Published on 2nd of September 2018

Switching from a German to a US Keyboard Layout - Is It Worth It?

— (For Programmers)

For the first three decades of my life, I've used a German keyboard layout. A few months ago, I switched to a US layout. This post summarizes my thoughts around the topic. I was looking for a similar article before jumping the gun, but I couldn't find one — so I'll try to fill this gap.

Why switch?

I was reasonably efficient when writing prose, but felt like a lemur on a piano when programming: reaching the special keys ({, ;, or /) required lots of finger-stretching.

German Layout Keyboard
German Keyboard Layout — Image by Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0, Link). Question: What's the key combination for a backslash?

Here's Wikipedia's polite explanation why the German keyboard sucks for programming:

Like many other non-American keyboards, German keyboards change the right Alt key into an Alt Gr key to access a third level of key assignments. This is necessary because the umlauts and some other special characters leave no room to have all the special symbols of ASCII, needed by programmers among others, available on the first or second (shifted) levels without unduly increasing the size of the keyboard.

Why switch now?

After many years of using a rubber-dome Logitech Cordless Desktop Wave, I had to get a mechanical keyboard again.

Those rubber domes just feel too mushy to me now. In addition to that, I enjoy the clicky sound of a mechanical keyboard and the noticeable tactile bump. (I'm using Cherry MX Brown Keys with O-Ring dampeners to contain the anger of my coworkers.)

Most mechanical keyboards come with an ANSI US layout only, so I figured, I'd finally make the switch.

Picture of my custom keyboard
My lovely Keyboard ❤️ — the Durgod Taurus. It cost me 90 Euros, which is quite cheap for a mechanical keyboard.

How long did it take to get accustomed to the new layout?

Working as a Software Engineer, my biggest fear was, that the switch would slow down my daily work. This turned out not to be true. I was reasonably productive from day one and, nobody even noticed any difference. (That's a good thing, right?)

At first, I didn't like the bar-shaped US-Return key. I preferred the European layout with a vertical enter key. I was afraid that I would hit the long enter key by accident. After a while, I find that the US return key is even more convenient. I never hit it by accident.

In about two weeks, I was back to 100% typing speed.

Did my programming speed improve noticeably?

Yup.

Especially when using special characters (/, ;, {, and so on) I'm much faster now; partly because the key locations feel more intuitive, but mainly because my fingers stay at their dedicated positions now.

Somehow the position of special characters feels right. I can now understand the reason why Vim is using / for search or why the pipe symbol is |: both are easy to reach! It all makes sense now! (For a fun time, try that on a German keyboard!)

I now understand why Mircosoft chose \ as a directory separator: it's easily accessible from a US keyboard. On the German layout, it's… just… awful (Alt Gr+ß on Windows, Shift + Option + 7 on Mac).

The opening curly brace on a German layout Mac is produced with Alt+8, which always made me leave the home row and break my typing flow. Now there are dedicated keys for parentheses. Such a relief!

Am I slower when writing German texts now?

In the beginning, I was.

Somehow my brain associated the German layout with German texts. First, I used the macOS layout switcher. This turned out to be cumbersome and take time.

Then I found the "US with Umlauts via Option Key Layout". It works perfectly fine for me. It allows me to use a single Keyboard layout but insert German umlauts at will (e.g. ö is Option+o). There is probably a similar layout for other language combinations.

Is switching between keyboards painful?

US Keyboard layout
US keyboard layout. Image source: Wikipedia. [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

My built-in MacBook Pro keyboard layout is still German. I was afraid, that switching between the internal German and the external English keyboard would be confusing. This turned out not to be a problem. I rarely look at the print anyway.

Summary

If you consider switching, just do it. I don't look back at all.
Thanks to Simon Brüggen for reviewing drafts of the article.