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A look at Unicomp's new flagship - The New Model M

After more than 20 years of producing keyboards using the same moulds that IBM and Lexmark once used, Unicomp has, for the first time, broke ground with a new design of their own. As the old moulds for the rest of their line-up continue to wear out, this keyboard will presumably become the face of what Unicomp produces and perhaps already is the first of a few new designs the company will make in the coming years. This article will take an in-depth look at the entire keyboard, stating the facts, my opinions, how it stacks up against the spiritually-preceding Ultra Classic, and see if we can derive what's in store for the future of Unicomp.

Contents

Artistic photo of the New M next to an Ultra Classic

Meeting the New M & the front

Starting with the box, we get a functionally spartan experience. The box itself is the same they use for their Unicomp Classic, your standard top-lidded box with four internal inserts cushion the wedge shape of the keyboard. In combination with the wrapping and bubble wrap, the box does its job - the keyboard doesn't shift around a whole lot if I shake the box, and given I bought this keyboard from Unicomp's UK reseller The Keyboard Company, it evidently held up during the (at least) two trips by two different courier services to get this from Kentucky to my home in Wales.

Photo of the New M's box
The coaster is of course the reseller's goodie. I will definitely be using it for tea though.

Once unpacked, I immediately found myself pleasantly surprised by how this thing looks. If you're used to seeing Unicomps produced from the last decade, then you may have an idea of the dimples and blemishes those old moulds are spitting out. Well, in one fell swoop, both issues have been eliminated on the front of the case. It's clean, slick and spotless.

Photo of the New M

When I mentioned ground-breaking in the introduction, I was referring to the fact they've taken the full-size aesthetic in a direction that IBM or Lexmark never did. The New M is essentially the Space Saving Keyboard's (SSK) form-factor but with the numeric keypad section readded. This contrasts the look of the Unicomp Classic and the EnduraPro/Ultra Classic, which were based on the moulds used for Lexmark's Enhanced Keyboard and Japan-only IBM 5576-C01 TrackPoint II Keyboard respectively. I find this keyboard to be rather handsome. It definitely respects IBM's classic styling but comes with Unicomp's own twist to make it unique.

Photo of the New M's starboard quarter

The texturing is quite different from the classic Model Ms. It's still present, but it's overall a smoother design that's easier to clean. However, it can be a bit of a fingerprint magnet.

Photo of the New M's lock-lights overlay

The lock-lights are the same style found on other Unicomp keyboards, which means you can indeed swap out the overlay for a more minimalistic one should you so desire.

Photo the New M's side

The side profile is designed to match that of the SSK, and by extension, the 50-key Model Ms. It's your typical Model M-style wedge shape. When put side-by-side with an M50 and an SSK, you can appreciate the how Unicomp has matched the profile of the older boards. If it was beige/white like the other two keyboards, it would blend right in.

Photo the New M's profile in comparison to an M50 and SSK

The keycaps & legends

Keycaps are usually cited as one of Unicomp's major weaknesses in modern times. Indeed, Unicomp's keycaps from approximately 2005 to 2019 have been subject to intense criticism. Particularly, in terms of legend alignment and material composition (especially in regards to the old sparkly blue-grey keycaps that tend to degrade with UV exposure into a greenish colour).

I am happy to report that since 2018, Unicomp seems to be progressively improving its keycaps and it shows with this product. My New M has the white and grey single-piece keycap set, and it's a nice looking set. The colours are very nice, the text is sharp, and the overall alignment has improved. It's still not perfect though. Of note is that the alignment of the return/enter key is a bit too far so. Print screen, pause and most of the navigation block are also not perfect but they don't bother me as much as the return/enter key (mainly since the return/enter key contrasts poorly with all the well-aligned keys surrounding it). Overall, I like the direction Unicomp is heading in but there's still some final stragglers in terms of alignment. But, the number of offenders is decreasing for sure.

Photo the New M's keycaps up close

Delving deeper into the keycap's architecture itself, we can see some of the changes Unicomp itself has introduced in their years at the helm. In the comparison shown below, I've got a 1983 Model F/XT pearl (as Unicomp calls the colour) keycap, a 1987 Model M SSK pearl keycap, a 2019 Unicomp pearl keycap taken from a Unicomp Classic, and a 2020 brand-new white keycap taken from the New M.

