Just Call Me One Happy Hacker

13 Dec 2009

I recently had the extreme pleasure of coming into possession of one of the finest keyboards ever created: the Happy Hacking Keyboard Lite. Granted, this is the little brother (fitting for me) of the infamous HHKB 2 Professional, but this little guy has me hooked. For those of you completely lost, I present to you a picture:


At this point, I can only assume you, the reader, falls into 1 of two categories. Either you’re a little intrigued, possibly even jealous, or you’re just more confused. Allow me to try and explain. The HHKB has a few distinct features that set it apart from your normal “pedestrian” keyboard:

  • It has, by design, only 87 keys. This is sometimes called a ‘tenkeyless’, in reference to its missing number pad. In the lower right hand corner, is a key labelled ‘Fn’, similar to a laptop keyboard which gives you access to F1 through F12 as well as navigational keys such as end, home, pgup, pgdn, and the standard arrow keys.
  • Rejoice, for there is no caps lock. In place of it is a standard control key, which, after only a few minutes of playing with the layout, is a mind blowingly more comfortable place for it.
  • The keys to the left and the right of the space bar are not, as even I first thought, the equivalent of the Windows key. Quite to my surprise, xev shows their keysym is “Henkan” and “Henkan-mode”. Upon further investigation, this is for constructing Japanese characters.
  • 4 little DIP switches buried in the back of the unit allow you to slightly alter the key behavior. By default, the backspace key acts as a delete. You’re also able to swap the Alt and Henkan keys, alter the Henken keys to act as a Windows key (bonus: without the logo), and alter the Alt key to be an extra Fn key.

Of course, with this unconventional design comes a learning period. It’s been 24 hours and I’m already feeling more comfortable with it. The DIP switches in particular can completely alter the experience. I presume in a week I’ll forget I ever had another keyboard.

The true joy with the HHKB is the actual mechanical construction behind it. This requires some technical detail to truly appreciate it. The majority of keyboards feature rubber domes, which have metal contacts. When you depress the key, the rubber dome makes contact with a printed circuit sheet, and the keyboard controller recognizes, based on the location on the sheet, that you’ve pressed a button. It’s a flimsy design in that the parts are more prone to wear than other designs. However, this gives the keyboard a nice smooth feel and tends to be fairly quiet.

Older keyboards (nowadays make that more expensive keyboards) use an actual mechanical switch. I won’t go into all the various types, but if you’ve ever come across an IBM keyboard, you know the click clack that these keyboards make. This is a far more solid design, and although it can be on the noisy side, the tactile sensation allows for far more accurate and quicker touch typing. You gradually get a feel for where the switch activates which, over time, can turn into a muscular reflex allowing you depress the key just enough to make contact.

Leaving out a few of the inbetween (and low end) mechanisms, enter the HHKB which combines both these concepts in what is called a Topre switch. The topre design is a capacitive switch which combines a rubber cup on top of a conical spring for maximum tactile feel as well as smoothness and reliability. It’s an amazing difference that you immediately feel. By design, these switches are also essentially indestructable. They will, however, destroy your wallet. Only a few companies offer these $200+ keyboards: Realforce, Das, Filco, and PFU — makers of the HHKB.

Thanks to discovering geekhack.org some time ago and introducing me to this wonder, I now know that a whole other world of keyboards exists. My last purchase several years ago of a Saitek Eclipse II, which served me well, was thusly eclipsed by my findings on the geekhack forums. Not only do these guys know far more than you would ever need (or possibly want) to know about a keyboard, their knowledge sometimes extends into addiction. Check out the signatures where they claim ownership of dozens of keyboards, with some dating back to the early 1980s. They love them all as if they were their children. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not putting geekhack down. Quite the contrary. I commend these proud folks for being so committed to their cause. After all, if you spend you days hacking away at a keyboard, why leave untouched the one device that’s the most touched? If you’ve ever been even remotely curious about what else is out there for keyboards, spend a little bit of time reading their wiki. It’s worth it. You may find yourself sliding down the same slippery slope as I did.

I’m very much looking forward to getting acquainted with the HHKB. It’s been a joy to work with it so far. Thanks Alex.

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