Dvorak: The Betamax Keyboard

I’ve been a Dvorak typist for about five months. It took me three tries to really stick it out through the learning phase, because let me tell you—as a touch typist, any learning curve over one week sucks (and you’re probably not learning Dvorak if you’re a hunt-and-peck-er). There are some things I wish I knew before I switched, so I’m feeding them to Google for others to find. My thoughts reflect only my experience, YMMV, and all that. For me, the short answer is that I’ll probably switch back to QWERTYUpdate: I never actually did, and I’m considering writing a recant to this post.  See the bottom of the post…

How Bad is the Learning Curve?

I suspect this really varies from person to person—I’ve read “Allow for about 1 hour of training for each WPM to regain your old QWERTY speed”. I don’t know my old QWERTY speed, but I was proficient, so let’s say it was 70 WPM. If I “trained” all day, that’s 70 hours / 8 working hours = 8.75 days, almost two weeks. I really type only about a third of the day, so that makes it 8.75×3 = 26.25 days, about five weeks. In reality, it took me about two months to type without thinking. Maybe I was faster at QWERTY than I thought, or maybe I’m a slow learner, but it took me longer to transition than I’d expected.

That may be because I type largely from muscle memory. Instead of mentally spelling out each word, then finding the corresponding keys, I rely on automatic keystroke patterns for common words (I suspect most touch-typists do this). This is especially true for keywords in programming languages: table, div, span; class, public, void, String; select, from, where, join. When I started learing Dvorak, my muscle memory for different languages had to be re-learned. Maybe this made it harder for me to feel comfortable with Dvorak, to really say “ok, I’ve learned it.” HTML was the worst, for some reason. I was re-learning SQL at the time, and didn’t have much SQL muscle memory, so I picked it up much faster.

Living with Dvorak

So now that I’ve arrived, it’s keyboard bliss, right? Almost. I do like it better, and can definitely feel the difference, but there are some real problems with it, which basically boil down to incompatibility. I hate to say it, but like Betamax vs. VHS, the inferior solution wins, by sheer ubiquity.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Of all the issues, this hit me hardest, being something of a power-user. On Windows, a bunch of useful commands are conventionally tied to the same keyboard shortcuts, generally with the Ctrl key. Ctrl+X is cut (like scissors). C is Copy. V is paste (the v points down – “put it down here”). Z is undo (I don’t know why that makes perfect sense to me). A is select All. S is Save. B is Bold text. On QWERTY, those are all left-hand, contiguous keys – mousing with my right hand, I could edit really fast.

All this changed with Dvorak. The left-handed Ctrl shortcuts are now scattered across the board. I don’t want to re-bind them in every app I use, and in some apps, I couldn’t if I wanted to. I got around this by buying a fancy mouse (a Logitech MX400) with extra buttons, and tied them to Copy and Paste. It’s not the same, but it solves 70 or 80% of the problem.

Using Other Computers

This one is bigger than I’d thought. I know, you’re thinking “How often does he use someone else’s computer?” But QWERTY computers are everywhere, and they’re spreading. Most kiosks and embedded devices use QWERTY (the rest use alphabetical order). SmartPhones use QWERTY. The TitleSleuths at Borders bookstores use it. Even my Prius uses it. Lots of devices offer keyboards to talk to them, and they’re not supporting Dvorak. The range of devices that I’ve become incompatible with is only growing.

Other People Using My Computer

This is a minor point. Everytime someone wants to use my computer (pair programming, or whatever), I have to switch it to QWERTY, for each application they use…it’s not global (is this any better on Macs or *nix?). So I launch an app and give them the keys, but they’re only OK until they launch something else. And some apps you need to tell twice, most notably the command line. You tell it “Dvorak”, it says QWERTY. “Dvorak”. QWERTY. “No, dammit, Dvorak!

You can get around this with the excellent Dvorak Assistant, a little System tray tool, whose icon is either a Q or a D key. Instead of mousing around with the Win XP Language Toolbar, you can switch layouts via Ctrl+Shift+F12—much better than WinXP’s default, Ctrl+Left Alt. I used to mash that combo all the time, and sure enough, it’d pop me right into QWERTY. Even better, the Dvorak Assistant affects all apps at once.

Switch back to QWERTY?

Like I said earlier, I’ll probably switch. My slightly-better speed comes at the cost of compatibility with the rest of the world. My Dvorak speed will continue to improve some, and eventually plateau, but the number of QWERTY keyboards around me will only increase. This makes Dvorak a steadily growing liability.

It’ll take a bit to re-train my muscle memory, but I believe it’ll be much faster than learning Dvorak. Back on QWERTY, I’ll be able to use any keyboard that crosses my path, and I’ll get all those keyboard shortcuts back. I’ll have to make those extra mouse buttons do something else.

