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    Maltron THOR

    • Started by davkol
    • 6 Replies:
    • Reputation: 17
    • From: CZ
    • Registered: 14-Feb-2012
    • Posts: 438

    I'm just dumping my thoughts here, because I think some people may find it particularly interesting. What's up? I finished my thesis on keyboard layouts a while ago, and I've run some analysis on the Maltron THOR layout. (I have to figure out the best way to share these results online, but that's off-topic here.)

    What's Maltron THOR? It's a keyboard layout (see patent US4244659 by Lillian Malt) designed for a dual-hand ergonomic keyboard (based on IBM's patent GB1016993A). (Note that there's a layout for one-handed typing described in Malt's patent as well.) You can read more about it in Malt's paper available from Maltron's website. The key design principles are following:

    • Balance finger/hand use.

    • Utilize the shape of the ergonomic keyboard, esp. thumb clusters and column placement, that reflects inconstant finger length.

    • Maximize the use of home (resting) finger positions.

    • Favor sequences of adjacent keystrokes over extreme hand alternation (preferred by Dvorak et al.), because such sequences are presumably faster on electric keyboards, esp. if finger length is taken into account.

    • Separate vowels, because confusing them is the most common source of typos on DSK (see Malt's paper on error types and patterns).

    A scheme of the layout over at Wikipedia. I call it THOR, because of the right-hand finger-resting positions; the left-hand side (ANIS) sounds more like, ahem, "anus".

    I've coded a new layout analyzer, based on Carpalx, but easier to use or extend: it supports Unicode, layers and dead keys; the reported values are mostly the same as in Carpalx, but I calculate the keystroke count and some sort of hit direction (both inspired by Marsan's criteria by Wagner et al.) on top of that. It's been used to compare layouts on Czech and English corpora. The base English corpus is the bundle of ~19th century novels from Project Gutenberg, distributed with Carpalx. My Czech corpus is a collection of novels and newspaper articles published between WWI and WWII; letter frequencies more or less match the SYN2010 literature corpus (Czech National Corpus).

    It's interesting, that tested layouts (QWERTY, DSK, Colemak, Maltron THOR) maintain their main properties (esp. hand alternation frequency and relative same-finger ratios) between the corpora, except for finger balance (due to high degree of inflection and heavy use of diacritic marks in Czech, as opposed to English, which is an analytic language and has only 26-letter alphabet).

    Anyway, back to Maltron. It turns out that the THOR layout scores almost exactly the same as Colemak in terms of hand alternation and rolls, same-finger ratio, etc. In Czech, THOR has a much nicer finger balance without obscurities, such as the WRX column on Colemak, and a lot of typing shifts from the bottom row to the top row, because of CVBM placement. All in all, the main distinction is obviously the size of the home row (i.e., E under left thumb) and that cognitive (i.e., not biomechanical) factor related to error patterns.

    I've been considering THOR (and DSK) as my next layout recently—as a replacement for Colemak—but the results are quite a twist. Is relearning the layout justifiable? Reduced error rate would be obviously nice (assuming we trust Malt); the controversial part is E in a thumb cluster. I'm not bothered by limiting myself to keyboards with a lot of thumb keys, because I'd learn DSK basics for backwards compatibility anyway. However, isn't the physical key better used for some modifier/toggle or control symbol? Consider that we don't only type, but also control user interfaces or edit data nowadays…

    Last edited by davkol (04-Sep-2015 21:01:21)

    Get yourself an ergonomic keyboard. Learn Maltron. Or stenography.

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    • Reputation: 124
    • From: Oslo, Norway
    • Registered: 13-Dec-2006
    • Posts: 4,849

    I feel that Maltron is one of those change-too-much layouts, so if it scores similarly to Colemak it comes at a higher cost. Also, that thumb E should help its score a lot which by inference might mean that the rest of the layout is of poorer quality?

    If I had Maltron-type hardware I'd at least consider it for sure. But you're probably not better off learning it instead of Colemak as the two apparently have very similar virtues and you already know one.

    *** Learn Colemak in 2–5 steps with Tarmak! ***
    *** Check out my Big Bag of Keyboard Tricks for Win/Linux/TMK... ***

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    • Reputation: 17
    • From: CZ
    • Registered: 14-Feb-2012
    • Posts: 438

    Keep in mind that THOR was designed from scratch for superior hardware, and it predates Colemak by three decades; computing was very different back in the day as well. The linked articles also discuss topics that simply aren't mentioned at all around Colemak (e.g., the error analysis).

