How to fix a programmable Northgate keyboard

After my earlier post about Northgate keyboard repair it occurred to me that this information might be useful. I don’t think it can be found anywhere else on the Web.

Note that in the following slideshow (showing the repair of an Evolution keyboard) you can mouse-over the image. Controls will pop up that allow you to pause the show and to step forward and backward.

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When programmable keyboards go bad

A while ago, one of my Northgate keyboards seemed spontaneously to sustain some kind of brain injury. A number of the keys seemed to have gone haywire. The left shift key didn’t work and several pairs of keys seemed to have exchanged places.

I talked with Bob Tibbetts of Northgate Keyboard repair (http://www.northgate-keyboard-repair.com/) and he explained the situation. Here is what I learned.

The Northgates are programmable keyboards — they contain a programmable chip. They were designed so that certain key combinations (e.g. pressing the left shift key four times) puts the keyboard (that is, the programmable chip) into programming mode.

Unfortunately the programmable chip had software that worked only with Windows 98 and earlier. If you are using a Northgate keyboard with any other system, the programmable chip is basically a bad chip and should be removed. (Bob noted that he removes the chip from any keyboards that he sells.)

Fixing the problem is a two-step process. First you “reboot” the keyboard into non-progamming mode, then you remove the chip.

You can just reboot the keyboard without removing the chip, of course, and that will fix the immediate problem. But as long as the programmable chip is still in the keyboard, similar problems can occur again at any time.

How to “reboot” the programmable keyboard

Shut the computer down. Don’t just a log off or do a “soft” reboot. Power off.

Press the ESCAPE (ESC) key down and hold it down while you power up your PC. Do not release the ESC key until the computer beeps at you, or you have to do something like entering a password.

This should make the keyboard work normally. (If it doesn’t, then the problem was something other than the programmable chip.)

The anatomy of an Evolution keyboard

Working with Evolution keyboards is tricky because the Evolutions have the little GlidePoint touchpad in the middle of the top of the keyboard. There are short cables that go from the GlidePoint touchpad in the upper part of the keyboard to the “motherboard” in the bottom part of the keyboard.

Basically, the GlidePoint cables act as a sort of tether between the upper and lower halves of the keyboard. The cables are short, and virtually impossible to re-attach if you pull them loose. So you have to be careful not to pull them loose.

How to remove the programmable chip from an Evolution keyboard

First, make sure you have read “The anatomy of an Evolution keyboard” (above). Then …

“Reboot” the keyboard (see the instructions given above), then shut down (power off) your PC.

Turn the keyboard over, so that you are looking at the bottom of the keyboard.

Take the six screws (the ones holding the upper and lower parts of the keyboard together) out of the keyboard.

Turn the keyboard over, so that it is face up and you are looking at the keys.

DO NOT lift the top off of the keyboard.

Well, you can lift it a little. 

In the slideshow, you can see the top of the keyboard sitting on a little green box that lifts it about 2.75 inches (7 cm).  You can see the GlidePoint cables running from the touchpad in the top of the keyboard to the motherboard in the bottom of the keyboard. Those are the cables that you don’t want to disturb.

Lift the top half of the keyboard just enough to free it from the bottom half, then rotate the top clockwise about 4 or 5 inches, just enough to expose the programmable chip. Rotate the top using the location of the touchpad as the pivot point — that way you will disturb the touchpad cables at little as possible.

On the top right-hand side, locate the programmable chip. It is a small chip about 1/4″ x 3/8″ with 24C16 embossed on it.

Take a small screwdriver and pry the chip out. When you do this, you may break a few of the prongs that hold the chip to the motherboard. That’s OK. Bob Tibbetts suggested using a jeweler’s screwdriver. I used a small (but long) electrician’s screwdriver. I also found that once I had the chip lifted up, but not completely free of the motherboard, a needle-nose pliers was perfect for the final removal.

Around the edges of the chip socket, carefully cut off any remaining prongs. The goal is to leave no prongs sticking up that might touch each other or anything else. I think a “side cutter” pliers would be too big for this job. Something like a toenail clipper might be about right. I had only one prong left stuck in the motherboard, and I gently twisted it off with the needle-nose pliers.

Carefully lower the top of the keyboard back down onto the lower part.

Carefully turn the keyboard over, making sure to keep the two halves of the keyboard together.

Put the screws back in.

You’re done!

How to remove the programmable chip from a non-Evolution programmable keyboard

For other programmable Northgate keyboard models (models ending in a P for “programmable”) — 101P, 102P, Ultra TP and Ultra P — you can use basically the same procedure as described above for the Evolution.

The difference is that non-Evolution keyboards don’t have the GlidePoint touchpad embedded in the top of the keyboard. That means that you don’t need to worry about the GlidePoint cables, so you can lift the keyboard top completely off in order to access the programmable chip.

