ANSI or ISO? Which keyboard layout is more ergonomic?

ANSI or ISO? Which keyboard layout is more ergonomic?

Lately, I've written about the ergonomics of the "6" key and given the vast popularity of that post, I decided to compare the ANSI and ISO keyboard layouts in the same manner from an ergonomics standpoint. Let's start with ANSI.

ANSI ergonomics

As you can see, the keys of the home row on which our fingers reside in touch typing position are filled with red. There's a thick red line in between to show the center of the keyboard for measurement purposes. I also painted Left Shift and Enter in green and Backslash in blue because these keys differ on ANSI vs ISO.

Now let's take a look at ISO.

ISO ergonomics

(Please note that we won't provide a full-blown ISO layout, but a half-ISO layout featuring the extra ISO key and a bar-shaped Enter key.)

Now we have an extra ISO key painted in yellow, but Left Shift and Enter got farther from the center of the keyboard which is a bummer given their frequent use. How much farther, exactly?

Enter distanceLeft Shift distanceBackslash distance
ANSI64.56.75
ISO6.755.54.5

Based on the above, it's hard to argue that ISO is more ergonomical. Enter and Left Shift is pressed at least hundreds, if not thousands of times per day and they're about 1 unit (20 millimeters = 0.8 inch) farther from the center on the ISO layout. Backslash is closer by 1 unit and there's an extra ISO key but they aren't that frequently used so it's not a great tradeoff.

Regardless of ergonomics, many of you have made it clear that the ISO key is a necessity for you and some of you are too used to the L-shaped Enter and aren't willing to unlearn your muscle memory. I get it, we're creatures of habbits.

On the other hand, it's also interesting to see that a fair number of people use the opposite standard that they should be using based on their home country. For example, I as a Hungarian should use ISO but using ANSI. On the Hungarian layout the ISO key translates to "í" which is a Hungarian accented character, but I write Hungarian text almost solely with US characters, without accents. Also, as a developer, I strongly dislike that my native layout unnecessarily remaps dozens of characters like !, @, # compared to the standard US layout.

How about you in this respect? Let us know in the following poll until it's open!

ANSI vs ISO poll result

By |2016-11-07T20:51:57+00:002015-09-09 12:29|design|39 Comments
Increase your productivity by never leaving the home row. Improve your posture by typing on two, separate keyboard halves. Remap keys in any way you want. Experience how a keyboard can be different, yet familiar.

39 Comments

  1. Zvon September 9, 2015 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    Czech person here, here we also have standard ISO layout, I was really used to it because of my generic membrane keyboard. But one day I ordered a mechanical keyboard with ANSI layout, it was weird at first, I kept hitting backslash instead of enter all the time, but after some time with this layout I wouldn't go back.

    • László Monda September 9, 2015 at 5:42 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your story! It's pretty much how I transitioned from ISO to ANSI a long time ago.

  2. alfonso September 9, 2015 at 6:22 pm - Reply

    Hello László!

    I'm an ISO keyboard layout user (Spanish), I've been using ISO layout since the very beginning I started my computer related career. Wouldn't know if one layout is more ergonomic than the other, but definitely I find the ISO one to be more versatile / flexible; I say this because the ability of the ISO layout to adapt to many more different keymaps than the ANSI one, for example, I can map my ISO keyboard to the English (US, GB, etc.) language without losing any characters, but it isn't the same story the other way around, If I map any ANSI keyboard to the Spanish (Spain, Latin-America) language I wouldn't be able to use the " characters (since they are assigned to that extra ISO key), and for that matter, would be the case for any language that uses more characters than the English language. That's whay I vote for the ISO layout, in my opinion, it can adapt to more keymaps without issues (or at least, less issues than the ANSI layout presents).

    P.D. Maybe the bigger frequently pressed keys in the ANSI layout are easily to reach and find without looking and, like you say, minimize the fatigue, but after a while using an ISO keyboard, it is just a matter of time and muscle memory. Also, one always can map the Enlgish and "Native" keymaps in one's operating system, while using an ANSI keyboard and change to each keymap as needed, just to be able to write in the desired manner, but I tend to think that, that implies more strain to your fingers.

