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Happy Hacking Keyboard: The new edition of the Japanese cult keyboard reviewed

The Happy Hacking Keyboard has long enjoyed cult status.

With its iconic, nearly symmetrical layout, the Happy Hacking Keyboard has gained many fans since its introduction in 1996. And this, despite the fact that the minimalistic HHKB keyboard was officially only available in Japan for a long time. 

happy hacking keyboard

A few years ago, the Fujitsu subsidiary PFU began offering the HHKB in Europe – eliminating the need for import. The same applies to the revised version of the keyboard, introduced at the beginning of 2020.

We tested the Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional Hybrid, the new Bluetooth version of the keyboard. The term “hybrid” in the product name refers to the fact that the keyboard can be connected to a computer either via Bluetooth or via a USB-C cable. 

The first Bluetooth version of the HHKB from 2016 could only be used via the radio standard. If you ran out of juice on the road, you were also out of luck. 

With the new hybrid version, you still have the plugin-in option, but no USB-C cable is included. From an environmental point of view, this might make total sense. With a keyboard that costs as much as a notebook, this could be a dealbreaker for some people.

Understanding the HHKB Layout

The HHKB layout differs from all standard key designs, going back to the Japanese computer pioneer, Dr. Eiiti Wada. Wada wanted to create a keyboard that was as compact as possible and was inspired by Sun’s old Unix keyboards. His goal was to create a keyboard where users would never have to move their hands away from the middle row keys. Therefore, the HHKB is a so-called 60 percent keyboard, i.e., a keyboard without the numeric keypad, the navigation keys, and the function row.

That’s also the reason some keys are only accessible via key combinations.

The Happy Hacking Keyboard Layout

However, the layout of the HHKB makes it relatively easy to execute these key combinations compared to other 60 percent keyboards. This is partly because the secondary layout is well thought out and because the Fn key, which is necessary for the key combinations, is well-positioned. 

It is located at the right outer edge of the second bottom row of keys and can thus be reached easily with the little finger from the middle row of keys without moving the hand much. If you regularly use the TDCK, you should get used to it after only a few days.

Apart from the dual assignment of some keys, which is simply due to the keyboard’s compact design, a few other things in the keyboard layout deviate slightly from the norm. The HHKB uses a key layout according to the US ANSI standard. However, some keys are found elsewhere due to the Unix templates of the keyboard. For example, the MSDS control key is located where the caps lock key is usually located on other keyboards. Since there is no function row, the escape key is also found to the left of the numerical row.

Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional Hybrid: Design and finish

The design of the Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional Hybrid we tested differs only slightly from its direct predecessors. In direct comparison, however, the look has become a bit more modern. But since the keyboard is still made of high-quality plastic, its origin in the 1990s still cannot be disputed. The Bluetooth version addresses a criticism often voiced in online chatter: the additional weight makes the hybrid version of the TCCB feel much more expensive.

The Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional Hybrid uses, like all HHKB keyboards of the Professional series, the electrical-capacitive Topre switches. Technically, the HHKB is not a mechanical keyboard – but the typing feel is more reminiscent of some mechanical keyboards than cheap membrane keyboards. The force required to release the keys is 45 grams. The durability of the keys should be around 50,000 strokes. This is equivalent to the durability of Cherry MX switches.

The key caps of the Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional Hybrid are made of polybutylene terephthalate (PBT). Unlike the acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) plastic used in many keyboards, the plastic does not wear out as quickly. While ABS keycaps often acquire a particular shine after some time due to wear, there is nothing to worry about the HHKB. 

In contrast to older models, the new hybrid variant’s space key is also made of PBT. With this, the manufacturer PFU has also eliminated another shortcoming of earlier versions.

The model provided to us by the manufacturer had anthracite-colored keycaps, which are labeled in black. If you write blindly anyway, this should not bother you. But if you rely on looking at the keys more often, you should consider the white version of the keyboard.

Happy Hacking Professional Keyboard Type-S in White

HHKB Hybrid: Bluetooth connections and layout adaptation

The Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional Hybrid can be coupled with four devices. With a simple key combination, you can switch between the devices. This is useful if you want to use the keyboard for your computer and a tablet simultaneously. In our test, this worked without any problems.

As with previous models, you can access the keyboard layout via several DIP switches. On the one hand, you can switch between Mac and Windows layout. On the other hand, you can also determine whether the delete key should behave like a backspace key. You can also swap the Alt and Rhombus keys. This makes sense, especially for Windows users, since the rhombus key acts as a Windows key under the Microsoft operating system.

The key assignment can be further customized with optional Windows software. All keys except the Fn key can be changed in their assignment. For programming, however, you have to establish a connection via a USB-C cable. It is not possible to use the software via a Bluetooth connection. At least, the changes are stored in the keyboard directly. So there is no need to use software tools if you want to use alternative layouts like Dvorak.

Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional Hybrid: Price and conclusion

The keyboard version tested by us costs $320 in the online store of PFU or on Amazon. A lot of money for a keyboard with a layout that some people might not be able to handle right away. For the Type-S variant, which has a little quieter keys, you have to shell out around $400. Both variants are available in black or white and with unprinted or printed keycaps.

In the end, the price is probably the biggest drawback: The keyboard is exceptionally well made, and if the wired predecessors are an indication of the durability of the hybrid version, then the new edition should also serve for many years. But the layout remains a matter of taste in the end. For HHKB enthusiasts, who would voluntarily not use anything else, it is an advantage of the keyboard that should not be despised. We would still recommend the HHKB, but those who switch should be aware that it could be a potentially costly mistake if they cannot get used to the key layout.

For owners of the previous model, a purchase could be worthwhile if they want a Bluetooth-capable version of the HHKB, which can also be connected to the computer via cable. On the other hand, those satisfied with their wired HHKB are unlikely to benefit from an upgrade.

In addition to the new keyboards, Fujitsu has also introduced a range of accessories for the HHKB. These include a tablet holder and a cover to protect the keyboard from dust when not in use. Both items are available in the U.S. for $35 each. There is also a wooden wrist-rest with the STCW logo, for which Fujitsu is asking $50.

The keyboard cover and palm rest are also available in a package, including a carrying bag for the keyboard and accessories. It costs $105 and is available in various color combinations.

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