Sure, rubber dome keyboards aren’t as alluring as an IBM Model M with buckling springs or as hip as “mechanical keyboards” with fancy switches, but some of them can provide a nice typing experience none the less. Take for instance the Microsoft Comfort Curve 2000 that I used for the better part of a decade, because its comfortable key spacing made it difficult to replace with a keyboard that had a standard layout, even after the darn keys starting binding when pressed. Binding is when the key shaft getting stuck to the side of the hole it sits in as the key is being pressed down, thereby failing to register a key stroke as the key wasn’t pressed all the way down. Yup, I loved the letters right off that thing!
But today I am not here to wax poetic about my favourite keyboard of yore. Rather, I am here to write about two other old rubber dome keyboards that I have kicking around the house. One is a Compaq RT101 from the early 1990s and the other is a Compaq KB-9963 from 1998 – 2001.
The RT101 is excellent, while the KB-9963 is… a keyboard.
Ignoring the obvious differences of the older keyboard missing the media and Windows keys, there’s not a whole lot to differentiate these two keyboards, until you pick them up. The RT101 is roughly twice as heavy as the KB-9963, thanks to its steel barrel plate and stiffer plastic chassis, making it immediately obvious that something is different about it than the other one. As you might suspect from the mention of a barrel plate, the RT101 uses a completely different system for its rubber domes than the KB-9963.
The steel barrel plate of the RT101 sits behind the black plastic sockets, helping sandwich the membrane between the key stem and the green rubber cups. This gives the keyboard a solid feeling when typing and were the keycap+stems not so loose in their sockets(thus very “clacky” sounding), the keyboard would have a very low frequency sound when typing. Believe it or not though, this is actually my loudest keyboard due to those clacky key stems, with the exception of the bassy thud of its spacebar. Seriously, when not pressing the keys all the way down, the RT101 is louder than my Chrerry MX Blue based Razer Blackwidow Ultimate (real MX Blues, not the Razer Greens) and that’s saying something!
Tangent: My quietest keyboard is the one on my Commodore 64c. Double shot PBT kecaps and big o’l springs FTW!
If we have a look at the KB-9963’s mechanisms, we can see that it employs the modern “cheap ass keyboard” design, where the membrane is sandwiched between the plastic bottom of the chassis and the rubber sheet that has the rubber domes built into it.
For some reason, this style of rubber domes are invariable squishy, lacking any “sproing” or “snap” on the way down and very little feeling on the way back up. The green rubber cups on the RT101 on the other hand have a notable tactile “snap” on the way down, while somewhat forcefully returning to position under one’s fingertips on their way up. This difference alone makes the RT101 feel very pleasant to type on, having a better key feel than the rest of my non-mechanical keyboards.
But the devil is in the details, they say, and nowhere is that more obvious than when pressing down the CTL keys on these two keyboards. As you can see from the images above, both of these keyboards have the key posts built into the key caps, but take note of their differences. The square shape of the RT101 posts does not cause the keys to bind at all, where as the round posts on the KB-9963 keys will bind even after I greased the daylights out of the of their posts! There’s just something about how the square shafts fit into their holes that makes them entirely superior. When it comes to pressing keys, it’s pretty much unforgivable when the key doesn’t actually go down and active – no amount of fancy Windows and media keys can make up for that shortcoming.
And the crazy part of all of this?
For a time, before I bought the Comfort Key 2000, I used the KB-9963 instead of the RT101, simply because it had those nifty extra keys! Back in the early 2000s, I just didn’t know any better. Heck, I let my kids darn near obliterate both keyboards over the years, because I figured they were both something I could replace for a couple dollars. While that is true for the KB-9963, finding nice PS/2 rubber dome keyboards like the RT101 is getting harder and more expensive every year.
Having cleaned up my Compaq Deskpro 4000 computer last year, I wanted to have a matching keyboard for it. Originally I cleaned and lubed the KB-9963, but typing on it drove me up the wall enough to replace it with a thrift store sourced early beige Microsoft Comfort keyboard. I didn’t really like that keyboard either, because it didn’t fit well on the keyboard tray of my desk (I’m not a fan of keyboard trays either, but it’s OK for a secondary PC and it leaves the desktop open for the C64c), so I poked around the attic to see if I had anything else. Sure enough, the trusty Compaq RT101 was there waiting for me, having been retired from the kid’s room a couple years ago. The poor thing was… well, here have a look at this gallery of pictures where I took it apart and cleaned it!
And just in case you felt like peaking at my cleaning of the KB-9963, here’s a gallery of that action for ya. The kids had made that one almost as gross as the other one. Almost! 🙂
If you happen to come across a Compaq RT101 keyboard that’s in good shape and it’s cheap, chances are it would make a competent companion for your retro PC. It’s simple looks, nice typing feel, and PS/2 compatibility are a good fit for the 486 and Pentium “beige box” desktop designs of the 1990s. Would a new buckling spring from Unicomp provide a nicer typing experience, while also looking just as retro? Sure, but they’re pricey even for residents of the USA, let alone we folks in countries like Canada and Australia, where everything from USA costs us around 30% more due to currency conversion. In the end, the value is 100% based on what you like to look at how much you’re actually going to use it. 🙂