Where have all the good keyboards gone?

Not too long ago, it was hard for a PC user to love anything IBM. But even back then, IBM excelled at least at one thing: It made the best darn keyboards on the planet.

Not too long ago, it was hard for a PC user to love anything IBM. But even back then, IBM excelled at least at one thing: It made the best darn keyboards on the planet.

Those keyboards, included with the original IBM PCs, the ATs and the PS/2s, had a remarkable feel.

They were solid and overengineered. When a key struck a contact, the feel was tremendously satisfying.

Although IBM made great keyboards, it was also responsible for one of the worst ever: the PS/1's board with Chiclet-size keys. It was even worse than HP's "stale lima bean" board for its HP150 terminals. About the only modern comparison would be those membrane versions on the new super-slim Mitsubishi and HP notebooks.

But as long as you didn't buy a PS/1, you were virtually guaranteed a great feeling while tapping an IBM keyboard. Then, in 1991, IBM spun off its keyboard and printer division into a separate company called Lexmark, which started selling those great IBM keyboards under its own name. These were even better than the original boards, because Lexmark added track balls and other things without changing the great key feel.

But the good times came to a crashing end in the first quarter of 1996. IBM sold its keyboard technology to a company that failed to continue the line. For all practical purposes, IBM's great keyboard technology was dead.

And dead describes the state of the keyboard industry today. I test a lot of replacement keyboards, and the vast majority of them are awful. It's easy to see why repetitive stress injuries are on the rise.


Even the so-called ergonomic keyboards leave me flat.

In fact, I'm typing this on a new IBM keyboard called Rapid Access. This one's got a bunch of cool features, including one-touch access to applications, CD-audio controls and a nice help button. Unfortunately, all those cool functions can't hide the fact that the key feel stinks. The depress is mushy, the tactile feedback is virtually nonexistent, and the rigidity is only passable.

Actually, the Rapid Access is better than 85 percent of the keyboards I've been testing. But it can't hold a candle to the old IBM keyboard technology.

Even the so-called ergonomic keyboards leave me flat. I've tried to get used to Microsoft's Natural keyboard, but it always leaves me feeling like I've just visited the Marquis de Sade. And I just tried Acer's new $80 Future Keyboard with touch pad. I loved the color and the detached numeric keypad, but the rest of it made me hurt.

Let's face it. Keyboards are not sexy. They aren't going to get written up too often in PC Week or other journals. But they're one of the most important parts of your system. Bad keyboards can cause lots of health problems -- and they can dramatically reduce productivity, too.

Interestingly enough, the best keyboard I've used recently is from a company you've probably never heard of. It's Cherry (www.cherrycorp.com), which makes a full line of keyboards that offer a nice feel and good presence; some of them even double as USB hubs. They're no replacement for the Lexmark/IBM-style keyboards, but unless someone can come up with a case of those old keyboards for me, I'll be using a Cherry.