Chris Bailey

Throwaway thoughts on the HHKB and mechanical keyboards

For my birthday this year, I decided to treat myself to something I've wanted to try out for awhile—I bought myself a new HHKB and it is my first keyboard with topre switches as well as my first keyboard that I can use wirelessly (you'll want the HHKB hybrid model, or hybrid type-s).

I won't go into why I prefer using mechanical keyboards, nor any advantages or particular difference to membrane keyboards as that topic is better served by the plethora of informational sites pertaining to that kind of knowledge elsewhere, instead, I wanted to just provide a braindump of the keyboards I've used in the past, and ultimately reflect on the HHKB.

My mechanical keyboard journey

I'd consider myself pretty familiar with mechanical keyboards. I got into them when I discovered the IBM Model M back in secondary school. The thing that appealed to me at the time was the aesthetic of the chunky beige battleship, but when I was able to experience one in person, I fell in love with the tactility, the key feel and most importantly the sound!

I wasn't able to afford a real IBM at the time, but I managed to snag a Unicomp Model M for less than 100 GBP on eBay. Despite the fact that typing on the heavy buckling springs for prolonged periods made strained my fingers, I quickly became addicted... over the course of the last few years I've managed to save and restore a few vintage _IBM Model M_s as well as a Model F.

Eventually, my daily driver changed to the Dell AT101W, partially for the reduced noise (which was extremely important for my flatmate's sanity during my time at university), but also for the more standardised layout. I was never able to get used to the strange arrow key placement on the Model F, nor fully get used to the lack of a meta key on either Models M/F. I found the Alps switches in the AT101W to be delightful and stuck with it for a few more years.

More recently, I've used several Cherry MX keyboard: my aesthetic tastes changed when I last renovated my home office; I wanted to save some space compared to using anything remotely Model M sized. This, served with a side of keyboard envy for the keyboards used by my co-workers (A Keychron K2 in particular), had me make the switch; and whilst I found the typing experience on Cherry MX switches (Clears on a Code Keyboard, and Browns on a Filco Majestouch and Ducky Shine 2) to not be as good as buckling springs or black Alps, I definitely fell down the aftermarket customisation rabbit hole 😆 I amassed way too many keycap sets and fell in love with the vintage looking SA profile, as well as custom USB cables too.

I can wholly recommend any of the keyboards listed above; if you're working alone or at home and can deal with the bulk and noise, the Model M is definite the best keyboard for tactility and sound I've ever used; the AT101Ws are pretty cheap and feel really good for the price and have a solid build quality; and even the MX keyboards are pretty good though they can come across as a little scratchy at times.

As I've already stated though, this year for my birthday, I decided that I would treat myself to a meme in the mechanical keyboard community: the HHKB.

What is a HHKB?

The HHKB is a mechanical keyboard (disputed by some) which uses topre switches. Topre switches are pretty rare in the mechanical keyboard space; with the HHKB, Leopold FC660C and Realforce line keyboards being the only(?) notable keyboards using them. Topre is essentially a slider over rubber dome and electro-capacitive spring and honestly feels nothing like any of the keyboards I've ever used.

The key feel is really rather good; the keys themselves aren't very tactile but the sound from pressing the keys results in a super satisfying thock sound which whilst quieter than bottoming out MX Browns/Clears feels crisper and more like feedback that I've pressed the key. Unfortunately the key weighting is super light compared to what I'm used to, and because the actuation point is misaligned with the bottoming out of the keys, at times I accidentally end up typing characters unintentionally just by resting my fingers on the keyboard.

For nearly 300 GBP, the build quality could be a lot better, but at the same time, the keyboard is super light and small. I'd be super happy just picking it up and throwing it in my bag and taking it with me to work (when the lockdown finally ends 😅) It's fine, could be better.

One of the unique things about the HHKB is the layout: the HHKB is smaller than your average keyboard (and even tenkeyless) because it has no numpad, no function row, no nav cluster and no arrow keys. The layout of the keys themselves is a little odd too: Control is where Caps Lock usually would be, and anything else such as arrow keys or function keys are accessible via the fn layer. By default, the Delete key requires fn to be held in order to backspace, and the key itself is a row lower than you'd usually expect. My first thoughts about the layout were that they were horrible, but having used the keyboard for a couple of weeks now, I've retrained my muscle memory and my fingers thank me for it! This layout is super comfortable to type on and allows me to stay keep my fingers on the home row far more often than before, thanks to the smaller size and key layout.

The model I bought also includes USB-C (which is nice, but I'm trying to keep my desk clean of wires), and bluetooth support! Lots of reviews of this model state the the bluetooth is pretty bad (and I initially thought so too), but it ended up resolving itself with a keyboard firmware update as well as a new bluetooth receiver being installed onto my desktop. Before doing these things, there would be a noticeable latency when typing but after making these changes, it's super hard to tell that I'm typing on a wireless keyboard, in general it just works.

Verdict

I'll edit this post if I feel I have anything else to say in the near future, but ultimately whilst I think the keyboard itself was extremely expensive (to the extent where I wouldn't suggest you buy a HHKB at the same price point), I can definitely see myself using the HHKB as my keyboard of choice from now on.

I can't even really qualify why that is. I think it's a mixture of the bluetooth support, the super small form factor, the really comfortable (though esoteric) keyboard layout and the thock-ing of the keys being pressed. I can't call this an objective thumbs up, but something about the keyboard just makes it feel so good to type on 🤷 At least I can flex now that I own one of these coveted boards 😉


Return to Posts →