There are three observations we can make from this. Firstly, Unicomp has changed the two retaining clips at the end of the keycap stem, making it more round. Secondly, the length of the separation between the 'fork' at the end is now shorter. Thirdly, the spring retention nub has regained the opening the earlier F/XT and occasional IBM M keycaps had.

I tried mixing the three different generations of keycaps on the New M to make a side-by-side comparison to see if those changes made any difference. I found whilst there was one, it was quite subtle and hard to describe. At most, it feels like the newer keycaps cause the spring to buckle ever so slightly sooner.

Photo the New M's keycaps up close
Left-right: 1983 Model F/XT pearl, 1987 Model M pearl, 2019 Unicomp pearl, 2020 Unicomp white

Also of note. Firstly, the three changes I described above don't affect any two-piece keycaps that Unicomp continues to produce or stock. Secondly, there are still some exceptions even for Unicomp's single-piece keycaps since my New M's Windows keys still have the old-style stem. Thirdly, these changes are not a New Model M exclusive (Unicomp's been doing this for the last two years as far as I can tell), but if you're new to the world of Unicomp I thought this may still interest you.

The back & cable

Flipping the keyboard over to see what's on the back reveals perhaps the most glaring issue on the entire keyboard. The circular mark structures shown below seem to correspond with recesses on the inside of the plastic designed to accommodate the internal assembly's plastic rivets (shown in the next section).

Photo showing the dimples on the back of the New M

Obviously, this takes one by surprise considering the New M is supposed to be manufactured with new moulds. But that said, I don't really see this as a big deal. Unless you've mastered the art of typing with the keyboard hoisted underside down or you position your keyboards facing the back wall in your display cabinet, you're not going to see these artefacts at all. It's also not uncommon to see similar patterns on old Type I and II 122-key Model Ms from the 1980s (as shown on this 1988 P/N 1390572, source: eBay (volatile)). And, given the top casing is spotless and a big improvement over past Unicomp keyboards, I'm inclined to look the other way on this issue.

Moving on to specific features on the back, we first have the 'birth certificate' label. There's nothing to comment on as it's exactly the same as any other Unicomp rear label from the previous decade.

Photo showing my New M's 'birth certificate' label

The flip-out feet are once more the 'same as usual' stuff. Although, I did notice the pair on the New M were slightly stiffer than the ones on my 2019 Classic. In my view, that's a bonus especially when deployed. They do their job no better or worse than any other Model M feet, however, one comment I do have is that an appreciated upgrade would be to have some rubberised padding on the tips reminiscent of the type found on Model M4/M4-1 flip-out feet.

Photo showing the New M's flip-out feet

The cable itself is the same as other Unicomps and is fine as-is. However, and if possible, 'back-porting' the Type A cable modularity planned for the upcoming Mini M would be a very cool upgrade! ;)

Photo showing my New M's cable and USB plug

What's inside

As with traditional IBM and Lexmark and other Unicomp Model Ms, you can open up this keyboard by unscrewing the 5.5mm (7/32") nuts found on the back. Compared to the classic full-size Model Ms, the screw count has been reduced from 4 to 3 with no obvious reduction in case-part bonding strength. In fact, it seems they've increased the staying power of the clips holding the two parts of the case together since it's now much harder to separate them. On that note, trying to separate them may produce a sound reminiscent of snapping on the first couple of separations, but I found all clips to be intact with no signs of stress.

The assembly is attached to the back case using pegs like classic Model Ms, as opposed to being held down with adhesive, as is the case with the EnduraPro/Ultra Classic. There are two of these pegs and both are of the small variety found on SSKs.

Photo the New M's assembly-case retention peg

The New M uses the same controller board style other Unicomps presently use - the contact-based controller found on full-sized Model Ms since the late-Lexmark era P/N 42H1292. Unlike traditional Model M controllers where the membrane plugs into the controller via two or three triomate connectors, this style of controller is pressure-connected onto the membrane's contacts underneath it. It's fixed down with two screws to secure it.

