I used a Dvorak keyboard for just over a year, under Debian GNU/Linux. I made the switch to dvorak mostly out of curiosity. I wanted to try something unusual. Also, I had read about the advantages of the dvorak keyboard (about which there is still some debate), and was interested in becoming better at typing.

Why dvorak?

Is dvorak really a better keyboard? There are studies supporting both sides of the debate, but from my experience and my reading, dvorak is a better keyboard for the english language. What makes it better? Dvorak advocates have covered this in detail, but most of the advantages are related to the fact that the dvorak keyboard puts commonly-used keys in convenient places. For example, all the vowels are on the home row, and common keys are under the stronger index and middle fingers rather than the weaker ring and pinky. One boasting point for dvorak tutorials is that you can type thousands of words without leaving the home row.

Typing was designed, originally, for typewriters. The qwerty layout (designed by Christopher Shoales around the 1870's) came into favor because it was less likely to cause the keys to jam - for example, it spaced common pairs of letters far apart. Less jamming meant more productive typing. Some 60 years later, August Dvorak* redesigned the layout so that it was optimized for fast and comfortable typing. It then follows that, in the age of computer keyboards that don't jam like typewriters used to, the dvorak layout is superior. This is probably true.

In this qwertified world, is it worth it to make the switch? Remember that you'll be developing a new set of "muscle memories", so it's very hard to unlearn qwerty and get used to dvorak. Also, do you ever use a keyboard other than your own? If you want to be able to use your friend's, coworker's, or library's computer, you'll have to still be able to type qwerty to do that, and it takes a lot of practice before you'll be able to switch at will. I used dvorak (and the occasional qwerty board) for over a year, and every time I had to change keyboards I typed with unbearable slowness, with generous use of the backspace key. Also, remember that dvorak is designed for typing words and sentences, not code - so if you're a programmer or a frequent user of odd abbreviations like "ls", you'll find that dvorak is laid out badly for you. (I would find the placement of "l" and "s" to be sadistic, if I didn't know that August Dvorak lived in the age before unix. How could he have foreseen a hundred-times-a-day habit of hitting a three-key sequence - "l", "s", enter - where all three keys have to be hit with the right pinky?)

Well, last night I made the switch: I'm a Dvorak girl now. I've got about a month of difficult unlearning ahead of me, but I can already type a bunch of words without looking at the keyboard (very slowly, though, and the QWERTY instinct often kicks in). This is the longest meaningful bit of text I've typed yet. Keyboard shortcuts are going to kill me.

-- from my blog, Oct 3 2001

Starting out

The first step in converting to dvorak is to get yourself a dvorak keyboard. Google yourself a picture of the layout. Now, you have three options:

  1. Buy a dvorak keyboard
  2. Switch your keycaps around
  3. Masking tape, baby!

The first option is not for the cheap - dvorak keyboards cost far more than regular qwerty keyboards. As for the second, this is possible with some keyboards. With others, you'll quickly find out that the different rows of keys are actually slightly different heights, and if you mix the keycaps around you'll get a very wonky keyboard. Also, on many keyboards the 'f' and 'j' keys fit into their own special sockets and usually can't be swapped with others. These are the keys with little bumps so that you can find them by touch, and if you somehow manage to move them, you won't have those bumps anymore. Unless you have a keyboard that allows easy rearrangement of the keycaps (most don't), I don't recommend it. That leaves the masking tape option. Actually, it's possible to mail-order stickers for your keycaps, but most of us will end up making our own with masking tape. Write the letter on a little square of masking tape, stick it to the key, and then cover it with scotch tape to protect the letter from rubbing off the masking tape, and to protect the masking tape from being pushed off the key.

In linux, you can use loadkeys to make dvorak work on the console, and setxkbmap for X. I recommend setting up aliases on the command line and/or making gnome panel launchers to switch quickly from qwerty to dvorak, for those times when your boyfriend wants to check his email on your computer. Doing the equivalent on Windows or Mac is left as a (fairly easy) exercise for the reader.

How hard is it to switch?

Very. For best results, once you make up your keyboard and setx your kbmap (or the equivalent), don't switch back for at least a month. Avoid using other people's computers unless you can get a dvorak layout on them. Your first attempts will be laughably slow - you will sit there laughing, or perhaps crying, as you attempt to IM or blog the words "I am using dvorak now". Hang in there, and look at your hands if you need to. If you have the patience to do typing drills, definitely do so. It will shorten the painful transition time.

After a bit - on the order of a month or two or three - you'll be typing slowly but functionally, and you'll be encountering all sorts of obstacles. Keybindings that are designed for qwerty, games that consider j, k, l, and i to represent the arrow keys, the difficulty of typing 'ls' and punctuation-heavy code. You'll be lost again whenever you have to use somebody's qwerty board. If you think it's bad enough to be on a DOS prompt without tab completion, try being on a DOS prompt without tab completion and a now-unfamiliar keyboard. I remember being in this situation, ftp-ing into a computer where I had to find a file that was about six painfully long-named directories deep. It took me forever, hitting the backspace key more often than anything else, and I wondered whether everybody was thinking I had just never learned to type in the first place.

In the next stage, you've become comfortable with dvorak and are back to your original typing speed, more or less. You've gotten used to awkward key combinations, like using your other hand for C-x s in emacs (some people remap their keybindings; I didn't). The payoff, if there is one, comes at the end of this stage, when you surpass your previous typing speed. If you were a super master typist back in your qwerty days, just look at you now! I was never a super master typist. I kept on typing in dvorak, expecting one day to wake up and be able to type 90wpm. And it would all be downhill from there! What I didn't realize for a long time was this: if I were really that dedicated to improving my typing, why didn't I just spend all that time and effort on qwerty typing drills?

Why I switched back

After about a year, my aging keyboard began to develop a sticky shift key. I ordered a $5 keyboard, and then said to myself: no masking tape for me. I'm going to make this a really spiffy looking keyboard! After playing around with stickers, rearranging the keys, scraping the letters off and redoing them in Sharpie, a thought occurred to me: why am I bothering? I've spent a year using dvorak, but to what end? I couldn't type any faster than I previously did; I didn't find it any more comfortable to type, mostly because I rarely typed long paragraphs of english sentences. Keybindings were difficult, and despite getting a little bit better at switching to a qwerty when needed, my typing on both keyboards was error-prone - I would type a word in dvorak in the middle of a qwerty sentence, or vice versa. A year of using dvorak had made my typing worse, and there was no reason to believe that another year of dvorak would make it any better.

I'm a qwerty girl, in a qwerty world ... ditched the dvorak keyboard minutes ago. I'm not sure how long I was using it - maybe a year. It was nice, though. I switched back after realizing, one day, that I had no good reason to be using it. Did it improve my typing speed? No. Could it have? Sure, if I'd been willing to do a lot of typing drills. But I never was. Dvorak isn't made so much for typing commands and code - what moron would type a keyboard where "ls" is actually hard and time-consuming to type? Somebody designing for typewriters, that's who. Someone named Dvorak.

I still believe that the world would be a better place if we all learned a keyboard like Dvorak from birth. However, in a world where I often have to type on public computers, it's easier to just go with the flow. That said, I'm trained, for when the revolution comes...

-- from my blog, Nov 15 2002

* - The Czech composer Antonin Dvorak is pronounced "d-VOR-zhok" but the man who invented the dvorak layout, August Dvorak, is pronounced "d-VOR-ak", and so is the layout itself.