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Using the Dvorak Layout with a Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard

written by: Lamar Stonecypher•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 5/6/2009

Which keyboard is best for quick, reliable typing and avoiding wrist pain? Is it a Microsoft ergonomic keyboard, a Dvorak layout, or both combined? Here we look at the Dvorak design and the progress of Microsoft's ergonomic keyboards.

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    In July 1944, the U.S. Navy decided to address a problem that bedeviled them: they had a lot of lousy typists. August Dvorak, PhD, was a Commander in the Navy at that time. He had patented a simplified keyboard layout in 1932 that was designed to decrease same-hand typing, finger velocity and travel, and operator fatigue. The Navy decided to put Dr. Dvorak's theory to test. They selected fourteen lousy typists (average speed 32 words per minute) to retrain to see if they would be faster and more accurate using Dvorak's layout. It took 52 hours of retraining for the typists to regain their original speed. 31 hours later, they were typing at 56 words per minute, which was a 75 percent increase. Dr. Dvorak's theory was that a properly designed keyboard would

    • Balance the load between the left and right hands
    • Maximize the usage of the home row and home position
    • Maximize the frequency of alternating hand responses
    • Minimize the frequency of same-finger typing

    In 1996, I read about the Dvorak keyboard layout and decided to try switching over. At that time, I was using an old, noisy keyboard that came with an IBM PC that I purchased in the early 90s. Figure 1 below shows what a Dvorak layout looks like on a standard keyboard.

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    Dvorak Layout

    The Dvorak Keyboard
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    My Experiences with the Dvorak Layout

    I found a freeware typing tutor and dedicated a couple of hours per day to switching over. This was the first real effort I'd put into improving my typing speed and accuracy since high school, and it worked. At the end of the month, I was typing 85 words per minute without errors.

    Typing using the Dvorak layout is like alternate strumming - sequences in English text move from hand to hand and form patterns or waves that one can feel and see.

    Is it really better? Let's try an experiment. Let's look at this well-known text:

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

    This sentence from the United States Declaration of Independence contains 178 characters (excluding spaces) which can be typed. Let's compare using a Dvorak layout and a QWERTY layout. We'll look at frequency of handedness, frequency of row used, and which characters required a displacement of the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth fingers from the home row.

    56% of all keystrokes were typed by the right hand using the Dvorak layout. 71% of the keystrokes were in the home row, 23% were in the top row, and 6% were in the bottom row. 17% of keystrokes required displacement from the home row.

    Using the QWERTY layout, 38% of the characters were typed by the right hand. 32% of keystrokes were in the home row, 52% were in the top row, and 14% were in the bottom row. 27% of the characters required displacement from the home row.

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    Wrist and Finger Pain

    In 1999, I bought a touring bicycle and rode it 5,000 miles that year. This was pretty tough on my wrists (due to my poor technique), and it became painful to use my keyboard. Seeking some relief, I looked at the Microsoft Ergonomic split keyboards.

    I eventually bought a "Natural Multimedia" keyboard. It came with a CD that installed the "Intellitype" driver that allowed the PC to use the special buttons on the keyboard. This keyboard was heavy, bulky, and a joy to type on. I bought two of them. On each, the front-mounted folding legs promptly broke off. They were also very noisy.

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    Microsoft Natural Multimedia Keyboard

    Natural Multimedia Keyboard circa 1999
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    Microsoft Natural Elite Ergonomic Keyboard

    My next keyboard was the "Natural Elite," which is still being sold as this is written. This keyboard is smaller than the Mulitimedia or its predecessor, the "Natural Pro". It's lightweight and tends to skid around if used on a very smooth surface. It also has an odd arrangement of the arrow buttons with the up and down keys bracketing the left and right keys rather than the inverted t-shape.

