The
Hands Down
Layout
and its discontents

Hands are different
Keyboards are different
Texts are différent

Isn't it silly to presume that one layout could be perfect for everyone?

Hands Down Layout variations were developed on a sound linguistic foundation (phonotactics) and an obsessive attention to corpus statistics using a variety of keyboard layout analyzers and methods that are all tested in live real-world situations to produce exceptionally comfortable long duration typing on modern keyboards.

New to the idea of alternate layouts? Check out this video explainer.

Navigating this site
click for a brief description of the site

After feedback from many Hands Down users
I'm now actively recommending only
the Hands Down Neu variations.

Hands Down Discord Server

Talk with others about choosing and learning a new  layout,  modifying  a Hands Down variation to suite your specific needs, adapting to a different form-factor, or implementing some of the features mentioned here. 

Guide to the Hands Down variations:
Click to learn more about the Hands Down families to help you choose a variation.

Choosing the right layout for you will depend on what what sorts of things you type (prose, code, languages, etc.), and to some degree, your own hand physiology (hand size, and the ratio of digit length), and what simply feels comfortable to you. Keyboard form factors also influence how a layout feels and performs, so the type of keyboard you want to use can also help you determine the layout that will work best for you

The Hands Down reference design platform is a minimalistic, 34 key split ergonomic smart keyboard, which presents the most difficult scenario for a layout (I have been working with sub-30 key designs, such as the 28 key Ingulish layout for Hummingbird, and Touch/Touché for touch screens, but they are of a separate design lineage). The designs are then considered for other form factors, including ergonomic keyboards with more keys, ortholinears, and standard row-stagger keyboards (ANSI/ISO/JIS, a.k.a. Slab).  In many places, I have included comments about how to productively adapt a layout to accommodate differences from the 34 key split ergonomic keyboard reference platform. While this minimalist platform may work for some, most people use a keyboard with more keys, and all of the Hands Down variations will work just fine on a larger keyboard.

Each of the Hands Down variations described on this site excels at a different task, be it English only, mixed languages, coding, etc. These pages describe just the best of the more than a dozen layouts I designed and tested in real-world, real-time settings. Some, like the Hands Down Neu variations have already been adopted by dozens of other happy typists. (Hands Down Reference and the Hands Down Alt variations were used to write significant academic papers before Hands Down Neu variations.


After feedback from many Hands Down users
I'm now actively recommending only
the Hands Down Neu variations.


The other Hands Down families are no longer actively recommended, but left here for reference until a complete redesign of this documentation can be completed.

Hands Down Reference ⌨️ – designed for balance  Not exactly recommended
This is the original Hands Down Layout, designed with an obsessive attention to balancing the many variables involved in a layout: very low SFBs, proportional distribution of finger burden favoring frequency on the middle finger and dexterity on the index, finger–finger, hand–hand, and even row (top-bottom) balance, etc. Hands Down Reference has the lowest SFBs of the standard Hands Down variations, and the most even burden distribution according to individual fingers' abilities and between each finger on each hand. Hands Down Reference helped to establish the foundation for all the Hands Down layout variations.

Hands Down Alt ⌨️ – designed for less movement No longer recommended
Hands Down Alt variations all aimed to improve comfort by decreasing total finger movement, while aiming to increase rolling behaviors. To acheive this, Hands Down Alt variations may have slightly higher SFBs than Hands Down Reference or Hands Down Neu counterparts, but tend to have lower total finger movement.

⌨️ Slab variations will work with almost any keyboard

You might consider the base variation Hands Down Neu if you prefer to keep all the characters in the finger field (like most layouts), if your thumbs are already busy with other tasks (like layers, shift, etc.), you like that wide artisan space bar you just bought on Etsy, or you can't wrap your head around the idea of typing a letter with a thumb (it is weird, at first, and not necessary to get Hands Down levels of comfort). 

Hands Down Neu Recommended

⌨️👍🏻 High performance alpha layout that can be deployed on any keyboard type (standard row-stagger, ortholinear, spit-ergo).

