Derek's Review: Matias Corporation's Tactile Pro Keyboard
Matias Corporation graciously accepted my request for a review unit, so watch this space! After a few weeks of delay, the first shipment of Tactile Pro 2s has been shipped, and Matias is not currently accepting new orders.
Thanks for stopping by. Since 2004, this review has received thousands of hits, and it still amazes me how many people still write me to chime in on how much they love their Tactile Pros.
Alert keyboard fetishist Jake Seliger wrote to tell me about the new Tactile Pro revision and is waiting to hear from Matias about whether or not it suffers from shadow keys and the other eccentricities of the first version. Stay tuned for more news, and maybe another review if I can afford/beg/borrow/steal one.
Introduction to one of three input device reviews...
I miss the olden days of Macworld magazine where each contributing editor was an expert in their field. A special set of articles on the state of technology in education might go on for eighty pages and a detailed product review might span two or three. Nowadays, the entire magazine is about eighty pages, about of half of which are ads. Product reviews are six curt paragraphs if you're lucky, barely enough for a rough review.
Today's contributing editors to Macworld feel more like casual users than the trustworthy, well-rounded experts that were their predecessors. I'm left on my own to newsgroups and hearsay if I want to assemble all the detail that people lust after (or should lust after) before making a purchase. Here's to hoping I can give back to others what some of the most entertaining writers and editors gave me when I was just a kid with a stack of Macworlds. To David Pogue, Jerry Borrell, Steven Levy, Charles Seiter, George Beekman, Deborah Branscum and Mel Beckman: thanks for the entertainment and showing me what good technical writing could be.
Introducing the Tactile Pro
I've found very few keyboards with a feel that I like. As computers have become more of a commodity and less of an exclusive tool, emphasis on quality and detail have fallen behind. When I lost the use of a beige G3 minitower on my desk, I also had to say goodbye to the Apple Extended II keyboard. I had resigned to the fact that I would probably never touch another keyboard as good as the Extended II, so you can imagine the sprrroiioinggng sound my eyeballs made when I saw the advertisement for the Matias Tactile Pro.
As with any matter as subjective as the look, feel and response of a keyboard, it's difficult to convey what's going on in words but I'm certainly going try. In short: keyboard freaks, this is your keyboard. Support heavy typing and Canadian companies.
Here's how the Tactile Pro (top) stacks up size-wise against the classic Apple Extended II keyboard, the iKey from MacAlly, and lastly, a Sun Type 5c keyboard (bottom). It looks like I've just about pounded the lettering off the iKey...
Upon opening the minimal packaging of the Tactile Pro, you'll find a CD containing the required drivers for Mac OS X 10.2 users; Panther users are off the hook in the driver department as Panther already includes everything you need. There is no documentation in the box, but hey... it's a keyboard! In fact, this is the keyboard fetishist's keyboard. Novice typists and non-hackers need not apply.
There are two slightly creaky USB 1.0 ports on either side of the head of the unit, à la the early iMac keyboards and the Apple Pro Keyboards up until last year. The sturdy connecting cable is attached to the center of the unit and is a little under five feet in length. I didn't expect such an old-style keyboard to include the new Apple-style cluster of volume and eject keys, but they're right where they would be on an Apple Pro Keyboard. Two small feet prop the back end of the keyboard up a quarter of an inch. Pressing on the top of the keyboard causes the feet to flex a fair bit, indicating that the feet might not be industrial-strength. My guess is that if you dropped something heavy enough to break the feet, such and object would also be heavy enough to break the keyboard. There's not much to worry about unless you're in the habit of dropping monitors onto delicate equipment.
Another thing that jumps out at the first-time user of the Tactile Pro is the extra characters on each keycap. As shown on Matias' website, the pair of symbols represent what you would get with the option or option-shift modifiers held down in combination with any given key. While this adds a lot of visual clutter, it is a good deal faster than referring to Key Ca—er, I mean Font Book. (Key Caps was already a pretty quick reference in the land of OS 9, but nooooo...) Unlike the press package on the Matias website, this unit had "Matias" and "tactilepro.com" tattooed on the spacebar (see above). Not a big deal, but I would have taken a plain vanilla space bar if I had the chance.
Chip off the ol' lock: A notch lets an LED peek through the bottom of the Caps Lock key. Very nice!
The border around the keyboard is very shallow, making it considerably more compact than my MacAlly iKey. There is only a tiny gap between each major section of the keyboard, adding to the compactness of the unit. By comparison, the newest Apple Pro Keyboards have a finger-sized and rather awkward gutter between each section. The small footprint is welcome and, while it might be tempting to assume that less spacing means the keyboard feels cramped, the spacing between individual keys is as generous as the original Extended II. The keys are actually a bit bigger than the keys on my Sun Type 5 keyboard, living up to the Extended II's full half-inch per key surface standard.
