Ultimate Hacking Keyboard review

I swore a long time ago that I should write this review, and originally I planned it to be very long. But then I realized that there are quite a few reviews of this keyboard on the web, probably Brett’s being the closest to my heart. So I can get by with a lot less typing but you really should read those reviews first, because I am not going to go into all the details. Instead, I’ll keep it personal.

The story started more than 3 years ago, when I was working at Prezi, and I was introduced to a young and enthusiastic gentleman called László Monda, with a keyboard prototype in his hand. Actually, both hands, because you could split this keyboard into two. Developing a very mild case of carpal tunnel syndrome, this thing looked like a blessing.

Us at Prezi, supposedly some of the biggest nerds in the country, were chosen as a hopefully great test audience. Well, I don’t know if you ever worked at a startup, the reality is not all Mortal Kombat gaming and table tennis all day long, so being somewhat busy, most of my fellow testers had no time for any serious testing and even I could use the keyboard a lot less than I originally planned to. Part of the reason why was that the godforsaken thing has only 60% or so of the keys of a regular keyboard, and while I had no problem with not having a numeric keypad, not having the F-line and in particular, not having any of the navigation keys was something very-very new to me. Let’s be honest, at that time it drove me nearly crazy in a few hours (I was using an external keyboard with my Macbook Pro because the notebook keyboard drove me crazy, too.) But I was hooked on the idea that it could be split and I tried to give as useful a feedback as I could.

Fast-forward three years or more. In the meantime the UHK kept getting delayed (manufacturing hardware is definitely not as easy as it first looks), I came to Japan, and unfortunately, got infected by the UHK and fell in love with mechanical keyboards. I realized I had an old IBM M keyboard at home, the clicky noise disaster, which I sold to a collector and first bought a Tesoro Excalibur, then a das Keyboard Model S with brown switches (the Tesoro uses Chinese ones, the das is Cherry MX). With these I was quite OK for two years but then midlife crisis came and after last year’s fountain pen rush, this year I purchased two more keyboards, a HyperX Alloy Elite with blue switches (I just had to have one with blue Cherry MX keys) and a Logitech G610 Orion Brown with brown Cherry MX (originally, I wanted this with the blue switches, but it was impossible to buy any more with an English layout, only Japanese). And this September I contacted László with the usual „hey, how things are going?” and it turned out the UHK is selling like hot potatoes. Yes, even at that price. It is that good.

So I ended up buying one. Being a faithful old tester, I got a little discount, otherwise I really could not have explained it to my wife why I need a fifth mechanical keyboard (although it is still cheaper than a used Porsche). I have been using it for about a month now, and here is where I am now:

  • I ended up using the tenting position instead of tilting. And of course I am using it split, that’s the whole point. It really feels natural.
  • This keyboard is very-very serious about having you sitting in one place, not moving at all and not even taking your hands off the keyboard. No need even to have a mouse, you can do everything with it (although it takes some patience). In my case, it is not pure blessing only, because I do use the mouse quite a bit.
  • The keys are not true Cherry MX browns (I got picky after the Tesoro), but it is much less of a problem than I was afraid of. The Tesoro browns (of the same Kailh brand) felt significantly heavier for some reason. Maybe an older batch.
  • Just as being a good tennis player causes you a lot of trouble when learning squash, having been used to editing a lot of text (i.e. not writing but e.g. proofreading someone else), for over 30 years, it still causes me extreme pain to do heavy editing with this keyboard. Your body simply cannot unlearn 30 years in a few days. I could get used to the arrow key “chords” fairly quickly, but as I am regularly using combos like Ctrl-Shift-Arrow, that’s by default four keys on the UHK and that is a bit too much. I was actually on the verge of giving it up forever, when I had a revelation and a saviour:
  • The UHK Agent application. It took me some time to realize that with the UHK it’s not just a possibility but almost a requirement to tweak it. And since then tweak it I did:
    • I changed the left Fn and Alt (think whatever you want, this is what I am used to). The nice thing is that after having redefined everything in the UHK Agent, you can simply switch the keycaps as if it has always been this way;
    • defined a few Ctrl-Arrow combos, so that my always-needed Ctrl-Shift-Arrows only need two or three keys on the UHK, too;
    • defined a few other key combinations I like and were missing (Windows+Arrow for quickly arranging windows, Ctrl-Ins and Shift-Ins for PuTTY, because it cannot copy/paste to and from external applications with Ctrl-C for obvious reasons). And I am still experimenting, that is part of the fun.

The ultimate question is, of course, whether this keyboard is worth its price or not. The answer is, of course, it depends. It’s pricey as hell (if you don’t mind used stuff, you can get really good used notebooks for this price here in Japan) so it simply cannot be everybody’s toy, but hey, it’s a very special market, and the UHK is of a very special quality. (There are a few other split keyboards on the market but they’re expensive, too, and the tweakability of the UHK is truly unique, and I am still baffled by the quality of the UHK Agent software. It simply works and works.)

Also, being a 60% keyboard, it takes some time getting used to. Well, let’s be honest, it takes a lot of time getting used to, especially if you had been mildly obsessed with good quality keyboards but only full-sized ones. And I may never be fully able to use the built-in mouse.

On the other hand, after a few hurdles at the beginning, not moving your hands at all is a phenomenal feeling. I have never been a full-time developer, but never fully stopped writing code, either, and lately, as I am recently doing it more and more, having found that sweet state of flow, every little thing that helps not falling out of it (noise-cancelling headphones, not having to move your hand, etc.) is a blessing.

And did I mention how comfortable it feels?

 

But if you need information to help with your purchasing decision, think of the UHK as a high-end Eizo monitor. Many people cannot afford one, period. Most people don’t need it. There are other, cheaper options that almost give you the same features… just not the same features. For professionals, it is a very wise investment, because it helps protecting your most precious asset, your health and your second most precious asset, your attention.

So if you want to pamper yourself, and have a bit of a luxury, and especially, if you have to spend 40+ hours a week behind a keyboard and you are not afraid of a little practice, I believe that having an UHK is a decision you won’t regret. At all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.