Going DVORAK in a QWERTY World


I’ve been looking for the perfect keyboard for a while, simply because I type all day (watch for my up coming review of the Freestyle Solo). Most people focus on hardware when they look at comfortable typing, but there is more to typing comfort than simply the keyboard you use.

The original QWERTY keyboard was not designed for typing comfort or for typing speed. It was designed to avoid jams on early typewriters, in 1870. As the bars flew up to hit the barrel, bars that were often typed together (like th) could get stuck. To stop this they designed the keyboard to prevent the jams. Last time I looked at people typing there were no mechanical constraints that needed to be considered, so why are we still using a keyboard layout designed around mechanical constraints?

Enter DVORAK

Dvorak was designed in 1936 as a more efficient keyboard layout. With dvorak many of the common letter combinations are on the home row which means that you can (theoretically) type faster. Dvorak also places much of typing on opposite fingers which leads to more rhythmic typing, which should also increase your typing speed.

While the above points are interesting the real reason that I switched was the ergonomic benefits. On the Dvorak layout you have less finger motion which reduces the stress on your wrists and fingers. Most people report an increase in typing comfort after switching.

Switching

As I’ve said many times, I type all day, so switching to a new keyboard layout actually costs me money if there is a large drop in typing speed. On top of that I use Vim as my text editor (or an alternative that still has Vim keybindings) which is entirely keyboard controlled. Not only did my normal typing change, all of the keyboard controls for Vim change. That equates to a much larger cost caused by the switch.

Befor I made the switch I measured my typing speed and found out that while I often burst up to 80 words per minute I more typically type around 40 words a minute while programming. Since I program all day 40 is the more important number but my goal is to eventually get to a consistent speed of 80.

To make the full switch I started on a Friday night by purchasing the Mavis Beacon typing software and changing my keyboard mapping and printing off the dvorak mapping as a visual reference from Wikipedia. With that all set I stared with the first lesson and spent a few hours learning the new layout. I did the same on Saturday and Sunday, just typed and typed and typed.

I also found keybr.com which has the advantage that you’re not typing words really, just common letter combinations. Since much of what you type is not a word it let’s you concentrate on the letters instead of reading the words and trying to translate them in to key pushes. You can also track you stats here for a record of how you are doing, and it even tracks the errors you make.

Probably the hardest most confusing part is the dang keys. I did not change the keys on the keyboard around to match dvorak layout. This means that looking simply punishes you for not fully touch typing. This is not a bad thing. I’d recommend not changing the keys so that you have to learn to touch type, no cheating.

The original plan was to change back for work on Monday and do the training for a few more weeks and make the full switch at some point.

I found that all the practice I had done made ‘normal’ typing hard. I figured I was fighting it anyway so I figured that I might as well make the switch.

Progress

The general consensus is that, just like any skill, it will take a few weeks to become good with dvorak. By the middle of the week I didn’t need to check the paper reference

Even fighting the layout on the first Monday my error rate was low (99%) so while I was only typing 20 words a minute I was making almost no mistakes (I did make a number of mistakes before).

After two weeks in I can type at 40 – 45 words a minute with a 99% accuracy rate. The accuracy rate is what makes this really a benefit to my overall typing and means that though my raw numbers are still a bit lower than before the gap is far smaller than the numbers indicate.

Switching Back

Some people say that they can switch between QWERTY and dvorak, I haven’t tried it and don’t plan on it till I’ve got a few more months of practice under my belt. I won’t know if I am a person that can switch between the two layouts for a while longer.

For my iPhone and iPad I have not found any useful dvorak keyboard, nor have I had any problem typing. The change is effortless for me. I would assume that because of the change in context, laptop vs on screen keyboard, my brain easily ‘throws a switch’ and I think in QWERTY again.

What About Programming?

Dvorak was designed for typing the English language fast, not for programming. Most programming languages involve a high volume of punctuation, much higher than normal English language typing.

To combat this the programmers dvorak was introduced which moves a bunch of the number keys around along with brace types. I have not really had an issue with the placement of punctuation and just can’t see a good reason to learn a variation to an already reasonably obscure keyboard layout.

The point of Vim in the control modes and keys. With dvorak you change the movement keys away from the home row under your right hand. ‘JK’ are now where ‘CV’ are on a QWERTY keyboard and ‘HL’ are where ‘JP’ were. I haven’t bothered to change the layout around and every article I have read on the dvorak layout for Vim users says just to stick with the default mappings, you’ll learn it.

Gotcha

There are a few little things that can get you when making the switch.

  1. OSX Lion boots from cold to QWERTY so typing your password when you start the machine caught me off guard. I’m told you can change this but I have not bothered looking.
  2. OSX Lion wakes from sleep in dvorak not QWERTY. I first thought that it would be the same as when you booted the computer, but it’s not.
  3. Some applications map their keyboard commands to the key you press not the letter. Take Reeder as an example, the movement keys stay on the home row instead of moving with the letters. This just means that they register that you pressed key 18 not that you pressed a specific letter. Applications are all over the place on this.
  4. I had a bunch of hand cramps the first week. I guess that the change of hand movement is something that my hands just were not up for. Never stopped me from typing just meant a few more breaks in the day to stretch my hands.

Other Dvorak Articles and Resources


3 responses to “Going DVORAK in a QWERTY World”

  1. Your experiences are similar to mine, and I had the same issues with OS X.

    You can change the start-up layout by enabling the root user, logging in as it, and changing its keyboard layout to Dvorak. If you’re running Mountain Lion, this is currently broken.

    You can also force the language menu on the login window by going to “System Preferences > Users & Groups > Login Options” and enabling “Show Input menu in login window.

    It’s taken me about a year to get to where I feel is about 80% of my efficiency with QWERTY. I make more typos than anything else, but I’m able to program just fine. Also, if I sit in front of a physical QWERTY keyboard, I’m totally lost; 18 years QWERTY tough typing was purged from my memory in less than a year.

    Good luck with your progress!

    • curtismchale says:

      Thanks for the tips, not sure I will actually bother with the change to the login screen. Figure it adds another layer of security since I effectively have 2 passwords now, the same one with two ways it needs to be typed.

  2. Chris says:

    Thanks for the post! I’ve been on Dvorak about 5 years now but Vim only a few months. I think it’s a nice pairing. Programmers’ Dvorak really looks worth checking out though I wish it was not an add-on…