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This post is about switching from QWERTY to an alternative keyboard layout. Why and how do people switch? Which alt layout is best—Dvorak, Colemak, …?

Why do people want to use alt layouts?

The main motivation for alt layouts is better typing comfort. Alternatives to QWERTY dramatically reduce awkward typing motions such as same-finger bigrams (SFBs), reduce how much your fingers need to move (finger travel) to accomplish the same typing, and balance the typing workload over the fingers more evenly.

QWERTY was designed by Christopher Sholes in the early 1870s for the Sholes and Glidden mechanical typewriter. It’s often said QWERTY was designed to avoid the typebars from jamming, though it’s debatable whether that’s historically accurate.

1930s Remington portable typewriter with QWERTY layout. Photo by Mariochs, distributed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 International license.

What is obvious though is that QWERTY has a lot of SFBs, like ed, un, rt, ol, much more than any popular alt layout. Think about typing “loft” or “unjust.” Those same-finger movements are slow and awkward to type.

To be fair, QWERTY was basically the first successful layout, a pioneering solution to a tough problem. It shouldn’t be surprising that its metrics are far from optimal. At the time it was created, the activity of typing itself was new.

Should I use an alt layout?

It’s your choice. You don’t have to learn an alt layout.

Switching to an alt layout takes a lot of effort (at least a couple months of daily practice), and the benefits are not huge. I don’t mean to be discouraging, just raising some counterpoints:

So why do it? For me, switching to an alt layout is a long-term investment in my health and comfort. I will type a lot in my life (I work as a software engineer), so spending several months learning a new layout is a fair price.

Which alt keyboard layout should I learn?

There is no consensus on what is the “best” layout. No layout is perfect. Layout design is a balancing act of many competing objectives.

I highly recommend reading the Keyboard layouts doc. This is a valuable resource for anyone interested in alt keyboard layouts. It explains concepts and terminology for how to compare keyboard layouts, suggestions on how to choose a layout, and practical tips on how to learn a new layout.

Here are metrics for a sampling of some better known layouts ordered by year of their release (lower is better for SFBs, DSFBs, LSBs, and redirects; higher is better for rolls). Metrics for English were computed by Oxey’s layout playground:

Layout SFBs DSFBs LSBs Rolls Redirects
QWERTY (1873) 6.615% 11.196% 6.882% 37.243% 13.187%
Dvorak (1936) 2.779% 6.979% 1.255% 38.924% 3.458%
Arensito (2001) 1.545% 7.485% 1.945% 49.514% 12.385%
Colemak (2006) 1.387% 8.877% 3.495% 46.113% 10.579%
Workman (2010) 3.000% 8.248% 1.727% 43.636% 10.414%
MTGAP (2010) 1.356% 7.170% 0.711% 38.687% 4.915%
Colemak-DH (2014) 1.387% 8.877% 1.975% 46.113% 10.579%
Hieamtsrn (2014) 1.173% 8.223% 0.833% 42.665% 2.679%
Halmak (2016) 2.988% 7.223% 1.151% 37.956% 4.140%
Hands Down (2020) 1.082% 9.060% 3.487% 44.137% 4.165%
BEAKL 19 (2020) 1.831% 9.003% 2.843% 42.239% 3.378%
Engram (2021) 1.504% 7.638% 0.625% 42.180% 4.515%
Semimak-JQ (2021) 0.872% 5.815% 2.410% 42.705% 6.616%
APTv3 (2021) 1.199% 6.334% 0.498% 46.864% 6.224%
Nerps (2022) 1.280% 7.491% 1.955% 44.709% 2.942%
Canary (2022) 0.962% 8.057% 2.675% 48.537% 7.152%
Sturdy (2022) 0.935% 6.222% 2.413% 48.082% 5.399%

Colemak-DH is quite popular in the custom keyboard community. It is a solid, well-tested option. If you don’t know what to pick, go with Colemak-DH.

