Thursday, September 26, 2019

What I've Learned Part Two

To review, what I know so far is that I like the classic Apple //c keyboard because of its low profile key caps, sharply tactile switches and distinctively sharp click sound. The next questions I needed to answer after identifying these preferences were
1) What switches were used in the Apple //c?
2) Can I get a keyboard with those switches?

In attempting to answer these questions, I've learned some interesting wrinkles. The Apple //c underwent many revisions and along with these revisions were changes to the key switches in use with the machine. The computer was paired with Apple's own hairpin spring switches as well as several variants of the ALPS SKCM line: white, blue, orange and amber. Each of these switches differs in the way it feels and sounds, so I was stymied in my search for this information until I was able to receive confirmation from my brother (who owned the computer) that the version he had was built late in the series and had the platinum housing. These variants of the //c always used the ALPS SKCM Amber switch.

While it was good news to know what kind of switch I was ultimately looking for, it was bad news to actually find out the identity of the switch. Alps, as a company, no longer exists and no longer manufacturs switches. Support for the style of switch produced by this company has been waning for quite some time. Some of the more expensive enthusiast products available on the internet do offer explicit support for Alps switches, however, these have dubious support windows since the switches are on their way toward disappearing entirely. What is left in their wake is the MX style switch supposedly pioneered by Cherry. Well, at least that's what I was being told.

I considered attempting to purchase some old or "new old stock" Alps SKCM Amber switches in order to build a custom keyboard from them. This seemed the most direct approach to the issue. However, as I started searching for old Apple //c computers to snap up, I quickly discovered that these units remain quite pricey even today. This is because I am not the only person who is interested in owning these switches. The relative rarity of Alps SKCM Amber switches seems to have driven up the price of whatever functional stock of Apple //c computers still remained available. To exacerbate this difficulty is the fact that when buying one of these old computers, one must be careful to acquire the correct model. This should be simple enough except that many sellers are either ignorant of the differences in the models or intentionally obfuscating those details. Therefore, when searching places like ebay for Apple //c computers you're inevitably looking at high-priced components with relatively little detail or assurance. You could end up spending $300 for a bunch of Alps SKCM White switches instead of the Amber ones you desire.

On top of the high-risk, low reward circumstances of attempting to buy old Apple //c computers is the fact that the keyboard attached to whatever piece of equipment you might end up buying may or may not be completely functional. Or functional at all. This is the nightmare of dealing with old stock component sight-unseen. It's a playground for the swindler and a big black hole for anyone looking for something very specific.

It is possible, on the other hand, to simply purchase Alps SKCM Amber switches directly. This seems the safer option. However, there are very few sellers of these, and they will only guarantee that the switch operates in an on/off capacity. Whether or not the device retains something approximating its original feel is a matter of luck. Even assuming all switches were in acceptable condition, the sellers posses varying levels of stock and sell it for around $4 per switch. this means a full-size keyboard project of 104 keys would cost a little over $400 just for the switches and with no guarantee of proper function. Added onto this is the fact that buying the switches separately means there are no key caps. To make matters worse, even the grossly overpriced key cap group buys that are available today won't ever be for caps that fit an Alps switch as they are all tooled around the popular (and still in production) MX style switch.

Add all of these things up and what do you get? A very expensive hobby with very little likelihood of success. But what have I learned?

1) What switches were used in the Apple //c?
Alps SKCM Amber

2) Can I get a keyboard with those switches?

> My best option is to search for a modern, in-production switch which closely replicates the feel and sound of the Alps SKCM Amber switch.

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