Reviews: Unicomp Customizer 101

I was four years old when I first used a computer. For whatever reason, my grandma and grandpa had an IBM system, even though they didn't know how to use it. I'd often visit them and play Treasure Mathstorm for hours, at a blazing 4.77 MHz. It was a major event when they finally got a mouse for it—I was accustomed to using the keyboard for everything. It was a Model M, and though I didn't know it at the time, it was the best keyboard I would ever use. I had plenty of computers after that one, but their keyboards always felt like I was poking at a marshmallow. The Model M's defining click makes it feel like you're getting something done. In 2003, my grandparents sent that first computer to a children's home, with its keyboard still very springy and completely functional.

Few hardware devices are so sturdy nowadays, and keyboards are rarely given a second thought. I certainly didn't think about my last three keyboards, all of which had the tactile response of a sponge. Two of them had a blocky return key shaped like a backwards L, forcing the backslash key into two different, incorrect places. One of them cut off the right shift key to make room for it, the other had a backspace key the size of a regular key. Another two had extra buttons along the top, which rarely performed their intended functions. When they did work, they'd shut down the computer because a rat stepped on the button. This is an atrocity. Considering we're in direct contact with the keyboard more than any other device, why don't we critically evaluate our options?

I did, and concluded the best choice would be a Model M. It has everything I need, and nothing I don't. There are no extraneous buttons or Windows/menu keys, which I never use and only provide another opportunity for typos. Unfortunately, no Model Ms have been manufactured since 1996, and orphans are currently using mine to learn math. Very few originals, new or used, are sold online, and are typically expensive and in questionable condition. Nowadays, hardly any keyboards incorporate the buckling spring system that gives the Model M its characteristic click, having mostly switched to inexpensive rubber dome technology. However, one company does produce clones of the Model M: Unicomp.

After IBM stopped manufacturing the Model M, Unicomp bought a license to the design and began selling rebranded versions. Their reproduction of the Model M, which they've named the Customizer 101, is available for $59. I ordered one, and it arrived in three days with no issues. For all practical purposes, it is the Model M. It's the same size and shape, with keys that feel identical. The keys have easily removable caps; I assume that's why it's called the Customizer. Just like the Model M, they're all identical, but appear differently angled because they rest atop a curved metal plate. It's surprisingly heavy, and in the event of urban warfare, it could probably serve as body armor. The font used on the keys looks a bit bolder than it was on the original Model M. The legs, which I use, seem flimsy and loose and don't lock into place, but they manage to keep the keyboard upright. The lower half of the enter key on the numpad is abnormally stiff, but this isn't particularly noticeable during normal use. If you're used to rubber dome keyboards, the 101 is very loud, especially when typing quickly. It'll probably irritate anyone else in the vicinity, but it feels just plain awesome. This is a keyboard that will make you want to type forever.

Unicomp also makes keyboards with Windows/menu keys that are just like the Model M, if that's something you find necessary. On top of that, they have a bunch of obscure items that most people probably don't need. Note that others have taken issue with the quality of Unicomp's products. My 101 was built on 11 April of this year, and seems to have no defects, aside from some tiny plastic dots on the back face of each key, which don't get in the way of anything and aren't visible unless you look for them.

Unicomp Customizer 101 from the side

(Size comparison)

Rating: 4.5/5

Bonus: the previous keyboard, a Fellowes KWD-855, which I cleaned before putting it in storage. You can see why. From above. Disassembled. Close-up.

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