Friday, May 10, 2013

Dvorak: My Experience With The Alternative Keyboard Layout

A brief history of Dvorak

In two days it will be the 77th anniversary of the Dvorak keyboard.  On May 12, 1936 an ambitious professor at the University of Washington in Seattle named August Dvorak published his Dvorak Simplified Keyboard (DSK) layout as an alternative to the Qwerty keyboard layout which had become popularized with the Remington No. 2 in 1878.

There have been multiple pushes since to promote this alternative layout, boasting claims of faster typing speed, increased accuracy, and lowered strain on the hands and wrists.  The Apple II series had a hack that could be performed to allow switching between Qwerty and Dvorak layouts, which was changed to a switch for the Apple IIc iteration.

Contemporary Use

As of Android OS 4.1 Dvorak is handled natively without the need of a third party application.  It isn't the easiest one to find, being hidden under the advanced options in the keyboard setup, but can be used along with the Qwerty keyboard after being enabled.

Most modern operating also support this layout natively as an alternative to the English(US) layout.

Pop Culture

Terry Goodkind, author of the Sword of Truth series, types using the Dvorak keyboard layout.  The 2005 Guinness Book of World Records speed typist holder, Barbara Blackburn, also used Dvorak.  Along with Steve Wozniak from Apple, and Brian Cohen of BitTorrent fame.

Personal Experience

Starting in about 2005 I read an article on Slashdot about speed typing with Dvorak.  This is a topic that makes its rounds in computer geek news circles roughly once a year, or at least as often as a writer by the same name makes it in the news.

Eventually a good friend of mine, John, and I decided to try and learn Dvorak.  I found a simple command line program that taught typing the same way that I learned on the Apple IIe.  What I found with this was amazing, by not leaving the home row I could already begin typing common words.
This, that, the, sin, sit, a, otto, auto, do, it, did, don, do not, theist, atheist.
This is neat, an atheist does not see the insane sadist that a theist does.  
Excluding punctuation that last sentence was completely typed using the home row.  You can't do that with Qwerty because in Qwerty you only have a single vowel in home row, thus forcing you on nearly every word to leave home row once.  Luckily all the other vowels are placed on the upper row which is easier to reach than the lower.  The corollary is that the punctuation is sacrificed in its stead.

I went full speed ahead on learning Dvorak; going cold turkey to Qwerty can be hard, but I find the desire to communicate to be a large enough driving force to propel me forward in increasing my accuracy.  Within a few days I was around half the speed I was before with Qwerty and today I enjoy about equal speed.

Up until recently I had never actually looked at a Dvorak keyboard, but I was interested in having it on my Android phone.  After a little bit of googling I found that Jellybean supports Dvorak natively, so I enabled it.  I'll write more about this experience in the Caveats section, but in short it was disastrous.  Even to this day I type on a keyboard that is labeled with Qwerty, thus I have been completely familiar with a Qwerty layout since the time my father brought home our first computer in 1994 when I was 10 years old, therefore making me completely lost staring at a screen which my touch typing fingers know, but my eyes view as familiar as abstract art.


There are many enthusiast out there who could convince you that Dvorak might cure the common cold and cook you breakfast; my experience shows neither of these happening.  I do feel a difference while typing in that I no longer feel when I am typing fast that my hands are flying all over the keyboard finding the keys that they need to press to string together a few cluttered phrases.  There was an experience I had once when I was a young bachelor.  My housemate was watching TV with a couple of friends and I was sitting in my chair typing on my laptop when slowly, everybody started looking at me.  They asked me what I was doing.  I responded that I was merely typing a journal entry for the days events.  The look on their face told me they thought I was just joking and trying to get somebody's attention, in their experience people do not type that fast; whether this is Dvorak causing this, or just my own speed of typing having always been above average I cannot say.

