QWERTY vs Dvorak. This is not a boxing match. It’s about the two main types of keyboards that exist and that since a long time ago have started to fight each other to see which one of them is the favorite of all the people that have something to write every day.
It is quite possible that the keyboard of the device you are reading this article from is a QWERTY keyboard. This type of keyboard layout has become the industry standard and accompanies us in all our devices, but what people usually don’t know is that there is a whole world of alternatives.
The most prominent of these alternatives is the Dvorak keyboard, which was designed not for traditional typewriters, but to facilitate faster, more comfortable typing with fewer errors, or at least that’s what the Dvorak keyboard promises.
This is how QWERTY was born
The first typewriters began to appear on the market in 1860. In those early models the layout was similar to that of pianos, but those designs evolved to make typing soon faster than handwriting.
The problem with those typewriters with mechanical systems was that each of the keys caused the letter to be printed to occupy the same space with another one pressed at the same time. This made it difficult to write even faster and caused “jams” that had to be repaired manually.
That’s how Christopher Latham Sholes ended up creating the QWERTY keyboard, where the key layout was the most important thing. To avoid these jams, Sholes created a “keyboard map” that separated the keys that appeared most frequently in a text as much as possible.
That allowed those keyboard jams to be effectively reduced, which in turn allowed the typing speed to increase. However, there is another theory that says that the keyboard was created to favor telegraph employees who were the first to use these typewriters.
Be that as it may, QWERTY keyboards soon gained popularity, which caused all manufacturers to start using them on their machines. Included among those typewriters was the Remington Standard 2 of 1878, the first typewriter with a Shift key to be able to quickly switch to this typeface when needed.
The success of that keyboard layout was absolute, and soon QWERTY keyboards became the industry standard, something that became even more apparent with the advent of the first personal computers. That layout ended up on the keyboards of our PCs, laptops, and of course, the virtual keyboards of our smartphones and tablets.
Looking for alternatives: Dvorak enters the scene
The problem is that QWERTY keyboards were designed for traditional typewriters with their mechanical systems, not for today’s computer keyboards where that layout need not be the most suitable.
That is precisely what a number of different keyboard layouts that have appeared over the past few decades have tried to demonstrate. Many are related to the language and the country they are aimed at, but others are not, and in fact the most relevant of these is the one corresponding to the Dvorak keyboard.
The Dvorak keyboard was invented in 1936 by August Dvorak. The goal was very different from that of the QWERTY keyboard. Dvorak keyboards were designed to improve the speed of typing on these keyboards, as well as to minimize errors and minimize finger movement, which can lead to hand injuries.
In Dvorak, the most commonly used keys are in the middle row of the keyboard, with vowels on the left and consonants on the right. In this keyboard layout, 70% of the keys pressed are on that row, while 22% are on the top row and 8% on the bottom row. In the case of QWERTY the central row occupies 32% of the keystrokes by 52% of the upper row and 16% of the lower row.
If you want to try Dvorak, you can do it now
The easiest way to test Dvorak is to use a mechanical keyboard where you can change the keys to fit the layout you want, because most operating systems also allow us to use this keyboard layout without problems.
The problem with switching to this type of keyboard is that you have to get used to the new layout, which can take weeks or even months. It usually takes months for a user to achieve the same typing speed they might have with a QWERTY keyboard if they decide to move to a Dvorak keyboard, but then there is the reality of an industry that has accepted QWERTY keyboards completely, such as the gaming industry.
The keyboard shortcuts suddenly change position, so the other option is to simply use a physical QWERTY keyboard but use it as a Dvorak keyboard thanks to the use of software, where the keyboard will continue to display the key labels as if it were a QWERTY, but the actual layout will be Dvorak, and we can easily return to the conventional keyboard if we need it.
QWERTY vs Dvorak, the debate is served
Although Dvorak keyboards seem to be more consistent in trying to type faster with these keyboards, there has always been a debate about whether that goal was actually achieved and the difference was as significant as the manufacturer claimed.
In studies such as the one conducted by two researchers from the IBM Research Laboratory, “none of the alternatives have shown a really significant advantage over QWERTY for general-purpose scenarios”.
There doesn’t even seem to be a clear improvement in the area of ergonomics or writing speed. In this respect, Stella Pajunas-Garnand managed to reach 216 words per minute in 1946 with an IBM Electric with a QWERTY layout. The Guinness record is held by Barbara Blackburn, who with a Dvorak keyboard managed to maintain a speed of 150 words per minute during 50 minutes, and who reached peaks of 212 words per minute.
Speeds of 241.82 words per minute have been observed in online tests on QWERTY keyboards, but these are one-minute tests, and in any case the keyboard layout does not appear to favor speed, although proponents of both layouts often argue in favor of each. And it’s hardly logical. Those who are used to typing with a QWERTY keyboard will prefer it over a Dvorak keyboard and the same goes for the reverse.
In Dvorak we even find some variants like the one for programmers, where the symbols and numbers change position. This is the simplified version, which is the standard on the Dvorak keyboard, but there are even variants for left and right-handed users that also place certain keys more favorably for these users, depending on which hand is dominant when typing.
Compared to Dvorak and QWERTY there are somewhat less known alternatives such as the Colemak keyboards, which are especially oriented to those people who only write in English. On websites such as Keyboard Layout Analyzer there are curious comparisons with keyboard scores that would best suit different classic texts (such as ‘Alice in Wonderland‘), and the results are certainly surprising.
In fact, the experiences of those who switch to the Dvorak keyboard indicate that they do notice an improvement in their typing speed. Some users talk about an increase of up to 40% in speed, but what Dvorak users really boast about is the comfort they appreciate when typing with these keyboards. However, there is a basic guideline to follow for each person: if you are already happy with the keyboard layout you use for typing, don’t change it.