The Ultimate's sleek black look, blank keys, and "clicky" sound make a loud statement that's addictive—but might not endear you to your colleagues
Computer keyboards started showing up in offices around the world in the early 1980s as the IBM (IBM) 5150, or "PC," elbowed in the modern computer age. Thirty years of innovations in design and technology have transformed these "business machines" into household objects—contrast the original PC's cabinet-sized beige plastic case and screen with the iMac's lithe and wispish panels of anodized aluminum and glass. However, since we still use keyboards pretty much the same way that people did in the '80s, there hasn't been as much scope for innovation. And since most computer manufacturers throw in a keyboard as standard, you might think there wasn't much of a case to be made for custom keys. But you'd be wrong.
Manufacturers typically settle on one side of the classic form or function dilemma. Apple's (AAPL) "ultra-thin" wireless keyboard pwns the minimalist end of the scale with a design that looks like an unnecessarily expensive kitchen appliance. On the other hand, the Key Ovation Goldtouch features a scissoring split keyboard that your Certified Professional Ergonomist can adjust to your "individual body requirements." But there's a third option. If you really want to pimp your 'puter, consider the Das Keyboard Ultimate ($129).
The Ultimate shares the same form factor and vaguely Bauhaus styling of its sister product, the Professional; a stealth black plastic rectangular case with an obliquely protruding lip on the right hand side at the back to throw off the symmetry. The keys are likewise matte black and follow the basic layout of the classic IBM Model M, with function keys along the top and a numeric pad on the right. However, the distinguishing characteristic of the Ultimate is that the keys' upper surfaces are completely blank. Your index fingers are guided onto the home position by the familiar ridges on the "F" and "J" keys. Except there's no "F" or "J," and from there you're on your own.
Das Keyboard touts this innovation as the way to "take your typing skills to the next level." But this keyboard is much more about making a statement. This keyboard announces to your colleagues that not only can you drive, but you can drive blindfolded.
By far the most satisfying thing about the keyboard is the noise that it makes. Das Keyboard describes the key mechanism as "slightly clicky," which misses the point. It's loud. The keys offer real resistance, too. Again, in common with the Model M, the keyboard uses a buckling spring mechanism that incorporates individual mechanical switches rather than a single rubber membrane. The result: typing feels like crushing tiny glass crystals with miniature hammers. It's addictive—like popping bubble wrap. And it makes the sort of noise that keyboard designers have for years fought to conceal.
To test-drive the Ultimate, I took it to my office. I plugged the keyboard into my MacPro workstation via USB and started using it without any problems. I caught myself looking down a couple of times to get started, but quickly got comfortable. The keyboard doesn't come with any printed documentation, so I had to scour the Web site to figure out which of the seven modifier keys on either side of the spacebar correspond to the various command, control, option, and alt functions. On the Mac this was slightly unintuitive since the command and alt keys were inverted from the usual layout, and I would have liked for a way to reassign them. The Caps Lock key illuminates a cool blue indicator that is otherwise invisible; I cautiously clicked around for the Num Lock key to arm the corresponding light, but on the Mac, at least, this wasn't obvious. I had the same issue locating the Scroll Lock key, although Scroll Lock, like ashtrays in airplanes, is an anachronism that most people can quite comfortably live without.
I share a small office with three other engineers. They were initially curious, and we had the obligatory Office moment with everyone taking turns to express their individual wryness about the keyboard; this is an important cultural ritual and part of the acceptance process of any new technology. Once back to work, however, there was a secondary reaction to the noise the thing makes, followed quickly by the donning of headphones. So in my case the Ultimate isn't going to make me more popular with my colleagues.
In conclusion, the Ultimate is pleasing to use, is well-made, and has a clean and bold appearance. For me, it isn't as comfortable as the ergonomically designed Goldtouch, but using adjustable keyboards is an acquired taste. And after a couple of hours of use I did find myself looking down considerably less often than usual.
If budget isn't a factor, there are certainly more exotic ways to differentiate your workspace (including the Optimus Maximus, which at $1800 costs more than many high-end workstations), but I can see the Ultimate fitting in perfectly in the many dark, windowless bunkers where the secret business of the Internet actually takes place.