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    Natural Elite Keyboard

    Microsoft Natural Elite Keyboard
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    Next: Needless Design Changes, the Natural Ergonomic 4000 Features, and Summary

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    Continuing the review of using the Dvorak Keyboard layout with a Microsoft ergonomic split keyboard, we look at the model changes and the evolution of the Microsoft keyboard line up to the current "Natural Ergonomic 4000" model that comes in stylish black, but that isn't overly reliable.Microsoft ergonomic keyboards, natural elite, Dvorak layout, wrist pain
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    Needless Design Changes

    Microsoft hasn't minded "messing with" the layout of the Home-key block. On the Multimedia, the Delete button was huge. On the Elite, it is shrunken, but the keyboard now puts the Insert button down in the group. On the Multimedia, it was a third function of the PrtScn/SysReq key! The F-Lock button, which toggles the top row between F1, F2, etc. and the special functions, is disabled by default on this keyboard. So if you're accustomed to using the function buttons in your favorite application, this will annoy you until you learn to press the F-lock button each time you start your computer.

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    Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000 Keyboard

    My current keyboard is the "Natural Ergonomic 4000." Actually, it's my second one. The first died right before a business trip in December 2007. This keyboard is quieter than the previous models and has a different feel in the key return. I first thought that this would be an issue, but I got used to it. The left, right, and up and down buttons are back in the inverted-tee, and Microsoft has messed with the Home-key block again. They are now in a horizontal row with Insert and Delete on the nearer end. The wrist guard now has a soft, leather like texture that is quite comfortable. Thankfully, the keyboard now remembers the status of the F-lock button and it persists after restarts.

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    Natural Ergonomic 4000 Keyboard

    Natural Ergonomic 4000
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    Features of the Ergonomic 4000

    The 4000 has five programmable buttons along the top row that can be assigned to "Favorites." A Favorite can be the path to a program, a Web page, or a file. Strangely, they cannot be assigned to folders. Below is a screen shot of the control panel.

    Rounding out the other top row buttons are Home, Search, Mail, Mute, Volume minus and positive, Play/Pause, and Calculator.

    The keyboard also has a zoom slider in the space between the split. It has the same effect (in compatible programs like Firefox, Word, and WordPad) as pressing Ctrl + scroll with the mouse.

    One negative note about the 4000 is that the key labels are poorly printed. The S, D, F, K, and L keys have all rubbed smooth already, and this keyboard is only a few months old.

    The figures below show the Zoom settings and Favorites settings in the keyboard control panel.

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    Settings for the Ergonomic 4000

    Intellitype Zoom SettingsIntellitype Favorites Button Settings
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    So are the Dvorak keyboard layout and the Microsoft Ergonomic split keyboards a match made in heaven? They are for me. Thanks to both I can type for long hours without tiring and feeling pain and that helps me to stay productive. And since all modern operating systems offer the Dvorak layout, it costs you nothing to try it. For ergonomic computer use in general, the most important thing in avoiding repetitive stress compression injuries and hand, wrist, or shoulder fatigue is to maintain good posture. This means that your seat should be high enough, or your keyboard low enough, to maintain a 90-degree angle of your elbows with your wrists in a neutral position when placed on the keyboard, your spine against the back of the chair, your feet flat on the ground, and your shoulders relaxed. It also helps to keep your mouse as close to the keyboard as possible.

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    Sept. 25, 2008. My second Microsoft Ergonomic 4000 keyboard has failed, and I'm typing this on an old Natural Elite. The left Shift button stopped working first, and then the entire extreme left side of the keyboard stopped responding. This is consistent with the failure of the previous keyboard. My conclusion is that the Ergonomic 4000 is not up to heavy use. I won't be buying another one. (I'm going to try a find a used Natural Multimedia on eBay.)

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    Related Reading

    Another Bright Hub Review

    Microsoft Natural Ergonimic Keyboard 4000 - The Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000 is currently Microsoft's best-selling keyboard. Having used the keyboard for one year, I will provide you with a true review of all aspects of the MS Ergonomic 4000.

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    Here are a couple of informative websites about the Dvorak layout.

    1. Introducing the Dvorak Keyboard

    This website site by Marcus Brooks is an excellent starting-off point for All Things Dvorak and was the source for much of the information in this article.


    Malcolm Greenway manages this website. It is another good starting point, and on this page, you can download a full-sized graphic of a Dvorak layout that you can print out and experiment with. On that page, note how the F, D, and B, and the Y, I, and X keys are extensions for the seventh and fourth fingers. This is exactly how Microsoft has divided the keyboard in all the ergonomic models, and that's why they work very well with the Dvorak layout.

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