Real talk: when I first got the Happy Hacking Keyboard Pro 2 (HHKB Pro 2 for short, ish) out of the box, I hated it.
Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s tiny and beautiful, but it takes a LOT of getting used to, and if you’re going to have to use another keyboard at work/home/ever again, you’ll want to think twice before springing for this. Actually, think twice anyway, because this thing is pricey — around £260.
After weeks of use and quite a lot of swearing, here’s our verdict on the Happy Hacking Keyboard Pro 2.
HHKB Pro 2 — looks
If Ikea made professional keyboards, they’d probably look like this (and cost about 95% less). The HHKB Pro 2 is tiny: its width is almost exactly the same as the length of an A4 piece of paper. Which is a handy measurement to use when trying to work out how it’ll look on your desk.
The diminutive size of the HHKB Pro 2 is thankfully not due to shrinking the keys: they’re proper, full-sized keycaps which makes the board easy and comfortable to type on out of the box. However, that only goes for the alphanumeric keys. Placement of everything else is… idiosyncratic, shall we say? But we’ll get to that.
Our review unit is Dark Grey, which is a very deep charcoal that you could be forgiven for mistaking for black. It has a textured matte finish, and the sublimated markings on the keys are also matte, albeit darker. This means from far away or in low light, the keyboard looks blank, which is presumably part of the intended minimalist aesthetic. However, it’s not great for accessibility, nor for getting used to the aforementioned key placements. If you’re a touch typist, hate unnecessary detail and intend to stick to this keyboard ’til you’ve mastered it, though, you’ll probably like the design.
Branding is unsurprisingly subtle, with the HHKB Professional 2 logo in the bottom right with the same darker matte finish as the key markings. All the extra functions of the keys are delineated on the front side of the keycaps, but since that throws them into shadow, they’re again quite hard to see — especially if you have the keyboard tilted upwards for comfort.
There’s absolutely nothing extraneous on the board: no backlighting, no LEDs to indicate what’s on or off, no arrow or F-keys (they’re secondary functions of the main keys). The board itself is solid and thick, with a wedge-shaped profile that measures 3cm at the top end and just under 2 at the bottom. Two-stage risers are included underneath so you can have the keyboard either completely flat, slightly raised or maximum height, which adds about another centimetre to the top end.
The only other thing on the bottom is a sticker explaining how to use the DIP switches, which we’ll come to shortly. Finally, the top keyboard edge (that faces your computer/monitor) includes said DIP switches under a slide-off panel, plus two USB inputs for adding a mouse and suchlike, and the USB-mini input for the USB cable that connects it to your computer.
Annoyingly, the cable plugs into the centre of the top edge, which means you can’t place the HHKB Pro 2 particularly close to anything else because there’s a cable and jack sprouting from it. I would have much preferred this to be on one side.
HHKB Pro 2 — key placement
We mentioned that the key placement on this board is somewhat unusual: let’s get into that in more detail.
For starters, Caps Lock has been replaced by Control (aka Ctrl — it’s just spelt out in full because it’s a bigger key so there’s enough space), as per keyboards of yore. Not many of us regularly use caps lock (grandparents notwithstanding) whereas we all use Ctrl, so the decision kind of makes sense — except that your hands are insanely used to Ctrl being where it’s supposed to be and it takes a really annoying amount of adjustment to get used to it being somewhere else.
There are still two Alt keys, one on either side, and a function key to the far left (you’re going to need this a lot more than you do on other keyboards). There are also two CMD keys on either side of the space bar (also marked with a diamond for language input), which is blessedly large, and the Enter key is rectangular rather than the L-shaped one you find on larger boards. It’s also labelled ‘Return’ rather than Enter (or just an arrow), which is one of several throwbacks to simpler computing times on the HHKB Pro 2 that seem designed to appeal to us old techies.
As we mentioned, you get no separate F keys or arrow keys, with those functions being absorbed by the number and punctuation keys respectively. We got used to that, eventually, but what we absolutely could not hack was replacing the backspace key with old-school Delete. “Aren’t they the same thing?” the whippersnappers ask. Well, no, Sonny Jim — in the old days, the Delete key got rid of things to the right of the cursor, whereas backspace, as you might expect, goes backwards one space (to the left). If you’re used to Macs, you’ll know the backspace key as Delete, but it still functions as a backspace.
