NMB RT-102 with clicky Space Invaders

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Muirium
µ

24 Jul 2014, 03:14

Introduction

It's not often you get to try out a whole other family of switches. Most of us start with Cherry MX, and many then head on over to IBM's buckling springs, maybe via the Alps, or even Topre if we can afford it. I've been on a fair old tour of all those this past year, as I wrote in my last review. But one land in the keyboard universe where I had never set foot was NMB Hi-Tek. Until now.

In a trade with Facetsesame (as complex as you can imagine between two longwinded fellows like us, including Round 4 SPH caps and an aluminium boxed Soarer's Converter) I scored this here NMB RT-102 with clicky black two eyed "space invader" switches. The keyboard is regular old fashioned full-size winkeyless ISO UK, not a big ass return in sight! Typically, the smaller the keyboard the more I like it, but I was prepared to make an exception for this one. I'm glad I did. NMB never did get around to making an SSK, alas. Unless Webwit has it!
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Mellow Yellow

Okay, so this is no new keyboard. But it's still in sterling shape. Every key clicks quite nicely, the caps are all nice and white, and only the case is yellowed, fairly mildly. In fact, that gentle yellowing — a telltale you're dealing with ABS plastic — highlights the white caps all the better. They haven't turned from white at all. These guys are PBT. Even the space bar!
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The case has quite a nice design. Its slab-on-a-pyramid geometry is like a sharper, more business-like cousin to Apple's original Macintosh keyboard: the legendary M0110. (I have both boards in fact, so I should do a visual comparison, but I suspect I'm already up against the photo limit for this post so that can wait along with the insides.)
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The AT cable is fixed, beige, and just as thick, coily and heavy as you can imagine. Weightier than even my XT's. They really don't make them like this any more. Good job my Soarer box is a chunk of metal in its own right, or it would be yanked around by this great snake!
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The feet are quite no-nonsense too. Flipping them out just now, they feel heavy duty and snap in place with a firm whack. But my wrists demand they pop back in again, so away they go!
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The label is the only outward sign of branding on this keyboard. It tells me it's Thai, and that NMB's Hi-Tek keyboard division was in Chatsworth… Canada? California! (It's late.) No obvious date of manufacture, though. I'm used to being spoiled by the clear birth certificates on the underside of all my IBMs.



Invaders From Another Planet

The real draw of this keyboard is its quite exotic Hi-Tek switches. (Well, exotic to me at least!) Here's what they sound like in action:
Clicky indeed! And quite a firm, satisfying action. Here's my little 60% full of MX greens in action, to compare:
I expected something quite like Alps, right in the middle, weight wise, between MX blue and green. That's the sweet spot where other lines of switches tend to go, right? But comparing with my custom 60%, the NMB is, if anything, heavier than greens. Huh…
Deskthority's Wiki of Infinite Wisdom wrote:Black. Clicky. (45 g tactile force, 85 g terminal force)
I guess the terminal force is what I'm feeling. Certainly, I don't type light on this board. Like my beloved IBM Model Fs and Model Ms, this is a board where I let it rip and pound away at speed! And quite a satisfying speed, I'd say. It's a very comfy keyboard even after a few hours of solid typing, for me.

The sound is definitely deeper than MX, or the Alps that I have tried so far. And the tactility is just plain better than anything I've found there, far as I'm concerned. To put it in a single word: they're chock full of chock. It's an intriguing feel, just as hard to describe as Topre or buckling spring are until you try them. There's no sense of hysteresis like with Cherry's clicky switches. And, unlike Alps, these switches seem quite happy with sloppy off-axis keypresses, which are just the sort of thing I inevitably subject them to, late in a long session. I find there's only one key on the board that's the least bit fussy in how I hit it. More on that in a bit.
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Here's what happens when you pull off a cap. I was surprised quite how easy the switches are to open. In fact, they open unintentionally almost half the time I try! Chasing after these lengthy springs is not a game you want to play, believe me. They're more agile in flight than MX springs, as they're thinner and longer too.
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Fortunately, the switches are quite easy to put back together. And so long as you're not in the act of pulling a cap off, they are good and strong. There's no obvious wobble on the caps when the keyboard's back together. They lie so low on the switch that they feel as firm as any other switch I've tried, and more so than buckling spring.
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NMB designed these switches to be low profile. That's why so much of the switch nestles right inside the cap. The whole topshell is the slider! I wonder if they ever made good on that effort and put them in a laptop? They're surely ahead of Alps and MX that way.
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Thick, that there PBT!

