July 3, 2022

I Bought a Happy Hacking Keyboard

7 minute read


A few months ago, a coworker (unwittingly) sent me down a keyboard-enthusiast rabbit-hole. My frenetic journey culminated in purchasing the Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional Hybrid Type-S, the fanciest model in the Happy Hacking Keyboard (“HHKB”) family of keyboards. I though I’d share my thoughts and impressions with you, in case you’re curious and want to learn more.

Photograph of the Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional Hybrid Type-S

My Rating of the HHKB

You can click on the categories in the table below to jump to the relevant section in this post.

CategoryScore
Typing5/5
Gaming3/5
Build Quality4/5
Connectivity5/5
Battery Life5/5
Value2/5

Typing Experience

I’ve tried a few keyboards in my life, and found something maddening about them; cheap rubber-dome keyboards feel like play-dough; scissor-switch keyboards make my fingertips ache; and mechanical keyboards are loud and heavy. I have used mechanical keyboards for the past 7 years or so (MX Cherry Browns), and although I like them for gaming and typing, they were never really my end-all-be-all keyboard.

Now, after using this keyboard for a week, it’s hard to imagine going back; The unique topre key switches with the factory-installed silencing rings and lubrication provide a satisfying tactility, a sturdy spring to the keypress, and sound like rain falling gently on a tin roof. As weird as it sounds, I can imagine myself falling asleep to the sound of someone typing on this keyboard. My fingers never get tired of typing on this keyboard, and I get a small thrill typing on it.

Another unique aspect of this keyboard, beside the topre switches, is the set of layout changes that subtly but radically improve the typing experience: moving the Control and Delete keys closer to the home row, and eliminating keys far away from the home row. In this way, I can use keyboard shortcuts without overtaxing my fingers, and fixing small errors doesn’t break my flow. It’s hard to imagine how much of a difference this makes, but in hindsight, it’s such a no-brainer that I’ve reprogrammed all my other computers to match this layout as much as possible.

Gaming Experience

I’m giving this keyboard a 3/5 for gaming because the topre keys are fine for gaming genres such as RPG’s or casual strategy/shooter/action games, but liable to get in the way for rapid-fire games like FPS or professional RTS. Some may especially dislike the lack of dedicated function or arrow keys, although your mileage may vary.

Nerdy explanation below.

The topre key mechanism (you can see some good illustrations here) consists of both a mechanical component and a rubber-dome component, and thus gets one big advantage of a mechanical keyboard, and one big drawback of a rubber-dome keyboard.

Like a “normal” mechanical keyboard, the topre switch has a an electromechanical component that registers a key press in the middle of actuation. This predictable actuation force improves finger-mind coordination, because it’s easier to intuit when a certain action may take place during a game when pressing the key down. Anyone who’s gamed for any length of time knows that this is one of the indispensable elements of a good gaming keyboard.

However, the topre switch is missing the other element of a good gaming keyboard – predictable and repeatable “twitch” capability. A “normal” mechanical key-switch is spring-loaded. An experienced gamer can learn exactly how much force is required to keep the springs at a specific height, and to repeatedly activate the same key (“twitching”). In split-second gaming scenarios, this capability is crucial. Unfortunately for twitch-gamers, the topre upstroke is not spring-loaded, but instead occurs due to compression and rebound of rubber cups. This rubbery response is very hard to reliably twitch.

Overall, the topres are at least as good as rubber-domes for gaming. They’re just not as good as the best “normal” mechanical keys. And that’s okay, as long as you know that going in. (Note: Presumably, if you’re twitch-gaming, you’re also using a USB connection to minimize latency.)

Build Quality

The HHKB build quality is simple but understated. The keyboard is constructed out of a lightweight plastic, but well-assembled; it feels solid enough to carry around in a bag, and light enough to be an every-day carry for a motivated enthusiast. I suspect that a large part of the unique sound-signature of the HHKB is due to the types of plastic and assembly used in its construction.

