October 31, 2014

Hands-On Review: Unicomp Spacesaver M Keyboard for Mac

Back in February, after my 25-year-old IBM Model M keyboard toasted yet another USB converter, I decided it was time to update my keyboard. I am a fast typist, and like a keyboard with long travel, solid feedback, and no flex in the chassis. In other words, an updated IBM Model M!

The Unicomp Spacesaver M is head and shoulders better than Das Keyboard’s offering

At the time, the Das Keyboard Model S for Mac had just been released, so I jumped on that sleek black wonder. Alas, I was disappointed by the feel and build quality, as well as inconsistent behavior of the function keys. I planned to send that keyboard back for a refund, but decided instead to pass it on to a friend who might get some use out of it. The Das Keyboard is not bad, it’s just not the keyboard for me.

Read my full Das Keyboard Model S for Mac Review

I am pleased to report that I have indeed found a proper replacement for my Model M: A brand-new USB equipped Model M keyboard from Unicomp! It seems that IBM passed the manufacturing duties for the Model M to Lexmark in 1991, and a group of employees bought the rights in 1996 and formed Unicomp. Today, the company still manufactures credible Model M keyboards (in the United States, natch!)

I have long known about Unicomp but was skeptical, since I had never actually touched one of their keyboards. Although $100 is not a lot to pay for a mint condition Model M, I was concerned that these new keyboards might not be up to the standard of the original. Also, when last I checked, Unicomp did not make a Macintosh-compatible keyboard. This kept me from pulling the trigger and purchasing one.

The Unicomp (middle) fits right in alongside classic IBM Model M keyboards

Unicomp Spacesaver M: USB Model M for Mac

After the debacle with the Das Keyboard, I wandered over to the Unicomp website once again and was pleased to discover the Spacesaver M, a proper Model M keyboard with USB and Mac keys and functions. Priced at $94, the Spacesaver M is available in black and “white” (actually, IBM beige).

The Unicomp website is just as much a blast from the past as their keyboards, which does not inspire confidence. There are scant illustrations, and I was concerned that the company might not fulfill my order, let alone deliver a quality keyboard! My first piece of advice for Unicomp is to get into this decade with a modern logo and web design.

The Unicomp Spacesaver M appears to have inherited the best elements of the original Model M (buckling spring keys, solid build quality) but with modern touches (105 keys, USB). But the physical case is obviously different from my Model M, as are the key caps. And unlike many modern keyboards, the Spacesaver M does not feature a USB hub or any internal ports.

A truly disappointing “out of box experience”

First Impression of the Spacesaver M

My first impression of the Unicomp Spacesaver M was not a good one. The keyboard arrived loose in a plain and ill-fitted box. It looked to have been taped in place at some point, but the packaging did nothing to protect the keyboard in transit and absolutely did not match the price tag!

Once the Spacesaver M was out of the box, it became clear that this was a superior device to the Das Keyboard. For one thing, it weighs much more and features reassuringly solid construction compared to the dainty Das. It’s not quite as heavy as my original IBM Model M, but I think you could probably still kill a zombie or two with it!

One disappointing element of the Spacesaver M is the quality of the molded case and keycaps. Unlike the “industrial grade” Model M, the Spacesaver M is not perfectly fitted or finished, with mold lines and sprue visible in the wide and uneven gaps. And I was deeply distressed to find that the keycaps are not removable as on the original Model M.

The Unicomp logo and key markings are downright ugly

Another disappointing element is the downright ugly Unicomp logo in the corner. It’s really glaring and out of place compared to the classy “IBM in a silver square” logo on the original. Similarly, the function keys are decorated with overly large and amateurish graphics, as are the caps lock and function key indicators. And those LEDs are way too bright, bleeding light right through the nameplate.

Thankfully, the typography on the keys themselves is well done and classy. Although not an exact match for the original, the text on the Spacesaver M keys is clear and readable, unlike the futurist garbage on the Das Keyboard.

Another issue with the Das Keyboard was its incorrect function key mapping: The media keys were placed inconsistently with Apple’s keyboards, and required a 2-key “chord” to activate. Thankfully, the Spacesaver M features correct mappings and does not require holding the function key when pressing F1, etc.

Six Months with the Spacesaver M

After six months of heavy use, I am pleased to report that the Unicomp Spacesaver M performs flawlessly. The keyboard feel is nearly perfect, with just the right “punch” and click from the buckling spring technology. I can type like a bandit once again!

I am still disgusted by the ugly markings and sprue, but the keyboard works so well that I don’t need to look at it that often. I have had no trouble at all with the keyboard mappings, either. In short, the Spacesaver M really is a worthy Model M for Macintosh owners.

A true Model M keyboard with USB and Mac keys? Perfect!

Stephen’s Stance

I would not hesitate to recommend the Unicomp Spacesaver M to Macintosh users used to an original IBM Model M, and I am admittedly a tough customer. I wish that Unicomp would update their website, packaging, logo, and keyboard graphics, but none of this really matters as your fingers press the keys. If any keyboard is worth $100, it is the Unicomp Spacesaver M!

Pros:

  • Buckling spring technology and perfect typing feel
  • Solid chassis for power typists
  • 100% compatible and correct Macintosh keyboard layout

Cons:

  • Imperfect molding and construction
  • Ugly logo and function key labels
  • Outdated website, purchase experience, and shipping packaging
  • Richard Boere

    I too looked into these keyboards, but as I do not live in the US and still have a working M attached to my Mac through a USB converter I have not yet been reduced to buying one. For as long as my Model M can connect to my computer I will keep using it.

    Thankfully, OSC allows you to quickly adjust the command keys, so I just use Alt for Cmd, et cetera.

  • Alan Bowman

    About the removable key caps. I have the Unicomp Ultra Classic (basically, the Windows version of this keyboard). It has removable caps, albeit, they are really stuck together.