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How to learn the Colemak keyboard Layout

Colemak keyboard finger map
Here are my tips on learning the Colemak keyboard layout to reduce finger joint pain. From my experience I also compare it to the regular QWERTY layout. [3 minutes]

While I can type simple lower-case words at over 100 words per minute on a QWERTY keyboard, the typing all day is causing finger strain, so I sought a keyboard layout to minimises finger motion. Colemak is that layout.

QWERTY is a pain

The QWERTY layout has two design goals (1) to be able to type "typewriter" on the top row for demonstrations, and (2) prevent typewriter keys from jamming.   Goal (1) puts frequent keys like t,e,r and i on the top row, and goal (2) results in a lot of "same-finger jumping" where the same finger has to jump rows to type common pairs of letters - for example ed, ce, ju, im, mu, nu, mi, um, ol, lo, ki.

Colemak to the rescue

Colemak keyboard finger change map vs QWERTY

I was looking into buying a fancy ergonomic keyboard when I came across the Colemak website. Colemak is a keyboard layout designed in 2006, and partially computer-optimised. It claims to more halve the typing effort versus QWERTY, about the same as Dvorak layout but with features that make it easier to learn:
  • Home row keys (arstdhneio) put the 10 most frequent letters in English under your fingertips
  • Pinky finger is used only rarely
  • Loads of "hand-roll combos" where you type 2, 3 or even 4 keys in one smooth motion.
  • 10 keys stay where they are in QWERTY (namely Q,A,Z,X,C,V,B,H,M)
  • Most windows keyboard shortcuts stay the same (see above)
  • All keys except E and P are typed with the same finger or same hand as on QWERTY.

Learning Colemak

Colemak can be learnt using TypeFaster on Windows or KTouch on Linux or the Keybr Flash applet, and there are lessons for download from the www.colemak.com.  Some software can personalize the lesson to work on your slowest or least-accurated keys. Since Colemak is for touch-typing, so you are not supposed to physically re-label your keyboard. Early on you may want to keep cheat sheet handy.

After 4 days switched my layout to Colemak for work... which was annoying as my speed was under 20 words per minute and accuracy was low and I had to relearn some shortcuts. After 7 days I hit 30 words per minute. After a month I was back up to about 80 words a minute. It still takes me a minute to switch mentally between QWERTY and Colemak, during which time I make more mistakes on the keys that differ.

Masochists may be interested in the TNWCLR layout, which is intended to increases typing effort 112% over QWERTY.

In 2013 I switched back to QWERTY as it's everywhere and my joint pain had gone away

Do you have any views on alternative keyboard layouts? Did you try Colemak, what did you think?

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