Colemak is an alternative keyboard layout to Qwerty, which as legend has it put the keys in a non-optimal position to slow people down on old typewriters in order to reduce jamming.
The diagonal arrangement of keys on most keyboards also harks back to the typewriter era. TypeMatrix avoids this historical baggage by arranging the keys in columns, and providing a hardware switch to both Colemak and Dvorak layouts.
My typing history
I switched to Dvorak almost ten years ago because i wanted a keyboard layout which was designed to be more efficient and comfortable to use than Qwerty. I became pretty fast on Dvorak: my typeracer average score was 97 words per minute.
For a few years i have suspected that Colemak is even better than Dvorak, and i would have switched sooner had i known that my TypeMatrix keyboard supports Colemak. You see, for pair programming, it’s really useful to have a keyboard with your chosen keyboard layout built in, otherwise you have to constantly change the settings on the operating system.
At the end of January, Tom Brand found out that TypeMatrix also enables Colemak. For some reason, they don’t advertise this fact anywhere! For the record, you press Fn+F5 and hey presto you’re in Colemak mode!
The deciding factor for me was this keyboard layout analyzer which allows you to type in your own text and see all sorts of statistics for different layouts. I tried it out with emails i have written, code samples and tweets, and in every case Colemak was significantly better for me than Dvorak (and of course, far better than Qwerty).
So at the beginning of February i started learning Colemak. I have been using aTypeTrainer4Mac which has a horrible user interface, but actually works really well in encouraging you with your progress, moving up through the levels at an appropriate pace.
In the middle of February i had a holiday during which i did a lot of Colemak practice, and used Colemak almost exclusively, so that when i came back to eden i was ready to pair program with Colemak.
I am still quite slow going, and have to apologise for all my mistakes, but for the last two weeks i have been getting better all the time. It is starting to come more naturally to me now, patterns are getting stored in my brain, and it feels really comfortable.
Colemak compared to Dvorak
Only now that i’ve switched to Colemak can i realise the flaws of Dvorak. The L was a strain, and i did not like the second finger stretches to Y and F. It turns out the G and J are much more sensible characters to put there.
It’s great to have the X, C and V back to where they were on Qwerty, as well as the comma and full stop, and all the symbol characters. Not that i need to look anyway: my new TypeMatrix skin has none of those keys marked!
My best typeracer Colemak speed so far has been 44 words per minute. Not a patch on my previous Dvorak speed, but i will keep practising and hope one day to break 100 words per minute.
On teaching kids Colemak
I was recently asked whether Colemak/TypeMatrix would be good for school children to learn. Whilst i hate to think that the baggage of the past continues to be passed on to another generation, the truth is that we still live in a Qwerty world.
TypeMatrix keyboards are expensive, and Colemak isn’t easily available on all computers (unlike Dvorak). TypeMatrix does not yet make a Colemak skin, and the skins they do make look cluttered because of the overlap with the function keys. I enormously prefer the blank layout, but i can’t imagine many kids getting on too well with that!
I don’t know what the answer is just yet. I’d like to see more people realise the benefits of Colemak as a superior keyboard layout and make the switch. I would also like to see more Colemak keyboards made that don’t require downloading any software or switching any settings.
Maybe as a society we can begin to wean ourselves off the hangups of obsolete 19th century typing equipment and get used to a 21st century solution!