Northgate keyboard repair

The best computer keyboards ever made (even when compared to the original IBM model M keyboards) were the Northgate Omnikey keyboards.  They were heavy keyboards built like tanks, featuring buckling spring key-switches notable for their distinctive clicking as you typed.  These were real keyboards — no crappy “rubber dome” key switches allowed.

Omnikey Ultra keyboard

Omnikey Ultra keyboard

I used only Northgate Omnikey Ultras for years, lugging them from job to job like an itinerant medieval carpenter carrying his tools with him from town to town, and using special keyboard plug adapters when keyboard plug design evolved first to PS/2 and then to USB.

But tools get worn and dirty and a few years ago my Ultras were terminally filthy and starting to fail.  That was when, thanks to the twin miracles of the Web and Google, I found Bob Tibbetts and his Northgate Keyboard Repair web site.  Bob belongs to the school of minimalist website design, but his keyboard expertise and repair skills are totally maximal, and he really saved my bacon keyboards.   He also, in a manner of speaking, saved my wrists.

After 25 years of coding, the joints in my hands and wrists were starting to protest.  I switched from using a mouse to a using a trackball (I prefer a Logitech Cordless Optical Trackman), and that helped a lot.   Carpal tunnel syndrome forced a friend of mine to retire on disability and put The Fear into me.  A bout of online research convinced me that we really need more ergonomic keyboards, so I went shopping for one. 

The major feature of an ergonomic keyboard is a split design in which the left and right halves of the keyboard  are split apart, separated by a few inches, and angled slightly so that you can type without bending your wrists.  The result is a keyboard that is shaped like a V rather than like a straight unbroken line. In a sense, the keyboard is bent so your wrists don’t have to be.

Image of Northgate Evolution keyboard

Northgate Evolution keyboard

What I really wanted, of course, was an ergonomic version of the Omnikey Ultra. 

One day, in an email to Bob, I mentioned that although I loved my Ultras (one of which Bob was cleaning and repairing at the time), what I really wished for was an ergonomic V-shaped version of the Ultra. 

Well, I nearly fell off my chair when Bob told me that such a thing actually existed.  It was called the Omnikey Evolution keyboard.  Evolutions were very advanced for their time, and very few were made.  But a few — new in the box — still existed, and he had a few for sale.

I immediately ordered one, tried it out, and loved it.  It is my favorite keyboard ever.  So I followed my Mom’s tongue in cheek advice (“Get ‘em before the hoarders do.”) and got more.  I now own 5 — one for work, one for my home Vista machine, one for my home Linux machine, and two backups.

As I type this, it is almost midnight on March 11, 2011, and Bob has only 3 Evolution keyboards left. 

The good news is that if you have a beloved old Northgate that is showing its age, Northgate Keyboard Repair is still in the business of cleaning and repairing Northgate keyboards.

Finally, if you’re looking to purchase a keyboard with buckling spring key switches, you might check out the Customizer line of keyboards at pckeyboards.com.  It is a reincarnation of the original IBM model M.

And keep on clicking…

## updated January 1, 2012

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14 thoughts on “Northgate keyboard repair

  1. A few extra bits of information.

    If your Northgate keyboard starts acting flaky, or you just bought a keyboard, you might want to check out the post on How to fix a programmable Northgate keyboard.

    The written transcript for the NPR story can be found here.

    At the end of the story, Robert Siegel, the host for All Things Considered says “And you can peer inside those keyboards and learn what makes them click at npr.org.” After some serious looking, I finally found the URL for the short (20 seconds) video of a mockup of a buckling spring key.

    In a related story Martin Kasty has some interesting remarks about the design of the Model M.

    The Model M is not a typewriter. But it may very well be the last computer keyboard designed to feel like one. Neil Muyskens, the fellow whose tiny Lexington company pckeyboard.com still makes the old-style keyboards, told me that when IBM set out to design the Model M in the 1980s, it was trying to emulate the feel of the Selectric (possibly the best electric typewriter ever made).

