Origin/practicality of HHKB the bottom row?

Does anyone know the historical reason for the 1.5u/1u mod clusters on the hhkb-style layout?

In my ongoing keeb journey, I have come to realize that HHKB-style is the layout for me. One thing that has really held me back from joining many keyset group buys is that, as a Mac user (niche of a niche here, I know), I could end up with incorrect legends when using my preferred layout.

Most keysets include a 1.5u alt and 1u super(etc.), but only a few include the opposite that I need. I have limited my purchases to those that do either in the base (grateful!) or child (appreciative) kits.

As I am planning my first hand-wired project, it has me thinking about the history and practicality of this bottom row layout. Using 4 1.25u mods would take up the exact same space as the current 1.5+1u x2 situation and GREATLY expand my keyset options.

I get that the closer key is used more often in every OS and therefore it makes a certain amount of sense for it be slightly larger, but .25/u seems like a pretty negligible difference both in functionality and aesthetics and a fairly large trade-off for keyset compatibility.

It gets a little trickier with Tsangan bottom rows (my first love), but some kind of 1.5 + 1.25 + 1.25 could still be used to fill the same space and only require 2 additional special keys instead of 6.

Since I don’t need to worry about PCB structure with my hard-wired project, I think I am going to go for this modified HHKB-style layout, but it has made me wonder why something that would make this layout just a little more standard isn’t more commonplace?

Thank you for coming to my keeb talk.


One of the two historical influences for the HHKB’s iconic bottom row is from the Apple M0110 keyboard:

A lot of good information is found in the Eiti Wada interview with Livingspeedbump:

wayback link to interview

I highly recommend you read through that interview if you’re a fan of HHKBs and the layout :slight_smile:


Thanks for this link! this will be my lunch time read.

I wish that M0110 bottom row was in every keyset. even the weird enter. :slight_smile:

The HHKB is a keyboard that continues to divide the keyboard community.

Some users are positive about the HHKB:

While others are quick to point out the negative aspects of the HHKB:

The issues are 3 fold:
The use of Topre switches - to the supporters, they are the best sounding and feeling switch. To the detractors, they are expensive rubber domes.
The layout - the initial response is always, where are all the keys? Where are the arrow keys? After a while, realise that the layout is about symmetry, elegance and minimalism.
The value equation - it seems expensive when compare with other keyboards of similar construction. Though in my opinion, there is no keyboard like it.


I feel like the only people that say this are people that haven’t tried topre.

Is that not the same as any board smaller than like TKL


I imagine that is probably at least partly the case, and it’s not a claim I’d make, but it definitely doesn’t help that most folks would have to buy a keyboard or go to a meetup to even experiment with Topre because there’s no way to get a Topre switch tester (as far as I know? Maybe I’m wrong).

The investment to try any other kind of switch is almost comically small compared to Topre, so I imagine there’s a relatively meaningful number of people who are going to have their expectations fall short of reality when they actually sink an investment in getting a Topre board if it doesn’t completely convert them over to the thock side.

I imagine that if Topre testers were available opinions would be slightly-less-radically polarized about them than they are right now.

EDIT: even if they were easier to try out and understand if you like, Topre would still have a lot of problems that are shared with Alps in terms of availability and compatibility (with PCBs) compared to MX-based switches, so idk

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I haven’t used one, so I don’t know how the single stacks up, but Niz actually does sell a single here. As far as availability etc I think one think that does make a difference is that most topre boards come with pretty high quality keycaps so it’s not as imperative to replace them.

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While this is all an interesting discussion, I didn’t mean to setup a debate about the relative value of topre switches - I am sure they are great :slight_smile: I am more interested in the evolution of the layout.

Reading that interview with Eiti Wada was fascinating. Particularly how his original instincts were more minimal but commercial influence overrode that in the final product.

Comparing the modern hhkb layout to the m0110 it looks like the right hand modifiers were widened by .25 to match a more modern layout (2.25 vs 2 enter for example and a full 1u right function in the split shift). I wonder why the bottom row didn’t also evolve into something more “standard” along with it. I would argue that it would still be a pretty iconic layout with 4 1.25 mods along the bottom.

Also somewhat ironic that the layout was based on an apple keyboard (its perfect for an OS that doesn’t really require the regular use of ctrl) and the designer almost exclusively uses Mac, but the appropriate legends are still kind of an afterthought at best in many keysets. Using 1.25u mods in the bottom row would eliminate this issue while keeping its iconic blockered look.

