Discovering New Frontiers in Keyboard Selection: The Leap from HHKB to NuPhy Air60

NOTE: This article is an English translation of キーボード選びの新たな地平線:HHKBからNuPhy Air60への大冒険.

1. The Beginning of the Adventure: My Encounter with Keyboards

1.1 My First Encounter with the Original HHKB

My passion for keyboards sprouted in 1999, from my encounter with the Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB). At that time, I was still a graduate student with little money, but I was captivated by the story of the "saddle" of the HHKB and purchased a Lite model as a treat for myself (I later exchanged it for the first-generation Mac-compatible model).

The creator of HHKB, Eiichi Wada, once said, "Cowboys in the American West leave their horses behind when they die, but no matter how much they walk in the desert, they carry their saddles themselves. That's because horses are consumables, and saddles are interfaces that fit their bodies. Nowadays, computers are consumables, and keyboards are important interfaces that can be used for a lifetime. We must not forget this." I strongly resonated with these words.


【The story of the saddle can be seen on YouTube.】

1.2 HHKB and Me: A Long-time Companion

HHKB has been the best keyboard for me, helping shape my basic values toward keyboards. Being minimalistic. Pursuing rationality. Having the control key to the left of A. Not compromising on keystroke feel. It's all about seeking an interface that fits my body and not compromising on it.

【This image is a layout diagram of the first-generation Mac-compatible model of HHKB provided by PFU Limited. It still looks simple and beautiful.】

1.3 The Turning Point: 2022

The year was 2022. It was the year that led me to return to HHKB. Mainly due to consecutive failures of the keyboard built into Apple's MacBook. I'm an ardent fan of Jonathan Ive, and I've faithfully supported the products he designed, considering them as investments for future success, even if they were temporary failures. However, after his departure from Apple, the MacBook Pro's keyboard was reverted to its past style. Still, the improvement I was hoping for was not seen.

Although Apple's products are generally of high quality, I once again felt the complexity and difficulty of keyboard design. As a result, I decided to return to the HHKB. There were various circumstances, and I had a little room to spend. But more than that, my unique values and tactile feeling towards keyboards, obtained from my own experience, led me to seek them again, pulling me back to the HHKB.

【This photo is of the HHKB Professional HYBRID Type-S. Beautiful black. Key inscriptions barely visible. A minimalistic presence. It's a wonderful product.】

2. The Charm and Challenges of the HHKB

2.1 Two Decades of Love: Why the HHKB Continues to Be Cherished

After touching an HHKB for the first time in 20 years, I've rediscovered its magnificence. It's minimal, and both its form and sound are beautiful. When choosing a keyboard or any input device, I believe what matters most is whether my intentions are directly reflected on the screen. In terms of keyboards, it's crucial to avoid unintended typing errors.

Many people criticize the MacBook Pro's keyboard, but I personally don't find it that bad (excluding the Touch Bar). It's true that humans need to adapt to their keyboards. But as this adaptation progresses, it doesn't necessarily lead to a lot of typing mistakes. However, in my case, having long nails could sometimes cause them to get caught on the keycaps, so I had to trim them frequently.

However, once you use an HHKB, you can't go back to the MacBook Pro's keyboard. It's difficult to judge whether a key has been pressed or not, which leads to unstoppable typing errors. On the other hand, with the HHKB, while you might occasionally press the wrong key, you hardly ever make mistakes because you can't tell whether a key was pressed. This is a significant difference.

2.2 A Temporary Break: The Reason to Distance from the HHKB

Even after wonderful days with the HHKB, one is still compelled to continue seeking new horizons. I still believe that the HHKB is the best keyboard, especially the Professional HYBRID Type-S that has evolved over 20 years. Since I work in multiple locations, I've installed an HHKB in each one. The new snow color variation is also fantastic.

【This is the snow model. The wonderful white color and the intentionally placed stamp in the center are perfect.】

However, I've come to realize that the world of keyboards is currently in the midst of evolution. And in that process, I noticed that the HHKB has reached an evolutionary dead end.

2.3 Deep Affection for the HHKB: Its Charm and Limitations

Here are the reasons why I still think the HHKB is the best:

  • The unique typing feel. It's quiet yet provides a solid response. At first, you might find the depth of the keys odd, but once you get used to it, other keyboards will feel insufficient.
  • Minimal and highly rational design and layout.
  • It's lightweight and small, which is essential as I travel a lot.
  • It's possible to use the esteemed "Sonshi-style", which works even on top of a laptop (MacBook Pro).

Especially, the typing feel is fantastic. Some people might mention the existence of customization tools, but as a heavy user of Karabiner-Elements, I don't find that particularly significant.

By the way, the "Sonshi-style" is named after the famous hacker Richard Stallman, who is known for using an HHKB placed on top of a laptop keyboard.

