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Support for Alternative Layouts

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This is a summary of how alternative layouts have been supported by kits such as Colevrak and Homing. It is not a discussion of alt layout performance and development, but if that interests you I highly recommend starting with Pascal Getreuer’s A guide to alt keyboard layouts (why, how, which one?). It’s a concise and comprehensive overview with links to some great sites that go deeper. He also has a separate Links about keyboards page. The Keyboard layouts doc he recommends explains layout goals and metrics in detail, summarizing the alt layouts discussed here as well as more than one hundred others. Sculpted-profile The majority of custom keycap sets are sculpted-profile (Cherry, SA, MT3, KAT, etc. - more on profiles generally here) so let’s start there. Because each row has a unique keycap shape, alt layouts require a unique keycap for each legend that moves off its QWERTY row. At first there were two The Dvorak layout was patented in 1936 by August Dvorak & William L. Dealey as a more efficient, ergonomic layout to replace QWERTY.
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Although Dvorak failed to usurp QWERTY, it remained the primary alternative layout for seventy years. Then, in January 2006, Shai Coleman released his Colemak layout (see here and here). It was designed to be easier for QWERTY users to learn than Dvorak. It quickly became the second-most-popular alt layout, in large part because it kept five of the most-used hotkeys – Z/X/C/V/B – in their QWERTY locations. (In all fairness to Mr. Dvorak and Mr. Dealey, hotkeys didn’t exist in 1936.)
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These were the first two alternative layouts supported, and the kit came to be known as Colevrak.
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Note that while replacing CapsLock with Backspace is inherent to Colemak's design, any layout can use this modification. Most MT3 Base kits include CapsLock replacements for QWERTY users – usually Control, sometimes Function or accents. Perhaps by coincidence, the Asset layout is also covered. Finalized by David Piepgrass in November 2006 (see here and here), Colemak’s keycaps are rearranged without changing rows.
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The expansion The Workman layout was introduced in 2010, Norman about three years later, and then the DH revision of Colemak in 2014. Keycaps were added to support more layouts, and various kit names were used to reflect the increased coverage. Let's use Colevrak+ here. The kit render below illustrates why various keycaps were added. Additional support did not necessarily follow the order listed here.
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Wide mod is not a unique layout, but rather a modification intended to improve ergonomics by increasing the gap between hands. I've shown it first because it works for all alt layouts mentioned above, with the exception of Dvorak. It can even be used on QWERTY. Only two unique keycaps are needed, one of which is already included for Dvorak.
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Continuing on, four additional keycaps are added to support Colemak DH.  Three more are added to support Workman, and then another two for Norman. Just as Colemak keycaps also cover Asset, other alternative layouts are automatically supported along the way. Colemak DH also covers ColemaQ, Niro is covered once Workman is, and adding Norman makes QWPR possible. Add two more keycaps to cover QGMLWY. Colemak DH was developed by Steven Pugh in 2014. These days it's often recommended when newcomers ask what alt layout they should learn.
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ColemaQ is Nyfee’s rearrangement of Colemak DH.
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Workman was introduced by OJ Bucao in 2010.
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Niro was introduced by kessentchaz in 2021. It uses Workman’s R2 D.
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Norman was introduced by David Norman in 2013.
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QWPR was introduced by chema_quinn in 2013. It uses Norman’s R2 K.
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QGMLWY was introduced by Martin Krzywinski in 2010. It requires the addition of R2 M and homing A.
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Programmer Dvorak was developed between 1997 and 2012 by Roland Kaufmann (see here and here). While it uses 19 keycaps from standard Dvorak and one from Colemak, TKL support requires an additional 15 unique keycaps: R2 at/caret, R4 apostrophe/quote, and 13 R1 keycaps with unique legends. Occasionally Colevrak+ has included just one of these keycaps – R4 apostrophe/quote – for partial support. An additional 6 unique keycaps are needed to cover the numpad: R2 is 1/2/3 and R4 is 7/8/9 to match the telephone layout.
