Long Term Review is a series through which I take a closer look at a product that I’ve used for an extended period of time. Because of my experience using these products, I believe I have a unique and more detailed perspective on it. This allows me to provide insight on the product that would not be illuminated if only given a week or less with it.
The Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2 (HHKB) is either the best keyboard ever or the worse keyboard ever for a lot of people. I personally attribute this polarized opinion of the board to the meme exposure it has had over the years. All those ‘rubbreh domeh’ and ‘oneness with cup rubber’ memes over the years definitely had something to do with it.
While this keyboard has been reviewed multiple time by many forum users, there is a lot about it that has yet to be said, or is just wrong in general. Also, as someone who operates primarily in the MX custom world, I think my opinions on the HHKB are different enough from what most people have said that I’m still adding meaningful points to the discussion. As such, here is my take on the HHKB.
The HHKB has a matte ABS case that’s decently durable, but not great. As my go-to to-go board for the past few months, it has picked up a few nicks, scratches and dirt marks. Many of those marks are now permanent and impossible to fully wipe away. I’ve also found that the case has started to shine a little in some areas. Personally, the marks and the shine are non-issues as I’m really into the whole wabi-sabi thing, but it might be a problem for you.
The case has a two-part construction that consists of the top case/integrated plate/PCB combo and the bottom case. Separating the two parts is a seam that runs across the entire flank of the case. The tolerance on that seam is very bad on every HHKB case I’ve come across, mine included. The seam is super obvious to the touch, sometimes even bumpy depending on where you’re running your fingers across. On a ‘premium’ product like this, I wish they would have done something to the seam to make it look and feel less obvious, closer to how it’s done with aluminum customs.
The design intention of the case is to have as minimal of a physical footprint as possible, while having some flair to it that it isn’t just a simple slab. The top bezel (4Head) is slightly larger than the side and bottom ones because room on the top is needed for the USB connectors. They could have easily made the sides and bottom symmetrical, but chose not to for the sake of the design. The case also has rounded-off/filleted corners, edges and interior angles all over that makes it appear smaller and comfortable to hold.
The added flair of the design comes in the curved top edge when viewing the keyboard from the side. This is similar to how some ALPS keyboards like the AEK, AEK64 and Lunar 65% does it and it is a nice touch. Another thing is the printed logo on the bottom right bezel that adds some visual interest to the otherwise bland-looking board. Don’t confuse visual interest with good aesthetics though; I would have preferred the case without the logo.
Anthony Ooi from 001Keyboards once described rubber feet as the great equalizer of custom keyboards. From what I understand, he meant that custom keyboards can come in all forms and sizes, but one thing that stays consistent is the rubber bump-ons. I wish this were true in the case of the HHKB, as the rubber feet on them are the worst I’ve seen on any keyboard, period. They don’t provide enough traction and that problem is made worse by how light the HHKB is. The result is a board that moves around while typing if not placed on a high-friction surface.
The flip-out feet are no better. The flip-out feet have 3 positions: closed, one-opened and two-opened; I find all three positions comfortable to type on. However, the flipping action is lackluster and flimsy. The detent (stopping mechanism) on the feet is also not assuring and contributes to how cheap the feet feel. Honestly, they are a joke for feet that’s supposed to go on a $250 keyboard.
Overall, the case is trash. Even the most passionate of HHKB fanboys would not be able to defend this. The only upside to this is that because the case is so light and made out of plastic, it’s a very easy board to carry around. Ever since I got the keyboard, I started bringing it with me to classes, the library and coffeeshops without any extra burden to my back. Other than that, PFU, please step up the build quality on this board in the next iteration. Even a fucking Magicforce has better build quality than the HHKB. This board deserves better.
When this board was made, keyboards were largely large in largeness. There were smaller boards around like the M0110 (that the HHKB drew inspiration from) and the F62 Kishsaver, but smaller form factors were more exception than norm. There’s an interesting interview with Eiiti Wada, the inventor of the HHKB that talks about his design choices with the layout that I highly recommend reading.
