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May 19, 2014 AT 4:00 pm

Alternative keyboard layouts explained: Should you switch to Dvorak or Colemak?

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How-to Geek posted this really interesting piece on alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard layout. Have you considered making the switch from QWERTY to another layout?

QWERTY — so-called because the letters at the top-left corner of the keyboard begin with QWERTY — is the most common keyboard layout. But some people think alternative keyboard layouts like Dvorak and Colemak are faster and more efficient.

You can switch keyboard layouts by hanging your operating system’s keyboard layout setting, although the letters printed on your keyboard won’t match the new layout. You can also get keyboards designed for Dvorak or Colemak, if you like.

QWERTY Began With Typewriters in the 1800′s

QWERTY is old. It became popular with the Remington No. 2 typewriter, released in 1878.

The original layout for the typewriter used keys arranged in alphabetical order. Whenever you pressed a key, the bar the key was attached to would hit the piece of paper, printing the letter on the paper. In the four-row arrangement, these bars were arranged on the outside of a circular ring. Whenever you pressed a key, the appropriate bar would swing from the edge of the ring and hit the paper in the center.

There was a problem here. If you pressed keys next to each other in quick succession, the bars would collide with each other and the keys would jam. The letters on the keyboard had to be rearranged so you’d be pressing keys far apart from each other when you typed, minimizing the frequency of typewriter jams. The layout that they came up with is basically the same as the QWERTY layout we use today. QWERTY is a layout designed so the keys you use while typing are far apart from each other.

Why QWERTY Is Still Used Today

This layout is still used today because it became the standard. People learned the QWERTY layout and could maintain their muscle memory as they switched between different typewriters. When computer keyboards were created, it was only logical to use the same key layout everyone already used. The keyboard had a similar function to the typewriter, and people could use their typewriter skills on these newfangled devices.

In other words, QWERTY is common thanks to the network effect. Most people use QWERTY, so people making typewriters, computer keyboards, laptops, and touch keyboard on tablets and smartphones continue to use QWERTY. It’s the de-facto standard.

There are alternatives to QWERTY, but most people tend not to see them as vastly superior. Even if someone thinks an alternative layout could potentially be more efficient, the reality of having to relearn the layout or make other people relearn the layout discourages us from changing.

Dvorak and Colemak

The “Dvorak Simplified Keyboard” was patented in 1936 by Dr. August Dvorak. The layout places the most commonly used letters in the home row, where they’re easy to reach, and the least commonly used letters on the bottom row, where they’re hardest to reach. While QWERTY results in most of the typing being performed with the left hand, Dvorak results in most letters being performed with the right hand.

Whereas QWERTY was designed so keyboards didn’t jam, Dvorak was designed by taking a look at QWERTY and trying to come up with a faster and more efficient layout. People who prefer the Dvorak keyboard argue that it’s more efficient, can increase typing speed, and even offers better ergonomics.

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Colemak is more similar to the QWERTY layout, so it’s easier to switch to from a standard QWERTY keyboard. There are only 17 changes made from the QWERTY layout. Like Dvorak, it’s designed so the home row of keys is used more frequently and to reduce how far your fingers need to move while typing.

There are other alternative keyboard layouts, but these are the most popular two.

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Read the full post here.


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