UPDATE

2007-02-23 So I still haven’t switched back to QWERTY. I’ve tried a few times, and it doesn’t seem like it’ll be too hard to do, but I’m lazy, and busy doing other things. On the other hand, if it’s easy enough to switch to QWERTY, I might opt instead to stay on Dvorak, and just periodically practice QWERTY. That way, I’ll have the best of both worlds.

Also, someone found this article by searching for Vista + Dvorak. I’ll try to test the Dvorak Assistant on Vista, and will let everyone know how it goes, unless someone posts with a more specific question.

UPDATE (again)

2009-01-24 Somewhere in the two years since I last updated this, I decided to stay on Dvorak.  Reading over my reasons for switching back to QWERTY, they boil down to three: crappy Windows support, other people and computers, and hot-keys.

Crappy Windows support is 100% solved by the still-excellent Dvorak Assistant — I carry a copy on my thumbdrive, and it’s on every machine I regularly use.  If I could pay for it, I would.  It works flawlessly on Vista.

Other people and computers is still an issue, but only a minor one.  I can comfortably hunt-and-peck QWERTY, so using any other machine (kiosk, TitleSleuth, or my Prius) is simple enough.  Even since I started pair-programming all the time at my new job, it hasn’t been a problem — the Dvorak Assistant lets me switch my machine when we’re at my desk, and I can find my way around QWERTY easily enough at other people’s machines.

Hot-keys have become less of an issue as I’ve gotten more used to life with Dvorak.  I’m used to using hot-keys where they are in Dvorak (Ctrl-S looks like Ctrl-semi-colon), because when I type them, I still think in terms of letters: “S for Save”, and for me, it’s still an S.

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21 thoughts on “Dvorak: The Betamax Keyboard

  1. Actually people not using your computer because of its keyboard could be seen as a benefit ;-) And no, it is not better in *nix, each app will hold its own settings.

  2. Aníbal, that’s occurred to me, believe me. In practice, though, it just gets irritating.

    It’s too bad that Dvorak support is so poor. It seems like it could be much better, especially since the Dvorak Assistant works so well. Just confirms that Dvorak is a niche interest — most people don’t care, so the feature is poor, until someone who does care takes some time to do it right.

  3. I was going to try a Dvorak layout on my Logitech a while back and set about switching keys round only to find two keys were different in shape so making the task impossible as I’d have to miss 4 keys out due to incompatibility.

    I guess its for the best as you point out.

  4. Doug, you were going to move the physical keys around? That’s pretty hard-core! I left the keys in the QWERTY layout, since I don’t often look at the keys. I know you can buy stickers for the keys if you want…

  5. I have considered switching to Dvorak layout many times, but I just never really had the time.

    I think the efficiency will be a big payoff, at least for English. Programming languages, maybe not so much.

    QWERTY is just so engrained in my memory and now I’m getting old and slow, perhaps it’s too much trouble.

    I am also a “keyboardist” of the piano and synthesizer variety, so I do have greater finger awareness and dexterity than most. But since typing is less stimulating to my keen ears, it is not nearly as motivating.

    Anyhow, I found this site because I quickly realized the annoyance of all my keyboard shortcuts getting screwed up. The current shortcut/mousing system is more efficient. I suffer more from mousing strain than keying strain (probably because I mouse more) so I don’t want to revert to “hunt and click”….worse than hunt and peck when you’re faced daily with screens full of options to select

  6. Yep, I did the same, changed the keyboard layout to Dvorak (I even changed the keys physically on the keyboard, they mostly fit in except for a few which had funny shapes that stuck out) and stuck with it until I learned the letter distribution… and then got into the same exact problems…
    Mostly the problem was: “In which keyboard mindset am I at the moment”? Others were the same, learning curve, muscle memory, other keybs, other people…
    I finally concluded: Even I had better WPM speeds, that would not be enough to counteract the bad site of it, so I gave it up as a lost cause…
    Oh well… there are other and better battles to fight…

  7. I just made the switch again after trying a few times in the past.
    @the 2 people that commented about the 4 logitech keys getting stuck.

    I had the same problem. I had a close look to see what the problem was and noticed I could just cut off a piece inside the keyboard and they fit perfetly now.

    it sort of looks like this
    ___
    | |
    |_,_|

    you just cut off the ,

  8. I found this information most helpful. I wonder though, do you think it’s possible to learn Dvorak and keep your Qwerty prowess? Because I’m afraid to lose my qwerty memory thus rendering me useless on such keyboards.

    Thanks

  9. Al, I’ve heard of people who can switch between QWERTY and Dvorak, though I don’t know what speed they keep at either. I don’t seem to be able to, though.

    It’s really become a non-issue for me, because I’ve adjusted to Dvorak, and the occasional QWERTY. But even so, I’d say try it. If you find your QWERTY muscle memory slipping, switch back, and it shouldn’t take too long for it to return. You may find yourself addicted to Dvorak, though…

  10. I’ve been palying with Dvorak for a few days now. I really like the feel, and actually the learning curve is one of my favourite things about it.