When this board was released way back when, it introduced several changes to what was the ‘standard’ layout at the time:
- Splitting of the 2u ‘Backspace’ into 2 1u keys
- Moving ‘Backspace’ to the ‘Pipe’/’Backslash’ key and moving the latter up to a 1u key
- Removed ‘Caps Lock’ and moved the ‘Control’ key there
- Used an asymmetrical bottom row with a 6u ‘Space’ key
- Removed the function row, navigation cluster and numpad (that’s like, 40+ keys LOL)
- Split the right ‘Shift’ key into a right ‘Shift’ and a ‘Function’ key to create another layer of keys
This spawned what is now considered the ‘HHKB layout’. Love it or hate it, most of those changes were revolutionary and some of ’em are still the preference of many keyboard users to this day. Personally, I’ve learned to adopt the ‘Pipe’/’Backslash’ key as ‘Backspace’ and prefer a split right ‘Shift’ on my 60s unless I want to use OG Cherry/BSP on them.
However, there are a few things about the layout that I think could have been done better. For starters, I would have prefered a 1/1.5/7/1.5/1 bottom row for symmetry instead of the left-shifted 1/1.5/6/1.5/1 layout it has. As geekhack user jacobolus described in this post, the spacebar is shifted to the right to center it with the homing row. This also creates enough room on the bottom-right bezel for that atrocious HHKB logo. While functionality is important, I would take the far-improved aesthetic of the 7u spacebar over just a slight increase in spacebar performance that the 6u one has.
Another thing I have a problem with is the arrow key implementation. I get that they wanted the arrow keys to be accessible with one hand, but I would have vastly preferred a k-l-;-‘ VIM-style setup instead of the diamond-style it currently has. I got used to the current diamond-style arrow keys eventually, though.
All-in-all, the HHKB layout is alright. The 60% layout is far and away my favorite layout (though I prefer standard 60 over the HHKB layout) so this is right up my alley. I would personally make some changes, but they’re not dealbreakers by any means.
For many, this is the main point of contention when talking about this keyboard. The reactions to this range from ‘it’s the best tactile switch ever made’ to ‘this is a rubber dome and so it’s shit’ and everything in between. Personally, the 45g Topre switch found on the HHKB is my favorite switch to type on bar none. I love the rubber dome-esque tactility that the switch provides and it’s one of the very few reasons I still use this keyboard over my customs. As such, this is going to be a really long section so try to stay with me here.
Topre is known for having a tactile bump right at the top of the depress action. This is because the tactility comes from the dome flattening. On the stock 45g domes, the tactile bump is very subtle, similar to the Cherry MX Brown’s. After passing through the tactile bump, the dome collapses and bottoms out onto the plastic plate immediately, creating the famous ‘thock’ sound of the HHKB.
One thing I don’t really hear mentioned about Topre switches is the ‘return tactility’ when letting go of a depress. Essentially, return tactility is the feeling of tactility when the switch is moving back up. In MX-style tactile switches, the return tactility is felt at the same physical position as the depress tactility; in Topre, the return tactility is felt right at the bottom, opposite from the depress tactility. Check the diagram below:
Topre is also a naturally scratchy switch. Even with some lubing, the switch has a high amount of feedback throughout both the depress and the release. This comes from the sliders rubbing against the plastic housing and is generally unavoidable because of how close the tolerances are on the sliders. You can also hear the scratchiness when typing on it, too. On the bright side, this means that the switch doesn’t wobble a lot throughout its actuation.
The sound produced by Topre (and more specifically the HHKB) is, in my opinion, out of this world amazing. It’s the complete opposite of how a lubed linear on an aluminum custom (my other favorite switch sound) would sound. The lubed linear has a singular, clean, sharp, high-pitched sound that’s consistent with every depress. On the other hand, the HHKB’s Topre has a deeper, reverby, cushioned and musical ‘thock’. This is because when sound travels through materials that are less dense (eg. the plastic case on the HHHKB), it has a slower speed and thus a lower, deeper frequency. The HHKB sound could potentially be replicated in MX with a plateless, plastic-cased build, but probably not to the degree of the HHKB.
