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What makes Colemak better than the alternatives?

  • Started by luke
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Hello,
       Very interesting keyboard layout, great job Shai!
       Just wondering a few things. The Colemak FAQ https://colemak.com/FAQ shows why the Colemak keyboard layout is superior to QWERTY and Dvorak. However at https://colemak.com/Alternative_layouts there are two layouts (other than Colemak) that are listed as better than these.

What makes Colemak better than Arensito and Michael Capewell's evolved layout?

Last edited by luke (02-Aug-2006 07:38:11)
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  • Shai
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The Maltron, Capewell and Arensito are ergonomically better than Dvorak. But they're not a practical alternative. I've updated the ordering of the list to reflect that.

* The Maltron layout is also very good, but it requires a special keyboard. Since it requires a special keyboard you wouldn't be able to use it on a laptop or on other computers.
* The Maltron layout overworks a bit the right pinky, although not as badly as Dvorak does.
* Arensito has been optimized for the Kinesis keyboard, and doesn't work quite as well with a normal keyboard, although with a little tweaking it might be possible to better adapt it.
* Arensito makes very heavy use of the bottom row, it puts the H there.
* Colemak has the Backspace on the home row, which makes it easier and faster to correct errors.
* Colemak is available for many operating systems. Arensito is available just for Linux. Capewell is available just for Windows.
* Colemak has a more logical design. Arensito for example assigns æ to the Enter key. In the Capewell layout, the left ">" is in the QWERTY "Q" position, and the "<" is in the QWERTY "." position
* The Capewell layout is an evolved layout, and a work in progress. Each time you run the program to generate the keyboard layout, you're going to get a different layout. Colemak's design is considered stable.
* The Capewell-Dvorak layout suffers from a rather high same-finger ratio.
* The Capewell-QWERF and Capewell-QWERTY move fewer keys than Colemak, but have significantly higher distance and same-finger ratio.
* Colemak has been designed to be easy to learn, and to allow easy transition from QWERTY. Both layouts would take a significantly longer time to learn.
* Colemak keeps the Ctrl+Z/X/C/V in the same place. Capewell keeps them in the same area, and Arensito doesn't.
* Colemak has typing lessons. Capewell also has some typing lessons, but Arensito and Maltron don't.

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Thanks for the quick and detailed response.
I'm going to start using Colemak very soon and will report back with my experiences.

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First, Thanks Shai for coming up with such a cool keyboard and promoting it! I especially like the capslock replacement!

But I was wondering, what do people think of BULPKM? Are there downsides vs Colemak?

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redfish said:

But I was wondering, what do people think of BULPKM? Are there downsides vs Colemak?

Yes - if common digraphs such as st, ca/ac, and ho have to be typed with only one finger this is not good.

Last edited by vVv (04-Oct-2008 06:41:35)
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redfish said:

First, Thanks Shai for coming up with such a cool keyboard and promoting it! I especially like the capslock replacement!

But I was wondering, what do people think of BULPKM? Are there downsides vs Colemak?

Actually, that keyboard is really bad. I don't know why it's so high on the alternative layouts list.

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I have been typing on a slightly modified version of the bulpkm layout for some time now and it is surprisingly comfortable to type on.  The biggest problem with the unaltered layout is the sequence "st".  I solved this by swapping 's' and 'd', which happens to match the dvorak layout.  This one swap significantly reduces the same finger sequences without introducing any additional typing effort or penalties.  It also lessens the slightly overloaded right index finger.  And of course I set my caps lock button to act as backspace.  The main reason I like my modified BUL layout is because it flows smoother than both dvorak and colemak in my experience.  I have typed Dvorak for over two years (peaked at about 100 wpm), and admittedly not nearly as long with colemak (about 40 wpm) - but enough to really get a feel for the flow of it. 

I don't mean do diminish the contributions of Shai - I just wanted to post my experience with the BUL layout because several people have asked about it and no one seems to have any real experience with it.

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I wonder why the *BUL layouts have so much less of a following than Colemak?  Is it the technical nature of the CarpalX site that scares people off?  Is it that there are too many choices of layout with no clear indication of which is the best?  (In fact, the author seems to go out of his way to make it difficult to choose one at all!)  Is it the lack of community (there seems to be no forum on the CarpalX site)?  It's easy enough to argue "Colemak is better," but technical superiority alone rarely sways the masses.

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Colemak, like Dvorak, has ready-to-use implementations for the major platforms.  The CarpalX layouts lack that.

