Trying out Colemak

Written on 2022-03-26

I've recently tried out the Colemak keyboard layout, so I'm going to record my thoughts about it.

Why Colemak?

Most people never think about the keyboard layout that they use and just whatever is default in their country. Switching it has non-trivial implications, so it necessitates some motivation.

Why an alternative keyboard layout at all?

First because I was curious, having heard about allegedly "better" layout like Dvorak and Colemak. Repeatedly hearing their advocates tout their merits for years made me grabbed my attention and I wanted to forge my own opinion.

Also because I tend to be interested in whatever can relieve the natural friction that comes with dealing with computers. QWERTY was not designed for that, alternative layouts are; so I expected that it would have the potential to make my computing experience less painful (like Vim bindings or automatic window management).

Finally, I sometimes noticed some strain in my forearms and figured that not having to jump around my keyboard all day long might help mitigate that.

Why Colemak in particular?

I wanted to pick something mainstream enough that I would not need to worry about it being available on whatever platform I may have to use in the future, unless it had extremely convincing technical arguments. That already ruled out anything other than Dvorak and Colemak, provided that nothing would be a clear step up from those.

I wanted a layout that would have enough of a user base that I could do research on it and not just take it from the author that it was amazing. I would judge the arguments myself, of course, but knowing nothing about the subject at first, I wanted a significant sample of both favorable and unfavorable opinions and analysis to review.

Somewhat decent hjkl placement was a requirement (I don't want to fine tune my Vim movement with opposite pinkies).

Since I was not convinced by Workman and the nicher options, I decided to pick between Dvorak and Colemak. Finger rolls sounded better than alternating hands to me and I appreciated the easier onboarding, so I picked Colemak.

I expected some ramp-up time and to have to address some shortcut/binding problems at some point, but also to eventually stick with it after my trial period. My goal was to get comfortable enough with it to form an informed opinion, however long it may take.

The good

I learned the layout much quicklier than I anticipated: within a week, I could type at 50 words per minute with over 95% accuracy. This is enough for me to be productive at work and to feel comfortable with the layout. The first days were a little frustrating given how some letters like s or u move just enough to be confusing, but that was mostly gone after a few hours of practice.

I quickly adapted to the new positions of my shortcuts (window management, shell, applications) and found that they were not particularly worse than in QWERTY, which was a surprise (this was without a doubt in no small part due to the low number of keys moved from QWERTY and keeping the zxcv cluster untouched). Even Vim wasn't that bad: besides the single-finger hjkl (which I don't overuse anyways), it was mostly rewiring my muscle memory. The actual positions were not worse and mnemonics go a long way to migrate.

Typing was overall more relaxed as I left the home row a lot less, although I felt that when I did need to leave it, it actually felt more jarring than in QWERTY (likely because it stood out more). The same applies to the inner columns of the home row.

The bad

Unfortunately there were quite a few drawbacks to switching layouts and although I anticipated most of them, they affected me more than I initially expected.

First off, it makes my setup more complicated. Switching is not so bad, but having to sometimes figure out what layout is in use to type or enter a password irks me a lot.

I mostly type on my own machines, but sometimes having to need to use others' QWERTY and AZERTY keyboards for short bursts is really annoying, because it is not worth switching the layout (when possible and socially acceptable) and the context switch is too great for me to be able to not type gibberish immediately.

While my hands moved a lot less for sure, I am not sure that I actually prefer it. It is a little more comfortable, but my hands also feel more lethargic. Also, all the common keys being on the home row means that they become sort of a blur, they don't have any flavor/personality compared to QWERTY, which feels frustrating and less satisfying to me, negating the nice rolls that Colemak enables. I expect that this would change with more experience, but I expected a better feel from typing.

I knew going in that Colemak wouldn't be perfect, which is why mods and other layouts exist. Still, 2 things annoyed me a little bit:

Colemak remains a lot better than QWERTY overall of course, but still having those annoyances after such a big commitments was frustrating.

Colemak does not help for typing anything other than English. It is not worse either and definitely not advertised, but still diminishes the advantages overall, for me.

Overall, I find that Colemak increases friction for me, rather than lowers it, if only because I need think about it. On the other hand, QWERTY just disappears, and like most other people, I can forget that it is even a thing.


In the end, I went back to QWERTY. I would have switched permanently if I was convinced I would do so eventually or if it was worthwhile, but that wasn't clear to me. In the end, the nagging feeling of "I could use something better" is less annoying than "I need to drag this around and deal with edge cases" would be. I should note that I don't think that my conclusion would have been any different had I picked another layout instead.

I may change my mind in the future if I experience too much strain in the future, as I would rather have to deal with Colemak than RSI. In the meantime, there are other ergonomic improvements that I can implement that are less invasive.


While I couldn't type anything other than gibberish in QWERTY when I was using Colemak, it only took me 15 minutes to almost completely switch back. After only a few hours, I started to feel strain in my forearms again, which confirms that alternative layouts can have a very direct and noticeable impact on typing comfort and health. For the time being, I'll remain with QWERTY, but I'm glad that I have first-hand experience with an alternative, which I know I can reach if I ever need to.