Dvorak keyboards really are that much better
Alternative Keyboard Layouts Explained: Should You Switch to Dvorak or Colemak?
QWERTY - so named because the letters at the top left corner of the keyboard begins with QWERTY - is the most common keyboard layout. However, some people think that alternative keyboard layouts like Dvorak and Colemak are faster and more efficient.
You can change the keyboard layout by changing your operating system keyboard layout setting, even though the letters printed on your keyboard do not match the new layout. You can also get keyboards for Dvorak or Colemak if you want.
QWERTY started with typewriters in the 19th century
QWERTY is old. It became popular with the Remington No. 2 typewriter released in 1878.
The original layout for the typewriter used keys sorted alphabetically. Whenever you pressed a key, the bar that the key was attached to hit the sheet of paper and printed the letter on the paper. In the four-row arrangement, these rods were arranged on the outside of a circular ring. Whenever you pressed a key, the corresponding bar swung from the edge of the ring and struck the paper in the center.
There was a problem here. If you press the buttons in quick succession, the bars will collide and the buttons will lock. The letters on the keyboard had to be rearranged so that you could press keys that were widely spaced as you type and minimize the frequency of typewriter jams. The layout they created is basically the same as the QWERTY layout we are using today. QWERTY is a layout designed so that the keys you use while typing are far apart.
Why QWERTY is still used today
This layout is still used today because it became the standard. People learned the QWERTY layout and were able to maintain their muscle memory when switching between different typewriters. When creating computer keyboards, it was only logical that all the keys already in use share the same layout. The keyboard served a similar function as the typewriter, and people were able to use their typewriting skills on these new devices.
In other words, QWERTY is thanks to the network effect. Most people use QWERTY, so people who make typewriters, computer keyboards, laptops, and touch keyboards on tablets and smartphones continue to use QWERTY. This is the de facto standard.
There are alternatives to QWERTY, but most people tend not to consider them superior. Even if someone thinks that an alternate layout could possibly be more efficient, the fact that we have to relearn the layout or other people have to relearn the layout keeps us from changing it.
Dvorak and Colemak
The "Dvorak Simplified Keyboard" was patented in 1936 by Dr. August Dvorak. The layout places the most used letters on the start line where they are easy to get to and the least used letters on the bottom line where they are hardest to get to. While QWERTY causes most of the typing to be done with the left hand, Dvorak causes most of the letters to be done with the right hand.
QWERTY was designed but keyboards weren't jam, Dvorak was designed by looking at QWERTY and trying to come up with a faster and more efficient layout. Those who prefer the Dvorak keyboard argue that it is more efficient, can increase typing speed, and even offer better ergonomics.
Colemak is more similar to the QWERTY layout, making it easier to switch from a standard QWERTY keyboard. Only 17 changes were made to the QWERTY layout. Like Dvorak, it was designed to use the main row of keys more often and require fewer finger movements to type.
There are other alternative keyboard layouts, but these are the most popular two.
Are Dvorak and Colemak really faster?
In no case will you type faster immediately afterwards. You will have to spend some time - probably a few months - relearning the keyboard layout and getting back up to the typing speed that QWERTY can achieve.
But when you're back on the cutting edge, will you be able to type it faster? It's very controversial. Do some web searches and you will find people who claim they can type much faster with Dvorak or Colemak.
If these layouts were really better than QWERTY, we would likely have clear studies to prove their usefulness. The studies would show that users who used these layouts could type faster. We don't have these studies. Most studies seem to show no difference between these keyboard layouts. In general, if there is a measurable difference in the study, it is very small.
This is one of the reasons QWERTY is still used - there is no clear alternative that is much better.
How do you use Dvorak or Colemak?
Dvorak is a standardized keyboard layout and is even included in Windows. You can set your operating system to use this keyboard layout and give it a try today. Note that the keys work differently than they do on the keyboard. When you press the Q key on your QWERTY keyboard, the character will appear if you are using the Dvorak layout. You'll probably want to print out a layout so you can see what your keys are doing.
To enable Dvorak on Windows 7, open the Region and Language in Control Panel, click the Keyboards and Languages tab, and click the Change Keyboards button. Click Add, expand the English (United States) section, and add a Dvorak layout. You can then change your active keyboard layout. Use the language options to change your keyboard layout in Windows 8.
You can also buy keyboards for Dvorak orColemak. The corresponding keys are printed on these keyboards so that they are easier to use. They're less common, however - you'll run into problems when you need a laptop with a built-in Dvorak keyboard. You can purchase overlays for some keyboards to display the Dvorak layout without replacing your keyboard hardware.
Switching to these keyboard layouts is also roughly done if you've had a lifetime of QWERTY experience. It will take you months - maybe even a year - to get back up to your current speed. If you are using someone else's computer, you must use the QWERTY layout. So the entire Dvorak muscle memory is only hurting you. iPads and iPhones only support the QWERTY layout for their touch screen keyboards, so you cannot customize the layout of the software keyboard to match your Dvorak layout.
So, do we recommend turning away from QWERTY? Not at all - studies haven't shown the benefits, and switching to a new keyboard layout takes time and effort. If you are interested, just give it a try. Remember, however, that you will have to unlearn QWERTY and learn a new layout for months before you can decide for yourself whether your new layout is better.
Photo credit: Chris Mear on Flickr, Mysid on Wikipedia, Stanley Wood on Flickr, Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Justin Henry on Flickr
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