Hands Down Neu is based on a total rethinking of a keyboard layout (many things are non-standard, including some shift states). 

All Hands Down Neu variations aim to maximize rolling behaviors while eliminating SFBs with full optimization of all glyphs (alphas and symbols). Neu variations' rolling ratio is almost as high as layouts designed specifically for rolling, but with a much higher in:out ratio, and generally much lower SFBs as well. 

Neu is the place to start if you're new to alt layouts, or confused about all the variations possible with Hands Down. Neu works on any keyboard, so it is recommend if you are using a standard row-stagger slab keyboard (⌨️), or a split ergo and you prefer to have modifiers (esp. shift) on a thumb (👍🏻). Neu can stand on its own, without any need for other "Smart Keyboard" features (combos, Adaptive Keys, etc.). As it is the basis for the other variations, if later you want to try a thumb-alpha variation, you can do so without too much retraining.

Design of Neu began shortly after Élan in late 2020 as specs and goals for the multi-lingual Polyglot project were being drafted. Neu was released in early summer of 2021, leveraging a lot of the work that went into Élan and Polyglot, and ultimately succeeded them in the design lineage, with Gold/Silver/Bronze designed alongside as a part of the suite.

A "angle/symmetric mod" for ISO/ANSI/JIS "slab" keyboards is proposed in the native Mac bundle on the downloads page.

Click for details on Hands Down Neu

👍🏻 Thumbs up variations require dedicated thumb keys

If you can Ditch the Slab for a more ergonomic keyboard with dedicated thumb keys, and are open to dedicating a thumb to something other than modifiers (or backspace), then you may want to try one of these ultra-performance variations with an alpha on a thumb.

If you are interested in pushing keyboard ergonomics and efficiency to the limit, you might consider one of the variations that put an alpha (or punctuation) characters on the thumb opposite the space. Putting a letter on a thumb helps to balance the load over more fingers, and can greatly reduce the dreaded same-finger bigram (SFB) problem. It is a very compelling argument, but it is not for everyone—it can be devilishly difficult to learn, and may not be faster for everyone. Which letter to put on a thumb is largely a matter of personal preference, but may be strongly influenced by the types of texts you are typing (different languages, coding, etc.), and your preference for the feel of the typing rhythms. 

Most of these variations also remove the infrequent letters  Q and Z from the main keyboard finger field, with access to them via combo or by placing them on another layer (with statistically guided recommendations for their placement). When integrated with other smart keyboard features (Home Row Modifiers, Combos, Adaptive Keys, Linger Keys, Semantic Keys), these highly-efficient layout variations propose an evolved way of typing, demanding the most of the keyboard controller as the keyboard does more work for you. While these full optimizations take some effort to learn, in my opinion they greatly improve typing efficiency, convenience, most importantly, comfort.

All of the letter-on-thumb variations perform close to each other, statistically, but each has certain advantages that may make one variation more appropriate for some corpora than others. There are so many subtle issues involved in each of these variations that it is impossible for me to say which may be best for you. The variations are presented not as a continuum of good-betterbest, but as possibilites that have been evaluated to give you a solid basis from which to build your custom-fit layout. I have simply tried to present the best variation, statistically, based on which letter you choose to put on the thumb opposite the space

Hands Down Gold Recommended

👍🏻 T on thumb affords exceptionally low SFBs with very high rolling in a well rounded English-focused layout .

Hands Down Gold may be ideal if your prose is mostly English, and you want to optimize for a split keyboard with dedicated thumb keys, and are open to the idea of putting an alpha on a thumb, and can make use of Home Row Modifiers or Callum-style one-shot mods. other "Smart Keyboard" features (combos, Adaptive Keys, Linger Keys, etc.) are totally optional, but Gold takes them very well, for an even smooother typing experience.

Gold is the Hands Down Winner of the medals series based on Neu (with Silver and Bronze), all designed together and released during the Tokyo summer olympics in 2021.

