this project without the help of so many community members from a variety of professional and enthusiast backgrounds including product design/engineering/manufacturing, circuit board design and programming, as well as fans and users of original Model F’s who helped with good advice throughout the project, which started around April of 2015 and was announced publicly at the end of June 2015.
I am a collector of Model F and Model M keyboards so I used my own collection to gain an understanding of how they work and to do the CAD measurements. I actually had a few F77s and F122s (77 key 4704 F’s and 122 key Model F’s) whose parts were analyzed for this project. Fortunately the Model F design is so easily disassembled, reassembled and repairable that no keyboards were harmed in the process. I paid for the molds and tooling from China, which is where manufacturing and assembly of the brand new IBM Model F reproductions will take place.
Manufacturing of China – yes this is definitely an adventure. The important part is to make sure you have the right partner there – one that is responsive, has excellent attention to detail, manufactures a great product to spec, and stands by their work (guarantees to re-make any out-of-spec parts). Another key is to produce working prototypes and then make any small adjustments from there – some of the great advice I received from someone heading up another manufacturing project in China. Yes it was a challenge getting the right materials and learning all of the terminology involved with manufacturing, including tolerances (how different from your drawings a part can be before it becomes out of spec and is not acceptable in the product). Thankfully there were a lot of great project advisers, including those experienced both professionally and on an enthusiast basis with product design/engineering/manufacturing, circuit board design and programming, as well as fans and users of original Model F’s who helped with good advice throughout the project. This project and determining proper materials and production processes could not have moved forward without their understanding of and experience with manufacturing. Another difficulty in determining the right partner in China is of economies of scale. With such a small project, many of those in China I spoke with showed little to no interest in taking it on because they knew of all the months of back and forth that would be required to go over specifications, the hours of their engineers’ time to review CAD files, and the hours needed to tool and produce prototypes. Unless you are making thousands of units it is a major challenge to manufacture inexpensively in China. The issue is definitely of cost, even in China. Tooling costs involve paying the factory for materials, labor, and the opportunity cost of “machine hours” to set up and customize a number of their factory’s machines in a way that will make your product. Every production run requires re-tooling the machines because after your parts are made they need the machine to be set up again for another project. Mold and tooling costs run in the tens of thousands of dollars total for this project. Also getting the plastics right was a challenge and major risk for the project. Model F keyboards use capacitive buckling spring technology, which requires specialized plastic that can act as an electronic bridge on the matrix PCB even though it never physically touches any exposed metal contacts. Fortunately I had a lot of help from some professional engineers and product designers who advised me on which resins (specific types of plastic) would be a good choice for this project. We got the plastic resin right the first time for both the major plastic parts (the “barrels” upon which the keys attach to and “flippers” attached to buckling springs – these flippers flip down when the spring is buckled and form a capacitive bridge). I’m not sure these technical descriptions are 100% correct but here’s a link to xwhatsit’s project page which may prove a better resource if you’re interested.
Setbacks? Because of the months of communication back and forth in discussion with potential suppliers as well as the great support network of mechanical keyboard enthusiasts on Deskthority, GeekHack, and R/MK (Reddit.com/MechanicalKeyboards) any problems were minor at most and corrected quickly (e.g. the foam they used for the packaging was not the one I had specified – they quickly fixed it and re-made the prototype foam pieces shown with the F62 and F77 on the Brand New Model F keyboards web site). I did need to redo some measurements that were about 0.1mm or 0.2 mm off from IBM specs and believe it or not that made a noticeable difference in the functionality of the parts (it also cost me four figures for mold adjustments!). The biggest surprise/setback was that PayPal decided to freeze all the project funds [now we use a major credit card processor, Authorize.
Electronics – All electronics and software for the Brand New Model F keyboards project were conceived, designed, and programmed by Deskthority forum member xwhatsit. It is my understanding that he completely disregarded IBM’s original controller design and went back to the 1970s buckling spring patents (now long expired and in the public domain) to redesign the software and hardware from scratch. The capacitive PCB (the big PCB underneath the keys that contributes to the extra clickness of Model F keyboards over Model M keyboards) has a very similar layout to the originals. Yes this project just uses xwhatsit’s open source Model F USB controller soldered by ribbon cable (like the original Model F’s) to the capacitive PCB. I may not end up using xwhatsit’s controller, however, as I am considering another design currently in development on the keyboard forums.