Contoured Dvorak Keyboarding

Keyboard and mouse

Summary

In 2001, I switched entirely to Dvorak contoured keyboards. This essay discusses how I came to make this change, what I like about it, and what I want to be different.

Background

The first typewriter I ever used was manual Streamline when I was eleven. At age twelve, I started using a computer keyboard, and became a quick hunt-and-peck typist. I learned to touch-type on an electric keyboard when I was sixteen. I recognized the eventual benefits I would get from touch-typing, so I worked hard at it. My speed briefly went down and then later improved to be far better than it would ever have been with hunting and pecking. At age thirty, I was typing about 80 words a minute, and I did not think about my fingers at all. The programming went straight from my brain to the computer, without concern for the interface between them.

Qwerty problems

I used a standard flat keyboard with a mouse, and as a programmer I often struck the arrow keys and other movement keys, the function keys, and the escape key. Unlike the typing I learned in high school, my fingers rarely rested on the home keys for very long, although I still knew where all the keys were without looking at them. I researched the Dvorak keyboard because I realized that I spend more time typing than talking, so I wanted to do it the best way possible. I also hated hunting for the mouse with my hand, since I did not want to break my focus on the screen.

Finding Kinesis

I stumbled upon the Kinesis-Ergo web site and learned about the contoured Dvorak keyboards. I bought the top-of-the-line Professional keyboard with dual Qwerty-Dvorak labels in September, 2001 (ordered it before, got it after). I set it to the Dvorak layout and have never typed Qwerty with it.

I also found a foot mouse that would allow me to move the pointer and click with my feet, so I would not have to move my hands off the keyboard. As I used it, I became proficient, but I found that I always paused to move the mouse around anyway, so I was not gaining any time. I found that my feet were not as fast as my hands, even with a few months of practice. The mouse click was also really loud. Eventually I switched again, this time to the Logitech Marble Mouse. It is optical, so it will not stop working when dusty, and is symmetrical, so I can use it left handed. In July, 2012, I purchased a Kensington Slimblade Trackball, which I quite like.

Learning Dvorak

I used a typing program to help me relearn to type, and it was hard work. After years of typing Qwerty without thought, I had to think about typing again. It was very slow going, and I often had to stop and find the key I wanted to use. The dual legions made that a bit confusing, and a Dvorak-only keyboard would have been better. But the problem that really held me back was that I had a second computer that had a Qwerty keyboard, and I sometimes needed to type on it, so I would switch back and forth many times a day. I purchased a KVM, which allowed me to plug both computers into the one keyboard, and I practiced constantly, even typing out things that I normally would have cut and pasted. It took two months before I was touch-typing without frequent errors.

As I relearned to type, I was struck by how I type words, not just characters. When I learned to read, I first learned the sounds that each letter makes, and strung those together into words. Then I read the entire word at a time, and then full phrases at one time. Equally, I had learned to type words as a unit, with my fingers having been trained on particular words and being very quick with the common ones. Learning to type Dvorak not only meant unlearning fifteen years of typing letters, but typing words. The first few weeks of learning Dvorak taught me where the keys were, but I still would often slam out a set of letters for a Qwerty word, and would have to erase them and retype. Fortunately, Dvorak is designed to make it easy and fast to type common letter combinations. The word “the” is on the home keys of a Dvorak.

I had been typing with the Dvorak layout now since the fall of 2001, and it feels quite natural. My fingers know where the keys are and how to type common words. My speed is about 80 WPM again. Most importantly, I rarely find myself thinking about my fingers, and I usually type as fast as I am thinking, particularly when programming.

This excellent article discusses using an evolutionary model to find the best keyboard layout. The best his program came up with was very close to Dvorak, and may not even be better. This independent confirmation assures me that, not only is Qwerty a bad layout, but that Dvorak may be the best.

Advantages of the Kinesis keyboard

The contoured layout seems to intimidate people when they first see it, but it feels quite natural to me now, and my fingers do not travel far to get to keys they need. I love the fact that my thumbs get to do work, because they are quite dexterous digits and should get some use. Particularly because I was learning the Dvorak, I appreciate that the backspace key is under my left thumb, and is just as large as the space key. With the Qwerty layout, the backspace key was an afterthought for the simple historical reason that you could not erase with old keyboards. I also like the placement of the cursor movement keys, which are split between the left and right hand. The left hand gets the left-right motions, including left arrow, right arrow, home, end, backspace, and delete. The right hand gets the up-down motions, including the up arrow, the down arrow, page up, page down, and enter. The Alt and Control keys are moved to the thumbs as well, giving your pinkies a rest. Overall, it is very comfortable and intelligently designed.

