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 distance Left Shift distance Backslash distance
ANSI 6 4.5 6.75
ISO 6.75 5.5 4.5

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+00:00 2015-09-09 12:29|design|22 Comments

22 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.

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