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Don't click: 8 famously lousy vintage keyboards


With the advent of personal computing, designers and developers tried to find the best balance between cost and build quality. Some, however, failed to do so miserably by saving on keyboard quality, hampering the way users experienced the device.

It's an understatement to say that the keyboard is a vital part of the computer. In recent years, groups of enthusiasts have banded together to restore the great era of mechanical keyboards with various custom-made devices that can cost a small fortune.

There is a good reason people are not shy to pay for a quality experience – it matters. A poorly designed or cheap keyboard can make life unbearable for a user. For a PC manufacturer, the consequences can be even direr as years of costly product development can go to waste due to a faulty input device.

We've compiled a list of some of the famously controversial keyboards used to equip mostly very successful devices. Some of the PCs on the list were even discontinued because of their faulty keyboards.

Commodore PET 2001 (1977)

The original Commodore Pet 2001 keyboard. Image source.

Among the first commercially successful PCs, the Commodore PET 2001 series is a legendary device, partly responsible for kickstarting personal computing as we know it. Even though being among the first has its advantages, there certainly are some drawbacks, too.

It's no coincidence that PET 2001 looked like something from a sci-fi movie upon its release. Commodore meant the computer to be futuristic. Three letters and four digits somewhat resembled HAL 9000, a computer from Stanley Kubricks' 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unfortunately, so did the keyboard.

Commodore 2000 typewriter alongside Commodore PET 2001 PC with an updated keyboard. Image by u/Cloudscout.

First of all, the chiclet keyboard was truly minuscule. With 6in by 2.75, it was smaller than most modern phones. Moreover, that keyboard is square-shaped. If you think that your keyboard is square, too, just take a look at the letters that are offset to match how we use our fingers.

The outlay for various symbols was also different, and the spacebar was three times shorter than it is today. That was, however, 1977, and PC as a product was still in its infancy. In either case, Commodore made typewriters before making computers and were likely aware of what the users find comfortable.

The fact that later iterations of the 2001 series models featured a larger keyboard with letters offset and a proper spacebar only proves that they did.

Atari 400 (1979)

A close up of the Atari 400 keyboard. Image source.

A bit late to the PC revolution, the gaming giant Atari released its 400 and 800 series devices in 1979. Initially, Atari PCs were a success, outselling Apple by two to one in 1979, with sales reaching as much as 600 thousand units in 1982.

The cheaper 400 series was equipped with a membrane keyboard that was advertised to be spill-resistant even though it was a cost-cutting measure for the low-end machine. The decision somewhat backfired as the membrane keyboard was famously unresponsive.

Atari 400 and Atari 800 home computers released in 1979.

Since the keyboard was completely flat, there was no way to know whether a button push was a success or not. Multiple replacement keyboards for the device were available to supplement the original. Some required to physically change the input device, while others were used on top of the original.

Texas Instruments TI-99/4 (1979)

Texas Instrument PC with an unusual keyboard layout. Image source.

Famously, Texas Instruments' attempt to enter the PC market resulted in a price war with Commodore. TI-99/4 and TI-99/4A sold for 10-15% of the original value only three years after its initial release. Texas Instruments lost hundreds of millions of dollars and left the unforgiving PC market entirely.

However, TI-99/4 had a famously lousy keyboard as Texas Instruments decided on using calculator-style square keys and no functionality for lower case symbols. Since there was no lower case, the 'shift' button served as a modifier.

One such function, Shift Q, enabled two actions: to quit a program or reset the computer. Now imagine finding that out while trying to type a capital Q in a document or a program. To make matters worse, the 'enter' button was where one would expect to find the right 'shift' button and the 'space' bar was above the left 'shift' key.

Sinclair ZX 80 (1980)

Sinclair ZX80 and it's legendary blue keyboard. Image by Shutterstock.

An instant success in the UK, going for less than £100 at its release, the ZX 80 was the first computer to many brits. However, to keep the costs as low as possible, Sinclair Research had to opt for a lower quality build, thus its keyboard.

Users of the device had to type directly onto the keyboard membrane as even the rubber cover was removed to cut costs. Unsurprisingly, that made typing experience unresponsive. Basically, it's as responsive as trying to type on your desk.

Tangerine Oric-1 (1982)

Oric-1 and it's infamous keyboard. Image source.

In an attempt to follow up on the success of Sinclair's ZX Spectrum, another British manufacturer, Tangerine computer systems, released a similarly designed Oric-1. The company sold over 200 thousand units in the year of its release.

However, the company decided to equip the device with elongated plastic keys. The shape of the keys means that pushing anywhere but the middle of the key provides a wobble and no on-screen results.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum (1982)

Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Image by Shutterstock.

Released in 1982, the ZX Spectrum is comparatively as influential as Commodore 64 was in terms of sales and legacy. Sinclair sold over 5 million copies of the device worldwide until it was discontinued in 1992. The 5 million does not include various clones based on the ZX that flooded the market after the device was released. 

Spectrum, the successor to the ZX81, was named so to announce its color capabilities. To push the point even further, Sinclair made the device black and had a rainbow-colored stripe to signal the color capabilities, somewhat mimicking Apple’s move a few years earlier.

Original Spectrum keyboard was equipped with rubber caps, that touched on directly on the membrane of the keyboard, yet again making the otherwise superb machine, unresponsive. It's difficult to imagine using the device for typing for long periods of time. Due to the small size of the device, many of the keys are also multifunctional, making it even harder to effectively use the input device.

Tandy TRS-80 Micro Color Computer (1983)

TRS-80 Micro Color Computer. Image source.

Similar to Commodore, Tandy Corporation made the PC a user-friendly device for every house, rather than something only hobbyists enjoy. The Micro Color Computer still carries the legendary 'TRS-80' in its name. Unfortunately for Tandy, that's where the similarities end.

Made to mimic the success of Sinclair ZX80 and Spectrum, the Micro Color was a small device with a small chiclet keyboard. That meant that some keys were responsible for several functions as well as BASIC shortcuts, causing some confusion.

For some reason, Tandy decided not to include a 'backspace' key while installing the 'break' key in its place. The left 'shift' key was also missing from the device. Few noticed the layout mishaps as the device flopped, being canceled only a year after its introduction.

IBM PCjr (1984)

Full set up of the IBM PCjr. Image posted by u/worldslargestorange.

Yes, strangely enough, the company responsible for some of the most sought vintage keyboards (Model M or Unsaver, for example) is also responsible for making one of the worst. Enter: IBM PCjr, a cheaper version of the revolutionary IBM PC.

Marketed as supplied with a wireless keyboard, the device failed to deliver on its promise. The keyboard relied on infrared line-of-sight communication with the computer; users couldn't use any of the advantages of a wireless keyboard as it had to be placed directly in front of the computer at all times. Not to talk about the constant need to feed the keyboard batteries.

A close up of the IBM PCjr's keyboard. An excerpt from a YouTube video.

The chiclet keyboard was strange in other ways, too. For example, the keys were left empty with letters, numbers, and symbols printed above each key. Users complained that the keyboard was unsuitable for serious work as the chiclet design was useless.

Even though IBM sold around half a million units, the device was discontinued a few years after release. Strangely enough, IBM released the Model M keyboard, lauded as one of the best the same year.


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