Review: Tactile Pro
Developer: Matias Corporation
Price: $100 plus $20 shipping (direct from Matias); $80 (Small Dog Electronics); $100 (Dr. Bott)
Requirements: Mac with USB
A good keyboard will help you type faster, more accurately, and more comfortably. Apple once shipped excellent keyboards with its computers, from the compact keyboards that accompanied the IIGS and the SE/30, to the 5 lb. Extended Keyboard II that many consider to be the best Mac keyboard ever made. Sadly, things went downhill from there, as Apple shipped the Apple Design Keyboard, followed by various USB keyboards—from the dreadful bondi and fruity models, to improved black-and-white Pro models that didn’t quite rival the cheaper ADB models. Apple will obsess over synchronized sleep indicator lights and over how the bottom of the iMac G4 looks, but it doesn’t seem to take keyboards seriously.
Although I’m picky about keyboards, I’ve never been a fan of eccentric ergonomic ones like the Datahand and Kinesis. I’m happy with a traditional keyboard that’s well designed and made. As far as I know, the Tactile Pro is the only such Mac keyboard that is being manufactured today. It easily surpasses Apple’s current offerings, so this review will compare it with two legacy keyboards that are more worthy.
Apple Extended Keyboard II
The monstrous Apple Extended Keyboard II is of the “platinum Mac” era, and it doesn’t win any style points. It has a natural upward tilt (that is, it’s higher in the back), and there’s a sliding switch in the back that lets you tune this tilt to your liking.
Tactile Pro and Apple Extended Keyboard II
Choosing a keyboard is a personal matter, but most people who think about such things favor keys that are “clicky.” At one extreme, consider a standard 5-function calculator. The keys depress little, if at all, and they’re silent. At the other extreme is a mechanical typewriter. The keys have much more travel. They’re harder to push down, they go down further, and they make a lot of noise.
The Apple Extended Keyboard II is, for many people, a happy medium. You can rest your fingers on the keys, without worrying that you’ll accidentally type something. When you press a key, it moves down a comfortable distance (more than on Apple’s current keyboards), and then it springs back up, getting your finger ready to type the next letter. You can feel when you’ve depressed a key enough to make it register, and when it’s back to the rest position. The keys make a bit of noise, but not enough to bother anyone. The tactile and audible feedback improves typing accuracy, and when you do make errors, chances are that you’ll have felt them.
When I first started using a USB-equipped Mac, USB keyboards were few and far between, so I used a Griffin iMate to connect my trusty Apple Extended Keyboard II. Alas, that keyboard eventually stopped working. Though it was possible to find another on eBay, I thought it best to check out the USB offerings. I went to Macworld Expo and various retailers and tried all the ones that I could find. All were disappointing, except for the Micro Connectors “flavored” keyboards (available in the fruity iMac colors, plus graphite). I use one to this day.
Micro Connectors Keyboard
The Micro Connectors keyboard is of the “transparent Mac” era. Like most third-party products from Apple’s colorful days, it looks cheaper and less refined than the products it imitates. All but the graphite model look hideous to me. Above the function keys, you can see through the case to a row of resistors, capacitors, and other components that look best hidden. The tilt of the keyboard is slight and to my liking, though there are feet in the back that can rotate down to increase the tilt. The layout lacks the newer keys for volume control and ejecting.
The key caps are narrower than on Apple’s keyboards, and they require more force to push down than on the Apple Extended Keyboard II. There is a good amount of resistance and spring-back, but the key action feels tighter than on the Apple keyboard, and less cushioned. The Micro Connectors keyboard is also considerably louder. The clacking sound doesn’t bother me, but it might bother co-workers if you share an office. You wouldn’t want to use it while someone is trying to watch TV, or to take notes during a conference call.
The Micro Connectors keyboard is flawed, but it is overall my favorite Mac USB keyboard. Unfortunately, it is no longer being manufactured. MacConnection and MacMall still have some flavors in stock for about $50; using Froogle, I was unable to find anyone selling the graphite models.
Since I was happy using my Micro Connectors keyboard, I stopped paying attention to keyboards until I read in TidBITS that Matias had introduced the Tactile Pro Keyboard, claiming that it had recreated “the best keyboard Apple ever made,” the Apple Extended Keyboard. It sounded like a product built just for me.