SteveP’s Colemak-DH layout.

Some recent favorites on r/KeyboardLayouts are Semimak JQ, APTv3, Nerps, Canary, and Sturdy. Each of these layouts came from distinct design priorities, which is interesting to see reflected in the metrics in the table above.

Oxey’s Sturdy layout.

If you are daring to consider something more experimental, I use Ikcelaks’ Magic Sturdy, a variation of Sturdy. The “magic” is a key whose function depends on the last pressed key, implemented using the Alternate Repeat Key. This key is used to remove the top SFBs and type common n-grams. It’s a magical typing experience!

Ikcelaks’ Magic Sturdy layout plus a few tweaks of my own.

A = O
C = Y
D = Y
E = U
G = Y

I = ON
L = K
O = A

P = Y
R = L
S = K

U = E
Y = P
. = ./

Outside the box

Most layouts are designed so that it could work with two-handed typing on a standard keyboard. But some layouts go outside the box. Arguably, these differ enough from standard typing that they are not just “layouts” but distinct input systems.

Layouts with thumb keys: Some layouts designed for split ergo keyboards use a thumb key (or sometimes multiple thumb keys) to type letters. The first such layout was the Maltron layout (1977), placing E on the left thumb. A more recent example is the RSTHD layout.

xsznix’s RSTHD layout.

Many other thumb key layouts are catalogued and discussed in Precondition’s post Pressing E with the thumb. The advantages are gaining a free home row key and removing conflicts with bigrams involving E. A downside is that such layouts are not usable (without creativity) on conventional keyboards. Another potential concern is the extra load on the thumbs. See also PSA: Thumbs can get overuse injuries.

One-handed layouts: Ardux is a one-handed keyboard system for use on 8 to 36 keys. All keys from a full keyboard are available through chording and layers. Many other one-handed typing systems have been developed. A well-known older one is Doug Engelbart’s five-key keyset (~1965).

How long does it take to learn an alt layout?

Realistically, expect it to take at least a couple months of daily typing practice. Switching to a new layout is a large undertaking. I have switched layouts a few times. My progression tends to be 40 wpm after the first month, 50 wpm after the second month, and 80 wpm after the first year. Other people have reported similar order-of-months experience to learn a new layout. It’s worth it for the comfort, but be patient and approach it as a long project.

The first couple weeks are the hardest since your typing will be frustratingly slow. Some people believe in switching to using the new layout alone “cold turkey” as the best way to learn. You can do that, but I don’t think it’s necessary. In the first couple weeks, I’ve found decent progress doing 30 minutes of practice a day on the new layout, then switching back to my familiar layout for the rest of the day. Then once getting to a usable 30 wpm or so, switching the new layout full time is more bearable.

Some advice, speaking from experience about my mistakes:

For typing practice, MonkeyType is excellent—once configured. Beware that by default MonkeyType samples from a list of only 200 words, which is pretty useless. Under settings, change the “language” setting to one of the larger word lists like English 5K. See also Gary Internet’s Typing Guide and the “Typing practice” section of the Keyboard layouts doc for tips on how to use MonkeyType effectively.

Some other good typing practice sites are keybr.com and Ngram Type. There are many other great typing websites out there. To make practice more fun, I suggest trying several websites and revolving through the ones you like.

What about keycap labels?

You would think that to avoid confusion, changing to an alternative layout means you also need to rearrange or relabel your keycaps to agree with the layout. Fortunately, this turns out to be a non-issue in practice. Surely, you plan to touch type on the new layout? (You should!) With proper touch typing, you will never look at the keys, and keycap labels don’t matter.

While touch typing is the goal, there is still the problem of knowing where the keys are when getting started. Here is a strategy that works for me. Write down the new layout on paper. Write it again and again until you can reproduce it correctly from memory. For later reference, write the layout on a slip of paper and put it below your monitor. After a couple weeks of typing practice, you won’t need the paper slip anymore.

Further reading

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