    That’s why the Model M has a spring under each key: When that spring buckles, it unambiguously communicates that fact to your fingertip. You feel the letter being made; there’s no need to pound all the way to the bottom just to be sure. With the Model M, word processing retains an element of physical reality.

    • I just want to say thank-you for your excellent instructions on how to repair a Northgate Keyboard.
      I had purchased a Northgate 101 on Ebay 3 years ago and up until today have not been able to use it
      because of the crazy mixed up character problem.
      After a reboot while holding the Esc key down, the key board is functioning fine.
      You saved me a $55 repair job from Bob. Thanks so much.

      • Excellent! That’s what I was hoping for when I put up the post. It is great to know it worked. :-)
        Thanks!

  2. There is alternative to Northgate Omnikey keyboards, made by “Creative Vision Technologies, Inc.”
    When my trusted Omnikey Ultra retired few years ago i did some research and found keyboard, named “Avant Stellar” which is very close to original Omnikey.

    It is expensive, but probably one of very few possibilities if You like “old school” keyboards.

  3. Hi,

    Gosh I remember the good days of click-clack for sure. But after years and my own wrist health issues I had to move to a kinesis keyboard and a fingerworks iGesture pad.

    Fingerworks was mysteriously bought out years ago and their products disappeared. I think the patent went to apple for multi-touch, but the kinesis is still around. I’ve bought five or six of them as well, they do wear out.

  4. Thanks. I see that Ergonomics Made Easy still has them for $199. That’s a bit more than they cost from Bob. On the upside, though, they may have a bigger stockpile.

    Note also that (in addition to the link I provided in my post) CyberGuys.com has the kind of of keyboard adapter that you want to get if you want to plug your keyboard into a USB port.

    Lueck Data Systems (which sold the last of their Northgates to Northgate Keyboard Repair) still has the OmniKey User Guides posted on their website.

    I found a some videos of the Evolution on YouTube here, and here.

  5. Thanks for the trackball plug. I started using trackballs about 10 years ago and loved them. They are also great for people who have trouble double clicking. Well, a couple of years ago I could not find a trackball and bought a Logitech MX mouse. I fell in love with the customizable buttons but missed the trackball. Recently I began having a pain in the right shoulder after prolonged computer use and began looking for some help. My first step was to learn the Dvorak keyboard. I have not yet achieved my old typing speed, but I have noticed that my finger movement on the keyboard is significantly less.

    I have never had a Northgate keyboard, but loved the IBM clickers. I will have to get one of the ergo ones you mentioned and give it a spin. Thanks for the post!

  6. I just unboxed my last OmniKey, but the Advent series (no longer made) were sold as late as two years ago. They were Omnikey clones.

  7. Just a “BIT” of correct info to set the record straight:
    1. The Omnikey and Avant keyboards, 101, 102 Ultra were designed by INTERFATRON, LTD.
    NOT BY NORTHGATE OR CVT.
    2. The designers were Bill Ingold and Dan Skenzich
    ifbbcdsl (at) msn.com

  8. I am all about the OmniKey 102 and, in fact, am sending mine to OmniKey expert Bob Tibbetts for a complete overhaul.

    With all due respect, please note that the Omnikey 102, at least, boasts White Alps mechanical switches, which is its secret weapon for besting its closest rival, the IBM AT, which has a collapsing spring under each key, with nary a coveted White Alps mechanical switch in sight. If the OmniKey Ultra left behind Northgate’s signature White Alps keys in favour of collapsing spring action, well, that’s a damn shame.

    In addition to the OmniKey 102 by Northgate, I have an IBM AT (not an M series, though), and its collapsing spring key action isn’t nearly as clicky or tactily pronounced as the 102 with its White Alps. Viva la difference betwixt the two.

  9. Lost my manual and have forgotten how to program the SF keys! Help please. Thanks , Chuck

    • See comment 5, above.

      Lueck Data Systems (which sold the last of their Northgates to Northgate Keyboard Repair) still has the OmniKey User Guides posted on their website.

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