Finding the ultimate input devices – the Apple Extended Keyboard II and CST L-Trac

I know, I know – this is clearly procrastination (and procrastination of the geekiest possible kind), but I think I have now achieved a kind of personal nirvana of computer input peripherals, and I just had to share.

For the last couple of years I have been using Apple’s Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse. They are the bog-standard peripherals Apple sells for use with their Mac computers, and they are quite nice but I have a few issues with them.

  • They are not magic, despite the marketing, and are expensive for what they are.
  • Both devices have sealed rechargeable batteries, and they cannot be serviced or repaired. I object to this from a sustainability and environmental standpoint. When the device fails, it cannot be repaired and the whole unit has to be thrown away.
  • The mouse is a perfect example of form over function. It looks sleek and trendy but is an ergonomic disaster, and has definitely made my wrist pains worse. My sample also has an intermittent Bluetooth connection with the host computer.
  • While the keyboard feels very nice to type on, it has a slightly quirky layout that I still haven’t completely got used to (although in day-to-day use this is a far smaller issue than some bloggers have tried to make out). The arrow keys have a slightly weird configuration. And while the compact, tenkeyless design doesn’t take up much space on the desk, I’ve been missing a numeric keypad.
  • Certain keys in the keyboard started to become unresponsive recently. The key caps are also getting heavily worn down in places. I put a lot of wear on computer keyboards, but just under two years isn’t great even for me – and as already mentioned it can’t be repaired.

I decided to completely rethink my input peripherals, and asked myself what I would choose if building a new workstation perfectly tuned to my specific needs.

Keyboard: Apple Extended Keyboard II

I happen to believe this is the best keyboard ever made. Some people prefer the original Apple Extended Keyboard, others the classic IBM Model M, but the Extended Keyboard II is up there with the best of them1. This isn’t entirely subjective either – the Extended II was the Rolls Royce of keyboards when it was introduced in the early 1990s, with absolutely top-quality components throughout and an emphasis on long-lasting durability.

It was also the last mechanical keyboard Apple ever made. Keyboards since have been cheaper, lighter, thinner and quieter, but none has been anywhere near as reliable2 – and none has offered such beautifully crisp typing feedback.

I grew up using the Extended II. It was the keyboard most of the Macs at school were equipped with, and also the keyboard I used at home for several years. Its layout is as familiar to me as the act of handwriting.

I’ve owned my current Extended II for only a few years, but it was almost pristine when I acquired it, no wear at all on the keycaps. It’s a 1995 model with Alps White (Damped) keyswitches that offer a lovely tactile feel but aren’t too loud. Until now, it has been hooked up to various vintage Macs, and I’ve written maybe a couple of hundred thousand words on it.

My Extended Keyboard II in use with my Macintosh Classic (1990)

When selecting a new keyboard for my main workstation, the Extended II was the obvious choice. The only issue is that it uses the long-defunct ADB socket, so I had to trawl eBay to look for a Griffin iMate USB > ADB converter.3

It works perfectly with my Mac running OS X 10.11.6. Typing on it is an absolute joy. It may look like a beige throwback from the 90s, but in terms of performance and muscle memory it’s a long way ahead of anything else I’ve used. It’s also easy to repair. If the keycaps wear out they can be replaced; if an entire keyswitch fails it isn’t too difficult to remove it and solder in a new one, unlike a modern membrane or scissor-switch board. This keyboard should last many more years with careful maintenance.

Pointing device: CST L-Trac trackball

This one’s a bit of a departure from the norm for me, but not without precedent.

Like many knowledge workers, I sometimes get pain in my wrist from using a computer mouse. Although it has never flared up into full-blown RSI, I’m well aware that the use of a mouse has inherent problems that can’t be entirely prevented.4

Over the years I have tried various alternatives in attempts to stave off RSI, including Apple’s Magic Trackpad (which actually made things worse) but I’ve generally gravitated back to an ordinary mouse. The main exception was a Kensington Orbit Trackball that I used for about five years from 2003. It was great until it eventually failed – my only criticism was the lack of a scroll wheel.

So, when re-evaluating a pointing device, I decided to go back to a trackball. I have opted for the best and most repairable trackball I could find.

We used CST trackballs in our labs at university about 10 years ago. They’re almost comically huge, but they have three large buttons (rated for 5 million clicks) and an excellent scroll wheel.

I found this one on eBay. It’s an L-Trac laser optical trackball; a slightly updated model from the ones we used at uni, and in black plastic instead of beige, but it works in exactly the same way. I bought it used at a steep discount because they are incredibly expensive brand new.

The CST L-Trac next to the Extended II

So far I’ve been using the L-Trac for several days and it’s every bit as good as I hoped it would be. Trackballs have major ergonomic advantages over mice, and there’s no adjustment period because I’ve spent lengthy spells using trackballs before. The addition of a scroll wheel makes it a lot more usable than the smaller, cheaper Kensington model I used 14 years ago.

With luck, this L-Trac should last for the rest of my career. It’s built like a tank and can be easily repaired and serviced by the user.

Final remarks

I’m quite picky when it comes to input peripherals. I hate poor-quality membrane keyboards that feel mushy under the fingertips and wear out quickly, and I spend so much of my working life using a computer that this experience matters a great deal to me. I think peripherals are more important than the tech specs of the computer itself, because you interact directly with these devices.

Most people don’t think about this stuff, of course, and if you’re happy using the keyboard and mouse that came with your setup then that’s absolutely fine. But if you spend a lot of time using a computer then do take the risk of RSI seriously, and think about workspace ergonomics. You owe it to yourself to put your safety and comfort first.

I also added bias lighting to my monitor recently, which seems to have cured my issues with eye strain after dark

I also object to the modern trend in sealed, non-repairable electronics. It’s understandable to an extent in things like laptops, where thinness and portability are desirable, but inexcusable to fill a desktop keyboard with glue so it can’t be repaired5. The Apple Magic Keyboard has a lifespan of no more than a few years before it’ll be consigned to landfill.

This has been an interesting exercise for me and I think I now have a setup that will last me for a very long time. For my needs and preferences, I can’t think of a keyboard or pointing device that could possibly be better than what I now have – and if they develop faults, I can fix them myself with a soldering iron and spare parts.

  1.  More information on the Extended Keyboard II can be found at John Gruber, the well-known author of Daring Fireball, used an Extended Keyboard II for 14 continuous years until 2006, replacing it with a backup copy after a key started flaking out on him. He considers it his favourite Apple device in history. As far as I know he’s still using his second Extended II. 
  2. As a general rule, most modern keyboards are poor compared to the mechanical keyboards in common service in the 1980s and 1990s. The modern rubber-dome keyboard gets the job done but has a significantly shorter lifespan than its fully mechanical ancestor, and a poorer typing experience (although this part is subjective). It’s still possible to buy mechanical keyboards today, but they’re niche devices, mostly aimed at gamers, and many aficionados prefer vintage models – which is why there is a healthy market in refurbished Model M keyboards.
  3. These converters, which haven’t been made for some years, are now becoming very scarce. Until a few years ago there seemed to be dozens of them on eBay at once, but now they only pop up once every few months. I suspect the people who own them are hanging on to them.