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Unicomp Customizer keyboard review

I got my Unicomp Customizer 105 in the mail today. This is a keyboard using the same technology as the infamous IBM keyboards of yore.


The Customizer is an enormous blocky hunk of hard black and grey matte plastic. It is the very antithesis of modern, soft, rounded, Apple-esque fashion. It has no "multimedia" keys, it doesn't glow in the dark, it doesn't have a built-in USB hub, it looks distinctly 80's-ish, and it costs $70. Why on earth would anyone want this thing?


A couple of reasons... one is that it's a status symbol of grizzled old hackers. This keyboard has gotten a lot of good reviews, e.g. last year on Slashdot, but I've heard the sentiment repeated elsewhere. There are stories of people rescuing old IBM keyboards out of dumpsters and selling them on ebay.

If it was simply a status symbol I would look away without a second glance. (Which is why I own a Cowon D2 and not an iPod. I like to research my purchases to the point of paranoia.)

But the popularity seems to be backed up by real functionality and build quality. These keyboards have a reputation for being great to type on due to the unique feel of their buckling spring "clicky" keys, and for being indestructible, with some keyboards still in use after two decades. So I decided why not see for myself?

A keyboard is the main tool of my livelihood and one of the main tools of most of my hobbies. It makes sense to try to get the best tool for the job. The three most important parts of a computer in my opinion are the keyboard, mouse, and monitor. CPU? RAM? Hard disk space? I'll take whatever you give me. But the things I interact with on a constant basis, I want those things to be comfortable.

Clicka clicka clicka

Yeah, this thing is clicky. Even after all the reviews, I was unprepared for just how clicky it is. You can feel the click of each keypress in your fingers and hear the clicking from 3 miles away.

I tried pushing a key down slowly to make it click without activating a keypress, and I found it very difficult if not impossible. You can always tell when you've successfully pressed a key on this keyboard: if it clicked, you did; if it didn't click, you didn't.

One bad thing about the clicking is annoying everyone in the room with you. I'm a bit worried I'm slowly going to drive my wife insane.

Finger workout

The keys have a lot of weight to them compared to the mushy feel of modern keyboards (which usually use some rubber or plastic dome under the keys). The Customizer's keys have little springs in them, and you can feel the keys pushing back on your fingers as you type. It feels much different than any other keyboard I've used.

Is it a good or bad feel? I'm undecided. It does feel pretty good, there's a lot of response to the keyboard and you can more easily tell when you miss a key or flub a keypress and hit two keys at once. I think this probably aids accuracy. I don't type more accurately but I more easily notice my mistakes.

I'm afraid the weight might lead to fatigue though; the keys are harder to press than other keyboards and my hands feel like they're getting a workout in comparison. However I've had a few long nights of typing on this keyboard and haven't noticed any more fatigue than usual, so the worry may be unfounded. On the other hand, I do often notice how annoying it is to type on a laptop which has no resistance and no distance to the keys at all. The resistance in this keyboard is a nice change of pace.

Built well?

I think "indestructible" is probably an apt word. I've only had mine for a couple days, but just hefting the thing, you can tell it's built like a tank. Very thick hard plastic all around. It weighs a ton. If I had to choose a keyboard to use as a weapon in a pinch, I'd grab this one immediately.

The keys come off easily; every key is just a cap over a smaller plastic key beneath, and that cap is a simple piece atop a tube with a spring in it. There isn't a lot of room for mechanical failure here unless you lose the springs. Everything comes off and goes back on very easily, which is nice for when I need to clean out the gunk in a year.

I have heard that if you spill a cup of milk into one of these keyboards, you may find it hard to drain. So don't do that.

Lack of features is a feature

Multimedia keys suck. I've never used them. They waste space and the only time I remember they exist is when I push them accidentally.

The Customizer is very "traditional". There are no multimedia keys, no volume controls, no programmable (i.e. useless) macro keys, no email or internet shortcuts. Just the standard 105 keys. This is a plus in my book.

Caps Lock is slightly shortened with a gap between itself and the A key, which is nice to avoid hitting it accidentally. The version of the keyboard I got has a modern Super ("windows") modifier key, but you can get a version without even that, if you like. Otherwise there are no frills.

Speed typing

I took a couple of silly online typing tests, and I got between 75 and 95 WPM with 98% accuracy, which is as good as I've ever gotten. My six-fingered typing style is a bit odd but this keyboard suits me well.

WPM is a terrible measure of programming speed, because programming has a much higher punctuation-to-letter ratio than English prose. So I also tried an Emacs session and a bunch of Vimming, and I experienced no problems. I forgot I was using this keyboard almost immediately, which is a good thing. It means it wasn't annoying me.

Very important to me, as a Vimmer, is the position and size of the Escape key. I have one other keyboard that has Escape offset to the right a half inch, which is horrendous and messes up my Vimming all the time. My other other keyboard has a tiny little Escape key, half as big as a normal key, which is equally bad.

On the Customizer, Escape is positioned off by itself in the corner as it should be, with a ton of space between itself and the number row, and the Escape key itself is freaking enormous. This is a huge plus in my book. You can't miss Escape on this keyboard.

Similarly, all the other keys are the right sizes and in the right places.


So how is the Unicomp Customizer?

It's solid, standard, unique, and has a nice retro, minimalist style that I personally enjoy.

