Learn A Better Keyboard Layout & Take It Everywhere With You Using Portable Keyboard Layout

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layout computer keyboardAs some of you guys may know, I have been using an alternative keyboard layout for years. It is called Colemak, and it is brilliant. But using such a layout puts me in an awkward position when I need to work on someone else’s computer. I can type on a conventional QWERTY keyboard, but not nearly as fast. Also, if you are just learning an alternative layout, having to constantly switch back and forth between your layout and QWERTY could really slow you down.

The solution? Portable Keyboard Layout. This elegant and free utility isn’t new, but I was surprised to discover we’ve never written about it on MakeUseOf – and now that it’s a part of our Best Portable Apps list, I decided it really is time we took it for a spin.

Getting Portable Keyboard Layout

To download Portable Keyboard Layout, go to the project homepage. There is no large download link – the link is hidden inside the description text, but this is where you need to click:

layout computer keyboard

The ZIP archive containing Portable Keyboard Layout is tiny: Just under 800KB. Unzip it to any folder, and click pkl.exe. You should see a helper image pop up with the default layout, Colemak.

keyboard layout

As you hit the Shift key, the image will change to show capital letters. That’s basically it. You’re ready to start typing with Colemak!

Configuring & Suspending Portable Keyboard Layout

What if you don’t want to use Colemak, or if someone wants to use the computer who doesn’t know Colemak? Easy – just right-click the Portable Keyboard Layout icon and pick Suspend.

keyboard layout

You can also hit both Alt keys at the same time. As soon as you suspend Portable Keyboard Layout, the keyboard will be back to its old self (QWERTY, most probably), and anyone else would be able to use the computer normally.

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Configuring Portable Keyboard Layout is trickier, but not by much. Configuration is done using the pkl.ini file, found in the same folder as pkl.exe:

keyboard layout

Apart from actually changing the keyboard layout, the most useful options in the INI file are the last two – suspendTimeOut and exitTimeOut. These let you use Portable Keyboard Layout on a shared computer without having to remember to disable it when you go away. Once the computer is inactive for a few minutes, Portable Keyboard Layout would automatically be suspended, and then exited.

Additional Layouts Supported

Apart from Colemak, Portable Keyboard Layout supports several other layouts. On the SourceForge download page you can get several ZIPs containing different layouts:

layout computer keyboard

Specifically, the “other layouts” file contains Asset, Graece, ENTI-Key++, and a number of other interesting layouts. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Portable Keyboard Layout is worth the download just for this file: It’s a great way to tour through a number of crazy, exotic and creative keyboard layouts. Many people agree that QWERTY is a bad layout, but few seem to agree on what would be the ideal layout to replace it with. With Portable Keyboard Layout, you can judge for yourself.

Do You Use an Alternative Layout?

If there are any other Colemak users in the audience, now is your chance to speak up and be heard! Or maybe you use Dvorak, or another interesting layout? Do share in the comments.

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Comments (7)
  • Siva

    Yes, I’ve been using my own keybd layout for sometime. I’ve designed and used it thinking that I was the only to do so. My keybd layout is :


    wherein I felt that strng and the vowels are the max used letters.


  • TheNetworkedOne

    Is Colemak that efficient? If so, I may have wasted my time touch typing with QWERTY. Also, I have to learn the German QWERTZ layout with weird punctuation layout. :S

    • Erez Zukerman

      Good question! In fact, I have just written a post documenting my Colemak experience, with detailed typing statistics, as well as an explanation of the unique system I used to learn it.

      The post should be out in the next week or so — keep your eyes peeled, and I’ll be watching the comments for any questions once you read it.

      Basically, Colemak is worth it, at least for me.

  • John B

    How would you say it compares with Dvorak? I’ve been using Dvorak for at least 4 years now and absolutely love it. I’ll never go back to Qwerty.

    • Erez Zukerman

      That’s a good question, but I can’t give a subjective answer because I’ve never used Dvorak myself. I like Colemak because zxcvb don’t change places, and because I was able to learn it by increments (change a few keys, master them, change more, repeat).

  • Rowdy Rob

    This is a very interesting article. I’ve never heard of the “Colemak” layout until now. I have, of course, heard of the “Dvorak” layout, and have heard about its apparent superiority over the standard “Qwerty” system.

    I’m curious about how one goes about learning these alternative systems. Are there programs that can help “retrain” you in one of these alternative layouts? It would make sense in the electronic age to phase out “qwerty,” but how does one go about this?

    I would love to, er, “make use of” the “Colemak” system via “Portable Keyboard Layout,” but it would make sense to learn how to type in such a system first.

    This might make a great subject for a future “MakeUseOf” article. :-)

    • Erez Zukerman

      That’s an excellent question! You just convinced me to write an article showing how I made this transition.

      Until that time, you can look at my original thread on the Colemak forum (now a few years old) documenting my initial struggles and the system I used to quickly learn Colemak. I was the first user to actually try this new learning system, and it worked very well. Here it is:


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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.