On Colemak

This post is more than 16 years old.

Posted at 19:05 on 11 January 2008

Over the past week or so I've been trying out the Colemak keyboard layout again. I've been a bit ambivalent about it up to now, partly because I found some Colemak users a bit too enthusiastic, but more because I was getting thoroughly disillusioned with ye olde Kinesis keyboard, so my attention to it has been rather intermittent, to say the least.

However, unlike Michael Kaplan of Microsoft's International Fundamentals team (that's the mob that decide which keyboard layouts get included with Windows and which don't), who dismisses it out of hand because he thinks they're too zealous, I have actually tried it out, and on Ryan Heise's typing test the other day I managed about fifty words per minute with it. That is about as fast as most people type, and faster than anything I managed with Dvorak. Impressive, even if it is only about two thirds of my qwerty speed.

Since Colemak is so similar to qwerty, and many of the keys stay in the same place, it is vastly easier to learn than Dvorak if you are an existing qwerty typist, and it is also much easier to retain fluency in qwerty while you're at it. I've managed to get this far with surprisingly little effort using a "qwerty by day, Colemak by night" approach, which has the added advantage that it doesn't interfere with your productivity while you're learning.

So will I stick with it? I don't know at this stage. It certainly seems more comfortable and disciplined for normal text, but I've found that it tends to get in the way a bit when I'm trying to write code, especially in C# or JavaScript. However, I now find it pretty easy to switch to and fro between the two layouts depending on which one takes my fancy at any given time, so I may well do. Colemak for text-based work and qwerty for code seems to be a strategy with quite a lot of mileage in it.

Quite how much you stand to gain from learning it I am not sure: the rough impression that I get from people's reports is that speed gains are of the order of 20% or so at best, so your mileage may vary. Personally, I don't consider qwerty to be the disaster area that its detractors make it out to be -- loads of people use it without complaint, and I can manage a fairly respectable, if indisciplined and inaccurate, 80 words per minute or so with it. However, if you are particularly frustrated with it -- and emphatically if you're thinking of learning Dvorak -- Colemak may be worth a try. Since it is dramatically easier to learn, it renders Dvorak a total waste of time. Colemak is also well known for its enthusiastic and lively community, who, although some of them can get a bit carried away with themselves at times, are actually quite helpful and supportive, and more than willing to give advice if you need it.

Alternatively, of course, there is always voice recognition software...