Learn the pros and cons of the Dvorak Keyboard Layout, how much faster you can enter text, how easy it is to set up in Windows and OS X, some celebrities who use it, and how to start with training and practice.
When you look at the picture above, you’ll see what looks like a computer keyboard, but the keys are laid out strangely. This is the Dvorak keyboard configuration, also known as “simplified keyboard layout” and “Dvorak keyboard layout.’ The purpose is to increase the speed and accuracy of typing the English language.
As you’ll soon discover, setting your Windows, Linux, Apple or Android device to Dvorak is easy to do.
According to a Wikipedia article, it was invented in 1932 and patented in 1936 by Dr. August Dvorak, a psychologist and professor of education at the University of Washington in Seattle, I have also heard that the keyboard was designed by a US Navy committee, headed by Captain Dvorak. I’m not sure which story to believe, but my money’s on the Wikipedia article.
The Dvorak layout helps typists in three ways. The most commonly used consonants are in the home row under the right hand, and the vowels are in the home row under the left hand. This reduces the amount of distance the fingers must travel for all but the least commonly used characters. I have heard that during an 8-hour day, a typical typist’s fingers move a total of 12 miles. The same typist with a Dvorak keyboard would move one mile. The keyboard also helps with sequencing. In many common character combinations, the keys that are pressed alternate between the left and right hand. On the QWERTY keyboard, the left hand does a majority of the work, even though 89 percent of the population is right-handed. In the Dvorak keyboard, it is nearly 50/50.
The standard keyboard that we have all grown up with is called QWERTY, named after the first keys from the left in the row above the home row. The QWERTY layout seems illogical until you understand that it was invented for early typewriters. Those typewriters would jam if the typist moved too quickly, so the keyboard was actually designed to slow them down. Unfortunately as more and more typewriters were built using QWERTY, it became the standard, even though newer typewriters could handle faster typing speeds.
Several famous people have used the Dvorak keyboard layout. Ralph Nader is one of the most famous and eccentric – in a good way. He has always put social and environmental awareness high on his agenda, and likes to be an example of what he considers better alternatives. So, back in the day when typewriters ruled, he bought a custom-built manual typewriter with Dvorak. He could easily have afforded an electric typewriter, but I believe he figured it would be a waste of electricity. Piers Anthony wrote his science fiction novels with Dvorak. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, uses Dvorak.
In fact, the world record holder for typing speed uses Dvorak. Barbara Blackburn set a Guinness world record in 2005 with a speed of 150 words per minute for 50 minutes straight. She can hit speeds up to 212 WPM for short bursts. Compare this to the average touch typist who might hit 40 WPM on a very good day.
Here’s the downside of Dvorak: It takes a while to learn. If you learn Dvorak, you’ll find a QWERTY keyboard hard to use. And, if another user comes to your computer, they’ll find it impossible to use. It’s almost like password protection. I once had an employee come to work on one of my computers that I had forgotten to reset to QWERTY. The first thing he told me was that he had to remove a virus. I asked for details and he said, “Well, the keyboard is all scrambled up.” That was kind of embarrassing for me.
If you haven’t learned touch-typing, the ability to type without looking at the keyboard, it will take exactly the same amount of time to learn as with QWERTY. However, if you already know QWERTY, then you’ll find the old habit hard to break, and you may be frustrated for a while until your Dvorak speed finally exceeds your old QWERTY speed. It took me two years to transition, and during that time, I was slower in both layouts. Oh, I probably did it the hard way. I kept switching back to QWERTY when I had to get something done in a hurry. If found the whole process rather frustrating. I don’t know why I stuck with it, but now, I’m glad I did. My typing speed is 57 words per minute, almost as fast as I can think – which is fun. Right now, as I type this page, I’m zooming along, almost as if I was speaking with you directly.
After the two-year transition period (I’ll admit I’m a slow learner), I’d have to work on a QWERTY computer from time to time. I was ridiculously slow in QWERTY, even though I had been a fairly efficient QWERTY touch-typist before I learned Dvorak. Now, 20 years later, I am able to switch back and forth between QWERTY and Dvorak almost without thinking and without difficulty. Of course, I don’t really like using QWERTY, because it is always slower and less accurate.
On many keyboards you can rearrange the actual keys, by pulling the key caps off and pressing them back down where you want them. But most Dvorak typists don’t do that. They have learned never to look at the keyboard, so there is no need to rearrange the actual keys.
I think the best way to learn is to draw or print out a Dvorak keyboard map, such as the picture farther down this page, and keep it to one side of your keyboard. Find the home keys, then look entirely at the map as you write anything – stream of consciousness or whatever. Resist the temptation to look at the keyboard – ever. You can find the home key position by feeling the little bumps that are on he keys under your index fingers. These were the [F] key and the [J] key. Now they are the [U] key and the [H] key. Practice typing whatever you want for 20 minutes, twice a day, if possible. If your work demands it, you can switch back to QWERTY. But switching back and forth will probably lengthen the learning time. Switching between QWERTY and Dvorak is easy on all the major operating systems.
Soon, you’ll be able to look at the screen as you type, only glancing at the map occasionally for a forgotten character. Then, you can look at the screen entirely. This is a very enjoyable accomplishment if you have never experienced touch typing. You can now compose easily. You’ll never again have to keep alternating your gaze between the keyboard and the screen as you write. You can see your mistakes right away and correct them on the fly. The final step is being able to copy text from a page without looking at the keyboard or at the screen.
Installing/Configuring Dvorak on Your Computer
It’s easy! If you have a Windows computer, go to the Control Panel, and select Language/Internationalization – or something like that, depending on which version of Windows you have. There you can add the Dvorak configuration, and set up hot keys to switch back and forth.
On a Mac, go to System Preferences, then Keyboard, and then click the Input Sources button.
On an Android device, you need to download a Dvorak driver from Google Play. As of now, there are one or two available, and they’ll work fine. Once downloaded, you can change between QWERTY and Dvorak in the Settings menu under Language & Keyboard. In most Android applications, Dvorak is less important, because touch typing is not really done on tablets and phones. However, you can get an external keyboard. There is only one application in Google Play for switching external keyboard configurations that includes Dvorak. I forget the name of it, but you can just enter “Dvorak” in the Google Play search field. The problem with this driver is that it is a bit quirky. For instance, you cannot enter [q]. When you try, you get a comma instead. You may find Dvorak on an external keyboard connected to an Android device unacceptable at this time, but no doubt someone will improve upon it soon.
Almost all Linux versions also support Dvorak, but the way it is configured varies.
Have fun and prosper! – Jeff