The plastic of the keys gently grip the fingers in a way that’s hard to describe, and which I don’t think I’ve ever noticed on a keyboard before. I can’t put a price on what that’s worth to me, but I notice and appreciate it when I’m resting my fingers on the home row.

The only reason why I’m rating Build Quality as a 4/5 and not a 5/5 is that I can only give a 5/5 to an indestructible tank of a keyboard, and that’s not the HHKB. And, to be clear, that’s just how I want it. If I had a keyboard that I had rated as a 5/5, I would never take it anywhere, because it would be way too heavy.

Connectivity

This is a Bluetooth keyboard. As anyone who’s used Bluetooth can attest, Bluetooth devices vary greatly in the quality and reliability of their implementations. How good is the Bluetooth on the HHKB?

I’d have to say, excellent. This keyboard can memorize up to 4 Bluetooth devices at a time, and switching between devices is nearly instant (I’ve never seen it take more than 1 second to switch). Because I bounce between my work computer and home computer a lot, I really appreciate the multi-device support.

Something else that’s really reassuring is that the keyboard has a hard-wired USB-C pass-through mode, which allows the keyboard to work even without batteries (or if there’s a lot of radio interference). This turns out to be especially useful with Apple hardware, because Apple doesn’t allow non-Apple Bluetooth keyboards to connect to my Mac mini after a restart.

Battery Life

If you’re buying a Bluetooth keyboard, you need it to have respectable battery life. That’s not usually a problem, because Bluetooth doesn’t consume a lot of power, and neither does registering keystrokes. However, some keyboards like to add frills like RGB lighting or backlights, which significantly cut into battery life and longevity. THat’s not a factor with this no-frills keyboard – the only light is a status LED for boot/switching devices/low power alerts.

This keyboard is rated for 3 months of battery life from a pair of fresh AA batteries; at the rate I’m going, I may be able to get 6 months or more out of a single charge. For me, that’s more than plenty; I’m happy as long as I’m not swapping the batteries out more than once a month.

Value

This keyboard was not cheap; I paid around $330 for the high-end model. When evaluating value, I ask myself, “Could I get the same or similar for less money?” In answering this question, I landed on a value rating of 2/5.

I could buy a great all-around scissor-switch Bluetooth keyboard like the Apple Magic Keyboard or the Logitech MX Keys Mini for $100. Or, looking at mechanical options, I could instead pick up a Keychron K2 for $70, or the new Logitech MX Mechnical Mini for $150.

Now, where does that leave the HHKB, at over 3 times the price of the scissor-switch Logitech, over 2 times the price of the mechnical Logitech, and nearly 5 times the price of the Keychron? It simply cannot match those other keyboards in terms of bang-for-the-buck.

And that’s fine. I went in eyes-wide-open, expecting a sublime typing experience, and getting all I could have asked for, and more. To me, that made it worth splurging on, value aside.

Who is this For?

This keyboard is for typing enthusiasts who can afford to make a enthusiast purchase.

What is unique about this product?

This keyboard is unique due to its unique Topre key switches, and its clever non-standard layout that improves day-to-day typing experience.

Would I buy it again?

I enjoy my purchase, but I’m not sure I’d regret buying another similar keyboard in the $200 range, either.

Facts

These were copied out of the user manual for the product; you may find them helpful for the discussion below.

CategoryValue
Number of Keys/Form Factor60-key / 60%
Key Switch MechanismTopre
Weight (grams)540g (not including batteries)
Weight (oz)19 oz (not including batteries)
Dimensions (mm)294x120x40mm
Dimensions (inches)11.6" x 4.7" x 1.6"
Bluetooth Version4.2
Bluetooth Devices4 at a time (not including a hard-wired connection over USB-C)
Battery TypeUser-replaceable AA Batteries
Battery Life3 Months

© Jeff Rabinowitz, 2022