    But so far, I haven’t been able to fix some details that vex me quite a bit: I use a VX Revolution mouse, and I have the copy and paste functions assigned to a couple buttons. Well, it behaves very weirdly in Firefox. The copy brings up the downloads window, whose shortcut is Ctrl+J, and that would make sense because the J is where the C would be in QWERTY. But I have found all the other shortcuts work normally, and I have found no fix yet, even testing deeply with layout modifications (using Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator). I shall mention I use a spanish version, and the mouse works flawlessly in the English Dvorak.

    What really sucks at this point is all the obstacles I find to be able to make full use of better input devices, because I don’t feel like going back to QWERTY.

    Nice blog by the way.

  11. Thanks for the thoughts and for sharing your experiences. It may be due to never developing more than a relatively speedy six finger, non-touch based style on Qwerty but I personally found Dvorak comfortable and easy to learn in less than a week. Something about the way the layout is arranged just feels pleasing to me.

    I was thinking of trying Colemak but some of the design philosophies put me off, especially the similarities to Qwerty. Also while the repurposed caps lock as a second delete key is a very popular trait of the layout but I believe it may foster poor accuracy in the long run.

    As for the issues with cut-copy-paste hot keys, I just assign the functions to the f13-f15 keys which sit separately from the main function keys above the home, delete and page up/down cluster on my keyboard. This eliminates the problem of accidentally closing windows when pasting.

  12. hey
    i’ve recently (about 2 weeks ago) switched to dvorak for the 1st time. i got a screwdriver out and changed all the keys around, only took about 2 mins ( http://twitpic.com/50qyw ). i was a pretty proficient qwerty typer – about 100wpm. right now i’m at about 20-30wpm on dvorak. i work in IT so i have to work on qwerty PCs all the time and as far as i can tell i’m still at full speed on them. as someone above mentioned, sometimes while typing on dvorak i just slip back into qwerty mode and everything just goes wrong.. i put it down to mental tiredness.
    i’m going to stick with it for the moment, from my very unscientific tests i’m slowly getting faster. The shortcuts thing is definitely my most sore spot, i might try the mouse trick as i have the logitech revolution mouse as well, but i usually try and keep my hands off the mouse.

    just thought i’d add my bit :)

    i wish i could find somewhere that would sell decent quality dvorak keyboards :/

  13. To answer a couple unanswered questions: Macs, both OS X, and the previous versions, switch the keyboard system-wide. Under OS X, you have the choice whether to make it system-wide, or app-specific; it’s been long enough since i used System 7/8/9 that I don’t remember if you also had the option of doing it per-application.

    Also, for Macs there is a Dvorak keyboard layout that leaves command-keys in their qwerty locations. So, hitting the key labeled with a ‘z’ on the physical keyboard gives you a semicolon, and hitting shift-z, option-z, and shift-option-z all give the appropriate characters that go along with the semicolon normally. But if you type command-z, you don’t get whatever command-semicolon would invoke in your app (often the preferences), but instead it invokes Cut. I’m not sure i’m explaining it well? Basically, pressing any key in conjunction with the command key matches the result you’d expect from looking at the printed keycaps on your qwerty keyboard, but anything else you do instead gives you Dvorak-ish results. So if your mental command mappings are more about muscle memory than letter associations, that could be a good option. Personally, I think of the letters, so found that more confusing than having the command keys in “funny” places. No idea if there is an equivalent key mapping for MSWindows or *nix.

    As for switching and accommodating: I think the usual claims of re-learning time are optimistic. At my best, I was around 120+wpm on qwerty–and that was on a manual typewriter, so that meant without typos. By the time i switched to Dvorak, i was probably only typing 100wpm. Nonetheless, i would guess that it was a solid 3mo before i was back up to my old speed on Dvorak, and probably 3mo more before it was completely transparent, and I no longer even noticed. Maybe I’m a slow learner.

    Nonetheless, I’d never go back, and never even contemplated it at the time. It’s just too much better. I think the speed claims may be overrated, but the efficiency claims definitely play out in my experience, and i get much less sore with lengthy typing.

    Oh, and I found this because of problems with Dvorak and Vista: not only is it per-application, which drives me batty, but it keeps switching back to qwerty at random times, like with each new dialog box or text field or anywhere else I might want to type. I don’t have administtrative rights on the work computer, but i may have to see if i can get them to install the dvorak assistant.

  14. woodelf, thanks for the info about the Mac layout. That’s a nifty idea! Though my mental command mappings are (I think) mostly letter-based, especially after 3 years of Dvorak, so I’d probably be confused by it.

    For your Vista problems, like I said in the post, try out the Dvorak Assistant: http://clabs.org/dvorak.htm In 3 years, I’ve never had a single problem with it, on XP or Vista.