I've been using the NMB as my daily board off and on for a month or two now and I've come to really like it. It's fast, not in the same way as IBM or MX red, but something else again. Definitely more my kind of keyboard than Cherry's clicky switches. The NMB's click is definitely different to IBM's, and I wouldn't say that it's better than buckling spring. But it is a refreshing change when you spend as much time on them as I do. IBM is smoother and sharper, while the NMB has more of a chock to it.
If only there was an NMB SSK!

Actually, when I stripped the board on arrival (as you do…) I did notice the controller wasn't stuck to the numpad, as I had feared. Instead, it's on a separate board and attaches near the centre. A barbarian more determined than I could feasibly take a saw to the PCB and make a tenkeyless keyboard out of this one. But I haven't the heart for a massacre, and I'd be worried how to make a passable job of trimming and stitching up the case. It is feasible, though…



PBT All The Way Down, Baby

Now for the caps. Oh boy, do I like these! All my favourite keyboards wear PBT. Dyesub PBT. In fact, make that dyesub black Helvetica on white PBT. IBM did it all the way through the Model F and M. Topre does it on the Realforce, and even better on the HHKB. Well, even in such esteemed company, this board does not disappoint!
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Dyesub: where secondary legends aren't second class citizens.
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The legends are sharp, contrasty, and I've truly no complaints about them at all. I'd say they're up to IBM's standard, and a bit better laid out than Topre's. No jarring alignments or outsized symbols here. NMB can be proud of the job they did.
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But there is something distinctly Topre about the profile of these caps. I don't have a Realforce of my own (I just borrowed 002's on its tour last year) but these caps reminded me of those, right away. They're cylindrical, but not like the IBMs that I'm so used to. The curved surface is smaller, like it's cut into a pyramid rather than a cube.
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The angles between rows are different too. I haven't measurements to prove this, but my fingers know this board apart from all my others, before I as much as press and make a click. (I'll dig out my Realforce pictures and try to find direct comparisons in a later post.)
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Oh, but the star of all the caps is the space bar. Goodness me if it isn't PBT, from back in the age before windows keys! And a damn straight one, too! It isn't even wrinkly.

Even the HHKB has an ABS space bar. You know what shame it is to see a yellowed space bar on an otherwise fantastic keyboard. It's like when someone smiles and all you see are yellow teeth. ABS has long been a necessary evil for space bars, as PBT tends to bend when it cools from the manufacturer's mold, and you'll end up with a banana for a space bar. Even if it is a pleasing white one!
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A few PBT space bars do exist out there, of course. I have a couple in MX, myself, thanks to Ducky Nordic. And I suspect my XT's long space bar is either PBT or something else funny, as it's quite wrinkled along the top; not through wear, but either age or at at birth.

If this NMB's space bar is PBT — and I've every reason to think it is, as it feels identical to the other keys and hasn't yellowed one bit — then I have to take my hat off to them for what they achieved. All space bars should be as good! Honestly, why could one company do it back then and not the rest? What a secret to keep…



What Was That About a Fussy Cap?

Oh, right, the stabs. They're wire stabilisers on this board (pictures again forthcoming) and I like them overall. The space bar in particular is good and snappy with a minimum of clunky excess noise, if a just a touch wobbly on the right. The smaller stabilisers on the other large caps all work very well with but one exception. Can you guess what it is yet?
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No! Not him, for a change! The Return key is just fine, accepting its awkward ISO stature. (Which I do gladly, over Big Ass.) Could be better, but could well be worse. No, it's the great lumbering right Shift just beneath it.

A key common to ANSI as well as ISO, but not one that I like: 2.75 units is an egregious size for right shift, yet that's how they are for most the world. Alas, this is just plain too damn wide for the stab it sits on, and it's therefore a fussy bugger when I hit it far from centre. This is the one key where the balky dark side of these good chunky clicky switches comes out. Smack it on the edge and you get the bassy sound of one surly switch who's not pleased you arrived! It still registers, but it's a distracting wiggle you get from the cap, and a real break from the keyboard's otherwise tack sharp rhythm. It's much like a piano with one bum note, so long as you don't hit it just right.

How I'd like a 1.75 Shift there instead, as Wada intended. Oh well.



