Two Very Different Retro Compaq Keyboards

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!

Microsoft Comfort Curve 2000

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.

Compaq RT101

Compaq KB-9963

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.

Individual rubber caps snap down onto the membrane to actuate the key strokes in the RT101.

Barrel plate of the RT101.

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.

Membrane keyboards get a bad rap, but really they are a super smart design. Not the very best to type on, but not the worst either. This KB-9963 uses the modern “all domes on a single rubber sheet” style system.

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.

RT101 key cap and post design

KB-9963 key cap and post design.

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! 🙂

Bottom line?

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. 🙂

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Chromebooks – Their Functions Keys are Different and that’s OK!

I just realized that in all hullabaloo I made about the keyboard when talking about upgrading my laptop, I totally didn’t mention that Chromebooks replace the traditional function keys at the top of the keyboard with a row of … well, function keys. I also didn’t mention that I think the Chromebook function keys are really cool!

For anyone who doesn’t know what I am referring to, “Function Keys” are the set of numbered keys (from F1 to F12) at the top of PC keyboards that exist as a programmable human interface for software. These keys date back to an era before the mouse and graphical user interfaces were common, at a time when the more keys you had in front of you, the more you could accomplish with the computer in a timely manner. I remember learning programs for DOS, such as Word Perfect and Lotus 123, which had so many keyboard shortcuts that they came with paper overlays for the the keyboard! These overlays mapped the functions visually for the user, because no mere mortal could possibly remember all of those shortcuts. Even today, most software has an array of keyboard functions that stretch far beyond what you see when you look at the keyboard, ChromeOS included, but the function keys remain an integral part of most productivity software as well.

But, what do you see when you look at a standard PC keyboard? Like, what are those F1 through F12 keys for anyway? Unlike the TAB or ESC key, there’s no immediately obvious function for any of the “Function Keys”, so… what are they for?

Again, the function key row exists to help translate the intangible world of on-screen software in to the real where we physical creatures can poke at it. Given that computers can run many different kinds of software, it made a lot of sense to have a single keyboard layout that had the necessities for language as well as some extra keys that a program can use for “other stuff”. Sure, we could live in a world where every program comes with its own custom keyboard that we swap out multiple times a day, but as fortune would have it, the folks who formed the PC market weren’t the same people as those who formed the gaming console market…

Image by GeekPress.co.ukImage by http://www.geekpress.co.uk

So, the input paradigm we have firmly entrenched in the PC market is a keyboard with a set of ill-defined “F Keys” that remain a mystery to many people, because those folks either don’t use software that capitalizes on the existence of the F Keys or because they simply aren’t trained to use that area of the keyboard any longer. From my experience in the tech support industry, I would say that the latter is most often the case, because I can’t think of a single piece of software that doesn’t have at least one useful function that is tied to the function keys, yet I have encountered many people who have no idea what the function keys are for. Judging by what Google has done with the function keys on their Chromebooks, I’m not the only person who has noticed this trend.

Chromebook Function Keys

By explicitly defining what each of the function keys does in ChromeOS and then visually representing those functions graphically on the keys themselves, Google has taken an underused portion of the PC keyboard and made it integral to the everyday use of a Chromebook. A person a can look at the keyboard on a Chromebook and immediately know exactly what every key does. And, all of the things that the keys do are genuinely useful to the normal workflow of the device – letters, numbers, volume keys, navigation keys, brightness keys, and so on, all come together to form a tool whose purpose is as easily recognized as that of a vacuum cleaner or a car stereo.

I commend Google for having the courage to change the icons on the the physical function keys themselves, because such changes to the status quo are quite risky in the computer hardware business. Just as Apple took a risk when they released the iPhone without a physical keyboard, Google’s Chromebook keyboard is a risky step in the right direction for purpose driven computer hardware; The iPhone was designed to be mobile and extremely versatile, so using a touch screen made it possible to pack as much programmable interface as possible into the limited space provided by the chassis; A Chromebook is designed to deliver the best possible web browser experience on a device that is both affordable and optimized for long periods of human input, so it made sense to explicitly define the role of every key on its keyboard.

The function keys available on my HP Chromebook 14 G4 are, from left to right:

ESC, Back, Forward, Refresh, Maximize/Normal-Size Window, Switch Window, Lower Brightness, Raise Brightness, Mute Volume, Decrease Volume, Increase Volume, and Power.

In addition to the predefined functions keys, ChromeOS also has an abundance of keyboard shortcuts, which are complete with their own handy on screen map that can be accessed by pressing the CTL+ALT+? keys.

Finally, it is possible to change the role of the function keys on a Chromebook to be like the function keys on any PC by selecting “Treat top-row keys like function keys” in the keyboard settings dialog box.