A few months ago I had the pleasure of heading up a community wide interview with Professor Eiiti Wada, creator of the Happy Hacking keyboard (HHKB). A poll was available on Massdrop, as well as opening the discussion on Reddit, GeekHack, and Deskthority, inviting the entire mechanical keyboard community to propose questions to ask Professor Eiiti Wada. I am thrilled to announce the interview has finally been published on Massdrop! (The guest link means you don’t have to sign in to view it)
The Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB) is one of the most highly regarded keyboards ever made. The HHKB was one of the first keyboards to take the standard 104 key layout and reduce the size to a mere 60 keys. The unique layout of the HHKB was essential in making the smaller size retain its functionality, and the combination of it’s layout and size has made it a favorite among programmers and the mechanical keyboard community alike.
In the interview Professor Eiiti Wada discusses his inspiration for creating the HHKB, gives his opinion on other smaller keyboards that have taken inspiration from the HHKB, and even shares pictures of his own personal computer setup. In the meantime I wanted to give a little of my own personal history with the HHKB, as it surely mirrors the experience of others in the community.
I originally became aware of the HHKB while browsing the keyboard forum Deskthority a few years ago. At the time, smaller 60% keyboards weren’t nearly as popular as they are today, and the tiny size combined with the gigantic price tag left me quickly moving on to the next thread on the forum. I didn’t pay attention or think about the HHKB much over the following months, but as time passed I saw more and more discussion about the HHKB. Every post about the HHKB seemed to contain overwhelming praise in some form. The Topre switches and “odd” layout seemed to be the main draws of the keyboard from the discussions that were happening about it, but neither translated well enough from text to reality to convince me that the HHKB was worth the hefty price. Eventually, the time finally came when I seriously started considering buying an HHKB just to see what all the fuss what about, and a year or so after I originally became aware of the HHKB, I bought one.
I don’t think I’ve ever anticipated the arrival of a keyboard as much as I did my first HHKB. With Cherry and Buckling Spring keyboards, I more or less knew what to expect, but I had yet to try the Topre switches that were in the HHKB Professional, and was enjoying the mystery of what was to come. When the HHKB arrived, and my first interaction with the HHKB was….underwhelming at best. The HHKB came in a rather plain looking box, and weighed next to nothing. The flip out feet didn’t have rubber bottoms, so it was constantly sliding all over my desk. To be perfectly blunt, it just didn’t feel like $220 worth of keyboard to me. I will admit I found myself wondering if I had just bought into some pretentious hype after the $220 keyboard didn’t immediately blow me away.
I knew from experience that any keyboard is impossible to judge after a few hours of use, and committed to keep using it for the next month to make sure I gave it a fair chance. At first, I did feel like hitting the forums with a “why not to buy the HHKB” rant, but those feelings were quickly extinguished.
As a heavy typist I was still very fond of my buckling spring keyboards, with most of the keyboards I was used to using on a daily basis having nearly twice the actuation force of the 45g domes in the HHKB. Within a week of getting the HHKB I found myself missing the feel of the Topre switches when I would go back to sneak in a few hours of use with one of my other keyboards. I never imagined that I could be fond of a lighter switch, but that fact alone was undeniable foreshadowing of the sea change to come.
After a few weeks I was helplessly in love with the Topre switches. They were so much smoother than any other switch I had ever tried, and the smaller tactile bump had helped my WPM increase by a small, but noticeable margin. Falling in love with the rest of the HHKB was a landslide. The layout that seemed so alien to me while reading about it online, but it felt so natural when put into practice. Key changes like the swapping of “~” and “Backspace” along with having “Control” take the real estate of the useless “Caps Lock” key made perfect sense to me after using the HHKB.
The moral of my little story is really quite simple. The HHKB is a keyboard designed to be used, and can only truly be understood after using one for an extended period of time. It may not immediately knock your socks off like some of the flashier offerings available these days, but thanks the the layout and excellent feeling of the Topre switches, it has desk-staying-power. Out of the 40 or 50 keyboards currently living under my roof, the HHKB gets the most use by far.