QWERTY: A Question of Keyboards

by Tom Reid

Any KeyFor decades now, people the world over have used the same basic layout of letters and symbols on keyboards. From typewriters to Ipads, this arrangement, known as QWERTY, has dominated over all others. But the question is, out of the millions of key combinations, why this one and not the other, sometimes more advantageous ones?

QWERTY

qwertyQWERTY keyboards were first designed by typewriter manufacturers in the 1870s, and is the basis for most keyboard layouts even today. However, the fundamental problem with this design is that it was made for use with typewriters. Typewriters work through a number of mechanical arms which, when a key is pressed, swing up and mark the paper. However, when typing quickly, these arms had a tendency to jam and hit one another. Totypewriter combat this manufacturers would put common pairs of letters, like Q and U of C and K far apart, to prevent key actions intersecting. This has the unfortunate side effect of slowing down typing, and causing large ‘jumps’ between letters when typing.

It is interesting to note that the staggered layout of most QWERTY keyboards is also due to it’s typewriter ancestry. Since the old keys were mechanically linked, a gap had to be left between keys to accommodate the lever mechanism. With the advent of electronic keyboards this is no longer necessary, but the design stuck. All in all, even though the QWERTY layout is universally popular, it is fairly slow and outdated compared to other alternatives:


 

DVORAK

Dvorak

 

‘The Dvorak Layout’, also known as the ‘Simplified Americal Keyboard”, invented by Dr August Dvorak in 1936 is a drastic change to the keyboards of norm. While it looks rather illogical, this system makes a lot of sense. The left hand side of the board is populated mostly by vowels and punctuation, leaving the more complex consonant groups to the stronger right hand (There is a reversed variation for lefties). In addition to this, more common letter groups appear on the central ‘Home Row’, meaning that less finger movements are required to type common words and phrases.

While Dvorak appears complicated, it is surprisingly simple to pick up. While it didn’t seem to increase my typing speed very much, it does reduce mistakes and makes typing for long periods of time more comfortable. Definitely one to try, even if it does seem a bit pointless.


 

COLEMAK

colemak

 

Colemak is a less common variation on the QWERTY board, offering a less significant redesign than Dvorak – Colemak only changes 17 keys, as opposed to Dvorak’s 34. However, it still works under similar principles, moving common letters closer to the Home Row, as well as repurposing  that seldom used Caps Lock into a more useful backspace key.  The biggest advantage of Colemak over most other alternative key designs is that many hotkey binds, such as Ctrl-C copy, Ctrl-V paste and Ctrl-Alt-Del all retain their old positions, which helps with muscle memory habits.

However, despite it’s compromise between QWERTY and Dvorak, I don’t like Colemak. I did not pick it up nearly as quickly as I did Dvorak, and typing for me is far slower and with more mistakes. This is not to say that you might find it easier, this is just my personal experience.


So there you have it, my views on some alternative key layouts to the standard QWERTY. While these take time to learn and get good at, their increased comfort and accuracy can be a blessing to many typists. Though it isn’t the most useful thing to know, it can be fun learning it too; why not give it a go?

 

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