Monday, January 28, 2008

Switching Keyboard Layouts: Colemak

In an effort to preserve my hands, I've switched my keyboard layout from the contorted-and-inexplicable Qwerty to the comfortable, ergonomic upstart Colemak. I spent a day using Dvorak before doing some more research and settling on Colemak. Both layouts require startlingly less hand motion than Qwerty, and greatly reduce awkward finger motions. The best way to get a feel for the magnitude of the difference is to go to this typing-test site and replay one of the high scores. You can toggle between Qwerty, Dvorak, and Colemak, and see visually how much your hands would be moving in that layout. This applet will let you compare layout statistics on a given piece of text.

All in all, I think Colemak is the clear winner over Dvorak. Here they are, for reference:




I was initially skeptical of Colemak because one of its main selling points is that it is much more similar to Qwerty than Dvorak is, and therefore easier to learn. I was afraid that it might have sacrificed ergonomics for similarity to Qwerty. This is not the case. Dvorak is optimized for alternating work between the left and right hand, and using it felt like a delicate left-right dance. Colemak on the other hand is optimized for grouping common letter pairs (digraphs) together so that you can hit them with one smooth hand motion. I find this more comfortable than the focus on alternation in Dvorak. Colemak also remedies two minor annoyances I had with Dvorak: "R" isn't on the home row, and "L" is delegated to the right pinkie, making it harder to reach than it's frequency warrants. Other Colemak benefits:

  • Caps Lock is mapped to backspace. Brilliant!
  • The punctuation keys are in the same place as in Qwerty. I didn't find the top-row Dvorak placement any worse, but I didn't find it any better either, and this is one less thing to relearn.
  • The Z/X/C/V keys don't move, so the most common shortcut keys don't need to be relearned.

Pretty much the only thing I liked better about Dvorak is the convenient placement of the "-/_" key, which as a programmer I use a lot. But nothing is perfect, I guess.

One of the most interesting (to me) aspects of switching was getting an insight into how the body learns to type quickly (I got up to about 80 WPM in Qwerty, although typing that fast is so uncomfortable that I rarely do it). It happens largely by burning common words and letter combinations into your muscles, not by stringing together individual keys. After almost 3 weeks on Colemak, I find that my most common mistakes aren't on particular letters but in particular contexts. I may get "I" right most of the time, but I still invariably type the Qwerty "I" in certain words. Because of the Colemak emphasis on digraphs, I get the feeling that as I burn it into my fingers it will make for more comfortable and smoother typing.

All things considered I'm very glad I made the switch, and I'd recommend it to anyone who makes a living on a keyboard. Your hands have to last you the rest of your life, and Colemak will help them to.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Glad to find another Colemak user. I am learning Colemak for 3 days.

Unlearning Qwerty is a hard process. D and G, S and R is often mistaken :-)

But my hands don't hurt any more. They are just confused.