Keyboards

I had a new employee start this week. It is usually not long before I have to explain that I very strongly prefer typing on a Dvorak keyboard. Among computer programmers, it’s a little better than a 50% chance that they’ll have heard of a Dvorak layout. They’ll often say something like, “Oh, maybe I should try that.” And I give my standard response: “If you’re already competent on QWERTY, don’t bother.”

Using a non-standard keyboard layout is a pain in the ass, for one thing. Windows has, over time, improved its handling of having a user on a PC that uses a second layout. At some time in the past, each application had its own keyboard layout setting…if I had Excel and Word open at the same time, one might be QWERTY and one might be Dvorak, leading to lots of gobbledegook being typed in order to recognize I wasn’t using the keyboard setting I thought I was using. For example, right now my keyboard is set to Dvorak, if I switch my brain to QWERTY and type “Fuck you, Windows!” It looks like “Ugjt frgw <cber,o!” And vice versa, if the keyboard is set to QWERTY and my brain is set to Dvorak, the result is “Yfiv tsfw <glhs,;!”

In some Windows 10 update, this was improved to having one global keyboard layout setting within the user’s session (although there are occasional bugs where particular applications will not obey the session setting and in fact can’t be switched without closing them and re-opening them).

You can imagine this wreaks havoc on login information, which is one area where Windows has been terrible (and when typing your password, you can’t see the letters that are coming out…). For a while, Windows would only use the keyboard layout from OS install time in the login screen (always QWERTY). Then it started to recognize that some users had different layouts installed, and would only use the one last used by a user. Then it allowed it to be switched in the login screen. There have been some cases where the Dvorak layout setting, which should be specific to my user profile and should not affect other users, was in use when other users tried to log in (resulting in a few of my coworkers being locked out of conference room PCs because they had no idea to check for that).

Not to mention the difficulty of sharing keyboards. Inevitably, IT needs to come do something on your computer. Or you’re working on something with someone else, and need to share a computer. Or someone needs you to look at something or fix something on their computer.

The learning experience itself is thoroughly terrible, too. Here’s a chart that I typically draw on a whiteboard during this conversation:

You might notice the broad “canyon of unproductivity” which I fell into precipitously when I decided to learn Dvorak. I was in the floor of that canyon during finals week my first semester of college. It was super fun trying to type up my final papers with poor typing skill on two keyboards and near zero ability to switch between the two of them.

Which leads to a funny story…that was back in the days of Windows 95 or Windows 98, and alternate keyboard layout support was even poorer back then.

The lab computers on campus didn’t give users sufficient permissions to change keyboard layouts. So, I found the files that Windows used at the time to define keyboard layouts, copied my Dvorak one from my PC, renamed it to match the QWERTY one, and overwrote it. Yes, on a lab PC. So some unwitting schmuck most likely came to that PC after me, and had absolutely no idea why the letter “o” came out when they pressed the letter “s”. If you’re curious, if you think you’re typing “Why? Dear God, why?” on a QWERTY keyboard, but it’s actually a Dvorak keyboard, the result is “<dfZ E.ap Irew ,dfZ” The OS itself was unaware Dvorak was in use.

The physical markings on the keyboard itself are also interesting. When I was first learning Dvorak, I pulled up all the keys on my keyboard and rearranged them, so if I looked at my physical keyboard, I would be able to see where the keys actually were. Many keyboards are contoured into a curve which matches hand shape better than a flat layout; if you randomly move the keys around, the contour is destroyed.

This person‘s post includes a picture of the screwed up contour that results from rearranging keys to the Dvorak layout on some QWERTY keyboards

I had a friend in my dorm room and he asked if he could use my computer. I said sure. He pulled out the drawer with my keyboard in it, and just stared at the malformed and apparently random distribution of letters for about 30 seconds. Then he closed the drawer and decided he didn’t really need to use a computer after all.

At OU, I had another friend who was substantially more determined. In this case, I had already learned how to touch type so I didn’t need to destroy the keyboard contour in order to have the keys correctly labeled. He wanted to do something on my computer, but he could neither touch type nor look at the keys to find the letters he wanted to type. So he methodically pressed every key on the keyboard until he got the next letter he wanted and deleted all the characters he didn’t want, and repeated this process until he had typed out his desired text.

Years ago, I convinced my employers to buy me a hard-wired Dvorak keyboard. I thought it was brilliant. All the keys were correctly labeled for Dvorak, the contour was fine, and I could leave Windows’ default keyboard settings alone and type comfortably. This was an even worse situation: Unless I had both a physical QWERTY and Dvorak keyboard attached to the computer if anyone else was going to use it, plus I had to carry it around with me and attach it the other computers that I might want to use in meeting rooms, and god forbid if I remoted in to my desktop and changed the software setting to Dvorak and then tried to go back to the physically Dvorak keyboard which sends appropriate codes for QWERTY for the letters pretty despite their physical locations, and have a software re-interpretation as if I was typing on QWERTY keyboard to a Dvorak layout. A nightmare.

In my entire life, I have met one and only one person who also typed on a Dvorak layout as their primary layout. I have met one or two dozen people who tried it for a little while and gave up.

Posted by snaotheus

2 comments

Oh, my goodness. I thought I knew all the story on that one, but I didn’t! Here’s my main question, though: Why in the name of all that’s holy didn’t they teach you to touch type in junior high or high school? Or these days, in freaking grade school? Talk about a no-brainer. Gaaaah.

I should be on a middle list: I’ve tried it and not given up, but deferred it. I’ll probably die before I get there, but I do intend to learn it … one day.

Also, Win 10 allowed me to pick alternate keyboards, and one of those is Spanish, which I use rarely but do sometimes. There’s a keyboard button in the bottom right wossname bar that lets me switch. It does, however, require that your fingers already know what keys you need to hit.

They did teach me to touch type, starting in 7th grade. When I graduated from high school, I could type around 100 wpm on a QWERTY keyboard, though not with particularly good accuracy and not really sustained. I decided to teach myself Dvorak for no particularly good reason. Just sounded like something interesting to try.

Yes, Windows 10 and older versions of Windows have the language toolbar thing, which has looked and behaved differently in different versions of Windows, and under different conditions. You can assign a keystroke to change the keyboard layout. By default it’s left Ctrl+Shift (as in, the control and shift buttons on the left side of the keyboard). At least that’s the default right now. Typically I have both QWERTY and Dvorak on my computer (sometimes I completely remove QWERTY, but then no one else can use my PC).

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