A month of Colemak

I have been using Colemak for one month, so I thought it was a good moment to wrap up the experience so far and make some sort of summary. Things I have discovered:

  • Keyboard stickers are useful: I thought that I’d just learn the keymap and never look at the keyboard, so I wouldn’t need them. I was only partially right: not having stickers, sometimes I would look at they keyboard, and my brain would start doing calculations of equivalences like “J” (printed on the key, that is, in QWERTY) is “N” (in Colemak) and  so on, particularly for keyboard shortcuts. Having Colemak key stickers avoided me some brain damage and also helps me getting the “shape” of the keyboard in my brain.

  • I’m typing more slowly and with more mistakes than I expected after one month. I can think of a bunch of possible explanations, see below.

  • I’m a decent typist now in Colemak I think, probably faster than average/slow typists. I just used to be quite fast in QWERTY.

  • Learning the keymap itself is one thing, but to type fast your brain always has to be a couple of keys ahead of your fingers, so you need to learn letter clusters or even whole words. That’s what I had done in QWERTY really, and it’s most of what I’m currently missing in Colemak to be a fast typist: “spelling out” words is a very slow way of typing.

  • You have to relearn a bunch of keyboard shortcuts, and some of them aren’t Colemak-friendly (say, hjkl for moving in vim and less). It’s kind of a bummer, but nothing too serious.

  • When I type in a QWERTY keyboard it definitely feels much more “jumpy” and English words feel harder to write. I’m still using QWERTY for Spanish and Norwegian so I wouldn’t know about them (I used to have three keymaps: US QWERTY, Spanish QWERTY and Nowegian QWERTY; now I have simply changed the US QWERTY to standard Colemak).

  • I think Colemak is brilliantly designed, because it combines Dvorak’s good key distribution (for English), particularly the powerful home row, with QWERTY-like, shortcut-friendly features. When I compare to other alternative layouts, I realise that Colemak is not only designed for speed, but it’s very practical for the real (read: QWERTY) world.

  • If you are going to use Caps Lock as Ctrl in Colemak on Linux, and you have problems making the key just do Ctrl, instead of both Ctrl and Backspace, you might want to open /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/us and comment out the definition for “key ". That was the only way I could make it work.

So why do I think this hasn’t gone as quickly as I expected? My list of lame excuses is (lamest at the end):

  • With Colemak I learned “real” touch typing, something I had never learned and that wasn’t completely natural to me initially.

  • Part of that touch typing change was that I used to place my right hand incorrectly (with my index over QWERTY’s “h”, not QWERTY’s “j”). The reason was that I used vim, so I placed my right hand in position to cover hjkl, to move around easily.

  • I thought relearning vim would be a pain in the ass, so I decided to go ahead and learn Emacs. It might sound crazy, but I thought that keeping my muscle memory intact for vim/QWERTY, and develop my muscle memory for Emacs/Colemak would be easier than keeping both vim/QWERTY and vim/Colemak in my head.

  • I haven’t been a “good student” and I haven’t really “practised properly” (i.e. with KTouch) that much: I practised properly the first few days, then I just started using the keyboard as my main keyboard. That might have been an error.

  • Although that’s a quite recent change, I have started using Caps Lock as an extra Ctrl key (common for Emacs users to reduce hand movement). That involved more thinking and adapting.

  • I haven’t used Colemak exclusively really, because e.g. my phone has a QWERTY keyboard… until a couple of days ago, that I found a Colemak (and Dvorak) keymap for AnySoftKey. I have some issues with it so I might drop it from the phone, though.

  • I’m too old for this :-(

All in all, I’m quite happy that I switched to Colemak: it really feels easier on my fingers and now that I have “seen the light” it feels stupid to go back to bad old QWERTY (for English at least). I think I’ll retain most of my QWERTY skills anyway, as both keymaps don’t seem hard to keep in your head/fingers, so in the worst case I can just go back to QWERTY without much trouble. And I even learned Emacs in my journey!