Apple’s steady erosion of the simple ergonomic qualities of their keyboards in favour of style has reached tipping point for many – including myself. I grew up battering an Apple //e’s solid mechanical switches, and in the ’90s my Apple Extended Keyboard (originally from a Mac IIx) was fiercely guarded. Even so, when ADB was finally removed in favour of USB, Apple’s keyboards were primarily simply “cheap”, rather than “downright uncomfortable” for a typist used to exerting a bit of force. PC-targeted replacement keyboards only go so far; and as Apple introduced media and hardware controls to their keyboards, missing those symbols became more than just irritating. Matias have been producing an alternative for some years now – and as it’s been revised again and made available with international layouts, it seemed the opportune moment to take it for a spin.
The Tactile Pro range has been available since 2004ish, and has been available in the UK as a US English layout for the previous two versions. Now distributed by The Keyboard Company, the Tactile Pro 3 not only includes revisions to the hardware (the USB hub is now 3 ports at USB 2.0 speed, with enough power available to use memory sticks as well as HIDs, and the electronics of the keyboard have been revised to address technical issues that affected the earlier models when used by particularly fast typists). It has a proper UK layout with short left shift and upright return key, and shares an essential arrangement with the classic Extended Keyboard II and the previous Apple keyboard (the breadcrumb catcher).
Unlike the Apple and most third party keyboards, the Tactile Pro uses mechanical Alps keyswitches. Whilst these are not the exact components used in those classic ’80s designs, they are of a similar feel. There’s resistance before the key is pressed, allowing a precise and efficient typing action, and you can either bash away like a machine gun or stroke the keys like a properly trained typist. I’m the former flavour of keyboard operator, with typical speeds between 85 and 150wpm, and the only real drawback of the Matias keyboard is during phone interviews where I simply can’t type and talk at the same time. Anyone in a nearby office is going to be absolutely sure that I’m working though!
I remember the horrors of the original Atari ST keyboard, which required spring assisters to make it tolerable, and this template seems to have been adopted for more and more systems. Apple’s own keyboards got cheaper in the Spindler era – with the low point being the flimsy model supplied with the typical Performa or Centris prior to the iMac’s debut. Yet ergonomically they still towered above the current laptop-esque monstrosity that Apple insists on foisting upon users; the flat aluminium design may look like a Jacob Jensen B&O stereo from the mid ’80s, but as a functional device it is seriously lacking.
The Tactile Pro 3 is not quite perfect for UK users. For some inexplicable reason, the ` and § keys are mislabelled and cannot be corrected – so skipping between windows requires Ctrl-Top Left, rather than Ctrl-Right-of-Left-Shift. I’ve tried a couple of utilities to correct this and whilst the keymap can be changed for characters, it’s not reliable for shortcuts. You can’t pop the keys off and swap them as each row is different, as it should be.
The additional benefits of the Tactile Pro 3 are the 3 USB 2.0 ports. The hub allows enough power for flash drives and similar accessories otherwise unsupported by Apple’s keyboards, and one port is positioned conveniently on the rear of the keyboard.
Having used the Tactile Pro 3 for about six months, there’s minimal key wear and it’s proven a worthwhile upgrade over not only the original Apple keyboards (both white crumb-catcher and aluminium alike), but also the Logitech and generic PC keyboards I have tried. There are few rivals, but even with the couple of alternatives on the market, the Tactile Pro 3 is easy to recommend for any serious writer or programmer working with Mac OS.