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!
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!
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.)
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!
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!
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…
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.Deskthority's Wiki of Infinite Wisdom wrote:Black. Clicky. (45 g tactile force, 85 g terminal force)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Dyesub: where secondary legends aren't second class citizens.
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.
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.
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.)
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.