Qwerty and alternatives

“Not sure what to write about today” I sigh. Staring at my keyboard in frustration..My QWERTY keyboard..
How did we end up with this thing again?

The Qwerty keyboard is an astounding piece of design which we also tangle with everyday. Unfortunately in many ways it’s a bad piece of design. There’s all sorts of rumours about how the QWERTY keyboard got the layout we all know and tap. The layout probably doesn’t originate from being able to type “typewriter” with the top row.. the origins do lie with the typewriter though. You see. typewriter keys jam if two keys close together are hit close in time together. This means letter rolls “st” “ie”, etc need to be seperated on a typewriter otherwise you’d get jams. So the qwerty keyboard originates from arranging keys in the abcd order and then rearranging them till they no longer stuck. Hence dfghjkl on the middle row is virtually in alphabetic order.

But in the modern computer age this no longer remains a concern. Yet the design stuck. So now the keyboard we use everyday to type lengthy documents has actually been designed to be deliberately difficult to write with. Absurd, isn’t it?

Everything about the design screams inefficiency particularly if you know how to touch type. With touch typing your fingers rest on the home keys, the middle keys near thwere those two little bumpbs on j and f reside. So on your right hand your fingers rest on jkl and absurdly ; whilst with your left hand they rest on asdf. These are the fingers which are the most powerful.. which should do the most typing and their primary key of residence is j.

Fortunately there are alternatives. They are not widespread or popular and they require an initial outlay of effort. If you ever struggle with typing speed or repetetive strain injury read on however..

The first is Dvorak which has simply a brilliant design actually based on how much people type certain letters. Letter combinations are designed not to have awkward manauvers, they are designed to alternate hands and more typing is done with the left hand.. perfect for RSI sufferers. I’ve tried to get on with Dvorak in the past but there’s one flaw I’ve always found: Windows. Or more specifically Windows shortcuts. I’m addicted to them. Ctrl+X, Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V & Ctrl+Z. All designed to work with simple finger movements and these are all lost with the switch to Dvorakk. Worth it if you write lengthy documents.. perhaps. But then I heard about another alternative: Colemak.

This is even more unknown than Dvorak. In fact, a recent radio 4 program with Stephen Fry looking at keyboard layouts didn’t even mention it. However, let me be it’s advocate instead. Colemak also changes the key layout to improve upon the qwerty design. Yet it tries to keep as many qwerty keys in place as possible. This means you can learn quicker and your keyboard shortcuts are retained. Wow! Furthermore this doesn’t really seem to compromise improvements in typing efficiency. Looking at the home row your fingers rest on neio with the right hand and arst with the left.. letters I think you’ll find you use a bit more than j and k! A great little comparison tool is the Colemak compare tool available from the website where you can grab colemak. Put in a chunk of text and compare results.

For instance, with yesterday’s Grouper gig post: With qwerty my hands would move 118.6 metres. Yet with Colemak my fingers move almost half that.. just 58.59 metres. Furthermore I type on the home row an astonishing 70.58% of the time compared to just 32.64% with qwerty. So with the qwerty layout I actually have to stretch to the top row more than keeping my fingers where they should be. There’s similar scores for Dvorak.. although there is a much lower same hand result.. alternating hands for rhythm is something Dvorak emphasises as a virtue.

So give colemak a chance, it’ll take a while to learn. But your fingers will thank you for it.


About lenty

22 year old medical statistician living in London. I love drone music, F1, politicians and reading fantasy/sci-fi/dystopian fiction. Generally I post about a mixture of all the above plus the movies I watch!
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