The Tactile Pro looks better in the photo than in person.
The Tactile Pro is designed in the style of Apple’s second-newest keyboard, the white Apple Pro Keyboard that shipped with the iMac G4. It is probably the best-looking third-party keyboard that I’ve seen, but its styling doesn’t quite match Apple’s. The keys are made of a cheaper-looking white plastic, which is gritty and slightly shiny and reflective. Apple uses a smoother plastic with a flatter white.
The Apple Pro Keyboard looks better in person than in the photo.
The words “matias tactilepro.com” are printed on the right side of the spacebar. The other keys are marked to show which characters and symbols are available when you hold down Option or Option-Shift. While many will no doubt find this helpful, I prefer the uncluttered look without the extra markings. Strangely, the symbols for the Shift, Control, and Option modifiers are not marked on those keys. This would help people decipher menu keyboard shortcuts.
Tactile Pro Keys
A long USB cable is connected to the center, and the keyboard acts as a two-port USB 1.0 hub. There is a full complement of keys, including F1-15, the three volume keys, and Eject. Surrounding the keys, as with Apple’s keyboards, is a layer of clear plastic. After a while, this will collect dirt and hair, but fortunately the keyboard can be opened and easily cleaned by removing two Phillips screws on the bottom.
Tactile Pro Slant
The shape of the keyboard is much closer to that of the Micro Connectors keyboard than to Apple’s USB keyboards. It is comparatively high in the front, and there are two clear latches for raising the back. It is very solidly built and has a good set of four rubber pads to prevent it from sliding around as much as the Apple Pro Keyboard that it resembles.
The keys are pyramid-shaped, smaller at the top than at the bottom. The tops of the keys are a little narrower than I’d like. They are more concave than on the Extended Keyboard II and the Micro Connectors keyboard, and much more so than on Apple’s newer keyboards, which have almost flat keys. Some people like the concave shape because it helps their fingers slide into the centers of the keys. Personally, I like flatter keys. My fingers aren’t accurate enough to always hit the centers, and so I feel like I’m typing on the edges, not getting solid and even contact with the keys.
The keys have good action. You won’t press them down accidentally, and when you do press down there is good travel and spring-back. This is a great improvement over Apple’s USB keyboards, which have a squishy feel and little spring. However, I don’t like the Tactile Pro’s action as much as the Extended Keyboard II’s, or even the Micro Connectors keyboard’s. First, I like keys that offer some resistance, but the Tactile Pro felt too stiff. Initially, it reduced my typing accuracy, because I wasn’t used to pressing down hard enough. I’d keep losing my rhythm. Eventually, I got the hang of it, but I never came to prefer it.
My second complaint is that the Tactile Pro is louder than even the Micro Connectors keyboard. Worse, in addition to the normal clicking noises of the switches, the keys make a high-pitched springy sound that rings. I almost wished my Mac had a louder fan, to drown out this sound.
From what I’d read about the Tactile Pro, I expected that it would feel like my Apple Extended Keyboard II. In reality, the only similarity is that both use genuine keyswitches (not membranes). Edgar Matias informed me that the Alps keyswitches used in the Extended Keyboard I and Extended Keyboard II are no longer being manufactured, and that the Tactile Pro uses a descendent of these switches that’s a cross between the two. The Micro Connectors keyboard was made in the same factory as the Tactile Pro, but it uses a fourth type of switch, which I think is between the Extended Keyboard II and the Tactile Pro (closer to the Tactile Pro).
The Tactile Pro doesn’t feel anything like the Extended Keyboard II, as I was led to believe, so the only advantages it offers me are its styling, and the volume and eject keys. Thus, I’m sticking with my Micro Connectors keyboard, and I’m glad that I bought a spare graphite model.
If you’re using an Apple keyboard, I highly recommend trying out some alternatives. If you can stomach the Micro Connectors keyboard’s looks, it’s a good value, and you might end up preferring its feel. Otherwise, buy a Tactile Pro. Matias has not been able to re-create Apple’s keyboards of yore, but it has built a solid product: the lone Mac clicker in a membrane world.