Click for details on Hands Down Gold 

Hands Down Titanium/Rhodium/Vibranium Recommended

👍🏻 R on thumb yields extremely low SFBs, low redirects and low center column usage resulting in a very steady rhythm that adapts well to mixed language environments.

Hands Down Titanium/Rhodium/Vibranium  are closely related variations all with R on the non-space thumb, and possibly best if your prose is a mix of English and other languages. These hardened variations further reduce usage of the index inner column, while also slightly reducing scissoring. Though not strictly necessary, Titanium/Rhodium/Vibranium were designed with the assumption that the other optional "smart keyboard" features would also be deployed, (esp. H-Digraph combos, Adaptive Keys, etc).

Depending on the specific corpus, these may be the most "hardened" of all the Hands Down variations (thus the hard metals names), released in the summer/fall of 2022. 

Click for details on Hands Down Titanium/Rhodium/Vibranium 

Advanced behaviors

Overclock your smart keyboard
for even greater typing comfort with these “add-on” behaviors

Click for more info

Any layout has an intimate relationship with the keyboard is sits on. Hands Down was conceived as an uncompromising  layout specifically designed to work with the latest ergonomic, smart keyboards and features, especially Home Row Modifiers (HRMs). 

The Hands Down design anticipates, though does not require, "smart keyboard" controllers capable of other typing behaviors, such as layers, multi-taps, combos, and what I call Adaptive and Semantic keys.  Hands Down's phonotactic foundation with Adaptive Keys and Combos means that you can type in multiple languages with virtually no compromise in efficiency. 

These "smart keyboards" typically run various on-board firmware OSes like QMK or ZMK, or KMK. I originally implemented most of these features myself, but I may have migrated to these built-in features as they became available and supported my needs. These features may not be possible on all programmable keyboards, as their OS may not support the features or allow for custom code (Kaleidescope, Oryx, Vial). You can still deploy the Hands Down layout itself with these systems.

Optional “Smart Keyboard” features.

Other keyboard behaviors described on this site–Home Row Modifiers, Combos, Adaptive Keys– are technically independent from Hands Down, and they are all implemented differently for each layout because they rely on the topology of each variation. Each variation can function just fine without any of them, and all of the stats on this site ignore these features. You do not need any of these features to enjoy the benefits of the Hands Down layout variations.

If you choose to add  these optional “smart keyboard” features to your implementation, the layout will just be that much more smooth and efficient, working as an integrated system.  This is particularly true with features like the H digraph Combos and Adaptive Keys, that are mnemonically and/or spatially related to individual letter placement. In this way each variation is conceived of as a comprehensive smart layout, each feature designed in anticipation of the impact on the others. Thus, each variation has a separate description section with some details of unique implementations of these optional "smart keyboard" features, and in many cases you'll also find suggestions on how you might adapt the layout to suit your own preferences.

Once you've chosen a layout to suit your typing preferences, texts, and choice of keyboard, you may want to make it fit you even better by customizing it. In each of the variation sections here I've tried to offer some designer's insight about the features and possibilities of each variation, so you will be able to adapt it to suit your unique situation, and avoid pitfalls of the 2.6 nonillion possible arrangements of letters. I encourage you to consider these layout variations as a very good place to start, then to tailor it to fit you like a hand made glove. Your own customizations may necessitate changes to other features, especially Combos and Adaptive Keys, as these are best when tightly integrated with the underlying layout.

Home Row Modifiers

Home Row Modifiers: All Hands Down variations were designed from the outset with Home Row Modifiers  (HRMs) in mind. Modifiers, after all, are keys that are pressed (and often held) a lot, and that has a profound impact on the stresses and demands a keyboard makes on the hand and finger's joints. 


See my earlier comments about home row modifiers here

Combos (a.k.a. chording)

Combos are two or more keys pressed together eliminate finger twisting for shortcuts. My own Hands Down implementations have over 100 combos, making my tiny 34 key keyboards faster, easier, and more comfortable than any keyboard with more keys.