    Thanks for the attention!

    I love the UHKB concept!

    • alfonso September 9, 2015 at 6:27 pm - Reply

      Didn't scape the characters, but the '<' and '>' are lost on ANSI keyboards with a Spanish keymap.

      • László Monda September 9, 2015 at 10:10 pm - Reply

        The UHK is a little different in this respect because you can emit the scan code of the ISO key by binding it to Mod+Z for example. But in general, you're totally right.

    • László Monda September 9, 2015 at 9:52 pm - Reply

      Hi Alfonso!

      Thanks for the detailed reasoning, it makes a lot of sense. ISO is certainly more flexible in this respect, no doubts about it.

  3. Isaac September 10, 2015 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    I live in Brazil and we have the ABNT layout over here, which is a variation on a theme based on the ISO layout. The ABNT layout is great because it's the only way I can properly accentuate certain Brazilian Portuguese words. With that being said, I absolutely despise it. I've used ANSI since living in the US for some time, and using accentuation on my MBP with the pok3r just makes sense. I can't use the same method on my Windows desktop, however, but most word processors and browsers have autocorrect plugins to fix this while I type, and it makes no difference when I'm programming because you don't want to be using accentuation marks anyways.

    I've programmed my pok3r to use HHKB Professional 2's layout, and it is the best layout I've ever used. Every time I go back to an ABNT keyboard I end up pressing Enter instead of backspace more times than I care to admit, and also pressing caps lock instead of control, which is simply annoying. That key shouldn't exist at all. Also, using an ABNT keyboard for an extended period of time gives me hand cramps because of the awkward placement of semicolon, forward and back slash, and interrogation keys. It's just a mess and the pinkies are definitely overloaded.

    • László Monda September 10, 2015 at 12:26 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your insight, Isaac! Your experience regarding ANSI vs ISO definitely reflects mine. Also, this is the first time I hear about ABNT.

  4. Steve September 20, 2015 at 5:02 pm - Reply

    The argument presented in the blog that ANSI is more ergonomic than ISO may be true for people who use a standard keyboard with standard mappings. But surely the whole point of the UHK is that it attracts people who want a more ergonomic and optimized experience. Such people are less likely to just accept the default mappings anyway.

    I would argue that the whole idea of using pinkies for shift keys is flawed. Given that the UHK is configurable, I wouldn't totally buy this "left shift is further away in ISO argument". One possibility I would be strongly interested in is to define the left space bar to be a shift key, so that it could be easily pressed with the left thumb.

    The fact that there are many more thumb keys is a great feature of the UHK. Thumb keys are definitely the way to go for modifiers in my view. I would use the ISO version but it would certainly not be less ergonomic when used with my mappings!

    • László Monda September 20, 2015 at 5:26 pm - Reply

      Very good point, Steve! It definitely makes sense to bind Shift to some of the thumb keys. There are people who take this idea even futher. For example, John Lindquist has come up with a very original layout in which Shift, Ctrl, Alt is bound to S, D, F on the Mod layer.

  5. J November 30, 2015 at 10:35 pm - Reply

    I'm Italian, I use both ISO and ANSI layout. I find ANSI better by far for coding, but ANSI is also terrible for writing, accents and apostrophes need 2 key strokes and writing something like c'é («there is» in Italian), so a quite common word combination I have to do 5 strokes on ansi (c+mute ' + space + mute ' + e) versus 3 on italian-ISO keyb.
    The «ç» and «§» symbol are now possible only by a combo, of course uncommon, but I use them quite often in my passwords, just because are shift + key symbols.
    But with ansi I earned ~ symbol (on italian iso i have to use ALT+126 or the charmap) «» and «`» (backquote) that I've never know their existence before I had an ANSI «backquote».

