I’ve been happily using the Dvorak keyboard layout for more than 25 years. I switched because I thought typing faster would be a benefit in my career. I can type faster, and it also reduces the strain on my wrists. It does have some drawbacks though. If you had asked me before writing this post I would have told you that I love it, but now I’m not so sure.

How I switched

It seems pretty reckless in retrospect, but I was young then, and it seemed like a good idea. So one day I decided to go for it. I changed the keyboard setting and dropped suddenly from about 60 words per minute to less than 1.

If that wasn’t jarring enough, I decided to also break my hunt-and-peck typing habit at the same time. I had an older mechanical keyboard with a uniform key size, so I was able to re-arrange the key covers. I moved all of them into random positions except F and J because of their little bumps that are essential for touch typing. This way I had no choice but to memorize the new positions. It was disruptive and frustrating, but it was also very effective.

I was up to a workable speed after a couple of days. I could match my QWERTY speed after a couple of weeks.

Once I was comfortably using the new layout, I moved all the key covers to their positions in the Dvorak layout, including F and J. A dot of epoxy on the new starting keys (U and J) allowed me to keep touch typing.

Faster typing & reduced wrist strain

I can type faster with the Dvorak layout, and considerably faster than most of my peers. I don’t measure often, but I have recorded myself at 160 words per minute. I can only approach these speeds when I’ve been writing a lot of text for several days in a row, which hasn’t happened very often. It turns out that typing fast doesn’t actually help me much at all.

Almost all of my typing as a programmer is in short spurts. An email here, a chat message there. Writing source code is not much faster on Dvorak because of all the symbol characters used. I am not a slow programmer, but typing speed only becomes a limiting factor when I’m writing the kind of low-value boilerplate code I should be avoiding in the first place.

The most helpful benefit I got from switching was learning to touch type, but that doesn’t require a switch to the Dvorak layout.

The biggest benefit I get from the layout itself is reduced wrist strain. The more efficient layout means my fingers don’t need to move as much. It’s hard to quantify the improvement, but even as an invincible teenager, I noticed it immediately.

Availability of Dvorak layouts

When it comes to using a computer, the Dvorak layout has been implemented pretty much everywhere. Even in the early 90s, it was readily available on Windows, Linux, and Apple systems.

There are also keyboards that can do the mapping at the physical level. The one I tried had a switch that alternated between QWERTY and Dvorak. The computer it was attached to would have no idea when you were using Dvorak. Although these eliminate some mapping problems, I don’t find them that helpful. I also don’t want to carry a special keyboard around wherever I want to type.

I have tried printing the Dvorak layout onto my keyboards, but this has also been impractical. I have yet to find an ink or paint that can withstand more than a month of typing. I don’t look at the keys when typing, so even if I did, it wouldn’t help me. It might help a stranger using my computer, but it would still be excruciatingly difficult for them. If someone else needs to use my computer the first thing they should do is change the layout back to QWERTY.

I don’t bother with any of this nowadays. I have a normal QWERTY keyboard on my laptop, using just the Dvorak setting in the OS.

QWERTY is inescapable

There are keyboards everywhere nowadays, physical and virtual, and almost all are in the QWERTY layout. I have one on my phone, one on my TV’s menu, one on my gaming console, and even one on my printer. Most of these devices have no way to change the layout.

I occasionally want to use a computer that isn’t my own, such as when I’m pair programming, or helping my dad with his computer. I could change the layout in these cases, but it’s often too much of a nuisance.

For these reasons, I had to re-learn how to type on QWERTY shortly after switching to Dvorak. I’m unsure how or why, but I developed an ability to use both depending on where I’m looking - QWERTY if I’m looking at the keyboard or Dvorak if I’m looking away. It’s as if I have two different sets of muscle memory for typing and my eyes control which is engaged. This has been a benefit, but it causes some weird side effects too.

The most bizarre is that I find it nearly impossible to use shortcut keys one-handed because I have trouble finding the Drovak letter if I need to look at the keys. Apple computers have a layout called “Dvorak - QWERTY ⌘” that switches the layout back to QWERTY for command sequences. It solves the problem, but it isn’t available in Windows.

I use the QWERTY layout on touch screens like my phone for the same reason, even though the Dvorak layout is often available. It was even worse back when I was using a Microsoft Surface; because I sometimes had a physical keyboard, I had to change the layout back and forth whenever I needed the touch keyboard.

