Hi! I'm Tanner.

I'm a software engineer at Apple. I write here occassionally.

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Learning a new Keyboard Layout

A few weeks ago, I learned about a new keyboard layout which I have not seen before. That layout was the Colemak layout.

In the past I have only seen the Dvorak keyboard layout. I did not however spend the time to learn the layout or do anything other than read about the layout and how it was different. Yet the idea of having a different keyboard layout interested me.

When I stumbled upon the Colemak keyboard layout, I googled the name to get more information about the layout. From that I came upon the “official” Colemak site. On the wiki site interface, there was one thing that stood out to me:

Your fingers on QWERTY move 2.2x more than on Colemak. QWERTY has 16x more same hand row jumping than Colemak. There are 35x more words you can type using only the home row on Colemak.

Reading this, I was intrigued on how to learn the layout and how exactly more efficient it would be to learn the Colemak layout. Doing a bit more googling and found this blog post which explained how one could go from a new keyboard layout to another one. In the blog post, there was also a foreword that explained why you might switch from one keyboard layout (perhaps QWERTY) to a new keyboard layout such as Dvorak or Colemak. The author of the post also threw in a really neat tool called Pat or JK’s Keyboard Layout Analyzer.

The keyboard layout analyzer site is really quite neat and simple. You type in or copy and paste some text that you would like analyze. Press the submit button and you are returned a page with tons of data. The result page shows the distance your fingers travel in each layout, the percent you use each of your fingers in each layout, the percent you use each row of your keyboard in each layout, and a nice picture of each keyboard layout to show which keys were pressed the most and where they are. Very nice. Plus there is a little keyboard layout generator picture that shows what the ideal keyboard would look like for the specific text you entered. Nifty on all sides.

Now I was interested to see which keyboard layout would be better for me. I had an idea that Colemak would be the winner, but I love hard data so I wanted to see which exactly would come out as the champion. What I did is that I submitted two writings to the analyzer - a normal English essay (actually one I wrote for ENGL 1101 a few weeks ago) and a large Java program I created.

The results of the analyzer were interesting. Using the analyzer I can get the distance my fingers supposedly travel across the keyboard to type the inputted text.

Keyboard Layout Distance for Java Program Distance for English Essay
QWERTY 2,529 feet 345 feet
Dvorak 1,899 feet 200 feet
Colemak 1,687 feet 174 feet

Obviously the numbers stand out showing that Colemak requires my fingers to move less which would in some way or form improve my typing speed. There were a few other layouts listed, but I have never heard of them and the difference in distance traveled was only a few feet. A few feet isn’t going to change my typing as much as going from the QWERTY layout to Colemak.

If you want to see all the information that the analyzer outputted for both of my input texts, you can click here for the Java program results and here for the essay results.

What is my decision now that I have chosen to learn Colemak? Well, I have already installed the keyboard layout onto my MacBook, so that step is gone. Instead of just saying the next step is to learn Colemak, I’m going to say the next step is to find a OS X compatible keyboard tutor program. After that then it is to learn the layout step by step.

So, hopefully I’ll have a typing tutor to share in the next few days and hopefully I’ll start learning the new layout then. Once I get an application and start using it, I’ll try to post status updates every so often.