  15. Started an attempt to learn dvorak … since I got me a blank Das Keyboard Ultimate, my non-touch-typing qwerty typing can reach about 95wpm. Dvorak is more fun to learn though, just the homerow lessons already show a difference – way more interesting words to practice with :)

  16. Well, I normally don’t post on websites, but this is a good site that is closely related to my interests.

    I had a lot of trouble switching to Dvorak, and it was a compromise to be sure. I wanted to do a cording keyboard as I have a background in piano and guitar, but found that those keyboards were to expensive and often large. (I have a small work area.)

    It took me about 4 months to master Dvorak and it was hard being a touch typist that thought words rather then letters, AND I also did some SQL (now PostgreSQL.)

    I found a way around working on other people’s computers. I bought a TypeMatrix keyboard after about 6 months of Dvorak, and it took another 1-3 months to master. But I still can type about 60 words a minute on a regular keyboard in Dvorak mode, after a bit (it take a bit for my brain to switch… 30 mins to an hour)

    Sometimes I just switch a Vista keyboard to Dvorak if I am going to be using it for more than 30 minutes. But if not, I will just type in QWERTY and look at the keys. The fingers can type just as fast, it just takes a second to translate where they go.

    I type only about 70 words a minute even in Dvorak, but it is easier for me, and less strain on my wrists. I still use QWERTY from time to time and if I look at the keyboard I can type about 30 words a minute which is not to bad for little things.

    The TypeMatrix is nice with it’s middle enter key and such… I have not beeen able to afford the new one which looks even better (I have the 2020)…

    Some notes on the 2020: to use the numeric keypad you have to hit caps lock and numlock (in Linux)…

    To get around the programming issue (which I only do on my computer normally) I have remapped somethings and use alt chains for some others. (pull down combos)

    Some things that still stump me… when I am in Vista on my wife’s computer Dvorak is not recognized in the command line (I of course can switch it manually if I have my TypeMatrix hooked up)

    Anyway, even though I normally use the TypeMatrix, and I am typing this on a QWERTY regular keyboard in Dvorak mode. I still am doing about 30 WPM… mostly because I keep hitting k instead of X in TypeMatrix (because in the TypeMatrix keyboard it is not as much of a reach.)

    Jonathan…

  17. Oh, and on Linux at least in XFCE and Gnome you can set the keyboard switcher to be desktop wide rather than application wide… something that I miss when working in Vista… I bookmarked the Dvorak assistant.

    Jonathan.

  18. What is weird is that QWERTY keyboard not standard around world.
    germany, austria, switzerland and hungary use QWERTZ Layout, and france, belgum, and quabec use the AZERTY system and English Countries üse the QWERTY system.

    I remember one time Oma having old typewriter that use Type 2 keyboard which is like german dvorak, I HATE have to use that to do homework wen visiting.

    I think QWERTZ is much better than dvorak cuz i am left handed.

    I do think they should give more support for dvorak/type 2 on modern device like Prius and iPhone, they have a special dial phone app for god sake why not dvorak/type 2 or QWERTZ app also!!!!!!!!!!!111111111!!!!!!!!!!1

  19. Hello,
    About once a year I think I should switch to dvorak and every time I find this blog and re-read it. It has been very useful, thank you!

    Are you still using Dvorak? I’m thinking about switching but my smart phones (android) seem like a sticking point. Right now I have a touchscreen, but want to get one like a blackberry or android with a hard key keyboard.

    I’m very curious about your thoughts.

    – Dan from MI

  20. Hi (other) Dan,

    You should give it a try. I’m still on Dvorak, and really happy with it.

    SmartPhones and kiosks aren’t a problem, because you can’t touch-type on them – no one lines up on home row on their phone. I didn’t realize that Dvorak only matters for touch-typing, but over 7 years, it’s gradually dawned on me.

    > About once a year I think I should switch to dvorak and every time I find this blog and re-read it. It has been very useful, thank you!

    That /really/ makes me want to write a full update post, because I was so wrong on this. I just re-read the post now, and I’m amazed how all my objections have faded.

  21. Wow, thanks for the quick response!

    I’m sure a lot of people would get a lot out of an update post.

    Especially if it covers any ergonomic problems, etc. you had, the keyboards you use, etc.

    I sometimes use the swype keyboard on android which requires remembering where qwerty keys are because you cover them up, the rest of the time I use two thumbs to type on the regular android qwerty keyboard.

    A quick search turned up some Dvorak keyboards for touchscreen android phones. There is also 8pen (http://www.8pen.com/) a totally different smartphone keyboard. I’ve tried it, but could never commit.

    Maybe I should try 8pen first before going to Dvorak on my computer since it would be less of a productivity and lifestyle change?

    Thanks again,

    – Dan

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