Review: Das Keyboard Model S Professional for Mac is a solid mechanical-switch keyboard
Mechanical keyboards, which have hardware switches underneath the keys, cater to computer users who prefer a stronger tactile key response than they can get with today’s membrane keyboards, including Apple’s current keyboards. The actual switches hidden under each key produce a solid “clack” in response to each key press.
Das Keyboard is a premium brand of mechanical keyboards, but before 2012 the company produced models only for PC users. That changed with Das Keyboard’s $133 Model S Professional For Mac, which finally offers some mechanical-keyboard competition for Matias’s popular Tactile Pro 3 ().
The Model S Professional is a big, solid slab of glossy-black plastic that weighs about 3 pounds. It’s tapered from top to bottom to produce a contoured shape; and pop-out feet under the back edge let you raise the rear of the keyboard if you like.
The Model S Professional connects to your Mac via a 6-foot USB cable that terminates in two USB plugs. One plug is for the keyboard itself; the other offers power (250mA) and connectivity to the two USB 2.0 ports located on the keyboard’s right side. Most other keyboards, including Apple’s wired model, divide power between what the keyboard itself needs and what the keyboard’s built-in USB ports can provide; 250mA is sufficient for syncing and charging iPhones and iPods, though most iPads will need a separate AC adapter. (If you don’t plan to use the keyboard’s USB ports, you can leave its second cable unplugged to avoid needlessly occupying a USB port on your Mac.)
The Model S’s sculpted, black plastic keys have a matte finish, and its gold-plated MX keyswitches from Cherry Corp. give them a pleasant, solid feel. You can easily and safely remove most of the key caps in order to clean the dust, crumbs, and other detritus that gets underneath. Das Keyboard provides removal instructions and a video, and it also sells a special key-removal tool for users who dislike the idea of prying off key caps with whatever tool thay have on hand.
Like Matias’s keyboards, the Model S has a solid, recognizable, mechanical feel, but they differ in their key travel and switch sensation. Matias’s ALPS-made keyswitches produce a hollow “clunk” sound, while Das Keyboard’s Cherry MX switches offer a crisp “click.” But the sensation in each case is precise, highly tactile, and quite physical—nothing like the soft, mushy, indistinct key presses you experience with a membrane keyboard.
Like many other typists who prefer mechanical keyboards, I find them more accurate and easier to type on than membrane keyboards. To increase precision, Das Keyboard equipped the Model S Professional with circuitry that permits five-key rollover: You can press up to five keys simultaneously, and the keyboard will still detect the discrete presses and accurately generate the appropriate characters. As Das Keyboard notes, the feature benefits not just fast typists but also gamers, who frequently mash multiple keys at once.
Mechanical keyboards are considerably louder than membrane keyboards, so if you work in a shared office environment or need a quiet keyboard for dictation or for typing while you’re on the phone, the clicky-clack sound of the Model S Professional may be a drawback. The Model S’s keys aren’t as quiet as those of Matias’s Quiet Pro , but they do beat the Matias Tactile Pro 3's keys.
(Das Keyboard offers a $135 Soft Pressure Point version of the Model S Professional that, like the Quiet Pro, delivers the feel of a mechanical-keyboard without the noise. Though the Soft version is available only in a Windows PC model, you can buy a $14 Mac Key Cap Set to swap out the Windows-specific keys for Mac versions.)
Mac-focused accouterments of the Model S Professional for Mac include a bottom row hosting Control, Option, and Command keys. F6 through F11 are media-control keys that handle back, play/pause, forward, volume mute, volume down, and volume up, respectively; F1 is mapped to a handy sleep function. You don't need any special software to get these keys to work with OS X—or to use the keyboard with a Mac.
The keyboard’s 104-key layout is standard, with F-keys properly separated from the main key area and grouped into pods of four, so touch-typists can easily find the keys by feel (Apple’s keyboards, in contrast, position F-keys in an uninterrupted, half-height row adjacent to the number keys). Whereas Matias’s Mac keyboards include three additional F-keys and an Eject key above the number pad, the Model S does not.
Unfortunately, the Model S Professional doesn’t provide other Mac-focused F-key special functions, such as Mission Control and Dashboard, though you can use the Keyboard pane of System Preferences to assign these functions to other F-keys. The Model S does have display-brightness controls, but they’re assigned to unorthodox keys, F14 and F15. Also, inexplicably, the Model S's fn key doesn’t function as a Mac-keyboard fn key, so you’ll have to remap Mountain Lion’s dictation-activation shortcut to another key via the Dictation & Speech pane of System Preferences.
The Model S Professional For Mac represents a good Mac-specific start for Das Keyboard. It provides a solid and reassuringly physical mechanical-keyboard experience, and its keyswitch technology and physical design differentiate it from the popular Matias offerings, providing a crisp, clicky sensation. However, I hope the next version of the Model S will offer standard Mac function keys, instead of just media-control keys.
Updated 12/4/12, 12:40pm, to correct error about display-brightness controls.