It's also huge, loud, and expensive. Is it worth buying? If you have the money to spend, I think it is. I don't regret the buy after a few days. When I come home from work and start typing on this guy, I'm always pleasantly surprised.

April 16, 2009 @ 12:52 PM PDT
Cateogory: Hardware


Quoth Nicole on April 16, 2009 @ 2:52 PM PDT

I'm a bit worried I'm slowly going to drive my wife insane.

It's okay, I'll just turn up my Radiohead real loud.

Quoth bug on April 16, 2009 @ 4:58 PM PDT

I really like the 104 keyboards as well. Except I like the ones that cost about ~$5. If you ask me, they are durable enough, as the last one I had survived for about 2 years without any problems. I'm still not sure what made it stop working in such odd fashion as it did. Causing it to make half weird responses.

I had real hard time finding my current keyboard. I had to pass through like 4 or 5 stores just to find it. A good PS/2 keyboard with no mess. Though I ended up getting one with Esc button row half the size. I just figured I wouldn't be able to find anything better. Also, this keyboard is 107 keys. With 3 bad pre-programmed buttons [Come on, does anyone really use Wakeup, Sleep & Poweroff buttons?]. But they are getting clicked into the keyboard itself, so if you look from afar, it's just icons on the keyboard with no buttons. I did find a use for them though. It's good when you want to voice chat. After all, we use ALL 104 keys over the keyboard, don't we?

One more thing, I don't like the backspace in your keyboard. I like the Enter key in your keyboard. I like having this bulky monster. Now while my current new keyboard has a trimmed backspace, with | next to it. I still prefer what I had in my old keyboard. Resulting in a bit shorter shift and having | next to it. But I got used to this fairly quickly, as both are pretty common. Unlike one weird keyboard I saw that had it next to the left shift. Go figure.

P.S. [105 keys is mentioned instead of 104]

Quoth Ivar on April 17, 2009 @ 12:52 AM PDT

Tip: I guess you can rebind the ESC key to Caps Lock using xmodmap. If that helps on other keyboards. You can do that on-keyboard on the kinesis keyboard.

Quoth Brian on April 17, 2009 @ 3:24 AM PDT

@Ivar: Yeah I've heard that tip lots, doesn't work too well for me. I usually map Caps Lock to Shift.

Noah Spurrier
Quoth Noah Spurrier on April 19, 2009 @ 12:22 AM PDT

I own one of these from an original IBM PC. It feels great, but it it absurdly loud. People actually laugh when they hear it.

The "Happy Hacking" keyboards give a similar feel but are much quieter; although, even these are louder than a coworker may put up with.

One modern improvement I want on these keyboards is an ergonomic arc. I don't mean the big, weird vertical hump that splits the keyboard such as the Microsoft Natural keyboards. I don't have too many wrist complaints, but I do find that a slight arc to the keys makes it a lot easier to type for long periods of time. It's too bad that the Unicomp and Happy Hacking keyboads don't offer an ergonomic option. I guess they figure their target audience is a crusty, old-school nerd who doesn't believe in fancy ideas like ergonomics and ease of use. Computers are meant to be hard and pointy and hurt you if you use them wrong -- possibly kill you or, preferably, the end-user.

I always remap the CapsLock key to Ctrl and remap the left Ctrl to an additional Esc key. This Is perfect for Vim. The Unicomp "Linux" models feature this layout by default.

Some of the Unicomp models feature a TrackPoint mouse. Once you get accustomed to the pointing stick it is hard to live without it.

Quoth fireant on July 29, 2009 @ 8:03 AM PDT

Logitech Cordless Comfort duo black is the best keyboard I have ever had. Hard to find them now. and very comfortable for touchtyping. Also you should try ctrl-[ instead of esc. Its quicker :)

Quoth Lele on September 13, 2009 @ 7:12 AM PDT

By all means swap Caps Lock and Esc if you are a serious Vimmer. If you do need Caps Lock nearer, you could put it in place of the tilde key, since the latter seems to be much less used.

Quoth Jake on December 24, 2009 @ 4:50 AM PST

Is it worth buying? If you have the money to spend, I think it is. I don't regret the buy after a few days.

I agree, especially since the Customizer and Space Saver are actually less expensive than many of the other high-quality keyboards out there, like the Das or Matias Tactile Pro.

Still, I've switched to the Kinesis Advantage, which is still more expensive and has a steeper learning curve but is such an improvement that it's hard to imagine myself going back to a standard keyboard on a regular basis.

Calum Tait
Quoth Calum Tait on December 29, 2009 @ 2:21 AM PST

The Unicomp keyboards are excellent. I bought one for work last year and have just taken delivery of one for home. The feel you get is amazing compared to the majority of 'dead' keyboards you see these days - almost like my old typewriter. They are a bit on the costly side (more so if, like me, you need to pay international shipping) but are to my mind worth every penny. I would recommend a Customizer to anyone who uses a keyboard a lot.

Dusty Sutton
Quoth Dusty Sutton on March 15, 2010 @ 1:51 PM PDT

After using an IBM keyboard in the 80's, and reading all the positive reviews of the Unicomp Customizer 104, I ordered one. It will be here in a few days, and I am anxious to hook it up and throw away my 12 dollar GE keyboard which is failing on me.

Greg R
Quoth Greg R on June 10, 2010 @ 2:38 PM PDT

Has anyone done the xmodmap to enable two function keys, e.g., Scroll Lock and Pause, to do Volume-Down and Volume-Up?