Egg Freckles
Notes from my Newton

April 2012 | Apple's Greatest Keyboard

Apple's Greatest Keyboard

You have heard it on The Talk Show. The loud clickity-clack of John Gruber’s Apple Extended Keyboard II. The keyboard that Daring Fireball was written upon. Known for its massive size and generous weight, the Apple Extended Keyboard II is a behemoth compared to the minimalist “Chiclet” inspired keyboards made popular by MacBooks today. Its mechanical key switches produce a reassuring sound that has not been heard by most Macintosh users for more than a decade. Code named “Nimitz,” after a United States supercarrier, the Apple Extended Keyboard II was born in a time before USB, when keyboards and mice were connected to Macs via ADB. Keyboard connoisseurs, like John, who continue to use an Apple Extended Keyboard II today must rely on an ADB to USB adapter like the Griffin iMate to use their keyboards under Mac OS X.

John Gruber won his first Apple Extended Keyboard II during a legendary game of Madden in the dorm rooms of Drexel University in 1992. It lasted him through multiple Macs and 14 years of use until the “E” key “got flakey,” and the whole keyboard had to be replaced in November 2006. The replacement Apple Extended Keyboard II he stored away in his closet for just such an occasion has never felt the same. Great authors have always had affection for their tools, and John’s attraction to his keyboard is no different. The Apple Extended Keyboard II is a great keyboard, but it is an inferior sequel to the to the greatest keyboard Apple has ever made.

The original Apple Extended Keyboard is the best keyboard Apple has ever made. Code named “Saratoga,” it is larger in size and heavier in weight than its successor. The Apple Extended Keyboard features the same 105 key layout as later models, but unlike the Apple Extended Keyboard II it only contains the superior Alps Electric Co. brand mechanical key switches. When you purchase an original Apple Extended Keyboard you are guaranteed quality. When you purchase an Apple Extended Keyboard II you are taking a risk on inferior key switches.

Early model M0312 Apple Extended Keyboard IIs were manufactured with the classic Alps mechanisms. Later model M3501 Apple Extended Keyboard IIs were manufactured with either Alps or subpar Mitsumi mechanisms. If you have a model M3501 Apple Extended Keyboard II you cannot be certain of the key switches it contains without breaking it open. This might account for why John’s second Apple Extended Keyboard II never felt the same as the original. You can always tell the Apple Extended Keyboard and Apple Extended Keyboard II apart by the sounds they make. The original Apple Extended makes a satisfying “clickity-clock,” while the Apple Extended Keyboard II produces a slightly softer “clickity-clack” sound even if it contains Alps switches. Both the Apple Extended Keyboard and Apple Extended Keyboard II require an ADB to USB adapter in order to be used with modern Macs, but only the Extended II contains a crude height adjustment mechanism that often locks up, or fails to keep a consistent elevation. The Apple Extended Keyboard contains no height adjustment, and is a far more sturdy typing platform.

Other differences include the placement of Apple logo on the keyboard, and the choice of power key. The Apple Extended Keyboard II has a sloping curve in the top part of its plastic casing leading up to the Apple logo on the left and unconventional power button on the right. The original Apple Extended keyboard has a straighter curve with the Apple logo in the lower left hand corner, and a power button that resembles every other key.

Another way to tell the two keyboards apart is the labels under the first four function keys. On the original Extended you can find “undo” under F1, “cut” under F2, “copy” under F3, and “paste” under F4. None of these labels are present on the Extended II. On either keyboard there is plenty of room to accommodate large template guides over the top row of function keys displaying shortcuts for many popular historic software packages. The dedicated number pad on both keyboards are equally well spaced and easy to use. And best of all the Caps Lock key on both keyboards locks down when in use.

The assurance of Alps key switches, the larger design, and heavier weight of the Apple Extended Keyboard might seem like minor differences when compared to its predecessor, but there is one unheralded feature of the original Extended keyboard that its sequel can’t match. The Apple Extended Keyboard can be taken completely apart for cleaning. By removing four sturdy screws its key switch mechanisms can be completely removed from the case. The Apple Extended Keyboard II on the other hand relies on a single screw and several plastic snaps to hold it together. Its key switch mechanisms cannot be easily removed from the case. Each Alps keyswitch is rated for 10 to 15 million keystrokes. It is important to be able to clean your keyboard when the expected lifespan is 15–25 years.

The Apple Extended Keyboard was only sold for a short time as an optional accessory. It is much harder to find than an Apple Extended Keyboard II which was manufactured from October 1990 all the way until January 1999. I am lucky enough to own one of each, with a untouched spare Apple Extended Keyboard II hidden away in the closet for a rainy day. I may not be a great author, but I have a great keyboard.