Ask aimee: When/why did you decide to switch to Colemak?

Here is the start of a new series of questions that i get asked on twitter but the answer is too long for a tweet. It’s egocentrically called: “Ask aimee” :)

Ash Moran asks:

@sermoa When/why did you decide switch to Colemak?

To understand the context of this tweet, you need to know that Colemak is a keyboard layout, an alternative to QWERTY which is what most of the English speaking world uses to type.

A history lesson

QWERTY first appeared in about 1873, the result of several years’ work by inventor Christopher Sholes. QWERTY was designed for typewriters. The letters of word ‘typewriter’ are all in the top row. QWERTY separates common letters to reduce key jamming. Interestingly, this separation of common letters also makes it good for small touch screen devices with intelligent word guessing, so it’s not all bad!

Dvorak was designed in 1932 by Professor August Dvorak. Its intention was to improve the comfort of typing through several methods, notably by putting the most common letters on the home row and alternating hands as much as possible (all the vowels are in the left hand).

Colemak was released in 2006 and is the work of Shai Coleman. Colemak was designed with the aid of sophisticated computer software to work out the optimal position of the keys. It also minimises the moving of keys away from QWERTY, making it easier to switch. Actually, only 17 keys are different, and most of those are either in the same hand or on the same finger. Z, X, C and V all remain, as do all of the punctuation characters, which is a major win over Dvorak.

My own history of keyboard layouts

I used to be reasonably fast on QWERTY. I’m a pianist, which i think helps a bit. I reckon i was probably about 70wpm (words per minute) on QWERTY, which is not too bad.

I switched to Dvorak in 2002. Colemak had not even been invented yet! I switched because a friend did. Some nerdy part of me thought it looked like fun, and i always enjoy a challenge! I spend a significant portion of my life typing, so anything that makes it easier or more comfortable is good for me! At my peak i got to 110wpm with Dvorak.

I think i heard about Colemak in 2009. I actually started to learn it back then, but i didn’t stick with it. The primary reason for that is the company i was working for started to favour pair programming at about the same time. Switching keyboard layouts on the OS is not a lot of fun. I had a TypeMatrix keyboard which can send Dvorak keystrokes from the hardware level, so with two programmers and two keyboards there isn’t a problem.

By then i already suspected that Colemak was a superior layout, and although i continued with Dvorak, i recommended Colemak to anyone who asked!

If only i had known then that the TypeMatrix could also support Colemak layout! For some reason they don’t publicise it, but you can get Colemak layout simply by pressing Fn+F5.

Switching to Colemak

I switched to Colemak in February 2011, after Tom Brand discovered the TypeMatrix supports it. Again, i was influenced to learn it because Tom was learning and i felt i would get left behind! But it was this keyboard layout analyzer that convinced me for sure. I pasted in some code, some emails i’d written, and some tweets, and in every case not only was Colemak superior to Dvorak, but it was also pretty close to the optimal layout if i had a custom keyboard designed just for me. That was my compelling reason to switch.

It has now been 5 months and i’m up to about 80wpm on Colemak. I want to get faster, i want to make fewer mistakes, but i am extremely happy with my decision to switch. Right from the first month i could feel that Colemak was more comfortable. I felt totally grounded in the home row. All my punctuation keys were back where they should be. I noticed faults in the Dvorak layout that i’d never noticed before.

I am now loudly and proudly #teamcolemak :D

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4 comments on “Ask aimee: When/why did you decide to switch to Colemak?

  1. Impressive. I’ve intermittently experimented with alternative keyboard layouts, shorthands and methods of speedreading for years. At the moment I’m ploughing through hundreds of audiobooks I’ve made using TTS…and then sped up to 450wpm. It’s a way to spend odd half hours ‘reading’ at high speed while I use my eyes for other things – like looking where I’m going.

    Anyway, having learned and forgotten to touch-type three times on QWERTY, the problems of the standard layout are obvious, and I’d jump at the chance of something better. I would…if only it didn’t involve changing the suite of programs – and/or operating system – that I’ve built up to do what I want, the way I want.

    Windows 7 running Office 2011 can probably accept alternative layouts. But I have no love for either of these, and right now a stripped down XP with Word97 is both adequate and pleasant.

    • have you never experimented with a minimalist Linux and open office?

      You can define a keyboard layout in a tiny .kbd file in Linux, which is really just a text file.

  2. Thanks for mentioning Colemak. I noticed long ago that the QWERTY layout was originally developped to SLOW down the typists and hence in the age of computer keyboards was a total waste of one’s time. However, from the Dvorak design I went on to the Neo layout but Colemak seems to be a compromise.

  3. Still going strong with Colemak?

    As a Dvorak typist, your change after nine years of Dvorak made me curious. Thank you for sharing.

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