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I think the fact that the HHKB has a dip switch for OSX alt/os key swapping, and a blank keycap option, makes the feeling of having appropriate legends a bit of a moot point.

After the man himself said, “Hackers like unprinted keycaps” :smiley:

But in hindsight, yeah going with 1.25u mods on the bottom row to make them easily swappable with each other probably could have worked, but I think they were in the mindset of key sizes and their inspiration/usage behind them when they decided on going with a more traditional 1.5u/1u for the bottom row modifiers


Oh dang *adds to cart*

Yep, sorry. My bad. Carry on, all!

True. Real hhkb has it figured out haha. I guess I am mostly talking about the HHKB-layout clones and MX keysets. Typing from a kbd6x and building a Sirius hhkb :slight_smile: Now I just have to design my own PCB that fits in a MX HHKB case…

Though I just remembered that most HHKB clones have integrated plates…


There is tester switches/keychains for all Topre weights on Ebay.

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Oh hey! That’s nice to know! On the other hand, I started going to meetups initially, just to find out what the fuss was about Topre without having to make a 250 dollar keyboard purchase. I’m so glad I went, I haven’t stopped going.

With a tester, I’d have gone, “this sucks” and stayed home, question answered. LOL


Well to be fair, just trying a single key on a tester really doesn’t tell you what a board full of them will feel like. So I’d still encourage going to a meet up over switch tester anyday! :wink:

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I’d agree, tester performance hardly equates to real world typing experience. I never thought I would like red inks or even linears from the testers I’ve used, but I’ve been typing on them at work for months and it’s been great


Back to bottom row practicality, I’ve found that as long as there is a full size spacebar the bottom row doesn’t matter to me. I put control (or command on my work keyboard where I use mac) on where caps lock goes, and then I usually leave that same key in the bottom left corner, as once in a while I’ll reach for it there, but beyond that I use the other keys so rarely that it’s not that important. I use the windows key once in a while and as far as I’m concerned alt is for pressing ALT+F4.

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Count me in as someone who doesn’t really like switch testers. I feel that they are often worse than nothing, in the sense that they can sometimes be pretty misleading. When I first wanted to buy a mech I got a simple tester, which convinced me that I would like blues the best (after all, they are satisfying to click on their own). But now blues are one of my least favorite switches.

As a Mac user, I rely very heavily on the Command key for keyboard shortcuts, so having a large Command next to the spacebar is actually really nice. I’ve never bought an HHKB layout board, though, since I fell that I needed arrow keys. I may be coming around to the idea though.


Thanks for posting this. I hadn’t read the interview before. It’s totally fascinating.

I really think the basic hhkb layout makes a lot of sense for Mac users, especially if, like me, you want every key to have a real purpose. I started with Tsangan and that was nearly perfect, but I got annoyed by having extra keys that I barely ever use (R and LCtrl). I only use the left one to occasionally ctrl+click and to stop things in terminal. Moving LCtrl up to the caps position just makes so much sense given how little I actually use either, and having it do double duty gives it even more purpose.

I don’t really miss arrow keys, on my Tsangan board I have them on hjkl like vim, with a held space bar as a function. really easy to access without moving my hands. likewise on the Sirius, I have them in the normal hhkb position, so they are easy to hit with your right pinky on the split shift function. I find with these two setups its barely any extra effort to hit the arrow keys.

I too could not live without a spacebar-adjacent ⌘. it’s too critical for my every day typing life, but I don’t know that extra .25 of cap space really improves usability that much.

I was surprised that you link to the Wayback Machine, but indeed: Accessing that URL via drop.com causes a redirect to the home page — despite they still link to it from the (finished) Tokyo60 v3 GB. Very unprofessional behaviour by Drop… Glad that the Wayback Machine captured that gem!

To chime into the discussion itself:

  • The different Ctrl position was also common on Sun keyboards.
  • The missing keys in the bottom row also avoid pressing those with the palm while your hands are resting over the keyboard — especially with lightweight switch springs.

I mostly like the layout for how it looks. But since I prefer dedicated cursor (arrow) keys in the lower right button, I’m not really a fan of using that layout — with one exception: Zambumon’s Tokyo 66 design manages to provide a HHKB style layout with dedicated cursor keys in the bottom right corner:

You though probably can also squeeze that layout into a 60% if you make the outer blocks of the bottom row just 0.75u. But it probably doesn’t look as good.

About the symmetry: the two bottom row blocks have different size — 1.5u and 2.5u if I counted correctly:

Not that much of a symmetry… :wink: