Typing with Colemak

Sunday, January 3, 2010 at 10:50 AM | Filed under

There are some fundamental problems with the QWERTY keyboard, mostly because of how it was designed. The keys were arranged the way they are to prevent the typewriters' typebars from jamming together—commonly used letter pairs were arranged on the keyboard so that the typebars wouldn't collide and get stuck. That said, there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to the way the keys are arranged on the keyboard. Have you ever noticed where T, the most commonly used consonant, rests on the keyboard? You have to reach all the way up there!

There's QWERTY on top and Colemak on the bottom.

Colemak was released in early 2006; I've been using it for a year and a half. The keys are in a more comfortable arrangement: many of the most frequent letters—E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D—are all on the home row, so you don't have to move your fingers far. According to Wikipedia, "the 'top twelve' letters comprise about 80% of the total usage," so this is sort of a big deal. All of the symbols are in the same place, except that O is where the semi-colon is in QWERTY, but I never felt that I used the semi-colon that often anyway. Some of the letters are in the same place—in fact, except for N being switched with K, the entire bottom row is the same. This is very nice, because frequent keyboard shortcuts which benefit from muscle memory and proximity to the control key, like Ctrl+C (copy), Ctrl+V (paste), and Ctrl+Z (undo), are in the same place. The Caps Lock key becomes Backspace. Since this feature isn't available yet in Windows Vista or 7, I can't vouch for how much of a good thing this is, but it must be a relief from having to reach my right pinky to the awkwardly distant Backspace key.

One of my favorite things about the Colemak keyboard is that it can be used to type international characters by turning the right Alt into an AltGr key. This is especially useful for me because I'm a student of German, and it helps me type the foreign letters that aren't on my keyboard. To type an eszett (ß), you type AltGr+S. To type ä, ö, or ü, you type AltGr+D (for the umlaut) and then a, o, or u. AltGr+E is é; AltGr+N is ñ. If I want to type an em dash (—), I type AltGr+Shift+hyphen. I love em dashes. There are combinations for cent, yen, pound, and euro currency signs. There are also some special combinations using the backslash. AltGr+\ then D gives the degree symbol (°). AltGr+\ then T gives the trademark sign (™). It's very nice to be able to type these characters without having to resort to the Character Map, or even without having to move the position of my hands.

Learning Colemak didn't take as long as I thought it would, but it was of course a bit disorienting at first. I started without incremental lessons. I just printed out a layout of the keyboard, color-coding the keys which are typed with each finger, and referred to the chart when I wanted to type a letter. Typing was slow at first. I did this during the summer, when I didn't have a lot of important homework to type. I'd say I was up to pretty good speed after a few days or a week, but this was over a year ago, so I can't say for sure.

Now that I know Colemak, QWERTY seems awkward to type, especially the letters T and P. I am a little more prone to making mistakes while typing in QWERTY, especially when I try to type S or N. Looking at the keyboard helps me remember that I need to be typing in QWERTY; otherwise, I get a bit confused.

I suggest Colemak to anyone who is capable of touch-typing, looking for a more comfortable keyboard, and wanting to easily type international letters and special characters. If you want to try it out or read more information, go to colemak.com.


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