- Updated 09 January 2023
- Est. Reading Time: ~10-14 minutes
The seemingly age-old question in the hobby where not many can agree to a consensus - is buying an old or new keyboard the best course of action? Especially in beginner terms. Indeed, it's not a decision to be taken lightly since it may have real effects on your experience when you receive the keyboard and for many years to come. This part of the ASK Buyer's Guide will attempt to outline the benefits and drawbacks of either choice, hopefully allowing you to decide for yourself. At the end, a small discussion is also given for the same debate in a Model F context. Some people will have different views on what's exactly a benefit or drawback, so don't be surprised if you see contrary points elsewhere.
This comparison is specifically for buckling spring keyboards. Quiet Touch rubber dome and buckling sleeve Model M variants are generally not considered.
Buying an old Model M
Whilst Unicomp's existence is generally widely known, a vintage IBM-branded Model M keyboard is still what most people think of and desire when they think about a Model M. They are typically large keyboards with IBM's signature square or oval shaped styling, 'pearl white' beige colour and an immense cool factor to boot. The earliest of the early Model Ms can have the 'tankiest' build quality and the timeline of the vintage era is littered with many unique and collectable variants. See for yourself!
Old Unicomp Model Ms
There is of course the possibility of buying an old Unicomp keyboard made not long after IBM and Lexmark ceased their production. Some of the following points can apply to Unicomp Model Ms - especially as Unicomp made keyboards for IBM well into the 2000s - but there are many nuances and is thus specifically addressed in the next section.
Benefits of old
- The general rule of thumb: the older a Model M is, the cooler, tougher and heavier it will be!
- Older Model Ms are likely to have one of the aforementioned signature IBM badges.
- Older Model Ms can have thicker internal assembly backplates that make the keyboard heavier and feel tauter compared to modern Model Ms.
- IBM and Lexmark rarely diverged in their material choices, meaning most Model Ms from the vintage era are made with PVC casing and thus will not yellow with UV/heat exposure.
- Both IBM and Lexmark were bigger companies that sold the keyboards at a far higher price back then, thus could afford to have tighter quality control tolerances and it can show on the product when compared with newer Model Ms.
- Both IBM and Lexmark actively targeted and sold in more countries than Unicomp does, so for countries outside North America or the United Kingdom, buying vintage locally is likely the most economical option to the need to pay for shipping and tax from the USA or UK.
- It is inevitable that some products are made defective, but unlike with Unicomp who of course actively made new Model Ms, defective IBM and Lexmark Model Ms were likely long discarded and no longer in circulation.
- Even if there are issues, Unicomp can likely still help you with them.
Drawbacks of old
- Old Model Ms have likely lived long and hard lives, meaning there is a real possibility of the keyboard arriving excessively dirty, faulty, or outright broken. The biggest possible issue for a vintage Model M is plastic rivet failure or liquid damage on the membrane.
- Vintage keyboard prices are subject to inflation. Since at least the COVID-19 pandemic, vintage IBM keyboard prices rose continuously for a long time.
- If there is an issue with your keyboard, fixing them can become time and money sinkholes depending on the severity of the issue. Obviously, there's no chance of utilising a warranty.
- Most eBay sellers (and, sellers in general) aren't experts and can easily and unintentionally misrepresent the keyboard you're buying. For example, not knowing and indicating that the Model M in question is a Quiet Touch rubber dome model.
- Some sellers can maliciously misrepresent the keyboard you're buying, whereas Unicomp will deliver what they say they're delivering.
- Whilst Unicomp is willing to help people with their old Model Ms, there are some practical limitations to what they can offer - Unicomp can't guarantee they're able to replace broken cases or electronics (etc.) with an identical replacement, usually requiring them to substitute with a current/modern equivalent.
What about new-old stock?
Despite the fact it has been decades since their manufacture, finding a new-old-stock (NOS) Model M is a possibility. The reasons some go unsold vary, but NOS can eliminate the first drawback listed about buying old/used. The fact you could be the first user of such a keyboard is definitely an attractive prospect. However, buying a NOS keyboard is still not a clear-cut perfect-world option.
Obviously, they're likely to be costly. You still won't get a warranty like buying a brand-new Unicomp. And, it's still possible it could have technical issues. Firstly, rivets could still be lost due to poor handling or environmental conditions. Secondly, the keyboard could be dead from the factory, with this fact being unknown since the keyboard was never opened or tested.
Buying a new Model M
In recent years, Unicomp has rapidly become a candidate for the most economical way to experience a Model M without having to worry about condition or previous use. Whilst their logo has been subject to criticism and indeed they're a smaller outlet without the quality control power IBM once wielded, they're still generally a good option. If you simply want a no-nonsense purchase where you get what you want and have a warranty to back you up, it would be wise to consider Unicomp.
Benefits of new
- If you want to be the first person to type on your keyboard (outside of the factory), this is your only affordable option.
- With vintage keyboard prices increasing, Unicomp Model Ms have become a very cost-effective way to experience a Model M.
- Upon purchasing a Unicomp Model M, you'll get a standard one-year warranty. This gives you time to notice any issues to report and have them solved for you without needing to take a gamble on another purchase.
- Unicomp offers a high degree of customizability with their keyboards from the factory. For example, layouts (DVORAK, COLEMAK, US English & APL, Japanese, ...) and coloured keycaps.
- All Unicomp Model Ms can be had with USB as standard, and all but their Mini Model M can be had with PS/2.
- You can get Windows/Super keys as standard with your Model M without the need to remap (and thus sacrifice) a key.