Also, I think Colemak offers the better trade-off between being ergonomic and familiar; only those keys that make a significant difference are moved.  It really doesn't strike me as elegant to have punctuation and letter keys mixed as in eg. the "XBUL,W" layout.  From all the fully optimized CarpalX layouts, "BULPKM" appeals most to me (at first sight), perhaps precisely because it has the most restrictions applied.

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It looks to me from a cursory glance that the bulpkm layout suffers a bit from same-finger problems. Presumably the Carpalx algorithm and I don't agree what the penalty should be for same-finger. Keep in mind I haven't tried the layout myself so my opinion doesn't really carry a lot of weight.

Last edited by tomlu (20-Dec-2008 17:12:07)
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Keep in mind that the creator of carpalX (Martin Krzywinski) is a PhD researcher in Genome Sciences whose primary interest is research.  I'm sure he wasn't out to generate a single "optimal" layout with which to promote and "sway the masses".  His website mentions how subjective a keyboard layout is, and so he developed the carpalX optimizer to let anyone tweak the settings and find a good layout for whatever domain they are working in.  You can easily adjust the penalty/effort parameters in the config files to make it suit your needs.  I have spent months and months doing this - trying to come up with a better layout for my needs.  I took many approaches - for exaple, I initially tried to minimize same finger sequences, and ended up developing a layout that had even less same finger use than colemak does (which was pretty hard to do by the way - colemak has excellent same finger use stats).  I then decided that same finger sequences, while important, is not the most important thing to fast typing - stroke path, or "flow" is more important.  Some same finger sequences do not slow you down at all - in fact, some are very fast to type.  Others will stop you dead in your tracks.

In my experience everything is very closely knit - if you over optimize for one area, you usually end up having to sacrifice somewhere else.  After generating several layouts that are comparable to colemak, I decided that the best route for me was to manually optimize a few things in the BULPKM layout because it flowed under my fingers better than any other layout I've tried.

As for being "available" for all operating systems, I can easily create an installer for windows and linux (I don't use Macs, but I'm sure it can be done there too)

For the curious, here's my modified version:

" B U L  P _ M Y F K Z + |
R I A O H D T E N S ?
: X C V Q G W < > J

perhaps the worst same-finger sequence that remains is "ca", but it hasn't bothered be enough to do anything about it yet.  All in all, the layout is noticeably nicer than dvorak and colemak for my needs.

Last edited by bsdhacker (20-Dec-2008 19:00:02)
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ghen:
The letters are all mixed around already, so why not the punctuation?  We pretty much abandoned organizational elegance when we left the alphabetical layout.  :)

bsdhacker:
It just occurs to me that many of his visitors who are willing to change layouts are going to be paralyzed by all the choices he offers and will quickly give up to go find an easier alternative.

I agree about the same finger thing.  Personally, I think Colemak sacrifices too much for its low same-finger:  It tends to overload the pinkies, for one thing.

I had to shoehorn your layout into my system, but it still scored very well, handily beating even Colemak.  It'd be even better if you rotated part of the top row:

" B U L  P M Y F K Z _ + |
R I A O H D T E N S ?
: X C V Q G W < > J

This does increase same-finger a bit, but balances the load between each pair of fingers (particularly the index fingers) more than enough to compensate.

Incidentally, here's my "Colemak competitor":

qwgm y   f lik;
uset d   h noap
zxcv b   j r,./

It changes 17 keys, just like Colemak.  Most of the bottom row is unchanged from QWERTY, just like Colemak.  It does have a bit more same-finger and two-row jumping than Colemak, but balance between pairs of fingers is much better, and the load on the pinkies is greatly reduced.  I, personally, wouldn't use it (similarity to QWERTY is no concern of mine), but it's an option.

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It changes 17 keys, but unlike Colemak it moves them between hands and fingers much more.

Not sure what exactly makes your scoring system tick, but I'm starting to distrust scoring systems in general as there's so much they don't pick up and so much weird they seem to do. But that's just me I guess.

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If how much the characters move around is really that much of a concern, then the following layout will be the way to go.  Characters only move between the top and bottom rows, and no character changes fingers.  So, it's pretty easy to learn for QWERTY typists:

qwdf g   y jkl;
aser t   h uiop
zxcv b   n m,./

The main goal here is to get most of the typing happening on the home row instead of the top row.  As a bonus, the frequency of two-row jumps is dramatically decreased.  Sadly, it's not possible to address QWERTY's other major flaw--its overuse of the left hand--without moving characters between hands.