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Sculpted-profile summary table The table below highlights the keycaps needed by each of the eleven alt layouts mentioned above.
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The top group shows unique keycaps; the bottom group shows QWERTY keycaps. Each layout has one row in each group. Each keycap has one column. Looking down a column shows how many layouts use that keycap. For example, the top group shows that removing Norman support doesn’t change the unique keycap count unless QWPR and/or QGMLWY support is also removed.  However, removing QGMLWY support saves two keycaps and has no impact on other layouts. One thing the QWERTY group shows is that none of the alternative layouts use R3 F or J. Uniform-profile It's much easier for uniform-profile sets (DSA, XDA, KAM, etc.- more on profiles generally here) to support alternative layouts. If non-homing F & J are included in the Base kit, any alt layout is possible as long as you're OK without home keys. Adding two homing blanks would be a low-budget way to provide home keys for any layout. Adding a Colevrak+ Homing kit is a step up, providing home keys with correct legends. Occasionally Homing kits support non-English layouts, for example by adding homing E for Bépo. The top row in the illustration below represents a typical Colevrak+ Homing kit.
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Eight-finger homing coverage is shown in honor of sets that included QWERTY eight-finger homing kits. Four examples are SA Jukebox's Deep Dish Homing Row, MT3 Serika r1's Super Homing, MT3 Serika r2's Geometries & Novelties, and MT3 Extended 2048’s Homing Addon. These were probably inspired by the home row of the Realforce HiPro keyboard. The eight-finger kit will also satisfy those who prefer middle finger homing, which was not uncommon before the turn of the century. Take early Apple keyboards, for example. (photo curtesy mr_a500)
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It's interesting that the numpad’s home key hasn't moved from 5 to 4. Also, for uniform-profile sets, adding eight-finger homing results in support for many additional alt layouts. Going forward As the community has grown, the market has evolved such that niche kits like Colevrak+ are harder to find. But in-stock sets like BoW and WoB might sell enough volume over time to support Colevrak+ kits. Breaking Colevrak+ into two kits could help reduce the cost for all involved. Dvorak has 14 keys that are not used by any of the other 9 alt layouts, so a Dvorak kit and a Colemak+ kit would make sense. Both kits would include the Common group of keycaps shown in the render below.
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Fifteen years ago, Dvorak was the well-established alt layout and Colemak was the up-and-comer. Comparing sales of these two kits would lend insight into what layout is most popular now. How about you? If you're using an alternative layout, has alt layout support – or lack thereof – ever influenced your decision to participate in a GB? Would you pay a little more to support a lower MOQ? Why did you switch? If you use QWERTY but are considering a switch, does alt layout support factor into your decision? Are you thinking of using one of the layouts mentioned here? I’m looking forward to reading your comments below.
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JohnnyFlack
8
May 25, 2024
I would love a layout that utilizes the widened mod but splits the middle with blockers like an alice split.
zixdrop
1
May 24, 2024
Interested to know about the ortho keyboard in the top pic. What is that? Pretty please.
zixdropCouldn't find anyone many people interested in full-size ortho so I made my own about seven years ago. Hand-wired with a Teensy++ 2.0 I even made a poll on what was then known as Massdrop - https://drop.com/vote/Full-size-and-TKL-ortholinear-layouts/talk
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psxndc
207
May 23, 2024
GREAT to see this article by you. You made my go-to chart for Colevrak+ support years ago, so it's nice to see you writing articles for Drop. I personally use a modified version of Colemak-DHm. I've moved the quote key up to R2 pinky finger and leave semicolon down in the R3. And of course, I use only ortho keyboards. :) Would be great to see more support for Colevrak+ in Drop's keycap offerings.
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dovenyi
52
May 2, 2024
This was an excellent read even for a touch typer who doesn't really bother with keycap compatibility while using custom layouts.
I have the same issue, but with kids. I wonder if there's a way to master one-handed touch typing.
KoALa_.-._.-._.-._.-._MAcCeRActually, there are left-hand and right-hand Dvorak layouts intended for people who only have one functional hand.
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