Happy Hacking Keyboard

07.07.2009 22:52

For a while I've wanted to switch my regular keyboard with one of the micro keyboards that started appearing on the market (those are keyboards that more or less only have the typewriter set of keys on them).

These days I spend most of my computer time editing code in Vim. I never had much use for the numeric keypad and only touch keys outside the typewriter area when I'm not using the text editor. I often have a pen and a (paper) notebook on the desk, so I find the center of table real-estate too valuable to waste on keys I only use occasionally.

Despite my efforts I couldn't find any quality micro keyboard in Slovenia. So I decided to order a Happy Hacking Keyboard Lite2 USB from a shop in US. Two weeks ago it finally arrived and I've been using it at the office ever since. These are my first impressions.

Happy Hacking Keyboard Lite2 USB

The initial impression is that it's solidly built. The tactile feedback of the switches is very nice, with enough resistance and key travel. Because the keyboard is that small, the general feeling I have is more like a laptop than a regular desktop.

The small form factor made me change my typing style a little. I used to press right shift together with the punctuation keys on the left of enter with my right hand. But that is really awkward with the position of the right shift on this keyboard, so I have to consciously force myself to use the left shift for shifting characters on the right side.

HHK has the control key in the right position (left of the letter a). It took a while to get used to, but after two weeks it turned out to be more convenient than the standard bottom-left corner position for common operations (shell control, copy-and-paste outside Vim, Firefox).

I don't miss the function keys at all. In two weeks I needed them a couple of times, mostly for closing an odd window or a shortcut in x-chat. Cursor keys are another matter and I feel that it's harder to find them because they are slightly lower than the rest of the keys.

I'm using the setting that replaces the delete key with backspace. It's a bit weird that this isn't the default - I can't imagine living without easily accessible backspace, while I can easily demote the delete key to a fn-key combination.

Now for the bad part. There are a couple of things that made the whole experience a bit underwhelming.

Every once in a while shift appears to get stuck. The effect is the same as if one of the shift keys would be continuously depressed. It's not caps lock, because it also affects punctuation and number keys. Bashing randomly on both shifts fixes that and I'm not sure if this is a problem with the keyboard or a bug in software - I've seen similar issues on other computers, but never this often.

Worse than that, the keyboard sometimes misses out keystrokes. Most often the escape key is ignored, which is very annoying in Vim. I haven't yet figured out what's the cause of that. If I slowly press the escape key it registers reliably, so I'm again not sure if it's a hardware problem. It's possible I simply don't push it enough when I'm touch typing or that I hit the escape key too much off-center.

I can't really blame the manufacturer for the third annoyance, but I'll mention it nonetheless: while I can't stand the Slovenian keyboard layout for writing code, it still essential to me when writing Slovenian text (I refuse to let go of our national characters). The problem with HHK is that "ž" ends up in the upper-right, on the left of "9", which is just about the worst place it can be.

In conclusion, after two weeks I'm still slower at typing code with HHK than I used to be with the standard keyboard. Typos and the annoyances I mentioned above seem to be the main culprits. Apart from that it's an enjoyable keyboard to work on and I'll give it another couple of weeks to see if practice will make any of its problems fade away.

Posted by Tomaž


I just bought this keyboard from Amazon, and I cannot friggin wait for it. A friend of mine has the original one that came out in Japan that he got like, 10 years ago when he was actually in Japan. I love his keyboard, and cannot wait for my own.

Posted by Unr3a1

I hope yours will work better than mine - it's still gathering dust, waiting for me to fix the faulty cursor keys.

Posted by Tomaž

Yea, I hope it works better than yours did too seeing as how I dropped almost $100 for it after shipping. If you would like, I could let you know how mine did once I get it.

Posted by Unr3a1

Please do. It would be interesting to know if it's just my particular keyboard that's bad.

Posted by Tomaž

Alright, so I got the keyboard today. So far, it is working fantastically, and I am actually typing this comment on it. My initial feelings on it, is that it is a fantastic keyboard. I am already loving it and love typing on it. But a couple weeks of use will really tell whether it was worth the $90 investment. I will update you as to how its going in the beginning of October. If you have any questions or want to contact me, you have my email.

Well, I told you that I would use the keyboard for a little while and get back to you. I am not even sure if you are still interested in it, but I will honor my promise nonetheless. After a little more than a week of use, I can tell you that the keyboard is still functioning 100% properly. I have not experienced any issues with it at all. So on one hand, that is a good thing, because it reinforces the fact that the Happy Hacking series of keyboards are products of great quality. On the other, it also confirms that you got a rare defect that is to be expected from any product that we may purchase in the future. I am sorry that you have had bad experiences with your keyboard, and I wish you all the best with it.

Your blog is very interesting, and I will probably pop my head in from time to time. Good luck.

Thanks for sharing your experience. It's interesting to have another point of data about the quality of HHK.

A couple of days ago I gave it another shot and I think I've finally fixed mine so the cursor keys are working reliably.