After a week with Colemak (which I concede is a superior layout), I maxed out at 35 WPM and was still having to labor over each key (well, except on the bottom).  After a week with the above layout, I was averaging 70 WPM and feeling comfortable (not thinking about keys).  (Actually, once I realized I already knew the layout and just had to mentally "push" the characters up and down as I practiced typing, I shot from 45 WPM to 65 WPM instantly.  It was freaky.)

BTW, I decided not to swap N and H because 1) that'd break the pattern of only top<->home swaps, 2) personally, I find N more comfortable to reach than H on standard keyboards, and 3) leaving the H where it is brings a nice symmetry to the common digraph TH.  Well, and of course 4) that's one less finger to relearn.

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DreymaR said:

Not sure what exactly makes your scoring system tick, but I'm starting to distrust scoring systems in general as there's so much they don't pick up and so much weird they seem to do. But that's just me I guess.

I've been saying this for months. I've seen people distrust their own subjective conclusions because they do not match the results from some scoring algorithm. In this case, a great algorithm tries to predict the subjective experience - i.e. it is the subjective that is the ultimate authority. It is my experience from years of designing optimising algorithms that computers are stupid (but fast), humans are smart (but slow). Put in another way, when looking at a single layout a human will make a better valuation of its strength than a computer, but a computer can produce and evaluate many, many more and is very useful indeed to find candidates for the human.

If you don't have a lot of time to subjectively try a layout, it can still be useful to be computer guided (eg. tell you of any same-finger problems) in case some problems escape your subjective test corpus.


Phynnboi said:

After a week with Colemak (which I concede is a superior layout), I maxed out at 35 WPM and was still having to labor over each key (well, except on the bottom).

You maxed out after a week? You mean to say that if you practiced Colemak for another year you would still be at 35 WPM?

Otherwise your layout seems to address the better part of the flaws of qwerty. From a casual inspection I pick up a few same-finger digraphs for de/ed, ce/ec, fr, gr, tr/rt, br (left hand), and lo/ol, nu/un, mu, hu (right hand). Better placement of e, t and perhaps n (your reasons for it staying nonwithstanding) would be adviced if you wanted to further enhance (and complicate) the layout.

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I don't know if I'd go as far as to say that humans are smart--they're the ones instructing the computers to do stupid things, after all.  ;)

Actually, I'd stalled at ~35 WPM with Colemak for a couple of days (16-24 out of 40 hours).  It was looking like it was going to take another 160 hours to get really comfortable with the layout with the way I was learning it, and it didn't really match the hype that led me to try it, so I gave up.  (I know, I know.)

Yeah, since the ASERTH layout doesn't move any characters off their QWERTY fingers, QWERTY's same-finger problem remains.  ED, FR, and LO are really annoying, and words like LIKE and SHOULD drive me up the wall.  On the whole, ASERTH is more elegant to type on than QWERTY.  However, I think that has the side-effect of making what awkward sequences there are really stick out.  With QWERTY, pretty much everything is awkward to type, so nothing really sticks out.

In the end, ASERTH was mostly an experiment to see if I could make an easy-to-learn layout for QWERTY typists (yes) and whether I'd find the increased home-row usage to be worthwhile (yes, to a degree).  It was also some insurance in case I couldn't make anything better (but I did).  I'd still recommend it to a QWERTY vet who wanted a taste of "the other side" without having to invest huge amounts of time into it, though.  As for me, I'm currently making the switch to a far smoother-feeling layout (which I haven't posted).

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What hype did you encounter that made you think a week of learning would be representative? None that I've seen I think. Sounds like you've been reading whatever 'hype' exists with your ADHD glasses on?  ;)

Sounds like you're one of those 'layout shoppers' who try (then generate and try) a multitude of layouts for a few weeks each, post a lot about them before leaving them and then only much later start to wonder what you've been missing. Or never even get that far. Not to judge you harshly, but that's the impression I'm getting here at least?

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Sounds like you're one of those 'layout shoppers' who try (then generate and try) a multitude of layouts for a few weeks each, post a lot about them before leaving them and then only much later start to wonder what you've been missing. Or never even get that far. Not to judge you harshly, but that's the impression I'm getting here at least?

I am starting to feel like a broken record, but again, I fully agree with you, my Scandinavian friend.

By all means, shop around, try each layout for a couple weeks. If you enjoy it, try creating your own that suits you the best - I don't think you'll manage dramatically better layouts than Dvorak or Colemak, but please do have a go if you have the inclination. Then pick one and stick with it for at least a year. When posting about the relative merits of a layout, if you haven't been using it for a goodly while you are not really in a position to pass judgment and you risk coming across as an unreliable source of opinion.

