06 June 2020

Better access to special characters with AutoHotkey on Windows

EDIT 2020-06-21: I tweaked the layout a bit, and updated screenshot and scripts.

When you're trying to improve your typing skills, there are quite a few things you can do: learning to touchtype, getting an ergonomic / split keyboard, or moving to a better layout than QWERTY. However, if you're like me (small hands, short pinkie), chances are that none of these will be of much help when you have to type a lot of special characters, for example in programming. That's because special characters are typically hard to reach. Most layouts banish them to the edges of town, leaving them almost entirely to the right pinkie and to shift+<number>, which forces your hands to wander very far from the home-row on which your muscle-memory is based.

I'm currently experimenting with a solution to this state of things. Thanks to a wonderful little program called AutoHotkey, you can tweak your keyboard in great ways; what I decided to do was to leverage the largely-unused (but very easy to reach) CapsLock. I basically turned CapsLock into a new meta key (which is not Ctrl, Alt, AltGr, Win or Cmd), allowing me to get a completely blank layer that is independent of any existing key or shortcut. I then associated the most easily-reachable keys to the most common (and hardest to reach with typical layouts) special characters I need.

The result is that, by pressing capslock+<home-row-key>, I now get special characters with less effort and less wandering.

What you see above is the layout I'm currently using. It's not perfect, but the principles are:

  • optimize the position of keys I find least-reachable and most-used on a regular layout
  • privilege right-hand keys, which are the most natural companions to a left-hand meta
  • privilege opening brackets, as editors typically auto-close them
  • try to minimize "wandering" of hands from home-row as much as possible

I've also added a numpad on CapsLock+Shift, which is useful on laptop keyboards. Yes, you often have a hardware NumLock mode, but I never use it because I find it risky (if you mistakenly leave it on and the screen locks, good luck typing your password).

NOTE: the ALT+` combo is a "mac-ism" - it's actually AltGR+` on Windows (or Ctrl+Shift+Alt+`). It's the shortcut to prepend to a vowel to get a grave-accented character. I'm Italian, so I use it to type accents on a US keyboard.

I wish someone would come up with a "standard" meta-layout like this, with some real thought to ergonomics and frequencies; then again, programming languages can vary so much (for example there are lots of $ in Perl, but very few in Python) that I guess it would be difficult to appease everyone.

Here is a AutoHotkey script for QWERTY and AutoHotkey script for COLEMAK (that's actually what I use). If you install AutoHotkey, just save the script as AutoHotkey.ahk in the resulting installation folder and it will be automatically executed when you start the program (it can also be run at startup).

If you are on macOS/OSX, things are a bit more awkward; I might cover that in another post at some point, but my solution there relies on a smart external keyboard. Happy hacking!