5 thoughts on “How to fix a programmable Northgate keyboard

  1. Hmmm… Technology is getting scary, now we have to perform a lobotomy to help our insane little friends.

    Actually this looks like a good fix to extend the life of a high quality unit into current times. But what about retro computers themselves. If someone were to try to use an altered keyboard on an old system they might be out of luck. The keyboard might not be fully programmable. I have just read about the Avant Prime keyboard which looks almost identical to the original Omnikey but it is made for modern systems. This includes software. They may have the patents and technology of the original. Could it be that they have a chip that would replace the older chip in question which could upgrade older keyboards to work with post ’98 operating systems and hopefully; work with older systems as well. Or perhaps there is or could be a software fix. The review was found in a “Welcome to Macintosh” blog titled “The Keyboard Roundup” by Tommy Thomas looks like 2006.

  2. I have two Avant Prime (AP) keyboards from ca. 1995 (or no later than Windows 95). The most used one went belly up when attached to a new Dell Windows 7 machine typing only in caps and with no punctuation after about two months of no problems.

    So, the first thing I want to tell AP owners is that these instructions are excellent and work!

    There are a few minor comments that may help AP owners.

    1. According to the original manual (yes, I have the original manual and [now useless] floppy disk), you can reset the computer to the factory default by doing a cold boot, while holding down the ESC key until the lights for NumLock, etc. blink.

    2. Alternatively, quoting from the manual, you can reset while in an application this way:

    • Press the right CONTROL key 4 times.
    • Now press the left SHIFT key and, while still holding this key, press the numeric “1” key (located by the Escape key [i.e. the No. 1 key with exclamation point]).
    • Release both keys, then press the “X” key.

    Obviously method no. 1 is a lot easier and that’s what I used.

    3. The entire top frame lifts off the keyboard. No swiveling necessary.

    4. The layout of the chips differs slightly from the Northgate above, with the 24C16 located immediately to the right of the long, black chip.

    Because it is jammed in right next to that chip, levering it out is not easy and in both cases I ended up with some of the legs still in the board. As advised, I used snub-nosed pliers to pull them out. And, of course, any tiny screwdriver works.

    Also in order to get sufficient leverage I ended up bending two orange doo-hickeys which I pushed back into upright position after I was done.

    I then used compressed air to superficially clean the keyboard.

    NEXT:

    1. You need a PS/2 Keyboard to USB adapter. Not every one works and one of the first ones that came up on Amazon, according to the comments, didn’t work with Dells. I bought one by Ziotek: http://www.amazon.com/PS2-Keyboard-To-USB-Adapter/dp/B000BSJFJS/ref=sr_1_33?ie=UTF8&qid=1326918167&sr=8-33

    Obviously other ones may work just as well. The problem with this one is it is fat and takes up two USB spaces which you can get around by attaching it to a USB extender cable, which is what I did.

    2. I also wanted, sigh, to remap or swap two keys: the “capslock” with the “left-control” key. For that I used: “MapKeyboard” a freeware utility from: http://www.inchwest.com/mapkeyboard.htm

    I like this one because it is not only extremely easy to use, it also has a reset to the “default” layout. Basically it writes the codes for the appropriate keys to the Registry.

    THEREFORE you should do a RESTORE POINT for your Registry before you run the program.

    Finally, this lengthy comment was typed on my beloved AP keyboard! My thanks to Steve Ferg for his incredibly clear instructions and photographs!

  3. Vunderbar.

    I have 7 Northgates and 1 Avant Stellar. All of the Nortgates are out of service and need repair. And the Avant has one switch that is starting to go bad. Some need ALPS switches replaced. For a couple that only have a single bad key, I have replaced them with the Print Screen ALPS switch since I never use the Print Screen key.

    There were a couple of them that just had bad key mappings. Rebooting the keyboard has fixed those two.

    So I now have 4 working keyboard., Three can go back in service (I have two computers, one with an Avant and one with a Dell keyboard that can now be scrapped). The others need some substational cleaning and a few ALPS replaced. Those may go to Bob.

    But Yea!!!!!!!!!!!!. Northgate keyboards rule.

    Now if I could just find a source for ALPS switches.

  4. Hi, thanks for your help with the keyboards. I have a OmniKey/102 and it doesn’t have a programmable chip that I can find. Need a new cable for it along with an USB converter.

    Tried to contact Bob Tibbitts but can’t get a hold of him either through email or by phone. Have you been in contact with him recently? Once again, thanks.

    • I was in touch with Bob via email today. He’s fine and still in business. The email addresses and phone numbers on his web site should work. He was mystified when I told him that some folks had had problems reaching him, because he gets calls and emails every day. So I don’t know what to say except — if at first you don’t succeed, try again.

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