Old Dog, New Tricks

For someone who uses a stack of IBMs, you might be surprised that I haven't a single PS/2 port anywhere in sight! I'm an Apple guy, besides my keyboards. AT, XT and PS/2 are just as useless to me, natively speaking, without a converter to USB. Thank the stars for Soarer and his bulletproof converter. All these classic boards of mine rely on it for every keystroke.

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The NMB is AT. No problem here. I simply plug it in to the same DIN 5 socket that my XT used before. Similarly, this keyboard is also NKRO, very nice! The fact these venerable boards are leaps ahead of my modern natives in USB, rollover-wise, forever amuses me. This magic isn't all down to Soarer, though, but is shared by the engineers who designed the original controllers running inside these boards. Thanks for thinking so strangely far ahead!

Another bonus via Soarer is complete programmability. I use more mods than these winkeyless boards tend to have (unless they are the miraculous little Kishsaver…) and I'd be at a loss if I couldn't remap and macro as I like. So I steal Caps Lock away as my function key, and make macros to help me out when I'm all out of mods. These were all powers I first learned on Soarer's converter, and I miss them when I can't get my way on more modern boards, even with the full complement of keys.

Oddly enough, this NMB is the first keyboard I hooked up to Soarer's convter that has its own LEDs. Mac OS X doesn't do Num Lock or Scroll Lock, so those lights are permanently dark, but Caps Lock shines old school green when I press both Shift keys together. A brilliant macro, that, for a rarely useful function that really doesn't deserve such a prominent dedicated key.



Conclusion

I'm guessing you wouldn't have got this far if you're not into old keyboards. No, the NMB will not work with Round 5, or gold plated Korean springs. Nor will there be any double ducks for you! Although, granted, maybe it could use a few stickers if they did something for making the caps easier to pull!

But as a whole, in itself, this keyboard's a surprise to me. The case is well designed and made, and the layout is just what you'd expect, but the caps are better than I'd dreamed. I'm blown away by these! Add to them the mystery, and the relief!, of the switches and I am pleased indeed to have this NMB. It's a clicky keyboard that's right up there with the best of its age, and since. Sure enough, time passes on, but this beast's still alive and well as ever.
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If you're on the market for a nice new old board, I happily endorse NMB Hi-Tek. It's a keeper. And it's a hell of a good daily typer, too.
Last edited by Muirium on 24 Jul 2014, 03:50, edited 1 time in total.

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Muirium
µ

24 Jul 2014, 03:15

Reserved for followup pictures, to be shot later.

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Kurk

24 Jul 2014, 11:04

Great review and a nice read! Makes me want to dig out my Philips XT clone with linear NMBs. I wish it would work but unfortunately there's no life in it, not even with Soarer's converter :(
Last edited by Kurk on 24 Jul 2014, 15:32, edited 1 time in total.

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Muirium
µ

24 Jul 2014, 14:04

Thanks! It's a fun board for typing on, and it's nice to use it to crow about itself for a change. I'm lucky it works so well.

Sounds like the controller is the likely suspect in your faulty Philips. I just checked the wiki, and found your original thread. Great cleanup job you pulled there!

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Frustrating to see that, unlike the RT-102, your controller looks integrated to the main PCB. If there's something up with it, it's a hell of an obstacle to work around.

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I'm in the same position with the (Round 5 legendary) Honeywell. Modular controllers are such a relief for future upgraders like us! That's what saved the Kishsaver, too.

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002
Topre Enthusiast

24 Jul 2014, 15:02

Nice write-up and pics, Mu.
Seems you have a lot more dexterity than me if the switch dismantling was a cinch for you... *grumble*
I had springs go flying and bent contact leaves and all sorts of fun. I swear that if a switch or screw falls to the ground and you happen to blink or get distracted before it settles, it actually disappears into the ether.

Findecanor

24 Jul 2014, 16:27

Great pictures. What beautiful keycaps!

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Muirium
µ

24 Jul 2014, 17:37

Thanks. The words are just there to decorate the pictures really!
002 wrote: Seems you have a lot more dexterity than me if the switch dismantling was a cinch for you... *grumble*
I had springs go flying and bent contact leaves and all sorts of fun. I swear that if a switch or screw falls to the ground and you happen to blink or get distracted before it settles, it actually disappears into the ether.
Don't worry, you're in unsafe hands! I'm a klutz when it comes to switch disassembly, too. The only time I've been inside of these was when pulling caps off for a clean. (Facet sent me the board in great shape, but I am OCD enough to clean a clean board. That's when I studied the caps in detail anyway.)