Posted by Tomaž

I have been using HH keyboards for many years now -
I have 3 of them, various models -
and here are some tips for vi you might like:

1/ prefer using the h,j,k,l keys for cursor movement.
It is *much* faster and once you get the hang of it you
will wonder why you waited so long.

1.5 the Unix games "hunt" and "rogue" are great for
honing your vi letter cursor skills. :)

2/ Prefer using Ctrl-[ for the Escape character.
Now that you have a HH keyboard,
with the Control key located where God (Bill Joy, inventor of vi)
intended, you might as well make the most of it!
Using Ctrl-[ is again *much* faster than reaching for Escape key
with your little finger.

3/ If you are an Emacs fan, then also enjoy the superior location of
the Control key. See 2/.

4/ If you are *nix, consider using a shell such as tcsh, Bash, or Ksh
which supports vi and/or Emacs modes for history editing, etc. -
and further leverage you new Control key location,
including the Ctrl-[ trick mentioned in 2/.

5/ Now that you are used to having Control key in proper location,
consider converting any computers running Windows to map their
CapsLock keys to be Control.
The best solution I have found for this is a small registry hack which
re-maps CapsLock to be Control, and also leaves left side Control key
as Control. Who uses CapsLock anyway? :)
By editing the registry, the new mapping also works in vnc and other such apps.

6/ Enjoy your new keyboard!!!

Posted by mojohn

Thanks for the tips mojohn.

I'm an avid fan of Nethack, so hjkl movement is already in my muscle memory. Still, the cursor keys are important. Browser, e-mail client and shell (bash) are the programs that I use regularly and require their use. Not to mention something like gEDA or PCB.

Although I use vim exclusively for text editing, I found vi mode in bash somewhat awkward, so I gave up on it after a week.

Same with ctrl-[ instead of escape. Actually, I find that HHK has a very convenient escape placement, so I don't really see the benefit of having to press two keys instead of one.

I switched the ctrl position on all the computers I use to the "right" place. Don't know about Windows, but in GNOME there's a convenient setting for this in System > Preferences -> Keyboard > Layouts > Layout Options > Ctrl key position.

Posted by Tomaž

Hi, I am planning on getting a HHKB pro in the near future, and I too am a big fan of the HJKL movement keys.. when I get mine I am planning on remapping the cursor keys to HJKL so that it won't be an issue. I know I can remap them with my current keyboard, but the fact that there are already function keys on HJKL with the HHKB will likely make it easier.. I just need to remap the right arrow to *, the down arrow to /, etc. With my current keyboard I think I have to turn the left control into a new mod key..

Also I'm learning the dvorak layout (well, programmer's dvorak), and really miss having my HJKL keys over home row. This way I'll just put the cursor keys there and be done with it.

Posted by matt

I have a strange issue with my HHK lite 2. Every once a month or so it gets strange. Caps are stuck, Alt Tab goes backwards etc. The only way I've found to fix the problem is to reboot. I also noticed that the esc does not work quite often.

Posted by Bill

I found the Lite 2 keyboard online from the manufacturer retail online store. I have never had a mechanical keyboard before so I don't know what I'm missing. I know that the HHKB Pro uses Topre mech. keys, vs. the Lite's membrane keys. Is this a big issue? Deal breaker? I work for a software company and do a little bit of everything; Visual studio programming, DotNet, HTML, Spreadsheet, SQL data, and whole lot of emailing.

Since I would like to learn DVORAK as well, should I try to find a keyboard with blank keys?

Posted by Will


you should try it out before making a choice. It really depends on your taste. I know some people say that mechanical beats membrane every time, but I find the old IBM model M keyboard too tiring to type on for long periods of time. I like HHKB Lite for its nice compromise between rough mechanical keys and mushy membranes on cheap Logitech keyboards.

You might miss function keys in Visual studio. I keep a normal-sized keyboard handy for when I use gEDA and such.

Posted by Tomaž

Thank you for the reply: I have no idea where to find a keyboard to try. I am also considerong the purchase of a Unicomp Customizer in Linux configuration (Ctrl key in the right place). It's a mechanical keyboard that uses the IBM M buckping springs. The keyboard is also available with a pointing stick (again IBM style) and/or a built-in trackball. I'm starting to shy away from the HHKB a little bit. Really wish the mechanical PRO was not so expensive.
The main idea behind the HHKB was for me the location of the CTRL Key. Plus, since I work a lot from home, the small factor would allow me to purchase 1 keyboard that could come home with me.

FWIW, none of my 4 HHKB Lite2 USB keyboards have ever had any problems. Two of them have seen heavy daily use for years, the other two are spares so I don't have to disconnect the keyboard from my office workstation when I have to use another computer.

Posted by Tor

I've been using a HHKB Lite2 for about a month now, and really enjoy using it, especially with vim. I've probably experienced the sticky shift key problem about four or five times now. It's a little annoying, but bashing both the shift keys does seem to fix it pretty quickly.

Posted by Dan

I think you guys should be interested in the Mechanical Keyboard Guide.


I've been using the HHKB Lite 2 with a dual-boot Mac for about a year now, and I love it. The clicky sound and feel of the keys is satisfying.

I've noticed the shift / CAPS getting stuck once in a while. Usually I just unplug the keyboard and plug it in to fix it.

The only real disappointment is that the built-in USB ports have never worked for me. I've checked the DIP switch setting several times. Has anyone else had this problem?

Posted by Gary

Gary, about the stuck Caps lock. For a long time I wasn't aware that the Fn-Tab combination toggles Caps lock. So I would occasionally push Fn-Tab by accident (for instance when doing Alt-Tab and missing the Alt key slightly) and thought it was a stuck Shift key.

Shift key still gets stuck sometimes (that also affects number and punctuation keys), but as I've written above I'm not sure if that's due to software or hardware.

Are you sure whatever you are plugging into your USB ports is properly seated? The connectors are recessed quite a lot and almost no device I have fits in there. Also the hub is slow, probably USB 1.1 only.

Posted by Tomaž

Bill wrote:

"I have a (..) issue with my HHK lite 2. Every once a month (..) Caps are stuck, Alt Tab goes backwards etc. The only way I've found to fix the problem is to reboot."

I have seen this since Win98 on many different keyboards. I suspect it's an OS problem, at least not a HHK specific problem. If it doesn't happen with Linux, i think it's a bug in Windows (since Win98). Apart from rebooting, whats helps me is tapping the shift or alt or other malfunctioníng key as fast as possible about 10-15 times in a row. That's about 30x faster than rebooting :).

Posted by mmm

I've been the owner of two HHKB Lite 2s since 2004. They're great boards, and all the keys you need day-to-day are easily accessible; the big Control key, wider Left Shift and Enter keys (compared to standard UK 'boards) and the lower location of the 'Escape' and 'Delete' keys make for noticeably less 'pinky stretching'. Even when I switched to laptops several years ago, I still use the HHKB with them as I'm so used to the layout and feel.

The first thing I did (as a Windows user) was to flick the two dip switches at the back to swap the 'Alt'/'Diamond' keys (keycaps swapped too) and turn 'Delete' into 'Backspace' -- who uses Delete more than Backspace anyway? I'd imagine most non-techie buyers will be Windows users so it might help them to ship it like this and let the 'techies' who know what they're doing go to the trouble of flicking dipswitches and keycaps.

I've never used Linux/Emacs/Vim, but I was brought up on Acorn Archimedes computers that had the Left Control key where the HHKB has it, so the placement felt quite natural to me from the start. However, because there's only the Left Control key, meaning Ctrl+Enter/Backspace/Arrows can't be done with one hand, I've taken the step of using SharpKeys to remap the right 'Diamond' key (behaving as an only-occasionally-useful 'Windows logo' key under Windows) to be a Right Control key.

Cutting to the chase, though: the only reason I bought the Lite 2 over one of the "professional" models was the inclusion of dedicated 'inverted-T' arrow keys. I simply use the arrow keys far too frequently to want to have to use the Fn key for them, and the inverted-T formation is by far more comfortable than the 'skewed diamond' I'd otherwise have to use. Until the newer 'Topre keyswitch' models have inverted-T arrow keys added to them, I won't be upgrading, and I imagine a lot of other people are put off the newer models purely because of this too.

Finally, on the subject of 'sticky shift' and 'dodgy escape' problems: I've never had any such mechanical problems with either of my boards. Hopefully these problems are limited to a single production run.

Posted by Mixsynth

I've had the lite and two pros. No problems with any of them. That's all been Linux.

I really wish for a split version with a backlight.

Posted by lally

> Shift getting stuck
Can confirm, my HHK2 lite does that too, but i haven't been able to figure out what sequence and/or timing actually causes this glitch.

> Not registering keypresses
Can confirm, but only ever happens for the 'n' key for me. I've got to press it a few (!) times before it starts producing 'n's again

> Fn+Delete producing Backspace even with the DIP switch flipped
Can confirm. Have resorted to flipping the switch back and remapping the keys in software.

Posted by yep

I've had a couple of HHKB Lite 2's over the past 5 years or so. Both have had the "stuck shift key" problem on both Linux and OSX. I unplug and replug the keyboard to fix it. It's very annoying. I will try hitting the shift keys next time.

I've also never gotten the USB ports to work with anything, regardless of dip switch settings.

I really like the keyboard, but am considering a different keyboard at work, primarily because of the "stuck shift key" issue, when has been happening at least once a week recently.

Posted by RK

> > Shift getting stuck
> Can confirm, my HHK2 lite does that too, but i haven't been able to figure out what sequence and/or timing actually causes this glitch.
Can confirm, too

> > Not registering keypresses
> Can confirm, but only ever happens for the 'n' key for me. I've got to press it a few (!) times before it starts producing 'n's again
Same here, only ever 'n' and it takes a bunch of hits to bring it back to life.

> > Fn+Delete producing Backspace even with the DIP switch flipped
> Can confirm. Have resorted to flipping the switch back and remapping the keys in software.
Same problem, same solution.

No other problems.

Finally I know these are not specific to my particular unit but actual bugs, thanks.

Posted by xxx

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