    In everyday life I configure italian or US-international layout on italian iso keyboard so I have efficency when programming and and also when writing. Only on my desktop I have full ANSI, but it's only to get used with that layout.

    PS never had problem hitting backslash instead of enter or backspace when looking for ì.
    The only 2 things I find really frustrating on ANSI is that arithmetic symbols are farther then on Italian ISO and the absence of the «» key next left-shift. that button, for me, is thousand time mor useful than having bigger shifts

  6. Vlasec March 2, 2016 at 10:00 am - Reply

    Hi, I'm Czech and I think I haven't encountered many ISO keyboards in my life even though it is supposed to be the standard here. I am used to ANSI and I prefer it over ISO. Now that I think about it, right shift is so far away from the home row, ANSI is not perfect either :P

  7. […] right half still being wider than the left). As a result the L shaped Enter key would have been too small to be truly […]

  8. Raymond July 26, 2016 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    Living in Canada, I have to use both English and French. Since the ANSI layout for French is complete bullcrap, I bought an ISO keyboard and use both Canadian French CSA and International English on it. Now, all I don't have to deal with pressing random keyboard shortcuts for typing accents for French. Typing English is no problem because I already have muscle memory from ANSI, just need to stretch my pinkies a little further. Sure, ANSI is generally more comfortable for one language, but it's absolute hell for two.

  9. Jen July 30, 2016 at 3:44 pm - Reply

    In Canada we transitioned to ISO layouts on laptops a few years ago, to my horror (likely because of the fact we're a bilingual company and it's cheaper to offer an ISO that can do both English and French that an ANSI which is usually only decent for English).

    I had so much pain in my pinky joints from stretching to reach the enter key and the shift properly that I had to wear braces.

    So I remapped the keys using a program called SmartKeys. So the backslash next to the left shift is now a left shift and the backslash next to the right enter is now right enter (the backslash – which I barely use – is one of the F keys now). I also remapped my delete key to be closer to my arrow keys since I do a lot of Excel work. It's saved me money since I don't have to do physiotherapy and I can actually type for long periods now.

    • László Monda July 30, 2016 at 8:32 pm - Reply

      Thanks for sharing your story, Jen! It's quite dramatic that the placement of merely two keys (left Shift and Enter) can cause a major injury. I'm glad you managed to solve the problem by remapping your layout. Smart move!

  10. bolo October 14, 2016 at 9:03 pm - Reply

    The "extra ISO" key is not present on every EU keyboard, only on some of them and is indeed horrible, I don't like it. It doesn't even have any function because the | are present on different keys as well :P so the most of keyboards drop this key. In my country we use US layout but you can buy either ISO or ANSI keyboards and I've always been a huge fan of ANSI but when I got a laptop with ISO keyboard (unfortunately one with the extra key :() I quickly got used to the ISO enter which is much more convenient because is much bigger.

  11. Tor December 24, 2016 at 11:01 am - Reply

    Just thinking about which UHK to get and game across this post. Despite living in the US, where (of course) the standard is ANSI, I'm thinking to get the ISO (or rather half-ISO) UHK. It appears from the wear marks that for left shift I nearly exclusively use the portion covered by the "ISO" key. Tell the UHK to use that for L-shift, and I've got a spare key to play with, especially since I can't think why one should ever have much reason to hit the space between the keys. If touch typing, you'll hit the ISO key, while coming from the edge for random presses, you hit the other key, but that isn't too important for normal use – or if you want it, you can just map both to L-shift.

    All in all, I think the half-ISO UHK is probably the best possible option without completely doing away with the staggered typewriter legacy (or should that be curse?). I had a typematrix I liked, so I look forward to the day when the non-staggered UHK is available.

    • László Monda December 24, 2016 at 12:31 pm - Reply

      Hi Tor! Based on the wear marks of your keyboard and your preferences, I believe half-ISO is the right choice for you. We plan to create a UHK with a columnar layout in the future but not anytime soon. Thanks for considering to support us, and have a great day!

