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Diatec Filco Majestouch Keyboard
Join the community - in the OCAU Forums!
Date 4th August 2010
Author Manaz
Editor James "Agg" Rolfe
Manufacturer Diatec
Vendor AusPC Market

Introduction, A Keyboard Primer

Given that it's probably the aspect of a computer we interface with the most, it's a little surprising that for a lot of us, the keyboard is a component we spend the least amount of time, effort or money selecting. That's quite a claim, you're probably thinking, but given the sheer variation in the quality of keyboards I've had delivered with systems over the years, I think it's a fair one, particularly given the huge number of people who seem happy to put up with whatever the computer manufacturer throws in the box. It can definitely be worth paying a little extra for something a bit nicer.

Click to Enlarge

Personally, I've always had a love/hate affair with keyboards. Keyboards with short key travel and little tactile feedback annoy me, keyboards which flex annoy me, keyboards with insufficient or poor quality adjustability of the angle they sit under your hands annoy me (I've broken the legs on several keyboards without being terribly rough). My two favourite keyboards are an old IBM Model M (from an IBM PS/2 PC built sometime in the early 1980s) and my daily use keyboard is a Digital Equipment Corporation keyboard from a PC built in the late 1990s. Most other keyboards, from $5 cheapies that tend to end up in the bin before a day has passed, to fancy ergonomic ones (one of which had its cord removed and is my 2 year old son's "play" keyboard) have generally fallen by the wayside.

But sadly, even my two favourite keyboards have "issues". The IBM Model M has brilliant tactile and audible feedback, but lacks Windows keys. This didn't bother me when I first got it, but as the Windows keys have become more and more useful and part of day-to-day computing over time, it's becoming a real issue. The DEC keyboard does not provide the feedback as well as the Model M - to be fair it's pretty decent, with good key travel and a fairly positive and reliable action, but it is still a distant second to the Model M in this regard.

So, what makes a good keyboard? To explain that, a quick lesson on keyboard design/manufacture follows.

A Keyboard Primer:
Dome-switch keyboards (sometimes erroneously called "membrane keyboards") are the most commonly found. When a key is pushed, a rubber (or more often a non-conductive synthetic replacement) dome beneath the key is forced to collapse, pushing an electrically conductive contact on the inside of the dome into contact with a pair of contacts on the circuit board below. This process closed an electrical circuit which is monitored by the electronics in the keyboard, which then in turn send a signal to the PC via a PS/2 or USB connector, indicating which key has been pressed. Generally, the rubber domes beneath the keys are formed from a single sheet of rubber/synthetic material (hence the misnomer of “membrane keyboard”) which reduces the complexity and cost of manufacture substantially, but can lead to a few issues. Firstly, because the membrane is made from a flexible material, if it's not very carefully designed and formed (quality control adds to overall expense, and when you’re selling a keyboard for as little as $5, there’s not much margin to play with) it can be imprecise in its action. Along with poor feedback inherent in cheaply produced membranes (as a result of the way they "collapse" in an imprecise manner to make contact with the circuit board below), this can make it difficult to feel exactly when a key is pressed well enough to send a signal to the computer, leading in extreme examples to either missed letters or repeated letters when typing. Another issue that dome-switch keyboards can suffer from is short travel (although some people don't actually mind this), where there's very little up and down movement as the keys are pressed. This is often the case on laptop/notebook computers (where space is at a premium), and a few millimetres of reduced key travel can be the difference between a thick and thin device, but cheap "regular" keyboards can often suffer from this as well as a result of poor design or cost cutting.

The IBM Model M keyboard (and its Model F precursor) use a key switch design known as "buckling spring", which was patented by IBM in the early 1980s. Rather than using a rubber dome (or membrane made up of rubber domes), buckling spring key switches feature a spring under each key, which buckles (hence the name) or kinks in a particular pre-determined spot as pressure is applied to the key above it. This provides positive tactile and audible feedback at exactly the moment that the buckling spring mechanism makes contact with the circuit below, meaning that it is very obvious as to exactly when the key press will be registered by the computer.

Keyboardophiles, if they can be called that (and if they haven't been in the past, I've made up a new word!), generally consider buckling spring keyboards to be the ultimate design, and have been known to pay quite large amounts for old buckling spring keyboards in good condition. IBM/Lexmark sold the Model M design to Unicomp in 1996, and keyboards with this design are available to this day, though they are generally hard to find and tend to be expensive.

A third type of keyboard utilises individual mechanical switches under each key. Cherry Corporation in Germany are the best known manufacture of key switches (and full keyboards) of this kind, and their key switches are used by a number of third party manufacturers to make their own keyboards. Because each key has a mechanical switch inside it, keyboards of this type tend to be quite expensive through sheer weight of component cost, but they are often favoured by people who spend a lot of time typing because of their reliability, reparability (if a key fails, you just replace the switch under that key) and good positive action and feedback.

One of the manufacturers who use Cherry key switches is Diatec, a company in Japan that designs and manufactures the Filco Majestouch range of keyboards. Several versions of the Majestouch keyboard are available with two major ways that they vary from each other. The first differentiation involves the particular model of key switch from Cherry which is used, being:
  • Brown key switches, which provide tactile feedback.
  • Blue key switches, which provide tactile and audible feedback.
  • Black key switches, which have a more linear travel and less tactile feedback.
The second differentiation involves the number of keys on the keyboard. Two major types are offered:
  • 104 key "standard" keyboards, with Windows keys and numeric keypad
  • 87 key "compact" keyboards with Windows keys but no numeric keypad.
Finally, the last differentiation involves the presence (or otherwise) of "N-Key rollover", with Majestouch keyboards either having this feature or not having it. What's N-Key rollover, you say? Glad you asked.


All original content copyright James Rolfe.
All rights reserved. No reproduction allowed without written permission.
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