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Classic keyboards redux

The original IBM 101 keyboard was one of the best ever built. Now you can get your old one refurbished, or buy a new version being produced with the same technology. Review by Gary Krakow, MSNBC.
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Ten years ago I put my first PC, an IBM XT-286 into the closet and forgot about it. I was on to 386s and 486s and Mac Power PCs. But I always missed typing on my original IBM 101-key keyboard. To this day there was and is nothing like it. That’s why I got so excited when I received an e-mail from reader Alan Bryant.

InsertArt(1886166)SOMETIMES THE BEST IDEAS for my columns come from readers. This case was no exception. Alan was so excited about his discovery he had to share it with me:

“I read your articles regularly on, and I thought this might be something of interest.

I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to PC keyboards, and after all these years, I still prefer the feel and sound of my old IBM 101-key (circa 1990) with its “buckling spring” action. I’ve moved this keyboard from PC to PC through more upgrades than I can count. ... That is, until its cord and the backspace key finally gave-up the ghost.

Lo and behold, the same former IBM folks who made this keyboard are still at it today. Unicomp, in Lexington, Kentucky, was spun-off from Lexmark some years ago, which was spun-off from IBM before that. They still manufacture these trusty old keyboards with their noisy, firm action. And the amazing part is that they will actually repair virtually any IBM or Lexmark PC keyboard ever made for $30, flat rate. I’m back in service with mine, and another old keyboard dredged from my PC graveyard is now off for an overhaul as well, so I can have one for back-up.

They’ll even sell you one of the originals for $50. Steep price for a keyboard these days, but no cheap import works like this baby!”

I immediately flashed back to my PC keyboard sitting in the back of my closet in my dead keyboard graveyard. What a shame! It was my favorite keyboard of all time.

The next day I went online to see this for myself. Everything Alan told me was true. I couldn’t wait.

I unburied my keyboard a few days later. It was a sorry mess. There was a decade of dirt and dust on it on top of the normal typing grunge/grease that had built-up on the keys before it was retired. Some keys were missing and the connecting cord was all wrong for modern-day PCs. In short, Old Faithful was in need of some loving care.

The next morning I cleaned off whatever keys were left and called PC Keyboard. The nice man on the other end of the phone took my credit card information, gave me a return authorization number and told me where to send my baby. Full disclosure: I thought it best to inform him of who I was — and warned that I might be writing something about his service.

A few days later (and $30 plus shipping charges) a very large and heavy box (these keyboards are made out of metal, not plastic) was delivered to my home. Actually, there were two boxes taped together: one with my prized antique beauty and in the other a brand new 2003 model for comparison.

They told me that my keyboard was indeed ancient, from all the way back in 1987. They cleaned it, replaced what needed to be replaced and even swapped the old AT/DIN cord for a modern-day PS/2-Mini-DIN connector.

The real proof was plugging it in and letting her rip.

It was like rediscovering an old friend with whom you’ve been out of touch. Once you get reacquainted, it’s like you’ve never been apart. This is one great keyboard. Yes, it makes a lot of noise, but there’s something about the way the keys bounce under your fingers that allows me to type at almost double my normal speed (which isn’t too fast to begin with). No throw-away technology here. This is one solid piece of gear

Same for the brand-new model they sent me. Personally, my fingers can’t tell the difference between the new keyboard and the 15-year old one, and that’s a great thing! I think the only thing they’ve changed is the logo at the top. For all those people who threw their old IBM keyboards away, or for those of you who never had the pleasure of working on one, now is your chance to have the best. Worth every penny of its $49 price tag.

And, if that’s not enough, the PC Keyboard people are offering some other classic and not-so-classic keyboard designs that might whet your appetite: The “On The Ball” model ($109) is a 101-key device with a little track ball in the upper right hand corner. The one I’m thinking of buying is the “On The Stick” ($99), which includes a laptop-like little red IBM/Lexmark pointing device in the center of the keys.

If you’re in the market for a new (old) keyboard, and want to try what after more than 15 computer years is the best out there then I suggest you see what the people at can do for you. You won’t be disappointed.