If you're living in the days of OS 9, the looks of the Tactile Pro might turn you off. I was fine with idea of a white keyboard on my ex-iBook, but I had hoped that the Tactile Pro would be a more conventional color. I wasn't looking for beige, but white lettering on black keys like my PowerBook's keyboard would have been nice. Hopefully, as with the iBook's plastics, the Tactile Pro won't grow yellow over time. Matias has done a tasteful job of copying (or leveraging, if you like) Apple's current keyboard design. True Apple design fanatics will note that the construction of the Apple Pro Keyboard's outer shell is much smoother than the Tactile Pro's.
This is a level of detail that might be called "picking nits off of other nits", but the areas of plastic that are not solid have an uneven quality to them, with brush marks around corners and edges that are characteristic of less-expensive manufacturing and moulding processes. It's only noticeable under ample lighting, and even then you would have to be within kissing distance to notice or care. At such close range, you might also note that the translucent plastic areas amongst the keys are hollow, leading to dust and dirt over time as they aren't sealed off. Fortunately, this also means you can blow most of the dust and dirt out should there be any trapped in there. During two weeks of use, there was virtually no dirt or dust to speak of in mine.
Overall, the Tactile Pro looks and feels nothing short of fantastic.
|Would You Move on to the Keys Already?|
Unlike some of the El Cheapo keyboards I've been forced to use, the feel of each key is very consistent. Pressing each key as gently as you can, you'll notice the feel, sound and response of the mechanical keyswitches right away: they click and engage very lightly once they are about a quarter of the way down. The keys travel downwards untilclunk!the keyswitch has gone as far as it can go and the key has hit bottom. The noise really is incredible compared to most other modern keyboards. While it's possible to type quietly, you'll soon discover what a long, slow process it is to do just that on this particular keyboard. The faster you type, the more keys that you can hear at once; the keys almost ring in unison like an IBM Model M.
Listen to this sound clip for a demonstration. The first section demonstrates the pleasant and omnipresent click that you'll hear no matter how gently you try to press a key. Shortly after, you'll hear some slow typing. Around the 27 second mark, the typist achieves Nirvana, then quiets down. At 40 seconds, you'll hear the MacAlly iKey in action so you can compare the two noise levels yourself.
Depending on how geek-savvy some of your co-workers are, you just might annoy the heck out of everyone around you. If you're in an open office environment, the noise is almost certainly too much to be acceptable, particularly if you're not in a cubicle where the noise could be directed upwards and out. Then again, if you're a programmer surrounded by sysadmins and other people who might be soothed by the sound of old-fashioned mechanical keyswitches, you just might be lucky enough to use one of these babies at your desk.
|Progressive Keyboard Rock 'n' Roll|
I'd read the newsgroups, the MacDirectory and AppleLinks reviews, and I was a bit worried. The noise might be a show-stopper for potential customers who are not heavy typists and, indeed, on Usenet, one or two people had already switched back to their old keyboards. What if the noise was just too much for me? My ears are more sensitive than average, or so I've been led to believe. On top of that, my working space is small with only lightly decorated walls and echo-inducing hardwood floors.
After an hour or two of working with the Tactile Pro, I was pleased to find that the noise wasn't much of a distraction. Your mileage will vary, but you might find as I did that the incredible responsiveness of each key actually helps you focus on your work rather than typing. No, I'm not crazy. There is never an ounce of doubt about whether or not you've properly struck a key, and in particular the right key. Not worrying about that frees up brainpower to type more efficiently, which is something that other reviewers have echoed.
This responsiveness is not only audible, but several times a day I can actually feel when I've made a typo before having to verify the fact. This is not a hallucination or a result of my fanaticism for this productanyone who's seen me type with a pillow over my head can vouch for me. The people at Matias certainly don't call it the Tactile Pro for nothing.
|Things That Go Clack in the Night—Or Not|
The Caps Lock and Num Lock keys have LEDs embedded inside them with a translucent rectangular notch. This is a unique look that adds to my impression that, "Boy, is there ever a lot of good stuff underneath these keys." The Num Lock key clacks as you would expect but, at least on my unit, the Caps Lock key does not. Members of the Apple Extended II cult, take note: the Caps Lock key does not actually lock in the downward position as with the glorious keyboards of yesterdecade. There's no clunk when the Caps Lock key hits bottom, either, but that's high order nit-picking again.
The power key is identical to the one that Apple had on their keyboards back when they still thought it was fashionable to include such a utilitarian thing on their keyboards.