【This is a photo of Mr. Stallman himself practicing the Sonshi-style. You can see the HHKB placed on top of the laptop keyboard.】


as other keyboards continue to evolve, some issues with the HHKB have become apparent:

  • It's not easy to quickly determine the on/off status of Bluetooth.
    • Sometimes, after typing rapidly, I realize that Bluetooth was off. Conversely, when I think it's off and press the power button, it turns out that it was on, and it switches off, requiring me to press the power button again.
  • A palm rest is necessary.
    • The basic use case is to place the MacBook Pro on a stand and the keyboard on the desk. The HHKB is a bit elevated, so a palm rest is essential. Over time, this has become bothersome.
    • As a trackpad user, my palm rest is separate. As I type on the keyboard, the palm rest gradually shifts. I could build a device that integrates the palm rest with the trackpad, but that would be too much trouble.
  • A bridge is necessary when using the "Sonshi-style".
    • When traveling, I don't carry a stand, so I use the "Sonshi-style". I've made a custom bridge just for myself. It feels really good. However, opening the laptop, taking out the bridge, placing the HHKB, placing the palm rest... it has gradually become a nuisance.
  • There are no arrow keys.
    • The US layout does not have arrow keys. The lack of arrow keys is indeed a characteristic of the HHKB.
    • The HHKB JIS layout does have arrow keys, but I can't imagine choosing the JIS layout just for the arrow keys.
    • In most use cases, arrow keys are not necessary because I use emacs keybindings for cursor movement. But occasionally, such as when inputting expense statements in Excel, having arrow keys would be more convenient.

These issues have become particularly noticeable as other keyboards continue to evolve.

3. New Adventures: The Path to NuPhy and Keychron

3.1 Revitalization of the Keyboard Community: The Rise of New Forces

In the midst of all this, I came to know that the keyboard community, particularly in recent years, is incredibly vibrant. Especially, the emergence of a variety of mechanical key switches. Customized keyboards, including physical shapes, are now available. They can easily be changed via online stores, forming a layer of enthusiastic fans. Although I had stayed away, assuming that HHKB was good enough, I couldn't ignore the fact that the keyboard community is evolving in real-time.

3.2 Exploring and Evaluating NuPhy's Air60 and Keychron

In this context, as I began to research a bit, I found that in this field, Keychron is a popular standard with a good reputation. Also, NuPhy, a relatively new manufacturer, has a good reputation. Keychron produces a wide range of keyboards, meeting various needs, and I understand it to be a driving force in the recent boom. NuPhy has narrowed down its lineup, sacrificing some customizability, but it produces products with a very high level of finish.

3.3 Expectations and Questions for the New Generation of Keyboards

The feel of key presses significantly influences the user experience of a keyboard. The diversity of this key-pressing feel has become even richer in recent years. A significant factor in this is that the patent for the key switches of Cherry MX, which has been driving the keyboard industry, has expired. As a result, other manufacturers are now free to use this design to develop new key switches.

Consequently, a wide variety of key switches have been released from various companies. Manufacturers such as Gateron, Kailh, and ZealPC offer various types of key switches, including basic types such as linear, tactile, and clicky, as well as specialized specifications like silent and weight-adjustable. These differ greatly in characteristics such as keystroke feel, tone, and actuation force, and users can choose according to their preferences.

In addition, improvements to the key switches themselves are progressing. For example, linear key switches pursuing a smoother keystroke feel, or key switches that adjust the tone using special materials, have been developed. These advancements are making rapid progress, further enriching the experience of using a keyboard.

【This picture shows a range of key switches lined up. The differences in color represent their various characteristics.】

After such changes, the current keyboard market has become very attractive to users. A suitable environment is being established where users can select their ideal keyboard to meet their preferred keystroke feel.

4. The Bold Step to NuPhy Air60

4.1 Switching to NuPhy Air60: The Courageous Decision

After much consideration, I decided to start with the NuPhy Air60, Brown Switches, and nSA Shine-through keycaps.

The main points are:

  • It's compact at 60%, but there are arrow keys
  • It's low-profile so no palm rest is needed
  • Smooth automatic ON/OFF of Bluetooth
  • No bridge needed in the "Sonshi-style"

【NuPhy Air60. At the moment, it seems to be the keyboard that comes closest to my wish.】

4.2 First Experience with Air60: The Potential of a New Keyboard

Since I've just started using it, I'll avoid giving a definitive evaluation, but it feels good. Especially, not needing a palm rest is great. Whether using it on a desk or in the "Sonshi-style", it's really nice to be able to use it without a palm rest.

I don't yet know the keystroke feel well enough to get used to it, but the more I type, the fewer mistakes I seem to make. My body seems to be gradually learning the tactile feel of the brown switches, such as at what point the input determination is made, and at what point pressing does not cause simultaneous pressing with other keys. In any case, my body is still learning, so it's hard to say anything definitive.