Among the claims are health benefits for those who type a lot.  As many programmers and typists know typing causes a lot of stress on your hands, and particularly on the joints and tendons that are used in typing.  Having never really had bad hands to begin with I cannot vouch for the efficacy of this claim, but I can say that I no longer feel that my fingers are flying all over the keyboard no matter how fast I type.


In my nearly 10 years of experience typing in Dvorak I would have to say one of the most frustrating experiences has very little to do with Dvorak itself, but with typing in Chinese.  Some systems work flawlessly switching between New Phonetic Input Method, and others fail.  The ideal situation is when you go into a mode that types in English that it uses the underlying English keyboard you selected, in
my case Dvorak; this isn't always the case, and my greatest frustration has been, sadly, in Linux.

My greatest experience of operability with multiple users is in Linux using the 12.04 Ubuntu login.  The login remembers which keyboard layout each user had previously selected and upon switching to that username on the login screen the keyboard also changes to the associated keyboard layout.  This helps alleviate some of the frustration that coworkers or family members might feel when getting on the computer and having that WTF moment when they type and nothing intelligible comes out.


If this article was written just for those preaching to the choir it is almost unneeded to even mention the by far largest caveat known to Dvorak users, the grand behemoth of gaming.  Virtually every game with few notable mentions, even consider alternative keyboards when making keyboard layouts, and even fewer of those that do include Dvorak.  The most heinous of them might disallow certain keys found in the upper left corner of the Dvorak keyboard which on Qwerty are replaced by its namesake.  The QWERTY keys when mapped to a Dvorak keyboard spell ',.pyf and "<>PYF.  Workarounds have been found by allowing both Qwerty and Dvorak in the underlying OS and using the keyboard switcher to switch between the two formats.  In time sensitive games, such as Star Craft II, this can be the death of you if you forgot to reset before starting, and it can make quick chat unusable, or impractical during a gaming session.

The best I have come across is Entropia Universe, this allows me to set the key functions in Qwerty, which is useful due to the fact that almost nobody actually owns a keyboard that has letters printed in Dvorak, while at the same time when I go to chat it automatically uses the key mapping provided by the OS.  No need to switch, or second guess which keyboard you are using.  I wish more games would follow this format.


As mentioned previously I decided to try it out on my Nexus 4.  That was the biggest mistake I had ever made.  I use Dvorak whenever feasible and I always wished that my G2 supported it on the fold out keyboard.  The caveat I ran into with swiping is Dvorak is just too efficient; the letters are all grouped together.  I couldn't type anything, I had no idea where keys were, swiping was nearly impossible and took forever.  Swiping works on the eccentric word patterns that Qwerty forms which was made to keep mechanical keyboards from colliding together.  Conversely, Dvorak causes tighter word patterns which then create much more ambiguousness due to so many words being formed with essentially the same pattern.  Imagine trying to swipe when most words are formed with letters that are collinear, forming a left to right to left pattern.  Perhaps a different system that uses a circle for a keyboard may make a better way to swipe, but the disadvantage of Dvorak is exacerbated from being unfamiliar with its visual landscape when you need to type a word that is not in the dictionary, or that the phone is having difficulty deciphering from your swipe.  At this point it becomes a tedious task of hunting for where each letter is.  I tried this for a couple minutes and my already slow swiping speed crawled nearly to a halt.  Sorry but this is one aspect in which Dvorak certainly does not win.


Dvorak keeps people off my computer, much to the chagrin of many a coworker and friend.  It feels much more natural and I can't see myself ever fully converting to a Qwerty keyboard again.  Despite its shortcomings in some industries, such as gaming, I still find that the momentary setback of figuring out how to switch the keyboard layout is more than worth it, plus it gets me extra points on my geek card.

That being said I still would recommend that you at least become familiar with Qwerty and be able to type using Qwerty if needs be.  For me I can still switch between the two formats at will, although the first few strokes will be a little awkward, and while typing using Qwerty I may have to keep reminding myself that I am not using Dvorak.  For those that love a challenge, go for it.

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