    Personally, I'm torn in regards to Colemak. It's good enough in some ways (it's about as good as Maltron in terms of same-finger ratio and relative hand alternation), but I'm severely annoyed by (1) its similarity to QWERTY, (2) scattered vowels (because of diacritic marks, and the error analysis is some food for thought as well), (3) relative lack of standardization. Sigh, there's so much more to keyboard design, but the resources are too limited.

    Get yourself an ergonomic keyboard. Learn Maltron. Or stenography.

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    • From: Oslo, Norway
    • Registered: 13-Dec-2006
    • Posts: 4,849

    I don't quite understand the merit of your criteria.

    – THOR is impressive and especially for its time, sure. But that's fairly irrelevant when choosing a layout?
    – Similarity to QWERTY is an advantage in my book (as long as it doesn't compromise efficiency). It makes it easier to use QWERTY keyboards. I know that some think differently, but that's how it feels to me.
    – Scattered vowels matters exactly zero to me. We're typing, not sorting keys. All layouts must be learnt anyway, and Colemak is easy enough to learn.
    – Standardization is an issue, but Colemak is nearly on par with Dvorak these days (where I'm treading) and there aren't any better alternatives standardizationwise.

    So why be torn?

    Last edited by DreymaR (08-Sep-2015 10:04:17)

    *** Learn Colemak in 2–5 steps with Tarmak! ***
    *** Check out my Big Bag of Keyboard Tricks for Win/Linux/TMK... ***

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    • From: CZ
    • Registered: 14-Feb-2012
    • Posts: 438
    DreymaR said:

    – Similarity to QWERTY is an advantage in my book (as long as it doesn't compromise efficiency). It makes it easier to use QWERTY keyboards. I know that some think differently, but that's how it feels to me.

    Indeed, I'm one of those, whose experience tells the exact opposite. If you have any not anecdotal evidence, I'm all ears.

    DreymaR said:

    – Scattered vowels matters exactly zero to me. We're typing, not sorting keys. All layouts must be learnt anyway, and Colemak is easy enough to learn.

    You're ignoring the part about error patterns.

    Keeping vowels in one block makes sense too in my case. I have to put the 15+ accented letters somewhere. Placement on the number row is an option, but breaks the "rolling" nature of discussed layouts (Colemak and THOR, that is). Therefore, dead keys (or layers; the two overlap at a certain level of customization).  Considering that, say, diaeresis is basically never combined with consonants (in common modern European languages), while caron is almost the opposite, it makes sense to have more distinct "toggles" (e.g., caron dead key on the left and umlaut/acute dead key on the right for DSK).

    Colemak has neither feature. And typing in Czech (or any other language with such a heavy use of combining symbols) is a PITA.

    DreymaR said:

    – Standardization is an issue, but Colemak is nearly on par with Dvorak these days (where I'm treading) and there aren't any better alternatives standardizationwise.

    Colemak is *not* shipped with MS Windows.
    Colemak in OS X lacks stock upper layers (last time I tried, AltGr chords were completely off).
    There are no national variants of Colemak shipped by any relevant upstream AFAIK. (OTOH, e.g., Czech UCW DSK is a part of that XKB data package distributed by most downstreams.)
    There are only few keyboards with Colemak support in the market. (Much fewer than with DSK support.)

    If I start to tweak the layout, there's no point in starting with a (semi-standard) one.

    Anyway, the point is that there are factors other than biomechanical.

    Get yourself an ergonomic keyboard. Learn Maltron. Or stenography.

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    • From: Oslo, Norway
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    Obviously, nobody have anything near real evidence in the world of alternative layouts. We've been through this countless times.

    I did say _nearly_ and _where I tread_. I don't use any MS installed layouts.

    Last edited by DreymaR (09-Sep-2015 11:03:10)

    *** Learn Colemak in 2–5 steps with Tarmak! ***
    *** Check out my Big Bag of Keyboard Tricks for Win/Linux/TMK... ***

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    • Registered: 21-Apr-2010
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    I like the Dvorak letter groupings from a learning standpoint.   It helped.  Having said that, I could never recite the Qwerty layout, but it took only a few minutes to memorise the positions.

    Pointing out that Colemak isn't available on stock Windows is important.  Especially for those with no previous exposure who may want to pick it up.

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