4.3 Improvements to Air60: Evolution Seen from Comparison with HHKB

Conversely, the drawbacks are:

  • Key customization at the firmware level is not good
    • For instance, I want to remap the DEL key as it is unnecessary. First of all, the software is Windows exclusive. Also, for some reason, the remapping of DEL doesn't seem to work
  • Having BackTick as FN+ESC is too much of a hassle

HHKB is the best keyboard, but it may have stopped evolving. I didn't realize Bluetooth would cause this much stress. I was made aware that the palm rest was also gradually becoming a source of stress.

The palm rest issue also involves the choice of whether to go low-profile or not, so it's not as simple as comparing it to HHKB. I feel that HHKB could have the courage to explore the possibility of creating an even more compact keyboard without compromising on the feel of the keystrokes.

PFU Limited, the company that manufactures HHKB, was once a subsidiary of Fujitsu. However, in 2021, Fujitsu sold PFU to Ricoh. While the reason for the sale has not been publicly disclosed, it is believed to be due to Fujitsu's ongoing review of its business portfolio and Ricoh's efforts to enhance information-related products. Since entering under the umbrella of Ricoh, marketing measures such as campaigns seem to have become more active, but from a user's perspective, it doesn't seem like much effort has been put into enhancing the product, which is a bit disappointing.

5. Watchlist: The Potential of Keychron

5.1 Interest in Keychron: Its Appeal and Expectations

I continue to keep an eye on Keychron. The way it has pioneered in this field and its presence are simply too significant to ignore. I'd like to try it at least once. I'm primarily aiming for their low-profile 65% (no need for function keys but would like arrow keys), the K7 Pro.

【The photo shows the Keychron K7 Pro (65%・Low-profile). It's a bit mature and cool.】

When compared with the NuPhy Air60, areas for improvement in the K7 Pro could be:

  • QMK & VIA allow for flexible key customization. I'd like to try the layer feature.
  • The design is more mature, and yet, cute.

Coincidentally, when I visit stores, I often see women gravitating towards the Keychron section. Judging by their choices, it seems they prioritize quality and design, and also consider reviews on media platforms like YouTube. Seeing these women seriously choosing a keyboard with a considerable price tag reinforces my appreciation for Keychron's keyboards.

The downsides include:

  • If using in the Sonshi-style, there might be a need for a bridge.
  • With the K7 Pro, the official store only offers two types of key switches - Gateron's low-profile brown or red switches. There's concern about the limited range of key switches.

5.2 Reasons for Remaining on the Watchlist: Keychron's Vision for the Future

I have not yet ventured into Keychron due to major concerns about the Sonshi-style. Needing a bridge would mean carrying more stuff. Having a bridge would inevitably add height to the keyboard, possibly necessitating a palm rest, which also means more stuff to carry.

Even though Keychron is relatively common in electronics stores, I haven't impulse-bought it because they unfortunately don't carry the K7 Pro.

The numerous advantages and unique aspects of Keychron emit an allure that transcends various concerns. As a leader in this field, I am irresistibly drawn to try out the unique keyboard experience they offer.

6. Conclusion: My Keyboard Adventure Continues

6.1 Present and Future: My Keyboard Choices

Given my very unique use case, I initially thought it would be difficult to find the ideal product. However, I am inspired by the existence of products like NuPhy Air60, which address concerns similar to my own.

6.2 The Evolution of the Keyboard Industry and Me: Marching Towards the Future Together

I believe that the keyboard industry itself is currently in the midst of a profound evolution. Just as there was a dramatic explosion in biological diversity during the Cambrian period, it feels like keyboards are currently at the starting line to the future.

While we can't go back to the Cambrian period, we can experience the evolution of keyboards in real time. It's an opportunity too precious to miss. However, I can't exactly invest endless amounts of time and money.

【The photo shows the NuPhy Air60 in the Sonshi-style, placed on top of a MacBook Pro. It has excellent stability.】

6.3 In Conclusion: My Feelings for Keyboards and Their Value

Rui Ueyama, the creator of LLVM, said in a podcast something along the lines of "Good keyboards may seem expensive, but as professional tools, they are worth the investment."

Indeed, even amateurs own several tennis rackets that cost tens of thousands of yen each. They may not try out dozens of varieties like professionals or bring 20 to a match, but they always carry 2-3 rackets to a game.

If you're someone who uses a keyboard, you're touching it for several hours a day. It's not an exaggeration to say that most of our digital outputs in today's world are created through keyboards. The point of contact between the real and digital worlds depends solely on input devices. I believe that optimizing input devices is a highly effective investment for optimizing our digital experiences.