Adaptive Keys

Change the rules with Adaptive Keys, like Captain Kirk did with the Kobayashi Maru

Adaptive Keys alter the characters sent based on the sequence and speed of keys typed to eliminate awkward fingering sequences. When typed quickly (usually like rolling), statistically more common letter sequences are sent. Adaptive Keys can be used to address remaining awkward issues of an otherwise great layout (even the best layouts have something awkward), particularly to eliminate remaining SFBS or to reduce motion on less dextrous fingers that struggle to move to another row (a.k.a. scissoring).

Adaptive Keys are no substitute for a solid layout foundation, and won't salvage a bad layout–a sound base layout is always the first priority. That means a layout with very low SFBs and total movement, with a total finger burden that is distributed according to each finger's abilities (More total burden on index and middle, less on the ring and pinky). After that, the goal is to lower the frequency of scissoring (skipping rows on adjacent fingers), redirects (changing rolling direction), and stretches (between fingers or across the hand) or reaches (esp. for the inner column). Ideally, the rolling characteristics will favor one direction over another (in:out ratio), and be balanced between the hands.  

Once again, Hands Down's phonotactics make these Adaptive Keys sequences easy to remember, leveraging established muscle memory from the letter's primary location. Neighbor rolls alleviate a row jump/step and/or stretch to the middle column. (You can think of Adaptive Keys as something like macros, or like QMK`s Leader Key, or simplified version of a typing accelerator such as Type Expander.) 

I have deployed Adaptive Keys for three primary situations (that plague all layouts to varying degrees):

Using Peter Norvig's Mayzner inspired Google English corpus, in addition to my own private corpus of hundreds of pages that reflects a year of my own typing habits.

Linger Keys

Linger Keys: Holding a key for just a bit (about as long as a "tapping term") triggers additional functionality. 

Semantic Keys

Semantic Keys is designed to offer runtime platform independence to send the appropriate keystroke(s) to the host. 

Navigation shortcuts, (Word left/right, browser back/fwd), are the same keystrokes, regardless of platform. From Undo, Copy, Find, Quit, and ScreenCapture, even typing special characters  or § are always the same keystrokes, whether via regular keypress, combo, or even as the result of Adaptive Keys

Semantic Keys somewhat normalizes the experience using different platforms, improving ergonomics and workflow efficiency, and reducing potentially destructive errors. Switch platforms on the fly with a simple keystroke (no need recompile to make a keyboard fit only for one platform at a time), and the keyboard will remember the last platform used so you can pick up right where you left off. You only need one portable keyboard to be effective when borrowing a computer.

Using Peter Norvig's Mayzner inspired Google English corpus, in addition to my own private corpus of hundreds of pages that reflects a year of my own typing habits.

After Alpha—

A word about numbers, symbols and navigation…

If you're doing coding and other technical things…good layers are your friends. 

I have included how I do layers in my code repos, a total of 8 layers for coding and international symbols, navigation and numbers and so on. My solution is the result of years of tweaking, and using other features like Linger Keys and Semantic Keys for simple auto-completes and platform-independent navigation/editing. Coding languages have huge variation in the way they use symbols, so it's not so easy to say there is a one-size fits all solution for a generic "coder." 

For more than a decade I have also heavily used keyboard modifier tools like Auto-Hot Key, Karabiner Elements, (and more recently kmonad), as well as typing accelerators like TextExpander,  so my solution may not suit your needs. My layers have also been influenced by the great work found in Seniply and Miryoku, so you may want to look at those, too, as you build out your own layers to suit your own workflow.

Professional tools won't make you a pro,
but a pro won't compromise on their tools. 

I designed Hands Down to be an uncompromising tool
for comfortable endurance typing.

A painter will choose the best brush and a musician the best instrument,
just as a craftsman will demand the best equipment and a runner will demand a custom fit shoe.
A keyboard and layout are tools for people who type for a living,
so shouldn't you choose the keyboard and layout that work the best for you?

don't compromise on the tools of your profession