Mechanical keyboards have become popular in the decade since Cherry’s 1980s-era switch patents expired, leading to many hardware options. The prototypical mechanical keyboard, the IBM Model F predates those switches, and now you can experience that typing experience in modern form factors. The New Model F project has started shipping updated form factors, and you can order one now.
The original IBM Model F debuted in 1981. It would be three more years before Cherry patented the switch design, eventually giving rise to most of today’s fancy mechanical keyboards. The thing that set the Model F apart, and the reason enthusiasts still covet these boards after 40 years, is the buckling spring switch. Under each keycap is a metal enclosure with a spring. As you press the key, the spring causes a metal hammer to pivot and trigger a metal contact. This gives you an extremely tactile (and loud) typing experience. The more well-known IBM Model M uses a similar buckling spring mechanism but with a plastic membrane contact.
Hunting down 40-year-old keyboards in good shape is not easy, though. And even if you do, they use the obsolete XT connector, which requires pricey adapters for modern computers. The New Model F project offers an alternative with a USB-C port. After initially shipping units in traditional form factors, the New Model F is now available in numerous shapes and sizes. If you just want a normal keyboard with the full 104 ANSI layout, those are still offered. However, you can get variations on that design, like the FSSK Compact (below) or F104 Compact. It’s also available in exotic split designs, including the popular Ergodox-style and a split ortho (vertically aligned instead of staggered rows).
Credit: Model F Labs
Like the Model F keyboards of 40 years ago, these keyboards have springs and metal hammers inside that register presses. However, they’re all newly manufactured, so there’s no need to clean and restore a keyboard that predates the internet. You’ll have to drop a significant amount of money to get a new Model F, though. The smallest models are priced at $355, and larger ones are $450—a lot, but the original Model F cost $350 in the early 80s. With inflation, that’s over $800. By that measure, the New Model F is a scorching deal.
When the project started, the boards were being made in small batches that required purchasers to wait and wait. Now, you can order most models from the last production run on the spot. Model F Labs claims the New Model F will last decades like the originals. You can think of it like an investment—a very loud investment.