I guess I’m something of a keyboard snob. My first mac, a vintage SE, came with a compact version of the legendary Apple Extended keyboard. It’s precision feel and audible clack were the thanks to the Alps mechanical switches underneath each and every key. Not only did these switches improve typing speed and accuracy but they were incredibly durable. After more than 20 years, many of these keyboards are still in operation, a testamony to their ruggedness.
Today, most keyboard manufacturers have abandoned the costly mechanical switch in favor of a simple dome of soft plastic called a membrane switch. These switches are far cheaper to manufacture and also have the benefit of being quiet, something co-workers and wives universally approve of. Unfortunately, they also lack the feel and durability of their illustrious predecessors. There are a few companies, however, that are still creating keyboards with mechanical switches for those who are willing to invest a bit more in their input device and want the benefits that only a mechanical switch can provide. One such company is DSI, Dih Shin International, which manufactures a wide variety of custom keyboard solutions for a wide variety of markets including consumer, industrial, financial and kiosk markets. DSI, which is based in Glendale, Arizona designs and manufacturers a wide variety of keyboards, but I was most interested in one called the “Modular Mac Keyboard” which uses the highly regarded Cherry mechanical key switches from Germany. I was anxious to find out whether these switches could truly compare to the Alps switches of my old Apple keyboard. Would they feel the same? That’s what I wanted to discover.
The DSI Modular Mac Keyboard is a fascinating fusion of both old and new technologies. It uses mechanical key switches like the keyboards of yesterday but does so with a very unusual design that will allow the keyboard to accept a variety of custom hardware modules that can attach to either side. Want a numeric pad on the left side instead of the right? No problem. Want a touchpad on the right side in place of a mouse? No problem. The keyboard can be configured to the specific needs of the user. Upcoming modules include a Blackberry dock, a card reader, a trackball, a touchpad and a numeric keypad. The modules interface with the keyboard through USB 2.0 ports on either side of the keyboard. There’s also an additional USB 2.0 port on the very front of the unit and they’re all powered by a small A/C power supply that connects to a custom USB/power cable.
After going back and forth between the DSI Modular Mac Keyboard with its Cherry switches and my Mattias TactilePro which uses the same Alps switches found in those early Apple keyboards, I can honestly say that the differences between the two are subtle at best. The Alps switch does seem to require a bit more downward force than the Cherry and the keystroke is registered near the bottom of the key’s motion, while the Chery switch makes contact about half-way through its travel. The practical upshot of all this is that the Cherry switch feels a bit lighter and perhaps a bit more nimble, requiring slightly less downforce to make a keystroke with less of the key in motion before it does so. In both cases, tactility and precision were excellent.
One interesting feature of the Modular Mac Keyboard is a “key rollover function” which is essentially a memory buffer for the keyboard. It stores up to 16 keystrokes to ensure that fast typing doesn’t result in dropped characters. If you’ve ever gotten ahead of your keyboard and looked up to find that every other letter was missing, you know how frustrating this can be. Despite my best attempts to outpace this keyboard, I never managed it. It’ll go just as fast as your fingers can type.
I also was quite impressed with the build quality of the unit. Weighing in at 2.5 pounds, there is nothing delicate or fragile about this keyboard. While relatively small in size (15.5” x 5.75” x 1.5”) it’s made of a thick, durable plastic with a nice matte finish. The USB/Power cable is also heavy duty and even the feet are molded directly into the base and inset with non-slip rubber. The Modular Mac Keyboard is one serious piece of hardware that makes everything else look flimsy and anemic.
Despite all the positives, there were several things I was less enthusiastic about, beginning with the layout of the keys. The DSI Modular Keyboard is a space-saving design that groups all the keys into 6 uniform rows. The directional arrow keys which normally are set off by themselves are repositioned underneath the return key. The forward delete, PG UP, PG DOWN and help keys that traditionally sit directly above the directional arrow keys are moved into their own vertical column on the far right of the keyboard. The change that consistently gave me the most problems however was the repositioning of the Apple volume, mute and eject keys. Instead of being at the top of the keyboard beside the function keys, DSI moved them to their own column on far left hand side of the keyboard, essentially creating an extra row of keys. Touch typists used to the TAB, CAPS LOCK and SHIFT keys being the first keys on the far left side will find that everything has shifted to the right. For the first week or so, I was constantly hitting the TAB key when I meant to hit “Q” or CAPSLOCK when I wanted the “A” key. It took me about a week or so to get comfortable with the new key positions. Once I did, my error rate declined and my typing speed improved. That being said, I’m still more comfortable with a full-sized keyboard.
The second issue for me was one of actual key height. The DSI keys sit a full half inch higher than the keys on my white Apple USB keyboard and that difference had a significant impact on overall comfort. I found that in order to get my fingers up high enough, I was having to rest my palms on the desk in front of the keyboard and arch my wrists upwards which ultimately led to discomfort. DSI is set to offer an ergonomic palm rest for the Modular Mac Keyboard later on later in this year, and for those who intend to spend a lot of time with this keyboard, it’s definitely something to consider.
Tthe DSI Modular Mac keyboard leaves me both impressed and conflicted. On one hand, I love the feel of the Cherry mechanical switches and the way they make this keyboard both feel and perform. I appreciate it’s rugged construction and the fact that while most keyboards have become throwaway items, this one is truly built to last. With switches rated at 50 million clicks, chances are that your computer will expire long before this keyboard does and the addition of powered USB 2.0 ports and a keystroke memory buffer make a good thing even better. At the same time, the compact form factor of the Modular Mac Keyboard and its repositioned keys were hard to get used to at first . Ultimately, I got the hang of it but I still prefer the standard keyboard layout. I also had a problem with the extra height of the keys and the wrist pain that would accompany longer typing sessions. Based on my experiences, I’d recommend a wrist pad.
At $149, the Modular Mac Keyboard is a fairly significant investment for the casual typist. In fact, it’s probably more keyboard than the average person needs. Then again, it really wasn’t created for the needs of the average person. It was created for those who need more from their keyboard ….more precision, more speed, and more flexibility. If that sounds like your situation, then the DSI Modular Mac Keyboard is definitely something you should consider. The build quality is excellent, the feel is phenomenal and the ability to add expansion modules gives you the opportunity to create the custom keyboard that best suits your needs.
I hope DSI will expand its lineup of Mac keyboards and produce a full-sized model using these same Cherry switches. I think once people discover how nice they are and how well they work, I won’t be the only one wanting a DSI keyboard.