It's unique keyboard week here at MMORPG! Well, not quite, but that won't stop us from bringing you another interesting keyboard following yesterday's Planck EZ. Today, we're looking at the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard. It features a sixty-percent split layout, huge programmability, full mouse control, and innovative thumb modules so you never need to take your hands from home row. The price? $275. Is it worth it? Let's dive in and find out.
- Current Price: $275 (Available at the Official Site)
- Layout: QWERTY, ANSI
- Design: Split Keyboard
- Form Factor: 60-percent
- Backlighting: No
- Programmable: Yes, complete remapping and macro support
- Stay on home row
- Positive and negative tilting
- Mouse Control
- QWERTY, COLEMAK, DVORAK layouts
- Thumb Modules: Key Cluster, Trackball, Trackpoint, Touchpad
The Making of an Ultimate Hacking Keyboard
Like many unique products, the team at Ultimate Gadget Labs had a vision but needed to turn to the keyboard community for help to bring it to life. All the way back in 2015, the team turned to Crowd Supply and raised an astounding $684,900. This makes the UHK one of the most successful crowdfunded campaigns ever.
The reason lies in just how unique it is. The UHK takes popular concepts, like the ergonomic split, and marries it with the advanced programmability professionals, coders, and gamers demand. The operating principle is this: take your hands off the keyboard as little as possible. As such, Ultimate Gadget Labs as also pioneered interchangeable thumb modules to add extra keys like the ErgoDox or your choice of mouse controls. If you don't want to shell out extra for the modules, you can also control the mouse right on the keyboard itself with a good amount of precision.
But what exactly makes this a hacking keyboard? That name, apart from being cool, is a nod to its professional nature which takes aim at coders. This is a keyboard aimed at letting these folks do what they do faster and better than before thanks to that exceptional programmability. When time is money, making your work more efficient is a move worth investing in.
A closer look
When the UHK arrived at my doorstep, I was immediately impressed by how well presented it was. It doesn't look like a crowdfunded project at all. There were no cut corners; it was simply one of the best presented keyboards I've ever unboxed. And honestly, even though I know there's no such thing as a "hacking keyboard," this one definitely fits the bill. Those sleek black keycaps with white side legends, the curly-cue cable connecting the halves, the red LED readout for your layout. If Hollywood was looking for a prop for a hacking scene, the UHK would get the job done a'plenty.
The keyboard comes in your choice of color. I opted for the yellow version but plan to mod it with a custom paint job. I like that it comes in multiple flavors, though, because at this price you really want it to feel like something special and uniquely your own. Under the hood, you also have your choice of key switches between Kailh and Cherry, including less common options like Cherry MX Clear and Green. I chose Green, which are a heavier version of Cherry MX Blue and offer a nice, light click. Again though, I plan to mod mine. I took a risk and it turns out Cherry Greens are too stiff for me, so I'll be changing them out to Browns.
The UHK is a solidly built device. It features a plastic case but it's sturdy and includes a heavy metal mounting plate which adds a good amount of weight. I also opted for the walnut wrist rests which look great and screw onto the keyboard so they'll never fall off. A quick examination shows that the entire device wouldn't be hard to disassemble either, which is exactly why I plan to customize it.
The keycaps, on the other hand, are a disappointment. They're thin-walled ABS and laser etched. (Correction: this article originally stated the keycaps were pad printed. That was incorrect and has been updated.) UGL did texture the surface to avoid pre-mature shining but they're not made to last over years. Thankfully, the keyboard is compatible with many aftermarket sets. You'll be left hunting for certain modifiers but most can be found fairly easily. Still, at $275 you'd expect better than what was delivered here.
Around the back, one of the first things I noticed is the lack of tilt feet. These are actually included in the box and need to be screwed into place. It was honestly a bit tedious but does make sense as the board is designed to offer your choice of tilt. Normal keyboard tilt, called positive tilt, is what most users will probably opt for. You can also tent each side (elevate the inner side) or put arrange a negative tilt for better ergonomics.
