Design in Engineering or vice versa?

Okay, so maybe design isn’t always considered part of engineering, but it can have the same implications so I may, like today, talk about it.  I’m looking at five keyboards for my iMac piled up in the corner of my office.  They all work, they all put characters on the screen, and a couple of them (those from the design people at Apple) are gorgeous to look at.  So why are they all there in a pile and what am I using to write this post?


Because I don’t like them.  Not from an engineering perspective–they all do what they were designed to do–but from a design point of view.  And that spells the difference between something being functional and something being functional and satisfying, pleasurable, and fun.  Of course the important thing is the concentration of the design effort.  The keyboard that came with this iMac is a slim, aluminum piece of art that actually works pretty well if you were raised on the flat keyboards of laptops that have little movement and very little “action”.  There is no doubt that it looks fantastic sitting in front of the big screen iMac, but after a while it just wears on your fingertips and I get annoyed how easily you can slip off the home keys and suddenly br dsuomh dp (you get the picture).  So that thing was designed for beauty and for younger hands, I guess.

The next was a non-Apple keyboard that had the flat keys but better action.  This one didn’t last long on my desk for the same feedback problem and lack of key travel.  Looked nice, though, and was perfectly fine for occasional typing, but not for a book or anything.

Then comes one that is almost as nice looking, but with real keys and some action.  This one came with my old lamp iMac and it was pretty good for a while.  But it didn’t provide much feedback and I got tired of it.  Could be I’m just fickle, I guess.  The next looked almost like that one but it was far more expensive and was touted as the best keyboard because of the spring mechanism and the old clicky sound (Matias).  It was better and I liked the feedback and the action.  Except that at some point the key would suddenly bottom out and this didn’t do much for long term, reliable typing.  So this one was less of the pretty and more for the functional — a better balance of function and design.

The penultimate one (are you sensing the dramatic buildup?) was a Logitech wave keyboard that was more suited for a PC than a Mac.  But it worked fine and I actually liked the more ergonomic keyboard shape.  Too bad the key action isn’t great and the travel of the keys is shallow.  But it suited for a while and I thought it was a good buy. It managed to look okay and do a good job, so the balance between design and function was pretty good.

But today I just unwrapped this great thing.  Course I am still in the enthralled stage, so take these comments with a grain of salt.  But just a grain, because I think this one is a keeper.  The IBM Model M keyboards were legendary and were patterned after the famous Selectric typewriters.  Well, you can get them on Ebay for some amount of money, but you can also buy brand new ones from Unicomp.  They call them their Customizer line, and they look, feel, and sound like the old IBM keyboard.  Apparently they purchased the design and rights and they produce keyboards that are almost identical to the old ones, with some features like USB cords to bring them up to the present day.  I don’t think they are as heavy as the old ones, and I do hear something rattling around inside (but hasn’t affected the working any – probably just a piece of plastic), but oh my gosh is this thing nice to type on.

unicomp keyboard

Yeah, it is noisy, but not as loud as the Matias.  And the action on this thing is just great.  No bottoming out and just the right amount of push-back to make typing pleasurable.  And the keys are set like the old Selectric with the banks measurably higher than each other so your fingers don’t have to travel as far and you are far less prone to making mistakes.  But it isn’t pretty.  It is black with beige keys and is just functional looking.  So outward design took a back seat on this one.  But design of the key mechanism obviously ranked high, as did the durability for which the Model M was famous (we’ll see if this replica stands the test of time).

So design, of a type, was emphasized here, and so was functionality.  So we can have both?  Yes.  But it will cost you.  These aren’t cheap at about $70 to $90 bucks, but at least they are made in the US (I don’t mind foreign goods, just poorly made foreign goods) and will likely last for a good long time.  And I don’t mind spending the money if the quality is there.  Is this the best keyboard out there?  Not sure, but its the best of the ones I have, by a long shot.  And at the moment I am quite happy.

What do you think is the best keyboard out there, past or present?  Drop us a comment.

Published in: on October 30, 2009 at 9:55 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] while back I posted a review of some computer keyboards and talked about my search for the perfect one.  At that time I […]

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