  12. Darko Djordjevic March 11, 2017 at 7:34 am - Reply

    I use Fedora Linux where I can set extra iso key to behave like AltGr. Then, I set ISO shift level 3 so right hand home row behave like arrow keys, upper row like navigation keys, m key behaves like backspace and n like delete. That way my hands almost never leave home row.

    • László Monda March 11, 2017 at 11:28 pm - Reply

      Your layout does make sense to me, although I believe that the thumb is a much more ergonomic candidate when it comes to a frequent layer switcher key.

  13. Gabie April 6, 2017 at 10:21 am - Reply

    hello,
    i am an israeli and i don't know what the default keyboard layout is because we have both here.
    i have used both and i feel that ansi is a lot better than iso because the shift key is longer and that is more comfortable to me .
    its a shame in my opinion that people use iso when ansi is much better.

    • Darko Djordjevic April 6, 2017 at 2:42 pm - Reply

      If it is your PC then you can rebind key to behave like Shift key with AutoHotkey on Windows or editing layout file on Linux. Then You can rebind left shift key to behave like AltGr :) Sky is the limit when you start to hack keyboard layouts. In that matter ISO layout is better – one modifier key for free.

      • Gabie April 6, 2017 at 3:21 pm - Reply

        still not the same as having a single long shift key

  14. I October 13, 2017 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    Hungarian reader here, just found this 2-year old discussion via DuckDuckGo. It's a small world. I just want to add that I'd love to live in a world where the ANSI layout is much more widespread and accessible to buy, including on laptops. Clearly, the people developing the ISO standard had no clue about ergonomics, which is not at all unheard of in the world of ergonomics and standards affecting the lives of billions (I'm thinking of you, USB).

    Because, what percentage of the world uses ISO and what percentage of the world uses ANSI? I see a problem/opportunity here.

    By all seriousness, where should we (people) petition about this untenable situation for a change? I mean, USB-A is being phased out (sooner or later) for good, but this bad keyboard standard might as well haunt for a long, long time.

    A big shootout to Laszlo for bringing this project alive!

    • László Monda October 13, 2017 at 4:58 pm - Reply

      Hi there, and thanks for the nice words!

      I don't expect people to ditch ISO if favor of ANSI just because it can be proven that it's more ergonomical. People are creatures of habits, otherwise everyone would be using columnar keyboards from a pure ergnomics perspective. :)

    • Darko Djordjevic October 14, 2017 at 3:28 pm - Reply

      :) talking about what is more ergonomic on standard, staggered row keyboard, is like talking does it hurt less being stabbed with flat head or phillips head screwdriver. I really hope that in the project road map is ortholinear or staggered column layout.

      • László Monda October 14, 2017 at 5:03 pm - Reply

        A columnar UHK version is very much planned. :)

  15. Benjamin Friedrich January 10, 2018 at 9:49 am - Reply

    In Europe, we have a messy plethora of different keyboard layouts. As a programmer, I switched to EurKey, which is just a US keyboard, but all umlauts, accented letters, and so forth from the different European langues can be accessed by pressing the ALT-key. It works great for me for my occasional German (or French) letter, but would be interested in your experiences.

    • László Monda January 10, 2018 at 1:36 pm - Reply

      Haven't heard about EurKey yet, but it makes a lot of sense to me as a Hungarian user. On the Hungarian keyboard layout, accented letters are crowded in the upper right region of the keyboard, which results in a very cumbersome typing experience. The reason I wouldn't use EurKey is because there are easier to remember mappings for Hungarian. As a matter of fact, I planned to create such a mapping for my UHK, but don't really need it, because I use accents so rarely. I'd map e to é, and a to á, for example, but I'd probably use many EurKey key mappings as they are. I think EurKey makes the most sense when one has to use multiple European layouts.

