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Why I Switch to Colemak Keyboard Layout?


Colemak, pronounced /‘ko:lmæk/ (Coal-Mac), is a keyboard layout based on QWERTY. It’s developed by Shai Coleman and released in 2006. Colemak keyboard layout looks like:

  q w f p g j l u y ;
   a r s t d h n e i o
    z x c v b k m , . /

What’s special about Colemak? Why do I decide to switch from QWERTY to Colemak?

Reason 1: Discard QWERTY

As we all known, QWERTY was originally designed for the typewriter to solve the problem of the type bars colliding with each other and jamming. The idea behind is to arrange the keys with the most common letters in hard to reach spots, to slow typists down and try to avoid typewriter jams. [1]

If you’re interested in more stories of QWERTY, The Curse of QWERTY is a nice article to read.

Since the mechanical typewriters vanished from historical stage and all the modern computers don’t have “mechanical sticking” problem, why we still need to bear the pain of the inefficiency of QWERTY? It’s time to let QWERTY be retired with honor. Let it go!

Reason 2: I want a challenge

When I was 14 years old, I started to learn to type on a typewriter in school. Yes, a real typewriter and it’s amazing! I can still recall the comment when type bars hit on paper, the sound and the feeling are so satisfying. At the end of the semester, I successfully passed typing exam with the speed of 70 WPM. Now it has been 15 years, my speed stays around 75 WPM. For me, it’s obviously not improved at all…

As a guy who is eager for something new and obsessed with efficiency, I don’t believe that 75 WPM is my limit. I’m afraid that QWERTY itself is the obstacle. Maybe an alternative keyboard would unchain my ability. That’s why I want a challenge to see how fast I’m able to type.

Reason 3: Efficiency is the key

Colemak is designed to be ergonomic, comfortable and fast. [2]

According to carpalx analysis, Colemak has a quite low typing effort among 10 keyboard layouts. The carpalx detailed analysis [3] shows:

  • Colemak has a great home row usage 74%, compared to QWERTY 34% and Dvorak 71%
  • Colemak bottom row usage is low at 9%, the same as Dvorak, which is better than QWERTY 15%
  • Colemak is more balanced in hand use, with a 6% preference for the right hand. Dvorak has 14% for the right and QWERTY 15% for the left

There is an app to analyze the different keyboard layouts. It’s called Keyboard Layout Analyzer. I’m curious how the result would be. So I tried to input:

  1. A recent BBC article
  2. George R. R. Martin Biography
  3. One of my python script
  4. My blog index.html
  5. One of my blog post plain text

The result of these 5 rounds: Colemak scores the highest in each round.

High home row usage, less finger travel distance, and balanced left-right hands… These advantages of Colemak make it as one of the best keyboard layouts for improving efficiency and ergonomics.

Reason 4: Easy to learn

I remember 5 years ago, I planned to switch to Dvorak. But I was totally failed after 1-week struggling. Because the transition phrase from QWERTY to Dvorak is really hard, I was not good enough to use only Dvorak at work. Therefore, it required me to memorize 2 different keyboard layouts at the same time, which was possible for my brain but impossible for my muscles. I was kidding at that time: I need at least a 2-months vacation to train Dvorak without any productivity.

To learn Colemak, I feel it would be a different story. Colemak is based on QWERTY layout, which means it’s built without the terrifying prospect of changing everything. The Colemak layout is reasonably similar to QWERTY with just 17 different keys as opposed to Dvorak’s 33, and only two letters P and E that move from one hand to the other, whereas with Dvorak it’s 22. [4]

Colemak is rather easy to learn. It took me only 30 min to memorize Colemak keyboard layout without any frustration. After 1 day training, now I’m already used to it. I estimate that a 2-days weekend should be enough for me to have a reasonable typing speed. It wouldn’t cause my huge headache to use Colemak at work next Monday.

These tantalizing reasons give me the motivation to switch to Colemak. I guess I have to face this challenge and I will be busy with training next week. Challenge is on and change is now.

Happy typing Colemak!


[1] HowStuffWorks: Why are the keys arranged the way they are on a QWERTY keyboard?
[2] Shai Coleman: Colemak advantages
[3] Carpalx: Colemak typing effort
[4] Eric Limer: Why I’m Learning To Type All Over Again