Sunday 11 July 2010

Switching to the DVORAK Layout

For me the main method I use to interface with the computer is typing (for now at least). I use the keyboard almost every time I'm at a computer, save for the few occasions where I only need to check something quickly, and even then I most likely need to login by using the keyboard first.

However, for years, unknowingly, I (and possibly you too) have been using a keyboard layout that is more than a hundred years old! The QWERTY keyboard layout, as many of you probably already know was first created for the typewriter, when the typewriter was primarily a mechanical machine that depended on gravity and springs to do its job. It was designed mainly to slow you down (which makes sense since there are no vowels in the home row -- almost every word in the English language has a vowel), to ensure that the keys don't jam (even though I'm sure that they sometimes did). Have you ever wondered if there is a better way of typing?

Turns out there is: its called the dvorak typing layout, and it helps you type really really fast. Just ask this lady (actually, you can't anymore, but her world record typing speed speaks for itself).

The best way to get started with this new layout first, and see if you are sold. You can do so by checking out the dvorakzine and perhaps read about it on the interwebs. Then you should try out the layout for yourself. But even at a basic intuitive level, having the vowels nearby just makes sense.

If you want to get started, I'd recommend you first start with some typing practice (a basic course in dvorak is probably your best bet), and learn the layout a little by little. Almost every operating system lets you change your layout quickly, so QWERTY will never be too far away.

But before you switch, here are some things you should know:

  • It'll naturally feel awkward typing on a qwerty layout once you get completely used to the dvorak one. If you are at a workplace where your system administrator will not allow you to switch layouts, you might just have to stick to qwerty for you entire life
  • It's better to switch when you are still a student (and work mainly on your personal computer where you have full control over your keyboard layout)
  • You'll never want to type on qwerty anymore
  • No one else will be able to use your computer (until they figure out how to switch the layout back to qwerty that is)
  • Your typing speed may improve tremendously, or if you were really fast on qwerty, it'll probably become as fast as qwerty
  • The dvorak layout only works for English, it doesn't really help that much in other languages, but if you are reading this, you likely speak english anyway
  • You'll have to spend quite a lot of time learning the layout, but it is well worth the effort if you ask me
  • Warning: You will have to relearn all your qwerty shortcuts, but if you're on a mac, you can use the Dvorak/Qwerty layout where whenever you press command (to enter a shortcut), the layout will be switched back to Qwerty, but this wont work in some applications like Aquamacs/Emacs and shortcuts involving the Control/Meta/Alt key
  • You'll have to relearn the location of punctuation marks and symbols like [] or /?+=-_ etc.
  • For me the total transition time was a few weeks, and when I first started, my typing speed was about 10~20 WPM (simple words per minute without any complex punctuations), yuck! But now its back to about 60~70 words per minute, although my qwerty speed was 90~100 WPM. However I'm sure that I'll be at ~100 very soon with only a couple of months of practice.
And that's about it. But I assure you that you will be better off with a layout that is faster and less stressful on your fingers.

If you have any other tips or questions on my experience with switching, please feel free to use the comments section.

Note: Yes this post was typed out in its entirety using the dvorak layout, and I bet you couldn't even tell the difference ;) I must say, that I don't think I've ever typed up a post this fast. The flow of thoughts from the brain to the keyboard was almost seamless. Although I must say, I did use the backspace button a few more times than usual because of a few spelling mistakes, but then again -- I'm still learning too.

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  1. which version of Aquamacs did the switching not work with? 2.x? If so, please file a bug report!

  2. Yes, it's the most recent version.