Keyboard Layout: Dvorak vs Colemak

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

Is Colemak better than Dvorak?

This is contentious issue.

I'm a Dvorak user since 1994, and here i tell you why i think Colemak isn't better.

colemak heatmap  to build a fire
Colemak heatmap.
dvorak heatmap  to build a fire
Dvorak heatmap 〔image source https://www.patrick-wied.at/projects/heatmap-keyboard/

The text used for the heat map image is To Build a Fire by Jack London. The English used there is fairly simple.

Dvorak layout is invented in 1936. Colemak is invented around 2005.

Colemak is the second most popular alternative layout, after Dvorak.

Colemak proponents like you to believe that Colemak is the modern better more efficient layout.

[see Dvorak Keyboard Layout]

[see Alternative Keyboard Layouts]

Rolling Finger vs Alternating Hands

Dvorak focus on alternating hands. For example, all vowels A O E U I are on the left hand.

Colemak focus on “rolling” fingers motion. For example, type “sdf” on QWERTY. You'll notice your fingers “rolls” like you would tab on a table. Some people prefer rolling fingers than alternating hands.

Problem with rolling fingers is that if you need to type another language such as German, French, Spanish, Chinese pinyin, or any input that's not English, it becomes inefficient fast. With Dvorak, you still have alternating hands because the vowels are on the left hand.

Colemak claims to be more efficient than Dvorak. But it depends on what text source (aka corpus) is used for analysis, and on how you score rolling fingers motion for frequently occurring 2-letter bigram vs alternating hands.

Colemak is Easier to Learn?

Colemak is supposedly easier to learn for those who already touch-type QWERTY, because about 12 keys remains the same as QWERTY. I've seen at least 1 guy who blogged about how Colemak is more difficult for him to learn.

What I liked about Dvorak was that I was able to learn the layout very easily. Perhaps that hand alteration helps. I was not a touch-typist prior and just used my own “hunt and peck” method. With Dvorak, since the main shortcut keys are moved more to the right on Dvorak, I’ve tried to use the left hand mouse. This is easy since I am also left-handed.

I want to make Colemak work, but I’m just struggling so much. I cannot give up and say that I was defeated by a keyboard layout. That would be silly.😛

[[• Colemak vs Dvorak – So Hard To Make A Decision By Julxrp. At https://julxrp.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/colemak-vs-dvorak/?wref=tp , Accessed on 2016-12-26 ]]

Copy Cut Undo Keys Stays the Same, Good?

Many people think that the shortcut keys {undo z, cut x, copy c, paste v} is perfect as is, and many layouts, including {Colemak, Asset, Norman, qwpr} are designed specifically to retain these key positions.

There are Dvorak with QWERTY-shortcuts layout, that comes with Linux and Mac OS X out of the box. So, this isn't a winning point for Colemak. (For Microsoft Windows, you have to download it.)

But more importantly, the {z, x} key positions on QWERTY induces Repetitive Strain Injury. It happened to me with the QWERTY key x. [see Why Undo Cut Shortcut Keys Are Bad?] These keys are pressed by weak fingers pinky and ring finger. You should avoid them, especially if you keyboard does not use mechanical switch. [see Guide to Keyboard Key Switch Mechanisms]

Colemak T H, Index Finger Side Motion Problem

One common criticism of Colemak is the frequent side way motion. For example, try to type “the”. The problem is h, which requires you to move your index finder to the left.

“th” and “he” are two of the most frequent bigrams. And “the” is the most frequently used word. With Colemak, it's a problem.

English bigram frequency norvig 2013 01 06
English bigram frequency. [• English Letter Frequency Counts: Mayzner Revisited By Peter Norvig. At http://norvig.com/mayzner.html , Accessed on 2016-12-26 ]
English word frequency norvig 2013 01 06
English word frequency [• English Letter Frequency Counts: Mayzner Revisited By Peter Norvig. At http://norvig.com/mayzner.html , Accessed on 2016-12-26 ]

See the Workman layout author who criticized Colemak:

Computer Keyboard Layouts: Dvorak vs Colemak vs Workman

Coding

If you are a programer, Dvorak is slightly better.

computer language char frequency
Computer Languages Characters Frequency

The LOW LINE _ character, is the most used punctuation in programing languages code by far. See Computer Languages Characters Frequency. On Dvorak, it's on the home row with pinky. On Colemak, it's on the number row with pinky.

The FULL STOP . character and COMMA , character, are also top most frequently used characters in computer code. In Dvorak, they are on top row. In Colemak, they are on bottom row.

Also, for Dvorak, there's a programer's Dvorak layout, which is Dvorak but with the number row switched to punctuations. See Alternative Keyboard Layouts.

Vim and Emacs

Vim's arrow keys is much worse on Colemak than on Dvorak.

Arrow Keys Frequency
keycommand%
K ↑previous-line15.48
J ↓next-line17.10
H ←backward-char3.23
L →forward-char5.51

The two most frequently used, the j and k, are at the worst far-reaching positions on the Colemak. On Dvorak, they are adjacent, on the left hand bottom row, pressed by middle finger and index finger.

See also:

Colemak Advantage of Backspace at Capslock?

Colemak makes the Caps Lock key do ⌫ Backspace.

This is very good, because ⌫ Backspace is one of the most frequently used special key, and is normally hard to reach. Now it's easy to reach, and Caps Lock is rarely useful.

However, there's few things to keep in mind.

In any OS, you can trivially map Caps Lock to send ⌫ Backspace, regardless which letter layout you are using. (For how-to, see Keyboard Shortcut and Layout Tutorial.)

In any decent gaming/mechanical keyboard or Ergodox Keyboard or Truly Ergonomic Keyboard or Kinesis Keyboard etc, you can trivially map Caps Lock to send ⌫ Backspace in the keyboard firmware.

Also, you may actually prefer to make the Caps Lock key position do Escape if you are a vim user. Or, you may want to make it do Ctrl for emacs.

Conclusion?

In my opinion, there is no decisive benefit of Colemak over Dvorak. It's up to you which to learn.

What's the Most Efficient Keyboard Layout?

What's the Most Efficient Keyboard Layout?

Dvorak Layout Topic

  1. Dvorak Layout
  2. Hardware vs Software Dvorak
  3. Myth of QWERTY vs Dvorak
  4. Dvorak vs Colemak
  5. Blank Keycaps vs Labeled Keys
  6. List of Hardware Dvorak Layout Keyboards
  7. How to Touch-Type
  8. Best Typing Tutorial, Speed Test, Typing Games
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