Saturday, 27 September 2014

Top 3 tips for an improved typing experience - part 2

Continuing my top 3 ideas for improving typing comfort and effectiveness, here is my next useful tip.

There are many computer users out there who have decided that the CapsLock key is a waste of a perfectly good key position. It's situated within easy reach of the left pinky on the home row, but for most typists, is rarely used.

Some folks have remapped their CapsLock key to some other function, such as an extra Control or Shift key. The Colemak keyboard layout, which I have recently started to use, remaps it to an extra Backspace key by default. These ideas are all excellent suggestions, but I have started to use a new setup, which I have found to be better still...

Tip #2 - Set up a navigation layer via the CapsLock key.

This idea is similar to and inspired by DreymaR's Extend Layer, but this version is implemented entirely using AutoHotkey.
Holding down CapsLock makes available editor functions.

By holding down CapsLock while pressing other keys, a new layer becomes available, much like my previously mentioned AltGr setup. The difference is the CapsLock layer provides navigation features such as arrow keys, home, end, page up/down, backspace/delete - all without the need to move your hands away from the home position on the keyboard. The navigation keys are situated in a similar layout to the usual configuration of the arrow keys, making it easy to learn and very natural.

It also defines accessible additional shift and control within the layer to allow easy selection and editing of text. For example, Ctrl-Left (back one word) can be typed using only centre-row keys. For additional ease-of-use, common control-shortcuts such as copy, cut, paste, and undo are duplicated in this layer.
And of course, for those occasions where you do genuinely need to type a lot of capital letters, you needn't completely lose the Caps function, as it has been remapped to AltGr+CapsLock.

The real benefit to this configuration, is once you have adapted to it, it allows very fast and efficient editing operations, regardless of the editor software being used. It avoids the need to switch the right hand between the home position and the arrow key block, resulting in less movement and a more comfortable experience for the right hand.

To try it out for yourself, download the CapsLayer AHK script.

Coming soon... Tip #3...

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Top 3 tips for an improved typing experience - part 1

Recently I became interested making my typing experience more comfortable and efficient. To this end I started looking at alternative keyboard layouts, but as a side effect of this, have along they way realized there many improvements that can be made even to a standard keyboard.

If you are looking to make your typing more productive, but don't want to do anything so drastic as learn a new layout, then there are still plenty of handy optimizations you can make.

Here are 3 useful ideas for improving typing comfort, speed and effectiveness.

#1 Set up a custom layer via the AltGr key.

Make commonly used but difficult-to-access keys easier to type.

Ideal candidates for this are hyphen -, underscore _, equals =, plus +, and brackets { ( [ ] ) }. This is likely to benefit programmers especially, who often need to type non-alphabetic characters such as symbols and brackets. These characters are in difficult to reach positions at the top and right of a standard Qwerty keyboard, but can be made extremely easy and comfortable to type by assigning them to easy-to-reach keys in combination with your AltGr (or Right-Alt) key.

Keyboard mappings for the AltGr key.
Shown above my current AltGr keyboard mapping, implemented with the very useful AutoHotkey tool. To try it for yourself install AutoHotkey and use the AltGr Programmer script.

The AltGr key can usually be held down with the right thumb while the secondary key is pressed, all with the hands in the standard typing position. This enables many characters to be typed quickly and comfortably without awkward wrist movements or stretching the over-used right pinky finger. This simple remapping should make typing more comfortable, especially for those who are touch-typists.

Note, the AltGr key is by default used to type accented or other characters in non-English speaking countries. If this is the case you may need to be more selective in which keys and characters you want to reconfigure. In my setup, I have incorporated much of the US international layout so that many accented characters and symbols can be typed if required (eg via dead keys, indicated by light blue highlighing). I find that in practice though, the real benefit in everyday keyboard use comes from the easier to access characters which are now on my middle row: - _ { ( [ ] ) } = +

Next: Tip #2

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Colemak keyboard layout - post-switch results

It's now about 3 months since I switched to using the Colemak keyboard layout, so for the benefit of anyone thinking of doing the same, here is a update on my progress and some thoughts on the switching process.

As far as typing speed is concerned, I am now able to type pretty much at the same speed as I could before the switch - around the 50wpm mark according to typing tests. The key difference is though, that my typing has become an easier and more pleasant experience, with less stretching of fingers, and I am now using a much improved touch-typing technique. Nevertheless I am still seeing gradual improvements, and expect to surpass my previous ability in due course.

My keyboard as it now looks - thanks to some inexpensive stickers!

I had first learned to type using Qwerty, around 30 years ago, in a haphazard way, never adopting the recommended touch-typing technique. Qwerty itself is partly to blame, as it does not really encourage good practice, with its commonly needed keys such as T, E, I and O away from the "home" positions. With Colemak on the other hand, with the most common keys right under your fingers, and its careful avoidance of same finger key pairs, it practically forces you into typing correctly.

So for me, part of the process of learning Colemak, has meant being much more disciplined about using the proper technique. I have spent many hours over the last few months doing typing exercises to hone my skills. Some useful websites for this purpose are 10fastfingers, and TypeRacer.

It has to be said, I went through a difficult and painful time in those early weeks. This is not entirely due to having to learn a new, unfamiliar layout, but having to use fingers that had rarely been used in my hunt-and-peck days - especially my ring fingers. The upshot of this is when you suddenly need to type something quickly, it can be frustrating, knowing you have effectively lost a skill you've been able to take for granted for years.

Fortunately, the painful period is fairly short, and within a few weeks my ability to type was back up to a reasonable speed, if still not quite as fast as before, but with consistently growing speed, accuracy and comfort.

One criticism of Colemak is that despise its superficial similarity with Qwerty and claim of being easy to learn, in practice it is still a significant undertaking. Some of the layout changes it makes, such moving the S key, and arguably the G key also, do end up making the transition more difficult for new users for only modest improvements in the various optimization metrics. Some also complain it puts much emphasis on the central column, causing excessive lateral wrist movement -  due to the placement of common keys D and H. I also found this to be the case initially, but eventually became adapted to it.

A possible easier-to-learn Colemak variant which keeps 12 letter-keys in their Qwerty positions rather than standard Colemak's 10, including the difficult S.

Ultimately though, there's no such thing as the perfect layout, and all layouts are about compromise, having to balance competing objectives. And it seems harsh to overplay Colemak's minor weaknesses after living with the truly awful Qwerty for many years. Colemak is still in my view the best all-round optimized, well-supported layout.

Judging from other's experiences in the Colemak forum, it also appears to be the case that those Qwerty users who already have a good touch-typing technique can usually pick up the new layout much more quickly and easily than those of us who had to learn the proper technique simultaneously.

So the big question is: Is it worth the switch?

I would say, if you tend only to use computers that you have control over, and if you anticipate doing a lot of typing during the rest of your life, then the answer is certainly a Yes! Of course, there is an uncomfortable transitional period lasting a few weeks, which is the biggest barrier to entry, and there's no easy way of getting around that. But if you persevere, you will reap the benefits of using a comfortable, optimized, ergonomic layout for the rest of your life! So I say Go Colemak!