Photo the New M's controller
Photo the New M's controller's rear side

I have no comments for the backplate and rivets. It's your standard late Model M affair in terms of thickness and finish. All of the rivets came intact, and the two blank holes around the left and right middle of the backplate are supposed to be so.

Photo the New M's backplate

The only concerning thing about the inside are these scratches found around some of the recesses for the rivets that I mentioned earlier. They don't affect the functionality or integrity of the plastic in any way nor can you see this in day-to-day use, but this may take someone by surprise considering these are supposed to be new moulds. I can't tell why they are there either.

Photo the New M's inside artefacts

Other observations & measurements

Thin bezels

The New M's bezels are quite thin. They're not Ultra Classic/EnduraPro level of thin, but they are thinner than the Enhanced Keyboard/Classic's and the SSK's bezels. They closely match the bezels of the Type III or Type IV 122-key "battlecruiser" Model Ms (as shown in the photo below, on the left). I assume this size was selected as a compromise between the well-defined bezels of previous IBM keyboards and the ultra-thin bezels of the Ultra Classic/EnduraPro.

Photo comparing the bezels of a Type III 122-key Model M and the New M

Judging by the available photos of it, the Mini M will also have this bezel size too. My guess is that Unicomp is trying to bring the aesthetic of its products closer together, as soon the PC-122, Mini M and the New M will feature the same bezels.

Grooves

Another change that is also apparent in the photo above is the increase in the size of the grooves surrounding the entire keyboard deck. I'm unsure why they did this, but it does make cleaning the grooves much easier as I can now easily get a part of a microfibre cloth in them.

LED colour

Like all Unicomp's manufactured since the start of 2020, the lock-light LEDs are blue instead of green now. I don't mind the change personally (and I assume they did so to match their brand colours), but the option to have green LEDs instead would be appreciated. Perhaps if they ever produce a pearl version of the keyboard, have those feature green LEDs?

Case material

In case you're interested, the keyboard's case is made with a polycarbonate/ABS blend. This is the same as the Ultra Classic, but different from most vintage Model Ms that had PVC cases (with ABS occasionally being used on some specific part numbers).

Photo of the case composition stamp inside the New M

Measurements table

Accuracy: +/- 0.2mm.

Metric
Imperial
Box
56.6cm (l) x 26.6cm (d) x 9cm (h)
22.3in x 10.5in x 3.54in
Case
47.6cm x 18.8cm x 5cm
18.7in x 7.4in x 2in
Top bezel
2.12cm
0.84in
Side bezels
1.22cm
0.48in
Cable
1.8m
6ft
Flip-out feet length
2.9cm
1.14in
Feet's raise height
1.1cm
0.43in
Internal assembly
45cm x 17.5cm x 0.088cm
17.7in x 6.9in x 0.035in
Controller board
7cm x 3.6cm x 0.14cm
2.8in x 1.4in x 0.055in
Controller board mounting hole diametre
4.3mm
0.17in
Controller board contact pad width
1.6mm
0.063in

Typing on the New M & its sound

So with all that above said and done, now it's time to see how it types. This is perhaps the most anticlimactic part of the review - it just types well, to be honest. I never personally believed Unicomp's typing feel was problematic to begin with (I've already outlined the more pressing issues with Unicomp keyboards of the past above), but they still managed to somewhat improve the switches' smoothness. Measuring or saying for definite what's different is very tricky, so my guess is that they've retooled the barrel plate's mould as well. Or, I'm just experiencing the lucky side of manufacturing tolerances. Either way, I was pleasantly surprised to notice a difference although I would still it's not a huge deal.

The typing sound is definitely a more subjective thing, so please have a listen for yourself before you read what I have to say about it:

New M typing demo

The sound is definitely a more tangible difference compared to the Model Ms of old. It even sounds different compared to the three 2019 Unicomp keyboards I own. I still prefer the sound of back-in-the-day IBMium (have a listen to this 1995 terminal Model M for comparison), but I don't dislike the Unicomp's sound either. It's unique, sharper and seems to have less ping, so I can easily imagine someone preferring the New M's sound. On another note; before this review went public, I shared the above typing demo to the r/ModelM and deskthority Discords to see what people think - there was a rather warm reception, with people noticing the New M has its "own sound at this point" that makes it a bit more unique and characterful.