The programmability of the keyboard is great. I almost never press Caps Lock, but I press Escape all the time, so I programmatically switched the meaning of those two keys. When you activate the “keypad shift” on the right side of the keyboard, you are actually using another kind of shift key, and just like the Alt and Control keys, the keys act differently when this shift key is depressed. I have programmed many long macros, like my email address, to the keys on the left side of the keyboard when the keypad shift is pressed. It is reminiscent of the Space Cadet keyboard, since it gives another shift key, but this just adds a fourth one, not the seven that the Space Cadet had. Kinesis calls the keyboard that is activated with the keypad shift the “embedded keyboard.” I use the foot pedal to activate the keypad shift.

Problems with the Kinesis keyboard

Although the keyboard is close to a dream keyboard for me, there are a few complaints I have with it. I wrote to Kinesis about them, and got very thoughtful answers from them.

The function keys seem like an afterthought. They are not easy to strike, do not have the nice feel of the rest of the keys, and are too small. Kinesis believes that people do not use function keys for normal typing, and they decided that making them larger would create a bulky keyboard. Ergonomically, it is hard for people to reach their fingers up to a third row of keys, although even harder to get to these keys. Thus, Kinesis’s designers did not make the function keys a priority, and instead invested their time and money into the rest of the keys. My own cure for this is to simply program the function keys to the left side of the embedded keyboard, in the same pattern as the keypad that is found on the right side of the embedded keyboard. Since the Caps Lock key is programmed to actually be the Escape key, I almost never strike the original function keys. To close a program, I press Alt-keypad-O, which sends Alt-F4 to the computer.

The keyboard comes with a foot pedal, which they originally set to be the keypad shift. Although I was initially eager to get my feet into action, I have since preferred to let my feet rest while my fingers do the work, so I would rather have a convenient keypad shift key on the keyboard.

I own two of the professional model keyboards: one for work, one for home. July, 2012, I replaced both of them with the latest Advantage USB/LF keyboards because one was broken and that was enough of an excuse to splurge. Randy Cassingham also owns two. We have used these six keyboards on a bunch of different computers, and they all have the same intermittent and unreproducable problem. Sometimes, when I press the left shift key, letters continue to be shifted even after I am not pressing the shift key. It will stay that way until I press the left shift key again. I have only found that it happens after I press shift-i. I know I am supposed to press the right shift key to get a capital I, and sometimes I do, but I have gotten into this habit. This happens to me only once a month, but seems to happen to Randy more often. His keyboards are slightly older models, and this problem happens with many of the letter combinations, including shift-i.

Steve Lianoglou reported that he owns two Advantage keyboards and they both have the sticky modifier problem, but that his problem is worse, that some other keys stick, too, and that it’s pretty inconvenient when the backspace key sticks. I’ve not seen it happen a lot more often with my Advantage keyboards, but I’ve seen it.

Another minor problem I learned of recently is that, when you have a high repeat rate and some macros defined, and you hold down a shift or control key for two seconds, sometimes the next key you strike is not registered. Alex Manoussakis has a keyboard that this happens on, and so does mine. Since Kinesis cannot replicate the problem on their keyboards, I suspect it only affects older models. I’ve not seen it on the Advantage.

When I was learning Dvorak, it would have really been less confusing to have Dvorak-only keys. Kinesis says they do not believe there is enough market for Dvorak-only keys. They purchase keycaps in lots of 1000, at $6000 a lot, and would have to sell enough of the Dvorak keyboards to recoup the cost. They estimate that only 100 people would buy them, so they would have to charge $60 extra for such keyboards just to break even, and they think that $60 extra for such keyboards is excessive. Of course, if you have $6000 lying around, I bet you could finance it for them.

Modifications

I wish I had done these originally. I took all the keys off, scraped off the Qwerty labels with a sharp knife, and used black and blue markers to fix the scrape marks. I do not look at my fingers very often, but it still helps. With help from the engineers at Kinesis, I added two such shift keys below the normal shift keys. This has removed completely my need for the foot petals. Here are the details of making that modification.

Why the fuss?

I’m a professional programmer, and like an enormous number of people, I type all day. Just as a race car driver should get the best engine and equipment for his car and maintain it well, I also have worked to get the best keyboard I can and clean and maintain it regularly. I want the device I put my hands on for hours at a time to be the best it can be.

Conclusion

I would recommend that anyone not already using a Kinesis keyboard to try out the Advantage keyboard. All of them can shift to Dvorak, even if they do not have keys imprinted for Dvorak. They feel so much better than the standard flat keyboard, and even ignoring Qwerty vs. Dvorak, the layout for the contoured keyboards are all superior to the standard flat keyboard. If you do use Dvorak, I would seriously consider scraping off the Qwerty part of the labels with a knife, because it will make the learning process easier.

Many people have argued that switching to Dvorak is so much better that it should be done with any keyboard, and to this I agree. But now I have been spoiled because I use the world’s best keyboard.

Let me know about your keyboard experiences.