17 Jul

Keyboard Layout Comparison

For the past few weeks I’ve experimented with alternate keyboard layouts with the long-term goal of increasing my typing speed.

At first I tried Dvorak, which is the most popular alternative layout.  I found it cumbersome to learn.  Almost every key is in a new position.  After a couple of weeks of practice I had mostly memorized the layout, but was still only typing at 16 WPM.

Then, while clearing out some bookmarks I found a link to the Colemak layout.  I’ve considered switching layouts for some time, so I wasn’t surprised to find the bookmark.  Like Dvorak, Colemak is designed for efficient and ergonomic touch typing in English.  Unlike Dvorak, it is based somewhat on the QWERTY keyboard.  Only 17 keys have moved.  The transition was easy.  I memorized the new layout in just a couple of days and was typing at 30+ WPM within a week.  I seem to have stalled, but I think the issue now is learning to type words (or letter combos) instead of typing letter by letter.  That’s something I expect will come with time.

Here are my observation of the learning process:

  • There is a noticeable difference in how much finger movement is required compared with QWERTY.  I hope this difference will result in more speed and comfort in the long run.
  • I had no problems switching between layouts until I was above 25 WPM on Colemak, then I started to get confused when on QWERTY.  I switched to Colemak completely after I hit 30 WPM 2 days later.
  • My speed at a typing test seemed slower than regular typing when I tested on QWERTY, but I definitely copy text faster in Colemak than I type my own thoughts.  This has improved since switching to Colemak full-time.
  • TypeRacer is a great place to practice.  You race others in short (<2 minute) races, and the quotes you type are at least somewhat interesting.  It also tracks and graphs your progress.
  • Slow and accurate beats fast and inaccurate.  If you mistype, it takes 3 strokes to make a letter.  At 30 WPM you type 2.5 characters per second.  You are better off spending the time to type the right letter the first time.
  • I don’t type as much as I thought.  With Visual Studio’s Intellisense I only type 1 or 2 letter then press Tab to complete for most things.  I honestly thought I typed more.

A really cool tool for comparing keyboard layouts.  It calculates the distance traveled, percentage home row and some other stats to help illuminate the differences between layouts.

Stats for this post (except the grid):

  QWERTY Colemak Dvorak
Distance 74.50m 38.16m 44.29m
Same Hand 38.25% 32.45% 22.16%
Same Finger 5.0% 1.333% 3.291%
Top Row 52.70% 18.45% 24.95%
Home Row 28.86% 65.20% 61.07%
Bottom Row 15.87% 11.91% 9.666%

QWERTY is a clear loser here, its primary advantage is its monopoly.  The relative merits of Dvorak vs Colemak are debatable.  Are Colemak’s higher home row percentage and lower same finger percentage worth the trade for higher same hand and bottom row percentage?  Colemaks biggest advantage over Dvorak is the ease of learning if you are already proficient with QWERTY.