      I also think that the UHK has a great potential to enhance the EurKey experience compared to regular keyboards. It'd probably makes sense to bind the default top Mod and top Space keys to the Mod layer, the bottom Space and bottom Mod keys to the Fn layer, and bind EurKey keys to the Fn layer. Alternatively, it'd make sense to map top thumb keys to the Fn layer and bottom thumb keys to the Mod layer according to the preference of the user. This'd allow for reaching accented letters via thumb keys, instead of the much harder to reach AltGr, enhancing the typing experience significantly.

  16. Benjamin Friedrich January 10, 2018 at 2:47 pm - Reply

    Dear Laszlo,

    You may want to get into contact with the developer of EurKey: https://eurkey.steffen.bruentjen.eu/

    Best Ben

    • László Monda January 10, 2018 at 3:59 pm - Reply

      Thanks Ben, appreciate the link!

  17. Philippe Verdy January 29, 2018 at 4:03 am - Reply

    ISO vs ANSI, for the location of the Enter key does not really matter: Enter is not used so frequently and generally it is even a good thing to have it a bit farther from the center, to avoid pressing it by error (and submitting data too early): even if you don't reach the Enter key when you wanted and type the last alphanum key to right of the rest row, it is still easy to correct.

    However there are other more useful keys that should remain accessible:
    – Backspace should be long enough (it is much more frequently needed than Enter itself) : adding another key to reduce its length is a bad idea
    – Placing the extra "ISO" key reducing the left shift is a bad idea, this key (rarely used) should have better been placed by reducing the length of the RIGHT SHIFT, by putting this ISO key to the right of the right shift key: it would still be long enough for everything, and the two shift keys would be more balanced and centered on the keyboard.
    – The space bar should remain centered (its center should be exactly at the same horizontal position as the center of the main rest keys (F and J): ISO incorrectly suggested adding the [Fn] to the left of the the space bar instead of to the right:
    – to avoid reducing again the lenghth of the left control key (used in very frequent shortcuts and sometimes pressed by the palm rather the smallest finger of the left hand), manufacturers have decentered moved the space bar (notably since the introductiion of the [Windows] key that has also reduced the space bar, needlessly on BOTH sides when we just clearly need only one!)

    So in summary:

    – the [Enter] key on two rows (with shorter width on the rest row) is a good decision (the alphanum key above it on US keyboard is needlessly long and inacessible, when it is used for more frequently used punctuation or asterisk). It is reasonnable to have to move the right hand a bit before pressing [Enter], but it is stiull reasonnably accessible with the rightmost small finger of the right hand, on one of the two rows

    – the [Backspace] key should remain long, with 3 keys (not more) after the [9] key on the top row (only Japanese keyboards will place an extra Kana mode key by reducing it on the right side to fit a standard-size or narrow key)

    – the [extra ISO] key of all international keyboards should have been placed to the right of the [Right shift] key. If you don't want that, then use that position to place the [Fn] Key, or to fit some cursor keys (such as [Insert]) on compact keyboard (laptops)

    – there should be NO MORE than 3 keys on the left side of the space bar: [Left Ctrl], [Left Win], [Left Alt]. Note that the [Left Win] key can be narrower to have the [Left Ctrl] a bit larger and more accessible for frequent combinations (text selection and shortcuts).

    – the [Space Bar] MUST be centered with [F] and [J], starting below the center of [X] to preserve its length. Ban those keyboards that offset the space bar (especially on Japanese layouts that now use really too short and decentered Space bar: Japanese needs spaces frequently even if this is not the case for typing only Kanas, or Kanjis with an IME !)

    – you can easily fit 5 keys to the right of this long spacebar: [AltGr], up to three modifiers keys (no alphanum character), and [Right Ctrl].
    – the [Right Ctrl] MUST remain at end (except if you need to fit a cursor keypad on laptop)!
    – [Left Alt] and [AlrGr/Right Alt] must remain sticked to the centered spacebar. They need to a be bit larger than alphanum keys to allow easy combinations with alphanum keys.
    – One of the modifiers is taken by the new [Menu/App] key, there still remains 2 positions for the Japanese keys, you don't need a second [Win] key, and one of these keys can be the [Fn] key.
    – on Japanese keyboards, the [Fn] key can be placed elsewhere (to fit the two extra mode keys), on the row of small keys for F1..F12.
    – you can do it also on non-Japanese keyboards if you really want the second [Win] key on the right of the [space bar], or you want to pack a cursor keypad on compact (laptop) keyboards to fit the [up cursor] key – You never need the [Fn] for typing text fast in any layout !