It's not entirely unlike playing the guitar for a week then declaring it didn't suit you, the piano is the better instrument. Sure, pick the piano - after all, it is a fine instrument - but unless you stick with it you will not learn any instruments at all.

Last edited by tomlu (22-Dec-2008 17:52:28)
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bsdhacker, don't you feel there is also a problem with the same-finger sequences ol, lo, op, po, ho? Their combined frequencies are more than that of ca/ac. I wonder if it is worth placing a more frequent letter under the pinkie by swapping O and R in order to reduce the same-finger problem in the middle. (That would also make ob/bo and possibly other things a little more difficult to type).

What bothers me in your layout is that XCV<> are kept in their QWERTY places. I would consider switching to a custom layout, but only if it is fully optimized for typing.

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I don't think they're in a bad place there, really. Don't get paranoid about keeping things in place - that's August Dvorak's little mistake if I may say so. If you have no better reason for worry than a vague feeling that things 'shouldn't' be kept in place then try to repress it for the sake of sanity.  ;)

The only thing I'd worry about are the CA and VO digraphs. Not so much fun in those positions, but I don't know exactly how common they are. But I'm starting to come to terms with the analogous (and thankfully quite rare) CS on Colemak these days - it's one of those digraphs that just call out for alternative fingering (I let the index finger slide in for the S).

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"Hype" may be a bit strong of a word, but basically, all the praise and attention the layout was getting (from here, hi-games, keybr, that DDvorak site, etc.), and how it was supposed to be so much more comfortable and elegant to type on than QWERTY, and how it was superior even to Dvorak, and how it had so many "finger rolls," and heck, even a Slashdot story.  This all lead me to believe switching to Colemak was going to be some kind of transcendent experience--that every word would flow sweetly from my fingers like honey and I'd immediately refuse to ever go back to QWERTY because Colemak was just OMG so much better.  What I actually experienced was a layout that was better thought-out than QWERTY, but that still had considerable awkwardness about it.  Common trigraphs like YOU, THE, AND, AST, ION, and ING were all rather awkward to type.  The right pinky finger was hammered (seriously, QWERTY got it wrong by putting A on the left pinky--why compound that by also putting O on the right pinky?  We're talking the 3rd and 4th most common letters on the two weakest fingers, here!  There's more to keyboard optimization than minimizing same-finger!)

Saying one should spend a whole year with something they're unimpressed with after 40 hours sounds like a common trick I've seen employed by fans of certain book, movie, and television series.  The argument is, dissenters don't appreciate the series simply because haven't spent as much time with it as the fans have.  The end goal is either to dismiss all dissenters (thus increasing the series's positive mindshare), or to get the dissenter to invest as much time into the series as the fan has (thus increasing that series's total mindshare).  Most recently, all the tween girls are using this argument with the Twilight series.  "Don't judge the series by the first book/movie!  You have to read all four books several times to really get it."  Yeah, right--let's all go through the motions of being fans of something we're not fans of.  *eye roll*

(Incidentally, I tried guitar for a week and was poor at it.  People served me up heaping pitchers full of that "you can't know after a week" Kool-aid and I, in my youthful naivete, drank it:  I went on to practice it for over a year, often several hours a day.  The end result?  I could (poorly) play parts of a few songs and a couple of box scales.  Technically, I was little better than I was after a week.  To this day I'm unable to reliably play the A-E-D-E open chord progression.  One week was more than enough to prove to me that I didn't have the fingers/touch/coordination/dexterity/whatever to be any good at the instrument, but I thought maybe the people telling me the grass was blue and the skies were green knew something I didn't.  Pfft.)

Personally, I think 40 hours is WAY more than enough time to develop a reasonable opinion about something as simple as a keyboard layout, especially one that's only 17 keys different from one you already know!  Heck, even a few minutes can tell you a lot.  Simply type some example passages as if on the new layout, but still using the old layout.  Then, go back and type the character sequences that resulted, using the layout you know.  That'll give you a pretty good idea of what the new layout would feel like were you proficient with it.  I like to start with the "man from Nantucket" limerick, since it's particularly awkward to type on QWERTY (and that's saying something).

Anyway, I'm not trying to rip on Colemak, here; I'm just trying to explain (and defend) my experience with it.  I have more respect for the layout than is coming through in this post:  If I saw no merit in the layout, I wouldn't be here.  (Although, perhaps like vVv, I think the whole ZXCV thing is a bit smoke and mirrors.  But then, I grew up old-school, when copy was CTRL+INS, cut was SHIFT+DEL, and paste was SHIFT+INS, and we liked it that way, because we selected text with the arrow keys, dammit!  Personally, I still do it that way; trying to select text with a mouse in Windows is like trying to herd cats across a frozen pond, especially when scrolling is involved!)

