I must warn you, I’m a keyboard snob. Not even the kind of keyboard snob people like, I’m a mechnical keyboard snob. To me a good day is spent mashing away at the pinnacle of human achievement, the IBM Model M. When I worked at Oakland University I had an opportunity to run into these all the time. Your local university probably has a ton of these, and you can find people like myself and Kyle Rankin trudging through garage sales looking for these gems. Whilst others hated these mechanical monstrosities they appealed to those of us who love to type. Over time I just started owning a bunch of them.
However as they run down and start to break I started to find that replacing them was becoming more costly as the market went up, and to be honest, even the latest crappy keyboards were starting to get good enough. One of my current favorites is the Dell USB Enhanced Keyboard which is a great keyboard for about 12 bucks. I know right.
Over time some of my friends like Rick Harding had moved on to Filcos or the Unicomp brand; which acquired the Model M patents for crunchiness and started shipping a modern version of the keyboard. I myself moved on to a Happy Hacking 2 which is a great keyboard but not a proper mechanical one. When I was rebuilding my work area I needed something wireless and ended up with a Logitech K360, which is not a bad chiclet keyboard, and the ability for it to share a dongle with my wireless trackball made for a nice clean desk. Good Enough(tm).
Still, there’s nothing like a real mechanical keyboard. I had discovered WASD keyboards via Rick Harding and I used their customizer to make an “Ubuntu keyboard”. It had an orange escape key, and aubergine keycaps for the Unity shortcut keys, and of course, used the Ubuntu font. But the price was steep, and though I bounced some ideas with Paul Sladen on how it would look I never followed through on actually getting one made. Then a few weeks ago Jeff Atwood announced the CODE Keyboard. A clean redo of a mechanical keyboard. Ok, I can dig this; so I ordered one.
What’s to love
- Very clean design; there’s no logos or any kind of badging on it.
- The Cherry Clear switches “feel” really good. Subjective I know. It took me this blog post to get used to it.
- The backlighting is absolutely gorgeous. I leave it on even when it’s not dark, it looks great.
- Thanks for making the Super Key OS-agnostic!
- The Insert/Home/Delete/End/PgUp/PgDown cluster is also your media keys. This allows me to control my media player with the keyboard shortcuts and adjust volume without taking my right hand off the keyboard, as the Fn key is the bottom right “menu key”. This is configurable via a DIP switch.
- There is a DIP switch to make the Caps lock key be a Ctrl. This is vitally important for UNIX-like operating systems as it’s the proper placement for the Ctrl key. Of course you can set this option at the OS level, but it’s nice to not only have it an option to be configured that way, but to have the key not labeled as Caps Lock.
- I like that the keyboard cable is just a mini-USB cable, which means I have a ton of them around already.
Thoughts on improvements.
- The keys feel “narrower” than a Model M, and a bit too narrow for my fat fingers, however since they’re “scooped” keys I don’t miss the key, it just takes some getting used to.
- I’d like to see WASD expand their custom keycaps to support this keyboard (Hopefully there will be enough demand to justify this).
- The backlighting doesn’t work on the lower side of the keycaps, so the labels for pause/play, fwd, stop, and volume are not lit up at night. This is a nitpick as it’ll be easy to memorize their location.
Things I’d like to see in version 2.0
- Built in USB Ports for things like a YubiKey or whatever.
- A wireless option for those of us who want a cleaner desk.
- Jo Shields mentioned that there’s no option for a UK layout, for those of you on that side of the pond.
What about the noise?
I think it’s worth noting that this keyboard is considerably quieter than a Model M. Notice that I said it’s quieter than a Model M, but this is not exactly a quiet keyboard. It’s not really loud either, but if you’re in the middle of flame war on the internet your cube mate might notice.
I work from home so this isn’t an issue for me, however I have worked in an office with Model M fans and it can get pretty loud in there so I think it’s worth pointing out that the CODE is not particularly loud. As far as how it stacks up noise-wise against other mechanical keyboards I’ve used, this one is relatively quiet, but I don’t have science handy to back this up.
Sean David O’Connor was quick to point out that WASD sells sets of rubber switch dampeners in three different configurations to soften the noise if this is an issue for you. I can confirm that the CODE as shipped to me does not include these dampeners.
So overall, it’s a nice keyboard, it has a very “Dark Knight” or “Monolith” feel to it. It’s a little heavy, but not Model M heavy, it certainly is not sliding around on you. The real test will be in a month or two when I start to clean it regularly. The “art” of cleaning a mechanical keyboard is something I’m experienced with, and I’m hoping that this modern keyboard will be easier to maintain than a Model M. Hopefully the spacebar isn’t as easy to break during maintenance as it is on a Model M.
In the original comments on Hacker News people were complaining about the price, $150. If you’re looking around at mechanical keyboards with proper cherry switches and so on, this is about the price range, so compared to the competition, it’s similarly priced; keyboards like this are not cheap and people who buy these kind of keyboards do for the same reason that Geddy Lee doesn’t play a $500 bass. For comparison the Unicomp Model M style with the original buckling spring is about $80.
Overall I like it; this is my first WASD keyboard and I can see where they get their good reputation from, I’m hoping to get some long life out of this keyboard and it seems off to a great start. Jo Shields pointed out that there’s really nothing on this keyboard that you can’t get in other ones, and that’s true to a certain extent. I think anyone who is into mechanical keyboards has their own (strong) opinions on what right feels like. I think people who swear by Cherry Reds will always get that switch and be fine. Where I think this keyboard shines is that it’s an “opinionated default” that works out of the box and gets you started about typing quickly and efficiently without getting all Linux-user on you with a ton of options on switches and stuff.