On the upstroke of the HHKB’s Topre, you hear the slightly higher-pitched clack that defines the sound profile of the keyboard so much. That sound is much louder than the sound produced on the downstroke and is what makes the HHKB sound so special and different from any MX-style switch out there.
Compared to other Topre boards like the Realforces, FC660C and FC980C, the HHKB is the much more fun-sounding and clacky. This is because of its plastic integrated plate design vs the tray-mounting or case-mounting on the other Topre boards. The Leopolds in particular don’t sound anywhere close to the HHKB as they have a much higher-pitched bottom out and less significant upstroke sound. The feel solid to type on, but don’t sound nearly as special as the HHKB or even the Realforce.
A very key element of how the switches feel is the stabilizers on the longer keys. Topre stabilizers are very bad out of the box. They rattle out of control, are unstable and are very wobbly in general. As such, I would HIGHLY recommend that you lube your stabilizers with dielectic grease or something similar like you would with your customs’ Cherry stabilizers. This removes all of the rattle and makes it feel much better, but don’t expect it to be as good as a well-tuned Cherry Stabilizer.
Overall, the HHKB’s Topre switches are fucking amazing. In my opinion, it is something that everyone should try (even if you’ve tried Topre on other boards) because of how special it is. As of right now, 45g Topre is my joint favorite switch with lubed vintage blacks and I don’t see myself changing my mind anytime soon.
The stock keycaps on the HHKB are of the PBT dye-sublimated kind in a sculpted Topre profile (in between OEM profile and Cherry profile). As some of you may already know, PBT dye-subs are my favorite kind of keycaps as they produce a deep bottom-out sound, feel nicer to the touch and are more durable. However, the stock keycaps on the HHKB are a pile of flaming hot garbage compared to what’s available in the MX market.
To start on a positive note, the stock keycaps have very good typography throughout. Every single legend on the keycaps are properly positioned, have no kerning issues and have very clean lines. The quality of typography is at least as good if not better than those of most third-party keycap makers in the MX world like EnjoyPBT, GMK and Signature Plastics.
However, the dye-sub quality on the keycaps are absolutely terrible. Feathering/Bleeding is rampant all throughout the stock keycaps on the HHKB, making the legends look very blurry. This isn’t something that is immediately noticeable when looking at the keycaps from a regular typing distance, but is very obvious when you look at it even semi-closely. This also affects all Topre keycaps that I’ve experienced like the Realforce replacement sets and Hi-Pro donor keycaps.
This is very disconcerting as it is more of a tooling/machinery issue than a mistake on their part. The typography on the keycaps is already excellent, so upgrading their dye-sub process would make the legends some of the best in the market. Instead, the great typography on these is a waste because of the weaker dye-subbing and they look terrible when compared to even midrange MX dye-sub sets like EnjoyPBT. For a closer look at how the HHKB keycaps stack up to some MX PBT ones, check out my review of the EnjoyPBT 9009.
As for the keycaps themselves, they’re a very thin PBT. I definitely prefer a thicker PBT for better bottom-out sound, but it’s honestly fine. One thing that is a known problem because of how thin the keycaps are is that they crack really easily when pulling them out. This is because Topre keycaps go on to the keyboard with a click mechanism instead of purely friction like in MX-style keycaps. So make sure your pull out game isn’t too strong.
Another negative with the stock keycap set on the HHKB is that it comes with an ABS spacebar instead of a PBT one like the rest of the keycaps are. A PBT spacebar in this case would be a huge step up as they generally sound better and have better durability. I recognize that it’s difficult to get a straight PBT spacebar a lot of the time, but move gives me the impression that they’re cutting corners here. Not a good look for what is supposed to be a $250 keyboard.
