Matias is a Canadian company manufacturing and selling several types of add-ons for Mac users, such as ergonomic and other keyboards, and an armored briefcase to carry MacBook Pros with you. Their Tactile Pro keyboard is probably their most expensive keyboard, the price of some 150.00 USD explained by the keyboard’s special feature: mechanical Alps switch keys.
Back when computers were still ugly and the only creatures twittering were the birds, Apple made what must have been the best keyboard ever made for PCs. I myself used to own one of these heavy tank-like built writing instruments –because that’s what they were: serious writing instruments. Today’s keyboards are more for looking at.
The reason why that old keyboard was superior to all the mushy junk we can buy today, were its keys. Journalists and other professional typists liked the tangible “click” when a key was depressed fully. They also liked the sculpted surface of the keys and the carefully thought of layout that made it possible for people to get speeds that far exceeded any keyboard’s buffers.
Alas, with iMacs and subsequent design upgrades came keyboards that did no longer have the mechanical keys needed to deliver the feel of these sturdy gray typing tanks. In their place came a keyboard with keys that were spaced too far apart, that felt like you were hitting mushrooms, and that collected dirt like hell.
Those keyboards were aggravating to say the least. When you typed with these, it was never clear if you had really hit a key fully, and so words were only typed half or with characters missing, and you wouldn’t know.
The current aluminium keyboards Apple delivers with its Macs are fine. The only grudge I have against them is that key travel –the distance from the keytop at rest to the keytop when it’s depressed– is virtually non-existent. Typing with an aluminium keyboard has one big advantage: it’s silent. But you’re often typing too hard –exerting too much force– for the keys to result in letters being entered in a text.
That by itself can be extremely tiresome, but more importantly it can add to RSI complaints –in this case in your shoulder area– and to slower typing speeds because your brain is never sure the key has really been depressed 100%, which makes you subconsciously hesitate for a fraction of a second.
Luckily, there are always people and companies who see opportunities where others like myself only see something good disappear from the market. Matias was one of the first to see the opportunity for a keyboard that would replace the old Apple keyboards. The problem was the keys themselves; the exact same ones are no longer made, but something very close is: the Alps key. These keys are curved, which is excellent for people like myself who don’t really touch type but get high speeds nevertheless. Flat keys make your fingers slide off easily, curved ones have that problem far less.
Also, Matias’ keyboard has better key spacing and a full ‘disclosure’ of all non-ASCII character set on the keys, so you don’t have to look up which key represents an ‘accent aigu’. Several years ago I therefore purchased a Tactile Pro keyboard of the first generation. It was OK, but although it was virtually indestructible, I found its finish to be less than good. The keyboard enclosure didn’t properly align, and other small misalignments made me eventually switch to the aluminium keyboards Apple was then already making.
Today, Matias is offering version 3 –the third generation of the Tactile Pro– to people who still like the Alps mechanical key switch better than the aluminium mushroom keys Apple sells. And when I asked Matias to send me a test unit I honestly didn’t think I’d like it much. As I am writing this (using the Matias) I have been switching back and forth between the Tactile Pro and the full Apple alu keyboard for about a week, and I still can’t make up my mind.
I love the silence of the Apple keyboard, but after a couple of days I miss the tactile feel of the Tactile Pro as well as its better key placement and its sturdy feel. I also miss its ability to keep up with my typing –it has special Anti-Ghosting Circuitry (also called n-key rollover, according to the Matias website).
The Tactile Pro version 3 is built much better than the first generation. Although its design has barely changed, I was nicely surprised by the packaging, and when I opened the box, by the care with which this keyboard had been buffered to survive transport. The keyboard itself now has immaculate quality of build, with an enclosure that fits tightly, and keys with the symbols laser etched (and although you can’t see that, you absolutely notice the crispness of the symbols!).
The keyboard is heavy –compared to the aluminium Apple keyboard– and it has those old-fashioned but ever so practical feet underneath. The 1st generation Tactile Pro’s feet were flimsy; this Tactile Pro’s feet are as sturdy as the rest of the instrument. The USB cable is 180 cm long; not the short fuse you get with other keyboards, and thank God not wireless.
There are 15 F-keys, and all the keys you’d expect from an Apple keyboard. The only thing that I found less when typing fast was the Return key –I know I’m probably an exception, but to me that key must be bigger or at least vertically bigger so that it looks more like the current Apple keyboard layout. I tend to hit the key above too often…
According to Matias, the keyboard is more resistant to crumbs and dust, but that was something I couldn’t test –I think it’s ridiculous to spill a mug of coffee over a device only to see if it can withstand that abuse. We all know it can’t, and if one test unit can, then I’m sure the next one won’t.
Conclusion: I love the Matias Tactile Pro a lot. I am absolutely convinced fellow journalists and reviewers will agree. The only thing that I dislike is the noise these keyboards produce, but it’s one or the other. My ideal environment is a wireless Apple keyboard for navigating and managing the OS, and the Tactile Pro for typing texts.
Oh, and one tip: to protect my keyboards without buying a special cover for it, I use a roll of shrink wrap plastic of which I cut a piece that I place the keyboard on. I wrap it around from front to where the cable sits, and when the plastic gets dirty or damaged, I simply replace it.