Just watch how your fingers fly

If you want to speed up your typing, try changing key, says Joseph Gallivan

It took me 103 seconds to write this sentence. Why? After 10 years of hunt-and-peck typing that long ago reached its terminal velocity of 30 words per minute, I yesterday switched to the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard layout, which is designed for comfortable, fast typing. Five words per minute may seem like a drop in efficiency - I could probably do better with my left foot - but I expect to get faster.

The traditional Qwerty keyboard layout was designed in 1872 to slow down the typist's fingers in order to prevent the keys of the Shoales typewriter from jamming. Yet here we are in the digital era and the Qwerty arrangement is still standard on English language keyboards.

The Simplified Keyboard layout was designed in 1936 by two efficiency experts - August Dvorak and William Dealey. The home keys are the letters that make up 70 per cent of English words (compared with 31 per cent for Qwerty), the middle line reading "aoeuidhtns". This gives you the five vowels on your left hand, and the five most commonly used consonants on your right. Also, you set up a pleasant typing rhythm. There are only a few words that require one-hand typing with the Dvorak layout ("Papaya" is the longest) but there are thousands of words in Qwerty that require one-hand typing - aftertaste, exaggerated, minimum, opinion, etc.

According to Dr Scot Ober, the Dvorak layout has 35 per cent more right-hand reaches than Qwerty, 63 per cent more same-row reaches, 45 per cent more alternate-hand reaches and 37 per cent less finger travel. It is thought that continual reaching by the fingers, and the action of hovering over keys in expectation of using them again, contributes to Repetitive Strain Injury.

This should inspire employers that do not like paying compensation to employees who claim they can't work because of RSI. All they have to do is reconfigure the staff's keyboards, then sit back and watch productivity rise. Of course, it will drop first, but the Simplified Keyboard is easy to learn, and provides a good opportunity for two-fingered typists to finally face the touch-typing demon. Having all the vowels in a row helps a lot when you are still mentally spelling out words. Also, those useless letters, such as Q, J, V and Z are relegated to the bottom corners where they belong, hidden by your hands. Dvorak even created two variations for one-handed typists, left and right, on which people have attained speeds of 50 wpm.

Reconfiguring your keyboard is very easy. Users of Windows 3.0 and above simply need look in the control panel (in Programme Manager, then double click on the International icon. "US-Dvorak" is listed with the foreign language layouts in the selection window. Select it, OK it, and it's done. Switching back is as easy.

Next you have to alter the keys themselves, either with stickers or by moving the keys around. You can get stickers from the Hooleon Corporation ($22 plus postage - they include Dorak and Qwerty symbols), Keytime ($12.50), or you can buy a Dvorak Conversion Kit from Key Tronic Corporation. For $45 you get the necessary keytops, a keytop removal tool, installation instructions and a detailed layout chart.

Using an IBM (ThinkPad) keyboard I was able to remove my keytops. They rest on what look like tiny deck chairs, which can be snapped in and out of place. Hooleon sells a tool for this, but I couldn't wait and managed with the tip of a metal nail file. Since the three keys around the pointing device are slightly scalloped and couldn't be replaced, I made my own covers for six keys with paper, glue and a felt-tipped pen.

For DOS users (versions 5.0 to 6.22) Microsoft makes the MS-Dos Supplemental Disk, which contains several utility files including the Dvorak keyboard layouts. You can download it from ftp://ftp.microsoft.com/softlib/mslfiles/DOS62SP.EXE.

Macs do not package Dvorak with other international keyboard layouts. However, a Dvorak Keyboard Layout can be downloaded free from CompuServe's software library. Go MACFF and search on the word Dvorak. Add this to your system folder.

With the Dvorak utility installed, you can switch layouts from the Keyboard utility in your control panel. A software enhancement to the System File, MacQwerty, costs $45 from Nisus Software, California. MacQwerty includes the keyboard overlay stickers.

The great hurdle to switching layouts is the initial disorientation. Having to hunt for every single letter every single time was excruciating. It felt as though my brain normally had 32Mb of RAM to play with, but now it was reduced to 1Mb. But I persevered, and I can proudly say this sentence took just 36 seconds to write.

Dvorak International (Non-profit group), 001 (802)287-2343. e-mail:DvorakInt@AOL.COM. http://www.cs.washington.edu/homes/dylan/ DvorakIntl.html

Key Tronic, Europe: 00 353 42 38100, fax: +353 42 38309.

Hooleon Corporation: 001 (520) 634 7515, fax: (520) 634 4620.

Keytime: 001 (206) 522-8973, fax: (206) 524-2238

Also see Dr William Gassie's Web page: http:// www.voicenet.com/grassie

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