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A Periodic (P)review Of Leaping Forward

By: Johan

Saturday, June 18

RE: Dvorak; Why Do You Use QWERTY?

Why do you use a QWERTY keyboard?


Would you be surprised to hear that the QWERTY design was patented in1868? Nope, that's not a typo, the design you're typing with now is well over 137 years old.

So think about it. The actual computers have evolved from slow mega stations to fast, slim and smart units. Over just a couple of decades. But all that time we used a keyboard standard developed by some guy who's never lived to see a real advanced computer! Surely, he didn't develop a design that will stand the time of eternity?


Christopher Sholes was thinking of a way to lay out the typewriter keyboard but he was facing one major problem. The typewriter's typebars kept jamming when two common letter combinations were hit close after each other. Even in the early days, when people were hitting the keys with just two index fingers only, they went too fast and the damn thing kept jamming.


Slow the process down and spread the letters out. Common character duo's were moved away from eachother so the typebars had more space. So your fingers are actually forced to travel further than necessary just because some dude back 137 years ago was thinking of typewriters.

Even Christopher Sholes himself thought of major improvements decades later but it was too late. QWERTY was adopted en-mass and people were reluctant to swap, even knowing it could yield increased speeds, reduced errors and way better ergonomics preventing RSI and related injuries.

So is there a viable alternative?

The only one that got a small percentage of the market's slice is Dvorak's solution. It was August Dvorak and William Dealey in 1936 who patented the Dvorak lay-out of keyboards. According to Wikipedia it was "designed to increase a typist's speed and comfort, largely by moving the most common letters to the home row and maximizing hand alternation. The effectiveness of these layouts is disputed, but it is often claimed that world records for typing speed are usually set on Dvorak layout keyboards." Comfort, though, is the most commonly mentioned advantage of this lay-out.

Amazing Fact

In this article by Kleanthes Koniaris about QWERTY vs. Dvorak you can read about a test of which I'll post a synopsis. They got two people to type the Unabomber Manifesto (a hefty piece), one on a QWERTY keyboard and the other on a Dvorak keyboard. The finger movement and in particular the covered distance was recorded. And guess what? The Dvorak lay-out allows for a 42% distance reduction!
  • Typing the Unabomber Manifesto in QWERTY costs about 5.7km (XY).
  • Typing the Unabomber Manifesto in Dvorak costs about 3.3km (XY).
Now consider how many kilometers text you have already typed in your life. You're probably still young and are bound to double that at least, right? How do you fancy moving your fingers/hands 42% less, reducing strain, injury, effort, RSI etc.

Also, because the most used keys are on the home row, your hands and fingers are in a less awkard position allowing for better blood circulation.

Someone reasoned that since even Dvorak's design is from the pre-computer age, it might not be the best option. So he did a test. But couldn't come up with something significantly better than Dvorak's lay-out. The story got Slashdotted even before it was finished.

You can swap to Dvorak by changing the characters on the keys of your keyboard and adjusting the operating software accordingly. But you can also buy a fancy Dvorak keyboard which also places the most commonly used non-character keys (enter, space) in a better position. Check this site for such a model. They also sell one which you can swap between QWERTY and Dvorak with the press of a button.

If you want to make the switch, aslo see this article for info on how to go about doing that.

If you are truly proficient in touch-typing, this keyboard might be something for you. It's said to be for Uber-Geeks only so beware...

"Das Keyboard" has no print on the face of its keys, great for either QWERTY or Dvorak touch-typists. Also a good way to keep people away from your desk and using your computer.

So... Go Dvorak?

People who made the switch love it. They reported it takes a good 100 hours of typing to become used to it at the same level as they were typing QWERTY. That takes determination from an open-minded person. It could keep you free from injury though. But it's usefulness to you depends on how often you type on someone else's computers. If you're always on your own laptop or home computer and type a lot, it's definitely worth cosidering. If you're a system admin who has to access dozens of machines daily without actually typing much, the benefits probably don't outweigh the effort of the switch.

I had never heard of a QWERTY alternative until I came across Dvorak last week. I'm interested to hear whether you did know about this.


Blogger Bazkaz said...

I had heard of Dvorak before and even switched over my home computer. My wife did not want to make a change however and so I am still on Qwerty, but as soon as I get her a system of her own you can bet I'll be Dvorak bound once more.

June 18, 2005  
Blogger Sarah said...

I job share with a guy and I'd love to use the software switch on the keyboard as a practical joke.

Do you have problems mentally switching back and forth - like when you're out and need to do something on someone else's computer, help the kids etc? Or does it become automatic like driving automatic / manual cars?

July 07, 2005  
Anonymous dynamodan said...

I taught myself dvorak about 3 years ago and love it. I'm an IT administrator and have to switch back and forth, but I just use hunt and peck when on QWERTY's. If I have to spend much time doing QWERTY, I just pop up the control panel and switch to dvorak.

Bazkaz, the wife has to switch to QWERTY whenever she wants to use the computer. In Win XP, it's just a hotkey combo to switch.

Both my speed and accuracy improved greatly when I switched. Now I can do 80 wpm at 100% accuracy no problem, and 100 wpm in bursts. I'm a guy. Gals could probably even go faster.

May 08, 2006  

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