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Phynnboi said:

Common trigraphs like YOU, THE, AND, AST, ION, and ING were all rather awkward to type.

Actually, I find all those trigraphs quite efficient and comfortable.  In fact early on, I discovered that "ion" and "ing"  were two of my fastest and favorite sequences.  (really "tion" ).    However, that wasn't something I discovered in the first week or first 40 hours. 

comparing something involving motor leaning to tastes in passive entertainment doesn't exactly make much sense. 

While you are welcome to your view, I agree with DreymaR and you attitude to learning the guitar pretty much proves it.

I happened to learn guitar in my college years.  I learned piano in my 40's because I found someone to teach me in way that motivated me to learn. I am far from some natural talent. What mattered was not just time and practice, but continually looking to learn better ways to practice and learn more efficient.  Making sure I was practicing in a way that would foster progress, however slow or fast it might be at times.  The kool-aid you swallowed was that practice alone is enough.   

In most things, success lies just below frustration.  As a martial arts teacher, I have seen again and again people rationalize quitting in the way you have done.  I have seen others start with less ability and hit frustrations and push through. Some come in thinking they are going to be like Bruce Lee in a month and when reality sets in they look to lay blame for their expectations on the system rather than re-examining the realism of the view they brought in the door.   (in martial arts you find people jumping from art to art, school to school, never spending enough time to really get good at anything, though you can bet they can offer up detailed opinions about every art they have dabbled in and detailed rationalizations why they moved on).

It really doesn't come down to anything other than desire and attitude.   Just admit your desire to learn was so low that the first sign that it was NOT going to be like getting an instant download, you quit.  Consider you may simply  have read some enthusiasts who had a much higher desire to learn and therefore perceived the inevitable frustrations as relatively insignificant.

Last edited by keyboard samurai (23-Dec-2008 08:36:23)
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This does sound like a rationalisation to me. J. Pierpoint Morgan said people often have two reasons for most things - one that sounds good, and the real reason. In sales its called figuring out the hidden objection.

All the trigraphs you mention I think are supremely comfortable although I didn't like all of them at first. My right pinky does not get tired. At the risk of beating a dead horse, your experience is likely because you did not spend sufficient time to allow your motor skills and muscles to get accustomed.

Note that I never suggested, nor do I greatly care if you stick with Colemak. I adviced you should pick the one layout you fancy and stick with it. You're still welcome to post here about it once you have had time to form an opinion on it.

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Personally, I'd agree that Phynnboi's assessment of Colemak is a little premature. If you're using it full time, you won't make a great deal of headway in only a week no matter how much time you spend on it: you generally only get a couple of hours or so of improvement each day before the law of diminishing returns begins to set in.

However I agree with him that it shouldn't take anywhere near as long as a year to be able to come to an assessment of whether it's going to get you anywhere or not. Personally, I'd think that after a month, or at most six weeks, you should certainly be able to tell whether or not Colemak is right for you, even if you aren't quite up to full speed with it yet.

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However I agree with him that it shouldn't take anywhere near as long as a year to be able to come to an assessment of whether it's going to get you anywhere or not. Personally, I'd think that after a month, or at most six weeks, you should certainly be able to tell whether or not Colemak is right for you, even if you aren't quite up to full speed with it yet.

You are certainly right, and well put at that. Trying a layout for a month should be sufficient time to get at least a good idea if it's going to work out for you. Don't waste any more time than that at any single layout! Then pick one - whatever seemed to work best for you - and stick with it! (Or in your case - pick two!)

What I meant is that to become truly proficient in a layout I think you do have to stick to your guns for a year, and you will probably not realise your full potential until a few years in. People are definitely in a position to pick a good choice of layout for themselves much sooner, but if you want to opine about which layout is the best (and not just for you) then I think you had better have a lot more time to soak in the layout so you can say with confidence you know what you are talking about.

I am still picking up speed after a year. Speed seems to come in quanta of about 5 wpm every two or three months or so without me doing any particular practice or anything. I surpassed my (perhaps not so impressive 80 wpm) qwerty speed only fairly recently, and I wouldn't be surprised if I hit 100 wpm in another year or two. At the same time, I am still getting more and more comfortable with the layout. For me, it really does take time for the muscles and brain to mature, and I hazard to guess other people are the same.

I believe Dreymar has had a similar experience. He would have to verify this, but I seem to recall he was stuck at 50 wpm for several months and only recently jumped to 70 wpm.

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