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.
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.
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.
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 17, 2009 :: Pennsylvania, USA