Alternatives to the QWERTY Keyboard Layout: Why it pays to try out a Dvorak or Colemak Keyboard
Ever since Christopher Sholes patented the “QWERTY” layout in 1874, most of the English-speaking world has known only one layout for their typing needs. Yet QWERTY is a restrictive and inefficient layout: so unwieldy, in fact, that more typing is done on the top row (going from Q to P) than the home row, where the fingers are naturally positioned.
At the time Sholes was around, typewriters were prone to locking when one tried to type on them too fast. While this did not mean that the designer intentionally created a bad layout, as some guides claim, he certainly avoided making it so efficient that jams would occur every second.
But the QWERTY design did not just exhibit an archaic response to poor technology: it demonstrated sloppiness. The very first typewriters used an alphabetical key format, and Sholes—not to break with convention—left much of that style intact. Thus, the middle row reads “D F G H J K L,” even though the K and J are some of the least used letters in the English language and belong either at the top or the bottom.
Unfortunately, this inferior format did not die out with the inferior typewriters it was designed for. Typing mechanisms of the steel age, computer age and information age have all been designed with QWERTY typists in mind.
The Best Keyboard Layouts
Luckily, a number of alternatives to this standard exist. The most prominent is the “Dvorak” layout, notable for featuring all the vowels on the left side of the home row and some of the most-used consonants on the right. Designed to encourage hand alternation and reduce the amount of distance the fingers must travel, the Dvorak layout is so efficient that about 65 percent of keystrokes occur on its middle row—compared to 35 percent for QWERTY. (To test these statistics, go to http://colemak.com/Compare and enter in a few paragraphs of sample text.)
Just what does one get out of rearranging the keys, however? For touch typists, making “the switch” can mean more words typed per minute due to the more efficient layout. Because almost all of the most-used letters in the English language can be found on the middle row of the keyboard—the A, E, I, O, U, D, H, T, N and S, specifically—Dvorak typists have easier access to the keys they use the most. This equates not only to faster typing, but less strain on the hands from typing large amounts at a time.
The Dvorak Learning Curve
Of the few who ever learn about Dvorak or “Colemak,” a rival alternative, many feel that changing the layout of their keyboard is too lengthy a process. Admittedly, it can take time for a seasoned touch-typist to find their way around Dvorak.
And yet, time is the exact reason why the Dvorak layout was developed. The month—if that—that Dvorak typists must spend learning the ropes will be earned back by their increased speed and ability to write without feeling hand pains or wrist cramps. The same, of course, goes for Colemak.
However one looks at the question, it simply doesn’t make sense for a 134-year-old typewriter pattern to dictate how today’s world types. Modern technology demands a modern key layout.
Author: Kenneth Burchfiel