One last complaint that isn't quite as nit-picky as the other things I mentioned: shadow keys. When I first plugged in the Tactile Pro, I immediately sat down to check for e-mail. I have macros set up to launch just about every application I'm bound to use, and Control-Option-E (surprise) launches my e-mail client. Imagine my surprise when I slammed those keys and nothing happened. I tried it again. Nope, I'd definitely hit Control-Option-E. What about the right-hand side Control-Option keys with the letter 'E'? Ah, that worked. But why? What was going on?
I grabbed the phone and called Matias, expecting a machine to answer. After two rings, a friendly receptionist picked up. I chuckled as I requested "...technical support for, um, ah... a keyboard," but the woman who answered the phone knew that I probably wanted some juicy information about the Tactile Pro. I was put on hold for little more than ten seconds before I was greeted by an engineer. He politely explained that the circuit board that hosts the keyswitches is designed by an Asian company that, like many other companies, didn't do as good a job designing their product as they could have. In this case, it's the keyswitch matrix that has been left a bit behind, resulting in 'shadow keys', or a handful of somewhat obscure key combinations that result in no keypress messages being dispatched.
"One workaround would be to use Sticky Keys in OS X", said the engineer. Sticky Keys is also available under OS 9 and Windows, all versions allowing you to type combinations of modifiers and keys individually. You wind up building up a 'chord', key by key. In essence, this works since you no longer have to depress more than one key time, but it also blocks you from using the key combinations that already work. With Sticky Keys activated, you can type a cluster of modifier keys, followed by the shortcut key. For example, I might type Control-Option, slight pause, then the 'E' key to launch my e-mail client.
While this method works and is almost as quick as traditional keyboard shortcuts, I would much rather switch to alternative shortcuts, or just train myself to use the right-hand side control and option keys. Sticky Keys may only slows down the process ever so slightly, but I use literally one to two hundred keyboard shortcuts a day. Keyboard shortcuts are meant to save time and effort and, since I am lucky enough to be physically able, Sticky Keys works against that principle. Don't forget that you can change some menu shortcuts with Menu Master from Unsanity.
I was assured by the engineer that I could take advantage of Matias' 30-day money back guarantee if I liked. Upon hearing how satisfied I was with the Tactile Pro, he mentioned that a handful of other power users asked about the same problem. According to the engineer, power users love the feel of the keyboard so much that a few shadow keys are not an issue. I was also reminded that the keyboard was covered under a five year warranty should anything go awry.
Matias should be given an award for their high level of promptness, courtesy and honesty. No hokey technical coverups or "maybe you should reboot" calls here; these people are serious about their products.
I really cannot emphasize enough just how much the great responsiveness of the keys overshadows everything else. I've really over-emphasized the flaws in this review because, there were so few, and also for the reasons in the introductory statement above. At last, I have a modern keyboard with real mechanical keyswitches, a great feel, contemporary styling. On top of that, it really does feel responsive enough to help you type more quickly and accurately. $99USD may seem like a bit much for a keyboard, but that's the current price of Apple's current wireless keyboard offering. You certainly do get what you pay for, and for the serious typist, wireless typing is nothing in the face of proper keyswitches.
Join the mechanical keyswitch crusade and not only will your keyboard enjoyment factor go through the roof, but your co-workers or significant other will never question your productivity again.
I'd love to hear from you if you found this review useful, disgusting, or whatever. Macworld, if you're listening, I'd love to work for you to raise the quality of your product reviews.
I've had a few kind people write me during the first day this has been posted on the web, and I really appreciate it. Mentioning this article on two websites and one newsgroup has garnered over 2400 hits in 24 hours. Also, hello to Macworld Sweden readers! I would sure love to know what Macworld Sweden is saying about me but I only speak English and a bit of French. :-) I presume "Macnörd" means Mac-nerd...
Received a letter from Edgar Matias (!) of the Matias Corporation, thanking me and correcting my note about Sticky Keys; it's not quite as bad as I thought but still not as quick as traditional keyboard shortcuts. Added translations, additional thank-yous and links. Thank you again for the kind e-mails and keep an eye on the preamble at the beginning of the page for more reviews.
Exposure in Macworld Sweden (with translations): Here are two translations of the Macworld Sweden article; many thanks to Fredrik Björeman and Martin Gunnarsson for shedding some light on things. Another big thanks to Simon Grabiec, contributing editor at Macworld Sweden for mentioning my article in the first place!
Revision 1.2, 01-June-2004.
Added 'shadow keys' to the Cons list as per MacSlash comment posting. It really is that easy to forget! Also, a correction from comp.sys.mac.hardware.misc (thanks, Brad!) and added Sticky Keys workaround note from Matias.
Revision 1.1, 31-May-2004.
Claus thinks that proofreading, then publishing is a good idea. Thanks, Claus. :-)
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