Keyboards come in a variety of sizes, and for the most part, many of you would probably be familiar with the full-sized version that comes bundled with most computers, and is what you would typically find in a computer store or online. Then there are also the tenkeyless keyboards that some manufacturers offer that does away with the numpad in favor of a smaller design.
However if you were to dive deeper into the world of mechanical keyboards, you’ll start realizing that there are actually more sizes available out there than you think and that these keyboards are also offered up in different layouts. The Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB) is one of those that not only comes in a smaller size but also in a less conventional layout.
Chances are if you’ve stumbled across this review, you might have heard or read about the HHKB (keyboard and/or layout) and want to learn more about it, and decide if this is the board for you, so read on to find out more.
The HHKB is by no means a new keyboard. The original keyboard was designed by Professor Eiiti Wada back in 1992 who wanted to create a keyboard that would be more efficient at entering commands when using it with a UNIX system. It also saw Wada bring back some elements from the original keyboard layout, which put the Control button in the “original” position which many modern keyboards use for Caps Lock.
With Wada working together with PFU Limited, the first HHKB was released in 1996, with the HHKB Professional 2 (the model currently being reviewed) released in 2006 and continues to be produced even until today.
The HHKB layout isn’t the only non-conventional layout in the keyboard scene today, but it is one of the more popular ones. In fact within the mechanical keyboard community, there are many custom keyboards that have adopted the HHKB layout.
As you can see in the photo, the HHKB layout is not your typical layout and there are several keys that are “missing” from standard keyboards. This includes a dedicated function row, arrow keys, a numpad, and you’ll also notice that several of the keys have been shifted around. This includes the Control button, the Backspace, and there is also the addition of an “Fn” button next to the right Shift button.
The keyboard itself weighs around 530 grams, making it extremely light and an ideal keyboard to bring with you on the go, thanks largely to its plastic construction. However don’t let the use of plastic fool you because it feels quite sturdy and there is minimal flex. The keyboard also uses PBT for its keycaps and a dye-sub printing process that will ensure that the legends will not fade with use over time.
The use of PBT means that the keycaps feel rougher compared to regular keycaps which can help with grip. It also means that over time the keys will not develop that “shine” that ABS keycaps are known to do. However take note that the frame of the keyboard and spacebar uses ABS. This is because, during the cooling process, PBT has been known to warp when it comes to larger keys, which is why ABS is the more reliable option for keys like the spacebar.
The cable attached to the keyboard is of the mini USB variety and can be removed, making it a breeze to take with you on the go, and replacing the cable in the event you have to. I would have preferred if it used micro USB or even USB-C for futureproofing purposes, but it’s not a big deal. Plus the keyboard hasn’t been updated design wise since 2006, so I can’t really fault them for that.
There are also two USB 2.0 ports on the back, although with a power supply limited to 100mA there is a limit to what you can do with it.
The keyboard also comes with a couple of feet that can be adjusted to three different height levels. There are also two small rubber feet at the bottom of the keyboard which does a somewhat decent job at gripping surfaces, would have been better if they were bigger.
While the term “rubber dome” is almost like a dirty word within the mechanical keyboard community, there is a special place within the heart of many an enthusiast reserved for Topre’s switches.
Topre’s switch features a conical spring that sits on top of the PCB. It is then encased in a rubber dome that sits beneath a housing. The housing also features a sliding mechanism which is depressed on the rubber dome, with the spring providing additional resistance. In this instance the domes given are of the 45 gram variety which makes them fairly light and easy to press, making it a breeze to type on them. Very little force is required for keystrokes to be registered, but unlike membrane keyboards, there is no mushy feeling and the upstroke of the keys are pretty snappy.
Topre’s switches are probably best known for the “thock” sound with each press, which can be immensely satisfying. This is a tactile switch, although unlike other tactiles, the bump is a lot smoother and almost gives the illusion that these are linear switches. They are also not a clicky switch unlike Cherry’s MX Blues, so if you’re working outside or in a closed office space, you won’t be in any danger of driving the people around you insane.
We won’t say that it is a completely silent keyboard, but it is relatively quieter compared to certain mechanical keyboards. However if you want an event quieter version, there is the HHKB Professional Type S which is identical to the Professional 2, but has some dampeners put inside to help silence it even further. You can check out a sound comparison in the video below.
Now this is where I’m having a hard time deciding whether or not this is a criticism of the HHKB.
With its somewhat unconventional layout, if you’re coming from a standard keyboard, the learning curve can be pretty steep. This is because you will need to get used to Control being where Caps Lock used to be, the Backspace is now smaller and positioned one row lower, and you will need to memorize and juggle the Fn button to access other functions like Home, End, the arrow keys, and so on.
This sounds understandably troublesome and almost unnecessary, but once you get used to it, should you ever find yourself going back to a standard keyboard, you’ll start wishing you could remap the Control button to the Caps Lock position, and how the Backspace button was positioned lower. That being said, over time this should eventually become second nature (disclaimer: I use a HHKB-style keyboard as my daily driver).
However, I can see that this layout might not convenient for everyone. If you’re someone who accesses the function keys frequently or prefers using a numpad to input numbers to a spreadsheet, then maybe the HHKB layout isn’t for you.
When it comes to customization, the HHKB is somewhat limited. On the back of the keyboard, there is a small door that can be removed. This exposes the dip switches which when turned on or off, will affect the keyboard’s layout. PFU has helpfully placed the dip switch combinations and functions on the back of the keyboard for quick and easy reference.
Unfortunately this is pretty much where the customization of the HHKB ends. There is no bundled software for the keyboard which means that remapping your keys are limited to the dip switches. One popular hardware mod for the HHKB is the Hasu controller. Not only does this allow you to reprogram the keys on your keyboard, but it also gives it Bluetooth capabilities. However do take note that this will void your warranty so it’s probably a good idea to wait for the warranty to expire before embarking on this modification.
There are also limitations if you’re looking to customize the keycaps. This is because of the stem that Topre uses, in which the majority of custom keycaps are designed to be used with Cherry stems. Also because the HHKB uses a different layout, it’s not always possible to take keycaps from another Topre keyboard, like the Realforce or Leopold, and transplant them onto the HHKB. We’re not saying that there are no customization options, but they are noticeably less.
Conclusion, Pricing & Availability
So who is the HHKB for? If you’re someone who does a lot of typing, or wants a keyboard that’s small, light, and portable, relatively quiet, and want to free up some desk space, then the HHKB might be the keyboard for you.
If you’re someone who relies heavily on the function keys, numpad, or if you’re a gamer who wants programmable keys and extra macro keys, or if you’re someone who prefers more clicky-style switches, then maybe the HHKB is not for you.
However at $241, the HHKB Professional 2 is by no means cheap and there are plenty of options out there for that price. Some have joking referred to this as the “Topre tax” because in reality, what you are paying for are for the Topre switches which are highly revered by some, but also viewed as overhyped by others.
If you know anyone with a HHKB or if you know about any local mechanical keyboard meetups in your area, it might be worth giving it a try before investing in it. If you think that maybe you’re ready to take the plunge, you will be able to find the HHKB Professional 2 on Amazon.