Versus the Ultra Classic

Naturally, it's only fitting to contrast the New M with its spiritual predecessor - the Ultra Classic. I say the Ultra Classic is so since they're both reduced bezel alternatives to the Unicomp Classic. And given Unicomp is continuing to sell these side by side, this may also help make up your mind if you're interested in either keyboard.

So, starting with the case and styling, the Ultra Classic shares a heritage with the Unicomp EnduraPro as being based on the design of the IBM 5576-C01 Japanese TrackPoint II Keyboard. That keyboard was designed specifically for a line of Japanese IBM PCs and thus shares minimal design cues with typical Model Ms. Specifically, the ridge on top and lack of debossed line around all the outer keycaps almost make the keyboard unrecognisable as a Model M. The New M, however, simply looks like an SSK with the numpad section reattached as mentioned prior. Thus, it looks like how you would expect a Model M to look (besides the colour, of course). However, just keep in mind the New M has thicker bezels than the Ultra Classic.

Photo of my Unicomp Ultra Classic

The Ultra Classic also has a few problems with the case as a whole, both as a result of its inherent design and consequences of its old moulds. The three most notable:

  1. The most glaring issue is the plastic below the spacebar. As aforementioned, the design originally belonged to the 5576-C01 keyboard that like the EnduraPro had two mouse buttons in this region. Presumably, to allow them to reuse the same moulds for both the EnduraPro and Ultra Classic, they simply put a blanking plate where the two buttons go instead of solidifying the bottom bezel. Unfortunately, this solution is not without fault since it's quite rough as you can see from the photo above.
  2. The case has some blemishes in the form of noticeable small circles or streaks of discolouration. You might be able to see a couple in the photo, but it's more obvious in person. Some very light use of a magic eraser can actually hide a few, but you will risk damaging the already minimal texture by attempting such a 'fix'.
  3. Perhaps more subjectively, I've heard a lot of people take issue with how the keys near the top of the keyboard (specifically just above the alphanumeric and numpad blocks) are sunken into the case, but the absolute top keys (Esc, F-keys, etc.) and the absolute bottom keys are in raised above the case. I personally don't mind it, but I'll let you decide whether you do or don't for yourself.

By contrast, the New M almost seems like it's from a whole different world. Firstly, it simply looks like an SSK with a numpad section reattached, so it fits rather nicely in the lineage we've come to expect from Model Ms. Secondly, as shown and commented earlier in this article, the New M is virtually spotless from the top - no blemishes whatsoever! Besides for in the event you prefer the Ultra Classic's styling, the only reason benefit of choosing the Ultra Classic over the New M is for getting the most amount of space-saving from the bezels.

Photo of the insides and profiles of the Ultra Classic and New M
Opened-up Ultra Classic (left) and New M (right)

Mechanically speaking, the two keyboards are essentially the same. They use the exact same buckling springs and flippers between them, giving a comparable typing feel. As I alluded to before though, the New M seems to still feel a tad smoother though but I concluded it's not by a big margin and could be due to manufacturing lottery. I believe Unicomp's intention with the New M was to get their case quality in order rather than revolutionise buckling springs anyway.

That said, under the hood, there are both similarities and differences between the two keyboards. As said in earlier sections, Ultra Classics have an adhesive behind the assembly rather than the peg retainers that the New M and most classic buckling springs Model Ms had. To accommodate the pegs, the New M's backplate is overall slightly larger than the Ultra Classic's. However, the controller boards are exactly the same.

Photo of the controllers of the Ultra Classic and New M
Opened-up Ultra Classic (left) and New M (right)

Brief QnA

In the weeks leading up to this review, I offered the community at r/ModelM the opportunity to get in some questions regarding things they want to know about. Whilst I took the time to answer most on the subreddit already, I thought I should include a few since you may be curious yourself. A lot of the questions were regarding quality, so consider them all folded into the first question.

