Last year, I reviewed the original Das Keyboard, the all-black, all-the-time keyboard from MetaDot, and found it disappointing. MetaDot was kind enough to pass on an example of their next generation keyboard for comparison. The upshot is that the new version is quite a bit better than the original: it's now equal in keyfeel to the best keyboards I could find at local superstores, which dampens my major complaint. It's still a cool-looking but questionably useful all-black, and is still more eye-candy than finger-food. Just the same, this unique product now bears more consideration. (Read on for the rest of my review.)
A switch of switches:
The packaging may be nothing special, but it's much more graphically appealing than the plain cardboard box in which my sample of the original Das Keyboard arrived -- it wouldn't even look out of place in an Apple store. I was happy to see Larry Ewing's iconic rendering of Tux on the outside of the box, too, alongside old-style MacOS (really! But it does also work fine with Mac OS X) and Windows XP icons. Considering that it's a USB keyboard, a pretty mature technology, there's no surprise that it's Linux compatible, but I still enjoying seeing a penguin on the box; I consider Ewing's penguin marketing genius. I wish more companies with products just as easily Linux compatible would take advantage of the freedom they have to advertise this.
Now, on to the keyboard itself: it's still black-all-black. The only labeling is the printed "Das Keyboard" in the upper left corner, and a sticker with the usual regulatory and manufacturing information on the underside ("Designed in Austin, TX"). And if it matters to you, the current iteration of the keyboard is made in the Czech Republic, rather than China as was the previous version.
However, Das Keyboard is no longer a dead ringer in for a black-painted classic IBM Model M board; the lines have been made a bit straighter overall, and there's now a slightly rebated edge on left and right sides where the Model M is straight. Viewed from the side, the "dish" of the keys is now quite a bit shallower than that of a Model M design as well. That sounds like bad news for those of us fixated on older keyboards for their superior hand-feel, but since we're not quite in the realm of IBM-style clackityclack keyswitches anyhow, that difference is fairly subtle. And there's one nice thing about the new board's design I'd like to see in more keyboards: the "F" and "J" home keys are more deeply cut than the rest of the keys on the keyboard (by something close to a millimeter); this makes it easy to get one's hands realigned in (on rather on) the dark.
Noise aside, the new Das Keyboard is now equipped with mechanical keyswitches (made by Cherry, as is the keyboard itself) rather than the typical membrane assembly found in most keyboards nowadays and one of the things I wasn't keen on in the original. It's a good change. The new version is actually fairly pleasant to type on, and for touch typists of moderate or greater proficiency, the unlabeled keys should be no problem. I'm still skeptical of the advantage of all-black keys to those trying to learn to type (or improving their speed), but the keyfeel is no longer a distracting liability, so I'd upgrade claims on that front from "silly hokum" to "an open question."
According to a company representative, the new key switches are rated for "50 million key strokes instead of 30 million key strokes"; I'm sure somewhere around keystroke 29 million I'll sigh with relief. Such numbers are pleasant to know about and hopefully reflect a reasonable methodology, but I suspect no keyboard's keycaps are going to last long enough to keep up. Still, the new keyswitches are far more responsive, and -- at least comparing the particular examples I have of the old and new versions -- far louder. It reminds me in fact of middle generations of the Dell "QuietKey" board (which were never quiet, despite the name). So if you must type around any light sleepers, perhaps you should treat them to some warm milk before bedtime. And though I prefer the slightly deeper dish of the old version, it's an easy trade for the new one's improvement in keyfeel.
Small bonus: the new one's USB cable is a few inches longer than the old. That's about all there is to say about the connection.
The long and short:
Das Keyboard is still not my ideal keyboard, and you pay a bit more than my budget deems reasonable for the novelty of a keyboard that looks like an ideal prop for the next misunderstood-teenage-hacker movie (about $80 from ThinkGeek). But I can type reliably on the new version, which I simply never managed to do on the old, so they're doing something right. Given the improved key response, I can even imagine buying into -- or at least reconsidering -- the claims of improved typing speed or confidence as a result; I've certainly surprised myself by tapping this out with less temptation to look at the keys than I usually have (and that's after quite a few years and a few thousand hours of at least desultory tapping at both computer keyboards and actual typewriters), so for one with more self-discipline than I have, the all-black keys might be useful enough to try out.
On a five-star scale then, where I'd probably probably give the old version only one, but I'd award this one two and a half stars.
For Bonus points:
The previous version of Das Keyboard was (except cosmetically) a clone of the Keytronic 3600 series; I'll shoot some subscription pages to the first reader to point (in the comments below) an otherwise identical keyboard, but with factory-labeled keys. Note: I don't know that such a thing exists, but have fun looking.