I never expected myself to like something as trivial as a keyboard as much as I do. I was well-aware of the age-old trope about programmers and their infatuation with keyboards, and until three years ago, I bought into that trope. Then I bought a Happy Hacking Professional 2.
I don’t even remember how I started hearing about “mechanical keyboards”. The term seemed silly to me; all keyboards are mechanical by nature, but it became quickly apparent to me that people were referring to a special subset of keyboards that were used by a small group of enthusiasts. The flood gates opened: I began browsing a subreddit dedicated to banter about mechanical keyboards, and even began researching the origin of certain keyboards I found aesthetically pleasing.
All that to say, I shortly stumbled upon the Happy Hacking Professional 2 keyboard, a 60% keyboard (containing only 60% of the keys found on a full-size keyboard that has a number pad). The original keyboard, called the Happy Hacking Keyboard, was designed by a Japanese computer science professor named Eiiti Wada in 1996. Subsequently, the keyboard has gotten updates, along with the “Professional” moniker at the end of its name. It uses a variant of rubber dome switches made by the PFU corporation in Japan called Topre switches. The appeal of the HHKB family of keyboards is that everything you could want to do is never too far from home row, thanks to its compact size. Want to change the song you’re currently listening to? Simply use the function layer key (
fn) and hit the corresponding F key (F9 to skip forward to the next track in my case). Need to use the arrow keys? Sure, hit the
fn key again and use the
/ keys to navigate up, left, right or down, respectively.
People are quick to point out that, although the layout is more compact, it’s more complicated because many functions are hidden under that
fn key (or any other key, but more on that later). Things that require one key press on a full-size keyboard almost always require more on a HHKB, so why bother?
For me, the HHKB Professional 2 is appealing not for the sake of using something obscure that requires hours/days/months/years of learning to master, but instead for its attractive design, compact size, portability, and the ability to modify it beyond the creators’ original intent.
When people first see my keyboard, they almost always ask me if I’m using a “retro” keyboard because of the color. The HHKB comes in white or black, and with either printed or blank keycaps. The variant I have, white with printed keycaps, certainly calls back to the days of keyboards like the Macintosh Plus Keyboard, and that’s one of the reasons why I love it so much. The HHKB is subtle in design, yet eye-catching by almost anyone who encounters it. What’s more is that the other variants of the keyboard don’t call back to technology of 1984: the black case with the blank keycaps looks like something that only exists in a render of a monochrome workspace. The HHKB can be ordered to fit a surprisingly large number of aesthetics with only a couple variants.
Because the HHKB is a 60% keyboard, it can easily be carried in a backpack, and this is exactly what I do. I bring this keyboard with me wherever I may use a MacBook or an iPad: to and from work, to coffee shops, and on trips. It’s so light that I don’t notice it in my bag at all. The biggest worry is finding a case that will protect it from other objects in my backpack, and the case I’ve found solves that perfectly. This ensures that I have the same typing experience wherever I choose to work, and when you’re used to a layout as unique as the HHKB has, it’s nice to have uniformity.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the community that’s built up around not only the HHKB, but mechanical keyboards in general. The depth and breadth of knowledge, the bootstrapping entrepreneurs that make custom parts for keyboards, and general camaraderie that comes from having a shared hobby all contribute to my love for my particular keyboard. There’s almost no limit to what you can do to your keyboard. You want custom keycaps? There are dozens of sites dedicated to selling them, along with small pockets of people that generate ideas and bring them to life through group buys. You want a custom cable? There’s tons of sites for that, too, and one particularly great one. You can even buy PCB boards that allow you to program every little aspect of your keyboard, or even make it Bluetooth-capable.
So, that brings us to my little keyboard. I’ve been typing on it for about two and a half years. I’ve steadily learned more about it and modded it to do my bidding. Here is a list of the modifications I’ve done:
- Red escape keycap from EliteKeyboards
- Dark grey keycaps for two of my modifier keys
- Remapped my left control (￼
⌃) key to instead be Command (⌘) through software with an application called Karabiner-Elements.
- Installed alternative rubber domes called BKE Redux, which are based on the Sony BKE-2010. The result is a snappier feel with increased travel time on the upstroke of the key (when you let go).
- Installed a hasu Bluetooth controller, along with a lithium-ion battery that has allowed me to convert a USB-only keyboard to either USB or Bluetooth. It charges via USB, and lasts for a few days before needing charged. This controller also allows me to flash the memory on my keyboard with any key layout that I choose. This is new territory for me, but I think I’m going to use a variant of the popular QMK firmware.
- A replacement sticker for the logo in the bottom-right corner that covered the grey screen printed logo with a shiny silver one.
The keyboard and modifications have cost me nearly $375. Yes, that’s a lot, but I use my keyboard for eight hours per day writing code, and it brings me a lot of happiness, which I suppose is silly to say about a keyboard.
But it’s always the little things in life, right?