    – On Mac keyboards, the [Cmd/Apple] key replaces the [Win] key, but also you don't need to have two [Cmd/Apple] keys, the [Alt] key is replaced by [Option].
    – Shortcuts are modified in applications (press Cmd+C maps physically like Win+C on the layout, but maps to be equvalent in software as Ctrl+C) ;
    – as a Mac does not have a [App/Menu] key, the [Option] key can be moved to the right where you would find an [App/Menu] key on PC keyboard, so the [Left Alt] key (unused in MacOS UI), can also be kept to the left of the space bar, symetric to the [AltGr] key. MacOS applications may then accept [Alt] or [Cmd/Apple/Win] as equivalent.

  18. Ilja February 4, 2018 at 10:41 am - Reply

    For me as a big-handed Mac user, ANSI has one huge advantage over ISO: the window-swapping key combination on a mac is Command-˜. On an ISO keyboard, the ˜ key is located on the row immediately above command, and slightly to the left. This makes it an extremely awkward combination. On ANSI, it's top left, just below ESC and above Tab, which you use to swap between apps – a logical location. Of course, this is primarily due to Apple's US-centric key combinations, but in daily life it makes all the difference in the world

  19. Amber February 10, 2018 at 10:15 pm - Reply

    I used and still use quite unique keyboard (everything changes… everything but my keyboard) layout for most of my life and now it would be hard to change. For most of the time I do not look on keyboard while I type (I do it mostly in cases when I do not remember where is rarely used by me symbol or I'm terribly tired and make too many mistakes without looking).
    It's basically ISO key layout with ANSI symbols layout. Theoretically there is ISO based layout for Poland but it's rather trivia because I haven't met single peson using it. Everybody is using ANSI based one.
    I wouldn't have problem with ANSI keyboard if not old injury of right hand that makes it quite uncomfortable to use small ANSI enter. As to ISO key – I do not remember using it single time other than checking if it works after general cleaning of keyboard.

    Getting new keyboard with identical layout is impossible for me (I could buy ISO keyboard and ANSI keycaps, but it would be expensive or just do not care about it, but it would annoy me). Finding ISO mechanical keyboard is enough of problem on it's own.

  20. DDS July 17, 2018 at 9:57 am - Reply

    I'm a ISO user (Italian), I'm stick with it, but I made a couple of modifications: I added backtick and tilde (mysteriously missing on italian layout), and also made a "meta" dead keys to insert stressed (upercase) letters. So now I can insert stressed letter and also the ability to insert the accent with only a single keystroke. I tryed ansi but I'm unconfortable with it as almost everythong is in misplaced compared to IT layout.
    If you want to try my "customized Italian layout" here is the driver on github: https://github.com/DavideDaSerra/Italian-Programmer-Layout.
    Anyway I don't think a layout is superior to another, it's only a matter of what someone is used to.

  21. André Müller October 6, 2018 at 8:48 am - Reply

    I wonder why the appearance of the ISO layout of UHK 60 in the shop seems to differ from that ISO layout shown in this article. What is now the truth: does the ISO layout UHK has really a different ENTER key like shown above or is the ultimatehackingkeyboard shop right where there is just the left SHIFT key split into two keys?! So I would have an extra key and could easily remap the upper left key to ESC. In this case I would really prefer the ISO layout for that extra key ….

    • László Monda October 6, 2018 at 9:01 am - Reply

      The shop page is the correct one. The ISO layout has the same bar shaped Enter as the ANSI layout. There's the extra ISO key next to the left Shift, and you can easily remap the upper left key to Esc. Please read the product description of the UHK60 for more.

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