I wrote at the start of last year about my third attempt to learn an alternative keyboard layout, this time, Colemak. Here’s a report on progress, almost a year later….

I took two attempts at learning Dvorak, both times getting to the stage of knowing the keys, but just not being able to follow through and use it extensively – to the point at which it becomes natural. Perhaps for programming, it was just too great a change to accommodate.

Several interfriends recommended Colemak, so I thought I’d give it a go, and give up if I couldn’t master it.

Mission accomplished! I now use Colemak for virtually all typing – this article being the most I have written using QWERTY for the past few months, only because this system does not yet support the Colemak layout natively.

I am not faster at Colemak than QWERTY; I haven’t measured it, but I’m probably half as fast. But Colemak is much more comfortable for long typing sessions. The main benefit is that I am touch-typing properly; looking fully at the screen, rather than switching rapidly between keyboard and screen. (Why did I do that with QWERTY? I’ve been trying to touch-type since the 80’s, but never managed to kick that habit, despite knowing where the keys are, and so never doing it properly.)

Certain programs and tasks have proven very difficult to use with Colemak: vim is the main one; 20 years of muscle memory are hard to change. Password entry is a pain: I have to think about what I’m typing, and then I slow right down, and make mistakes.

I intend to keep typing until I drop; retirement is not likely to be an option for me, given how the economy seems to be heading, so I need to be using a keyboard layout that isn’t going to have my wrists in crutches when I’m 80. My hope is that Colemak will reduce the movement I make over the rest of my life, so that I can keep going, if RSI or arthritis attacks. Thankfully, at present, I have no problems.

I’m using an Apple wired keyboard with numeric keypad, and a nice low-profile Dell keyboard at work. On the Mac, Colemak is built in, and is a global setting. It Just Works, which is a much-appreciated surprise for a niche keyboard layout.

However the situation is quite different on Windows. It’s a confusing omnishambles, with an insane premise that you might want a different keyboard layout per application. I cannot fathom the logic of this: I might be writing my book using Word in Spanish, but everything else in every other application is in English? Do Microsoft think that people use different keyboard layouts only because they are multilingual? You can set the default layout, but it just doesn’t work properly, with some apps switching back to English. I’ve wanted to throw my shoe at it more than once. I use a third party open source tool called Keyla to effect a global layout, and this works most of the time. It allows me to change to an English layout when pair programming, but even with this, sometimes, Windows gets very confused. I have Keyla set to allow me to switch between UK QWERTY, UK Apple Colemak (when I’m using Remote Desktop into my work PC from a Mac) and UK Dell Colemak. I based the two Colemak layouts on the official one, using Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator. Let me know if you’d like a copy of them.

Try Colemak. If you use a keyboard for bulk input, your wrists and fingers will thank you in the long term.

Thanks to the #teamcolemak hashtag gang for their support and encouragement!