The Joys of UNIX Keyboards

The Joys of UNIX Keyboards

I fell in love with a dead keyboard layout.

A decade or so ago while helping a friends father clean out an old building, we came across an ancient Sun Microsystems server. We found it curious. Everything about it was different from what we were used to. The command line was black on white, the connectors strange and foreign, and the keyboard layout was bizarre.

We never did much with it; turning it on made all the lights in his home dim, and our joint knowledge of UNIX was nonexistent. It sat in his bedroom for years supporting his television at the foot of his bed.

I never forgot that keyboard though. The thought that there was this alternative layout out there seemed intriguing to me.

I am ruined for all other keyboards…

Mac is the main platform at my new job. I found myself unhappy with Apple keyboards; they are flat, bland, and completely unsatisfying to type on. I dug out an old AppleDesign keyboard, and used that for several months but I still needed something more.

I read about Happy Hacking Keyboard, and after some deliberation decided to give it a try. I thought I could learn to accept most of the layout changes, but the lack of arrow keys on the “Professional” model made me squirm a little. Luckily there is a “Lite” version that includes arrow keys.

I purchased the Happy Hacking Keyboard Lite2.

The Happy Hacking Keyboard much like the Sun Microsystem keyboard I found years earlier features a UNIX layout. They designed it with typing at a terminal in mind.

A Better Layout

For those unfamiliar with UNIX keyboards, there are a few distinctions.

Happy Hacking Keyboard

  • The Control key moved to the Caps Lock keys usual position. This makes it much easier to hit common commands than its usual location, often without ever leaving home row. I can’t imagine why anyone thought Caps Lock should have had this prominent of placement.

  • The Meta (◆ / ⌘ / Windows) key is in its rightful place next to the space bar, as on a Mac keyboard.

  • The Backspace key moved down a row to be above the Enter key. This change is my favorite change. Having a small reach, normally my hands have to leave home row to hit backspace. but on a UNIX board I have no issue hitting it with my pinky with the rest of my fingers remaining firmly on home row.

  • Escape is also in reach of home row, placed where you would usually find ~. I could have done without this change, but it is fine.

  • The ~ and have moved to the usual location of the Backspace. Working exclusively on UNIX systems now, I don’t mind the being harder to reach. I could understand a Windows user finding this irritating.

The HHKB is a minimal version of the UNIX keyboard. To this end the F Keys are mapped to Fn + 1, 2, 3, etc. The HHKB encourages you to stay on home row; you can hit any key on the keyboard without leaving it. I find my typing accuracy and speed to have improved thanks to its use.

The HHKB features one more change I don’t care for. The Backspace key by default performs Forward Delete. Luckily changing this is easy by flipping a toggle switch on the back of the board.


I recommend this keyboard to anyone who spends a lot of time at the terminal. You are able to do more of what you need without ever leaving home row, every important key is within reach.

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