The HHKB Studio is Deeply Weird, and that's Awesome

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On my recent trip to japan I had the opportunity to visit one of the few places that sells HHKB products in-store.

While I’d previously had experience with the HHKB, it had been quite some time since I was actively engaged with mechanical keyboards as a hobby. For the most part, I had coalesced on the HHKB Pro 2 as my keyboard of choice, the layout worked well for me, and the Topre switches were enjoyable, but I no longer was as discerning when it cames to switches as I used to be.

As a result, while I still largely retained the fundamentals of mechanical keyboard knowledge, the most recent developments and change in the industry had largely passed me by. Having originally written the HHKB Pro 2 review in 2016, up until this year, the last time I had spent much energy thinking about mechanical keyboards was maybe 2019. As I recall, at that time I was using a KBP V60 with Matias Quiet Click switches (is it really any surprise to the repeat reader that I found myself drawn to the esoteric?). That one subsequently developed some switch issues, so I switched it out for a WASD CODE TKL keyboard with Cherry MX Clears (of course, because we were in the office at the time). Soon after Covid happened, I switched to a KBP V60 with Cherry MX Clears (working from home, less space)!

Eventually, that one also developed some repeating switch issues (I’m sensing a theme with these KBP boards…) - finally, back to the HHKB Pro 2.

Only at the beginning of this year did I renew my interest in mechanical keyboards - specifically, I found a great deal on a Tokyo60, which of course checks a lot of boxes - hackable, HHKB layout, using USB-C, and I managed to get one with an aluminum case which felt great.

Enter my trip to Japan - going in, I hadn’t really done too much research about buying keyboards, but while I was there, I did my due diligence to find out that my path would cross with a SUPER CLASSIC not once, but twice. So it was actually somewhat realistic and attainable (without sacrificing other goals for the trip) to drop by SUPER CLASSIC and see what they had to offer.

It was in the midst of this research process that I came to learn of the existence of the HHKB Studio. I went to the PFU website to brush up on the HHKB product line, and lo and behold - there it was.

My History With Trackpoints

I put to you that to be a technologist is to be an enthusiast for technology, and to be an enthusiast is to appreciate the esoteric within your niche. For that reason, I find that the trackpoint is irresistable to technologists - it is an input device that is simultaneously new and old, innovative and traditional.

My first experience with Trackpoints was at the tail end of high school. Of course, by then, I had begun to exhibit technologist tendencies (reinstalling windows XP once a week, modding Command and Conquer), but the challenge at hand was what kind of computer to bring to college. I could have gotten a PPC Macbook or a Dell (admittedly, which is what my parents had easy access to). However, I managed to convince my parents instead to buy for me a Lenovo Thinkpad X61, a laptop that not only had a trackpoint, but also ONLY a trackpoint - no touchpad at all. By the way, it also had the Thinklight, essentially a small LED at the top of the monitor that you could activate to illuminate your keyboard at night, effectively a precursor to the backlit keyboards that we have today. The Thinklight ruled; they literally don’t make them like that anymore.

Anyway, with the exception of a semester that I managed to take notes using the on-screen keyboard of my Mom’s first-gen iPad (wild), I managed to hold onto that Thinkpad until 2014, although in the last year it didn’t get much use because I had replaced with an touchscreen all-in-one that I eagerly updated to Windows 8 without a hint of irony (RIP Metro UI). Eventually the Thinkpad was obsoleted by a Lenovo U-Series Ultrabook (remember Ultrabooks?)

Of course, while the Thinkpad was gone, it was not forgotten - back in those days, most enterprise laptops also had a trackpoint. Indeed, my first laptop at my first job (PreCash) was a Dell Latitude series that had a trackpoint. At my second job (TransUnion), we were given Lenovo Thinkpad T-Series laptops that again, also had trackpoints. Following that, at Expedia, we had early Thinkpad Yogas (if you opted for Windows, which I did) with some of the first Thunderbolt 2 docking stations (the kind that used the DisplayPort connector instead of USB-C). At Spokeo, I had a series of uninspiring Dells before eventually going Mac, which of course did not have a Trackpoint.

I think that my enthusiasm for Mechanical Keyboards as a hobby peaked right before I joined Expedia - even back in those days the concept of a 60% keyboard with a trackpoint was not unknown. The TEX Yoda was just that - and also massively expensive and hard to acquire. I had often considered it to be a “Grail” kind of keyboard, part of which was because it was so difficult to find. Eventually, they released a second version, the Yoda II, which I also promptly missed the boat for, which brings us to the current day.

The Review Starts Here

There’s a social contract between writer and reaader, I believe, and one part of it is that, when you promise content as a writer, you should eventually deliver it.

The operative word here is eventually - if you’re still reading this, that means you read almost 1000 words of me waxing nostalgic about the concept of trackpoints before going through a history of every work computer I’ve ever had, and which ones also happened to have trackpoints. Congrats to making it to the review. What follows may just be more of the same, don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

So.. what is the HHKB Studio? Simply put, it is a HHKB Layout 60% keyboard that uses Cherry MX-style switches, has a trackpoint, and supports Touch Zones

The Keyboard Part of the Keyboard

So yeah - the HHKB Studio, despite the name, doesn’t use Topre switches. Instead, the default switches are 45g linear switches that PFU claims are “HHKB original”. As most of my history has been with using tactile switches, I can’t really opine on whether or not these are good linear switches. However, I can tell you that they are not bad linear switches. A bad linear switch, in my experience, was (is) the Gateron Clear 35g - ludicrously, almost unusably light, admittedly also incredibly smooth, where “scratchiness” is a common complaint about Cherry MX Reds.

The other thing to know about the default switches is that use a Novatouch-style round housing around the keycap stem. So, while the choice to use MX-style switches opens up options for keycap customization, the round housing eliminates some of those choices. The experience of typing on the defaults switches is pleasant - they are quiet and smooth. I believe that the switches are also gasket-mounted, so this also helps when it comes to softening and deadening. Finally, the switches are also meant to be hot-swappable, which I haven’t yet taken advantage of, but that does mean that if you don’t like the default switches you can install your own.

From a layout perspective, the layout matches the usual HHKB layout, the signature of which are an abbreviated first row, and switching the backspace/delete and pipe/backslash keys, as well as putting the escape where with the tilde/backtick usually goes, and putting that key alongside a narrowed pipe/backslash key. Like I’ve said before, it’s fairly usable - but what I really want to talk about is the JIS layout. In a typical layout, this layout has the extra large enter button, transposes a few keys to make space for that, and the keycaps have legends for typing in Japanese.

But - the JIS HHKB layout has all that AND also manages to fit a set of arrow keys by squeezing the right shift key into a 1u footprint! Compared with the ANSI layout, which requires a function key binding for arrow keys, I wonder if maybe I should try out the JIS layout someday.

The Trackpoint Part of the Keyboard

The Trackpoint part of the keyboard works, and it works well! The HHKB studio fits a trackpoint in between the G,H, and B keys - necessitating special keycaps for each of them. The other design accomodations for the trackpoint, understandably, are three mouse-click keys underneath the space bar, and a lengthened chin to the keyboard to make space for those keys.

The Trackpoint itself uses standard-sized nubs, which is good because it let me replace the standard black cats-tongue texture nub with a red Thinkpad-style soft-rim nub. Curiously enough, I first encountered the soft-rim nub at PreCash, where it was standard equipment on whatever Dell Latitudes we were using. I prefer the rim because it lets me use less pressure, and I find the texture of the cats-tongue and eraser-head nubs to be unpleasant.

The mouse click keys are also mechanical, which is curious. I find myself wishing that they were lower profile, but also raised up from the surface of the keyboard. I am about 80% sure that they use standard travel switches, and the middle button is 1u, but the left and right are slightly larger; 1.5u if I had to guess.

The Touch Zones Part of the Keyboard

The Touch Zones are areas on the front and sides of the keyboard that you can bind to commands using the custom software that PFU provides. The software itself is fine - it’s shared with the HHKB Hybrid and Hybrid Type-S, and notably can only operate when the keyboard is physically connected to the computer. The settings are retained on board the keyboard though, so you only have to connect it once.

As a feature, the Touch Zones… are fine. I find myself using the right side touch zones (which scroll up and down) maybe once a day, but the others aren’t very useful. Honestly, of all the possible configurations, I found scrolling and changing windows to be the most compelling use cases. However, my experience is that the precision of the touch zones is a little lower than I’d like (or, they’re a little more sensitive than I’d like). Essentially - I find that the energy needed to break static friction inside a touch zone is high enough that once you do break the static friction and your finger is moving, the distance your finger moves is quite high. For something like a scroll, this is not the end of the world, but the sensitivity of the touch zone appears to be the same across all zones, so I found myself scrolling too far for something like switching windows. Often, I just need to go one tab over, rather than 5 or 6 - alt-tab does that well enough. I can imagine that other tasks that need fine adjustments such as volume control might encounter the same problem.

Technology Should be Fun Sometimes

All this being said - I have to commend PFU for trying something new. I think that implementing Touch Zones was a risk, and they didn’t quite hit the mark, but I can’t stop thinking about ways to potentially use the touch zones. I once heard that the way to judge new ideas in tech is to ask yourself if they’re primitive or if they’re stupid. If they’re primitive, eventually someone will come around and get it right. I think that Touch Zones count as primitive - I look forward to seeing more ideas on how to implement them. To some degree, I think they have the same modality as the rotary encoders that Keychron has started shipping inside many of their keyboards.

The other reason why I want to make some excuses for Touch Zones is that they’re fun - technology should be fun sometimes - and I find it extremely enjoyable to iterate on interface metaphors.

I think that if you look through my history, you can see that I love to bet on an interface metaphor, and new interface metaphors are often losing horses. Just a few examples:

  1. I was suuuuuper into theming back in the Windows XP days. I remember that Microsoft shipped a special Media Center theme with Windows XP Media Center edition, and I remember scouring the internet trying to find the assets for that theme.
  2. One of the reasons why I was constantly wiping and re-installing Windows XP was that I kept trying different approaches to install OS X - in other words, making a “Hackintosh”
  3. Windows Vista was famously heavy, graphically, but I remember its signature feature was the Windows sidebar - I remember spending a lot of time customizing that sidebar.
  4. I was extremely excited about the new Metro UI that was introduced in Windows 8 (sidebar: so excited that I bought a Surface RT - did someone mention doomed interface metaphors?)
  5. My first smartphone ran Windows Phone 7, and I did several hacks to make it look like iPhone
  6. Speaking of doomed interface metaphors, I have owned not one but two different Nokia Lumia Windows Phones.

So yeah - there’s something to be said for trying new things, and they don’t always stick, but it’s hard to deny that it’s fun. I think that the nature of consumer electronics even means that sometimes the people that invent new interface metaphors get out-competed by larger companies that simply tone down the weirdness of their ideas - but there is joy in discovery, I think. I may write more about this at some point; historically I’ve been extremely early to some very doomed products, and I think that could be fun.

But for now, let’s remember that this technically was a keyboard review.