- Specifically with the new Unicomp Mini Model M, Unicomp has made a lot of internal changes to the electronics that can improve the size and complexity of key combinations despite the typical 2KRO limitation of Model Ms.
Drawbacks of new
- Apart from the Unicomp New Model M and Mini Model M, the tooling used to produce their other products are decades-old and issues with blemishes and dimples on the casing are known. Technically speaking, the manufacturing tolerances between keyboards are also wider than in the vintage era.
- Apart from their UK reseller (keyboardco.com), Unicomp only sells their products from the USA. They can and willing to ship to most other countries, but such shipping is likely to be expensive if you're not in a neighbouring country or the UK. The UK reseller also doesn't stock all of Unicomps products.
- Unicomp Model Ms are built upon the specs of the last-generation vintage Model Ms, which means they're physically lighter and feel less robust.
- Not every Model M variant is still produced. Whilst the Enhanced Keyboard, Space Saving Keyboard, M5-2, M13 and 122-key Model M all have modern analogues, the M1/M2, M5-1, M15, 50-key Model M, and some more unique Model Ms do not.
What about used Unicomps?
There is of course the possibility of buying a used Unicomp from any time between now and 1996. As you may expect, the quality of the keyboards has not remained the same due to many possible reasons such as economic downturns reducing budget, changes in plastic suppliers, tooling degradation, etc. As such, there are in my opinion four approximate eras of Unicomp keyboards. The new Unicomps, the New Model M and the Mini Model M, have only been available since 2020 and 2021 respectively, meaning most Unicomps on the used market will not be made with the new tooling or their improved dye-sublimation quality.
If you're considering buying a used Unicomp keyboard, I recommend prioritising the first and last periods described below.
1996 to 2004
For their first few years of operation, Unicomp keyboards could be made to a very similar quality as Lexmark and late IBM UK Model Ms. This includes minimal issues due to tool degradation and fairly consistent keycap alignment and font use. Unicomp started introducing PC + ABS casing to their keyboards that could yellow, but PVC case Unicomps that don't yellow were still technically available during this period. IBM-branded Unicomp keyboards are mainly found during this period too. Unicomp also introduced several raven black coloured keyboards that used pad-printed white-on-black keycaps.
2005 to 2012
During this period, most pearl white Unicomp keycaps were now manufactured with PC + ABS material that could yellow. They also quickly abandoned white-on-black keycaps for buckling spring keyboards due to supplier issues (minimum order quantity higher than demand). In their absence, Unicomp introduced metallic grey dye-subbed keycaps for their raven black keyboards that unfortunately degrade into a greenish-yellow colour that's offputting to many. IBM-branded Unicomp keyboards can also be found from this period but they're extremely rare and are not found beyond 2007. On the positive side, most Unicomp keyboards (excluding buckling sleeve and 122-key models) were now available with GUI keys and USB connectivity.
2013 to 2018
In 2013, Unicomp revamped its 104/105 key layout bottom row to simplify manufacturing by making the sizes of Alt keys consistent across its entire range. At the same time, Unicomp introduced their current font style across most of their keycaps which differs from the original IBM/Lexmark Model F and Model M font. They also introduced their "103" style layout that implements the respected 'Tsangan' bottom row layout. Unicomp all but stopped using the metallic grey keycaps for raven black keyboards, switching to non-sparkly blue-grey colour keycaps that resolved the aforementioned greenish degradation issue. Unfortunately, this period is when Unicomp experienced its worst decline in keycap alignment and tooling integrity.
2019 to present
For the last few years, Unicomp has steadily improved its keycap alignment likely in response to the increased interest in their products. Whilst tool degradation is still a present issue, Unicomp's new New Model M and Mini M are made with new tooling and look comparatively fresh and rejuvenated compared to their other keyboards. Unicomp has also deprecated a lot of their other products, providing only a few select options in an effort to extend tooling as much as possible. It's unclear if Unicomp will retool further.
Does this apply to Model Fs?
It does, partially. Unicomp doesn't produce new Model F keyboards but Model F Labs led by Ellipse has brought to market reproductions of the early 1980s IBM 4704 Model 200 ("F62") and Model 300 ("F77") keyboards. These keyboards are generally faithful stylistically to the originals but feature expanded colour options, modern electronics, and layout options. Between those and old Model Fs, many points of previous comparisons apply here.
Buying new means you'll get a fairer deal for a product - original IBM 4704 keyboards are extremely expensive - that guarantees you're the first to use it, you have access to the aforementioned customisation options, and you generally don't have to worry about cleaning the keyboard on arrival. These reproductions also feature a modern controller inside capable of being flashed with xwhatsit or QMK firmware, which can grant you access to onboard customisation for your layout needs. However, the keyboards are not immune to issues on arrival as there have been reports of people taking issue with powdercoating and spring damage. The Model F Labs F62 and F77 also represent only a small chunk of the entire Model F family and they're not official products of IBM or a successor company.
So, there is no generally accepted right answer to the question of old versus new Model M. Your choice should be made based on how much effort you want to give in regards to acquiring a good deal and undertaking a possible restoration, your budget, and how much you value classic IBM badges. If you simply want the Model M typing experience with the least amount of fuss, a brand-new Unicomp Model M would be an acceptable choice. If you want the coolest branding possible and have spare time to undertake deep cleaning and bolt-modding, seek out the earliest Model M possible for the highest amount of build quality. And if your budget is limitless, go wild!
Mechanically speaking though, either choice should give you a satisfying typing experience. If you need any additional advice or clarification, feel free to get in contact with me or make a post on r/ModelM!