Question
Answer
"I think most people will want to know how it compares to the original IBM Model M in terms of build quality, feel and sound. New users might want to know if they should invest in a New M or an original IBM."
It's not quite classic era level in terms of all three, but it's a marked improvement over present Unicomps. The new case closes the gap significantly in terms of the fit and finish (on the top, at least). The feel is roughly the same as existing Unicomps or Lexmark era devices, but as mentioned before I perceived a slight increase in smoothness on my example.
"Can the new model M assembly be put in an ultra classic or classic case?"
The assembly could possibly be mounted in an Ultra Classic. Despite the difference in how it mounts, they are similar in dimension but I have yet to attempt an actual swap. I can confirm the New M assembly won't natively mount in a Classic/Enhanced case though since the size and spacing of the mounting pegs are different.
"I want to know if anything changed in the internal design. It is the same gen4 control board with integrated cable as usual?"
Other than how the assembly mounts, nothing inside has changed. Indeed, it uses the exact same contact-based controller as my 2019 Ultra Classic and same 1.8-metre/6-foot integrated cable.
"I hear the LEDs on the new model m are pretty bright, almost to the point of distraction. Is this true?"
They don't distract me, but I did notice they were brighter than the old green LEDs of yesteryear. Especially if the room is dully-lit or not lit at all.
"Any insights that can be made of the [new] SSK from this board?"
Only that the quality and keycap alignment development is heading in the right direction overall, so the fit and finish of the upcoming Mini M should be good. The New M is not a revolutionary change under the bonnet though (it uses the same membrane as the EnduraPro/Ultra Classic), so there's nothing else I can derive.

Conclusion

I think the New M can be summarised simply as a big step up for Unicomp. With the exception of the artefacts inside the case and perhaps on the back, the overall quality of the keyboard is much improved compared to all of their existing offerings. If you want a Model M that just works, is brand new and comes with a warranty, look no further. Indeed, this keyboard is a lovely piece of hardware, feels and sounds good, and looks rather slick.

Perhaps some people were expecting a more revolutionary change. This is not so (you'll have to wait for the upcoming Mini M for that, more about that below), but what we're getting is a taste of the direction Unicomp's heading in. And, from what I've seen, it's definitely a positive one. There's also a sort of importance for Unicomp's revamping of its products' quality too. It's no secret that old Model M prices are generally on the increase, and last year saw that some of the biggest inflations I've ever seen. So, it's not unrealistic to assume Unicomp's pricing will soon become the generally most attractive option (especially with the aforementioned warranty). And when the time comes, it seems Unicomp will have a good quality product to meet most expectations.

For those hoping for more change, your desires may be satisfied in the not so distant future. The Mini M (the tenkeyless SSK successor) will be a more radical development - as Unicomp has already stated publicly, the Mini M will feature a self-locking Type A USB port for detachable cables, an upgraded membrane capable of higher key rollover, and on another note presumably more extensive new moulds. There is no secret that production challenges and staff shortage due to COVID is currently plaguing its development (Unicomp has been pretty transparent about it on their Facebook page). But in any case, if the New M is any indication of the path we're heading in, I'm quite excited for the Mini M!

Verdict: it's a lovely piece of hardware, a perfect beginner keyboard for those wishing to get into the enthusiast/IBM keyboard hobby or someone wanting a no-frills experience, and a statement that Unicomp's heading in a good direction for quality. There's some outstanding issues that I hope Unicomp will continue to improve, but as a whole, it doesn't effect the end-user experience much and they're still closing the quality gap between new and old Model Ms.

Anyway, before you go, I want to thank you for reading this review! This is the first of hopefully many I will be doing on my website. And of course, I want to apologise for the repeated delays since this was supposed to be out in late January. TLDR; work had to come first. But please, feel free to let me know what you think about this review through the usual contact channels of Reddit, r/ModelM and our Discord, deskthority, or by email on the About Shark's page. And finally, thanks to u/PM_ME_YOUR_MAUSE for helping me with proofreading.

Cheers!