The stock colorway on the white printed HHKB I have here is a blue-gray modifiers, beige alphas affair. The colors are understated and fit complement the aesthetic of the keyboard very well. Personally, I prefer the more muted gray of BSP, EnjoyPBT and OG Cherry, but I definitely do not mind this colorway. One thing I would change, though, is the color of the top-right-most key to match the blue-gray of the modifier for symmetry purposes.
Last but not least, aftermarket support for Topre keycaps is garbage compared to MX. You’re pretty much stuck with donor keycaps from other Topre keycaps and the limited run of replacement keycaps for Realforce keyboards. There was that KBDfans run of the Topre 9009 that I wrote about here, but it’s unlikely that there’ll be another run of those because of how little sales they got.
Looking through some of the reviews out there, I see some people saying that the stock caps on the HHKB are excellent. Maybe it’s a case of inexperience or ignorance, but I definitely don’t agree with that sentiment. They’re aight. I also cannot believe how ridiculous the prices of the Realforce replacement keycap sets and Hi-Pro sets have gotten. Maybe if you’re the hypebeast type who buys stuff to flex, it makes sense. But functionally, the keycaps aren’t great and the dye-subbing is terrible.
The internals of the case consists of the main PCB, the daughterboard PCB, conical springs, rubber domes and a fuck ton of screws. The internals are fine overall, though. I’m gonna keep this section short so there are just 3 things I wanna touch on.
Firstly, the number of screws that attach the PCB to the integrated plate is too damn high. It does make for a solid connection I guess, but I’m really trying to avoid spending 15 minutes unscrewing just to lube my switches and stabilizers. I decided to keep a few of them removed so that I don’t have to deal with this, and I advise you do too if you plan on tinkering with the internals often.
Secondly, the daughterboard implementation on the HHKB is horrendous and potentially damaging to the keyboard. When you unscrew the bottom 3 screws and try to open up the case, you’ll see a cable connecting the daughterboard to the main PCB that restricts the complete opening of the case. If you’re not careful, you might even snap the cable in the process. I would have preferred if the designers found a way to put the daughterboard on the top case instead of the bottom to avoid this. From my understanding of how the keyboard mounts, it’s definitely something that could have been designed for so I’m not sure why they didn’t think of that.
Lastly, the rubber dome and spring implementation is bad. Basically, the domes and springs are sandwiched between the PCB and plate and held in only by the PCB/plate screws. As such, when you remove the PCB, there’s a chance of the rubber domes and springs flying all over the room, which happened to me the first time I disassembled it. This is because the springs rest within the domes and the domes are not all in one big sheet but in separate domes. I would prefer a more integrated approach, like a housing or something to hold all of that, but we don’t always get what we want I guess.
I hate how badly built this keyboard is and I hate the bad tolerances on the seam around the keyboard. I hate how thin the PBT keycaps are and I hate the dye-sub quality on them. I hate the internals and the layout could definitely be better. The HHKB is also ridiculously overpriced at $250 a pop. For about the same price of the HHKB, you could get a KBDFans Tofu kitted with lubed retooled MX Blacks, an EnjoyPBT keycap set and cash to spare for an assembly service if you need it. Going that route, you get a keyboard that’s better than the HHKB in almost every aspect.
However, with custom keyboards, I find myself nitpicking every jagged seam, machine mark, anodizing flaw and hole placement. As for the HHKB, because it does all of the build quality stuff so absolutely horrendously, I find myself focused purely on the typing experience on it instead. That is a refreshing experience and one I’ve learned to cherish when using it.
Ultimately, the HHKB has taught me to love keyboards for the joy I get from typing on them and the sound they produce above all else. It is a trash board by all metrics but typing feel and sound. But, because of how much I like the HHKB for those two things, it has become one of my favorite boards, even in my collection of high-end customs.