Cut, Copy, and Paste

One of the most infuriating challenges with the Dvorak layout has to be the shortcut keys for Cut, Copy, and Paste. X, C and V are excellent keys for QWERTY users because you can press them easily using only your left hand. This is especially great if you use your mouse with your right hand. On the Dvorak layout, C is where the QWERTY I is, and V is where the QWERTY period key is. This is a significant disadvantage.

I can switch back to QWERTY temporarily if I have a lot of pasting to do, but I’ll invariably need to modify a couple of words here or change the punctuation there. Switching back and forth constantly doesn’t end up being easier.

Login screens and shared sessions

Login screens on shared computers can be a real pain. It was an advantage at first - it was a fantastic way to stop my sister from using my computer when we lived with our parents - but it is much less useful in the workplace.

The behaviour is different in every operating system and often inconsistent. For example, if you lock your session in Windows, the unlock screen will use the keyboard layout of the session you locked. If you reboot your computer instead, the login screen will use the system default.

Most modern operating systems don’t require typing a username when logging in. This means the only characters you type are masked password characters, so you often can’t tell when the layout is wrong. Newer operating systems show the layout on the login screen, but the indicator is too subtle, even when I know to look for it. I often don’t check the layout until after one or two failed attempts. In a strict workplace, it doesn’t take very many before an account gets locked.

Another variation of this crops up when connecting to remote computers or virtual machines. Every technology can be different, but most transmit the hardware key codes rather than the ASCII character values. This means you must change the OS-level layout setting on the system you’re connecting to.

Windows Remote Desktop (RDP) sets the layout for you when you start a session. It takes the value from the session where you start the RDP client, which is usually helpful. However, it doesn’t change automatically when you connect to an existing session, nor does it switch back to the system default when you leave a session idle. If I’m sharing an account with someone (for example, a test server on a local network; sharing accounts in production is bad!), I could get either keyboard layout when I connect. I am used to dealing with this, but it has wasted a lot of time for my colleagues when they’ve intercepted my old sessions.

Video games

Some video games suffer from a similar problem. Games from the olden days tended to work on hardware key codes, but newer web-based games usually use ASCII codes. A and D for left and right is universal, but it sucks on a Dvorak layout. The A is in the same place, but the D is over in the same position as the QWERTY H. Don’t even get me started on W and S. The best way to deal with this is to change the keyboard mappings in the game, but I usually switch the keyboard layout back to QWERTY because it’s easier.

Video games with in-game text chat are the most difficult. I need to be in QWERTY mode to play, then switch back to Dvorak mode to write a message. To make matters worse, the newer language/layout switcher (Windows + Space) thrusts you out of full-screen games because it has a dialog window. Some games handle both gracefully (using ASCII codes for text and key codes for gameplay), but it’s not universal.

Japanese IME and the Dvorak layout

Another unusual drawback appeared when I started learning Japanese. Japanese mixes 4 alphabets: the Latin alphabet, two phonetic alphabets with 46 characters each, and about 100,000 characters imported from traditional Chinese. A keyboard with every possible character would be obviously impractical, so text is written phonetically and converted as you go. This is done with an IME (Input Method Editor), an operating system feature that intercepts keystrokes and translates them into the appropriate characters.

Because the IME is a kind of keyboard itself, it replaces the keyboard mapping. This means there is no built-in way to use the Dvorak layout with Japanese writing. It used to be possible to change a registry key to replace the keyboard layout, but this option seems to no longer work with the updated Japanese IME that ships with Windows 11. There are instructions available to use the old IME, but who knows how long that’ll be available.

Typing Japanese via the QWERTY layout is painful for me. The IME is constantly popping up suggestions, and since I can’t touch type on the QWERTY layout, I have to keep looking up and down to use it properly. This is no longer much of a problem for me since I’ve stopped practicing Japanese, but it would be if I ever picked it back up. This is one of the few reasons I would consider a physical Dvorak keyboard.

Final thoughts

I am surprised by what I’ve written. I had imagined a small blurb about how I switched and then re-sharing the Japanese IME registry hack (which I’ve since discovered no longer works). I did not realize I had so much to say about my experiences! Would I recommend the Dvorak layout to others? No, I would not, and it surprises me that I say that. I can’t even think of a situation where the benefits would be important enough to justify the disadvantages.

Would I recommend Dvorak users switch back to QWERTY? I feel a sadness I don’t understand when I consider the answer for myself, but I think the answer is yes.