One of the best parts about the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard is its solution for combining the two halves. Most of the split keyboards I've used fit together like puzzle pieces, as does the UHK, but then stop there. This is a terrible solution because the two sides are simply resting together and eventually come lose. Some, like the Mistel Barocco MD650L allow you to join the halves with a metal bar screwed in along the back. The UHK, on the other hand, has four precision milled steel bars that fit into retention slots to hold it in place. When it's together, it's not coming apart again unless you mean for it split with a good pull.
I also like that it's not a mess of cable clutter like other of split options out there. The two halves are joined with a short coil that takes up very little room. A mini-USB cable routes along a channel on the back. Again, at this price, I'm surprised it's not USB Type-C for the improved durability but at least it's not micro-USB.
Let's talk about the screen. It's an eye catching feature, to be sure. Its main purpose is to tell which layout mode you're in between QWERTY, DVORAK, and COLEMAK. As you can see in the picture above, it's in QWR or QWERTY mode. Apart from my accidentally changing modes when pulling the sides apart, that's where it stays. So, if you're like me, it doesn't serve much purpose other than looking cool and saving my wonderment when I've switched without knowing it.
More important in this area are the indicator lights. Mod and Fn represent the two layers of commands. By default, you access these layers by holding either button but you can stay there by double-tapping. This is especially useful in Mouse mode when you're scrolling down a web page.
But enough with the overview, what's it like to actually use?
Hacking away at the UHK
The bread and butter of the UHK is its Mod and Fn layering. Like many split keyboards, the spacebar is shorter and set to one side (you can change this in the software). The other half is the Mod button which accesses Layer 1 secondary commands. Underneath each of these buttons are two more thumb buttons built into the bezel of the case. Under Mod is another Space button, under the Space key is another Mod button. A Fn button sits on either side of these two larger keys and access Layer 2 commands.
Using the UHK took some getting used to but the learning curve was surprisingly fast. I had to mentally clear the hurdle that Fn is not used to access the common secondaries like every other keyboard but once I did, I really began to enjoy the Mod key. Like the Planck EZ, your thumb is there anyway, so it removes a lot of the burden of having to reposition to use Fn.
I was also a bit taken back by the Caps Lock button being assigned to Mouse Mode. Again, this turned out to be a smart choice. Controlling the cursor is done with IJKL on the right side, left/right click, and scroll on the left. It feels surprisingly natural to use. I still think I would opt for a thumb touch pad on the right because it would allow for some casual gaming (this isn't precise enough for that), but it feels good. I especially like that in Mouse mode you can hold the left Mod/Space to speed up or slow down the cursor for better precision and speed.
Using UGL's Agent software, you can also come up with custom remaps, macros, and layouts. If you don't like where something is on the default layout, it's very easy to change. The software doesn't require an installation and also flashes to firmware so your changes are saved right to the board and usable anywhere.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to try any of the thumb modules for myself as they weren't ready to ship with my review sample. I'll update this review should I have the opportunity to try them.
I wasn't sure that I would like the layout at first but it won me over. I regret choosing Cherry Greens on my sample - you live and you learn - because they're just too stiff to be enjoyable. But, the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard is unique enough that it's sold me on becoming my pet project to actually try my first keyboard mod. To be completely frank, I have so many excellent keyboards, if the UHK wasn't offering something unique and interesting, there is no way I would take the time to actually do that.
At the same time, though... that price. It's too much. The Ultimate Hacking Keyboard is trying to straddle the line between being a board for enthusiasts and professionals and opted for business pricing. As it stands now, it's just too much to recommend unless it will somehow pay for itself over time. The UHK is great but about a hundred dollars too much, especially with those keycaps.
- Unique layout and design
- Good customization options
- The Mod/Fn/Mouse combination is interesting and useful
- Very well built and professionally presented
- Great programmability
- Underwhelming keycaps
- Software is good but not the most user friendly nor deep
- Very overpriced
- LED screen is gimmicky