Most modern keyboards still have a Delete key, but they also have a much larger Backspace. Getting used to the loss of this key felt like having a digit removed, so we quickly gave in and adjusted the settings so the Delete key became Backspace. A quick Google search shows we’re far from alone in doing this, and it makes the HHKB Pro 2 FAR more usable out of the box.
Happy Hacking Keyboard Pro 2 — typing experience
Key placement aside, this keyboard is an absolute joy to type on. The ‘Happy Hacking’ bit of the name is spot on: it’s so deliciously clicky and quick that you really do feel like a bad stereotype in a sci-fi film typing ‘DELETE THE MAINFRAME’ into a bright green command module, which then causes everything to explode. And isn’t that the dream?
It’s noisier than you’ll be used to if you don’t currently use a mech keyboard, and that can be an issue in shared rooms and offices. Remember the days of the typing pool, where analogue typewriters clacked like a cacophony of woodpeckers? Well, it’s not quite that bad, but if you had a few of these — or introduced one to an otherwise quiet room — you’d notice.
To get technical for a second, the HHKB Pro 2 uses Topre switches. That means it’s not quite a mechanical keyboard, but somewhere in between one and a standard rubber-dome keyboard (and nothing like those low-profile chiclet keys on your laptop, ugh). The keys travel a very satisfying 4mm before bottoming out, and make a really enjoyable CLACK when they do. It’s not as loud as most mech keyboards, but louder than a standard non-mechanical board. A happy (hacking) medium, if you will.
The ‘actuation point’ (aka when the keyboard considers that a key has been pressed) is quite near the top, so you don’t need to press them all the way down if you don’t want to. But you will want to, because it’s fun.
Happy Hacking Keyboard Pro 2 — changing the settings
The HHKB Pro 2 has a set of six little switches (known as DIP switches) hidden underneath a panel on the top edge beside the USB inputs. These are not the most user-friendly, but if you can flick them with something like a hairclip or pen, you can change the settings without messing about with software or apps. Which is kind of nice, though it’d be better still if they could be operated by, you know, a finger.
This not-so-simple guide on the back of the board tells you what each switch does:
For instance, we flipped the third switch to turn Delete into Backspace. It’s not terribly intuitive how this works: the switch is ‘on’ when it’s at the top. There is a little guide to show you, but it’s TINY, and we missed it the first couple of times. Also, don’t expect the keyboard just to adjust itself once you flip the switch — we had to disconnect and reconnect to our PC to make the change happen.
This is also where you’ll find the Mac mode, which you’ll need if you’re not on a PC, and other formatting options. Honestly though, backspace is the big one.
Happy Hacking Keyboard Pro 2 — our verdict
The HHKB Pro 2 is a compact, beautifully minimalist keyboard that feels wonderful to type on. However, you will have to make some significant changes to your typing style, and that can be really jarring at first. Getting used to the new placement of Ctrl and Backspace, plus managing without a proper F-row and arrow keys is a steep learning curve, but when you’ve mastered it, typing on this board is fast, comfortable, and satisfying. It really pays off the name.
The question, really, is whether you want to spend the best part of £300 for a keyboard that’ll make you considerably change your hard-won muscle memory. If you work from home, or can have the same keyboard at home and work (your poor bank balance), then you’ll adapt and probably be a faster typist as a result. But if you type on a normal board at work and then come home to this, you’re going to have to make those adaptations constantly, and you’ll be swearing as much as we were on our first couple of days with the HHKB Pro 2 every day. After having paid lots of money for the privilege.
Ultimately, then, this is a keyboard for the typing hipster: for someone who really appreciates the Topre switches, the full-sized keycaps, the minimalist aesthetic, the small footprint, and all the purist-friendly throwbacks to keyboards of yesteryear. It’s not for the mainstream, and it’s not intended to be.
The Happy Hacking Keyboard Pro 2 is available now for £259.99.