Goodness, don't those space invader springs fly. They're bloody ray guns, poised to fire as soon as you pull the cap. I had one go missing for several days. I wound up unexpectedly cleaning the room to find the spring I'd sent missing while cleaning my perfectly clean new old keyboard.

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Daniel Beardsmore

25 Jul 2014, 01:53

Yep, definitely the nice deep click I like! Cherry need to redesign their clicker!

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Muirium
µ

25 Jul 2014, 03:53

Just imagine all that: in a laptop! It could have been. In fact, I wonder if it was…

My understanding, from the wiki, is that the click mechanism on space invaders runs in parallel with the electric contact action, which is otherwise the same as linear Hi-Tek. So, unlike MX and Alps where the clicker is right inside the main action of the switch, the clicker on space invaders is a whole separate thing on its own. If all that is right, this click could be added to other switch designs, in theory. I start to imagine a hefty sounding click added to Topre! Though I'm sure that would take a lot of work, and compromise.

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Daniel Beardsmore

25 Jul 2014, 21:57

Yes, the clicker is basically the same idea as a latching switch, except instead of the arm holding down the slider (where the track is a loop), it emits a click.

ShawnMeg

03 Aug 2014, 00:08

Muirium wrote: snip
Nice review. The keyboard has a sweet sound.

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maxmalkav
dye hard

03 Aug 2014, 00:22

Very nice review Muirium, keyboards with space invaders amaze me :-)

The one you have got seems like the two I spotted some time ago, both of them manufactured for Memorex Telex, both ISO, one of the DE other ES, I took some pictures for the Spanish afocionado group :)
http://imgur.com/a/zgj6g
Initially I was seduced by the feel of the keyboard, that click sounded perfect for me, but at using the keyboard my typying speed was a bit affected (also the unit I tested required some cleaning and restauration, as it can be on the pictures above). The space bar also felt very sharp. It is tough to remove those keycaps ( they are great PBT, on the other hand) without damaging the switch or making the spring to fly away. My only "complain" about the switch itself is the short travel.

I gave the ES one to an aficionado friend and I kept the German one for myself, unfortunately just after getting it I migrated, leaving it behind :-( Before I also got some linear space invaders, more recently another linear with yellow ones.

I will go back to Spain for holidays, I will give a second try to those clicky invaders and maybe the keyboard will travel with me to Amsterdam :-)

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Muirium
µ

03 Aug 2014, 12:16

Space invaders really did impress me, and I still keep that board in daily use. Very satisfying sound and feel, and I'm not afraid to expose it to the (indirect) summer daylight because the caps are all PBT and the case is already mildly yellowed. It's become a good solid worker keyboard, getting things done and keeping me amused while doing so.

Thank goodness I can't spend any more on caps for it!

How are the linear space invaders? Do they have interesting qualities to set them apart from linear MX and Alps?

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002
Topre Enthusiast

03 Aug 2014, 12:49

I love the Memorex Telex NMB board with its KB106DE style front edge and quaint little folding stand :)
Here are some more pics of one: http://www.kbdmania.net/xe/review/1283663

neverlast74

11 Aug 2014, 20:09

Kind a sad that such a great product was not commercially successful - in the end it did not survive and has not found a larger fan base - at least only pure by chance is now re-discovered.

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Muirium
µ

11 Aug 2014, 21:09

From what I've heard, you could almost say the same of all mechanical keyboards until a few years ago. Keyboards got cheap through the 1990s as computers got cheaper, and manufacturers realised people don't pay attention to the quality of their peripherals. They were a simple tick box when you bought a system: keyboard? Check. Rubberdomes stomped all rivals before them.

That only changed a few years ago. Filco led the way. "Mechanical keyboards" became a thing, a prized tool of some gamers, apparently. I was late to all that, so I don't know the details. But Cherry was still alive and kicking, and the MX switch became the centre of a revival in the industry. Alas, NMB Hi-Tek had thrown in the can, high end keyboard wise, many years before.

This community is still young. Things are picking up all the time. But you dont have to look far to see the desert there was just behind us. The last couple of decades were rough, to say the least. We're reviving what was already made, and lost.

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