This FAQ is for general users who are new to steno. If you're a steno professional, read the FAQ for Stenographers.
What is Plover?
Plover is the world's first free, open-source stenography program. It is available on Windows, Mac and Linux. It can be downloaded here.
What is stenography?
Real-time machine stenography is a code translation system that lets users enter words and syllables by pressing multiple keys simultaneously in a chord, which is then instantly translated into English text. This makes steno the fastest and most accurate text entry method currently available. In the first semester of steno school, nearly all students learn to exceed 100 words per minute. By comparison, top qwerty typists can do 120 WPM, top Dvorak typists around 140 WPM, and voice writers dictating to voice recognition software around 180 WPM. But experienced stenographers can enter text at up to 300 words per minute (the world record is actually 360, but that's an outlier). Conceivably, with practice, amateur steno users could reach 160-200 words per minute.
How does it work?
See the comparison table between qwerty (or dvorak, etc) and steno for more details.
Most likely, you are using a qwerty or dvorak keyboard layout to type everything out character by character. However, Plover—and other steno systems—use keyboard "chords" to type syllables, words, or entire phrases. If you ever practiced piano, it might be helpful to liken them to certain piano pieces common in a pianist's repertoire. The "typewriter-style" systems (qwerty, dvorak, etc.) are like Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu:
Notice how this piece—like typing—is mainly runs of single fingers. When you learn and practice this piece, you often do many finger exercises to strengthen certain fingers to increase your speed. However, "steno-style" systems (NYCI, StenoEd, Phoenix, etc.) are like Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Minor:
Unlike the Chopin, this piece is almost entirely chorded. When learning a piece like this, you learn how to block your chords. So your approach to learning steno may be completely different than learning a different keyboard layout, since it's a completely different system. Explore this site if you wish to learn more about "Rach-style" keyboard computer entry.
Why was Plover written?
A professional stenographer, forced to buy proprietary (and DRM-riddled) steno software for $4,000 plus an annual $700 upgrade fee after shelling out for a $3,000 steno machine, looked around and saw that most of the people who made their living and their free time putting text up on a screen were crawling along at around 60 words per minute because they were using qwerty instead of steno. She realized that the only way to spread the wonders of high speed efficient text entry to the geeks, hackers, writers, and internet addicts who desperately needed it was to make the software free and the hardware cost less than $60. She found a Python programmer who was also a hardware maven, and they both got down to work. Eleven months later, Plover was ready for prime time.
The short answer is that it's a two-syllable, six-letter word that can be written in a single stroke on a steno machine. The longer answer is here.
How is Plover different from commercial steno programs?
Well, first off, it's free. Free to distribute, free to modify. No dongles, no upgrade fees, no constraints. That's already a $4,000 difference. To the developer's knowledge, it's also the only steno software that works on a buffer-based system rather than a timer-based system, and that has direct access to the OS rather than filtering everything into a steno-specific word processor. This means it's lightweight, powerful, and doesn't require a 1.5-second wait time between when a stroke is entered and when the translation appears in an external program. In Plover, the translation appears instantly, and the software isn't cluttered up with file managers, printer handlers, and other court-reporting flimflam that an amateur stenographer will never use. Instead, it's a direct conduit between the steno keyboard and the OS. Plover, as of version 2.1, can do everything a qwerty keyboard can do – but much, much faster.
Why learn steno? And how?
I've broken the answer to the first question into six parts:
Part One: How to Speak With Your Fingers - For people who can't use their voice to speak but want to communicate in realtime using a steno-enabled text to speech device.
Part Two: Writing and Coding - For people whose fluency of thought depends on ease and efficiency of text input.
Part Three: The Ergonomic Argument - For people who want to avoid wasted effort and repetitive stress injuries.
Part Four: Mobile and Wearable Computing - For people who want to input text and control their computers while walking around, with a minimum of dorkitude.
Part Five: Raw Speed - For people who have to be the fastest, no matter what.
Part Six: CART, Court, and Captioning - For people who want to provide live verbatim transcription professionally.
And a partial answer to the second question can be found below. Steno 101 is an ongoing online course on the fundamentals of machine shorthand. So far it has covered the basic principles of the system and a complete tour of the keyboard, with more to come. Since steno is a mnemonic-kinetic system, the ideal way to learn it would be through a tutorial video game, but nothing like that currently exists. After Plover has reached its current goals, Steno Hero is next on the list.
What hardware is needed to use Plover?
Currently Plover works with stenotype machines or a computer keyboard.
Plover supports the following stenotype protocols:
- Stentura serial protocol (most machines by Stenograph and many others)
- Gemini PR serial protocol (typically any recent machine made by the Neutrino Group, such as the Piper, Revolution, or Infinity series)
- TX Bolt (an older protocol supported by some machines as a primary or secondary protocol)
- Treal (used only by the Treal from Word Technologies)
- Passport (used only by the Passport Writer from Advantage Software)
You can also use any qwerty keyboard with n-key rollover (also sometimes called, inaccurately, anti-ghosting). Many high-end gaming and programming keyboards have this feature, including Das Keyboard, Razer Tarantula, Steelseries 7G, and the Filco Majestouch 2. However, the cheapest steno-compatible keyboard on the market is Microsoft's SideWinder X4, which sells for around $45. The qwerty keyboard can be used as a steno machine right out of the box, but many people like applying keypads to the 22 keys used in steno, to provide haptic feedback and to compensate somewhat for the qwerty layout's misaligned columns.
Here's the qwerty-to-steno conversion map:
The dark blue letters on top are the qwerty keys and the light blue letters on the bottom are the steno keys they correspond to. Basically, just put your left thumb in the crack between the C and V keys and your right thumb between the N and M keys, your left pinky between the Q and A keys and your right pinky between the P and ; keys (when you need to hit D and Z in steno, you shift your pinky to the right without moving the rest of your hand), your left pointer between the R and F keys, and your right pointer between the U and J keys.
What can Plover do right now?
Plover can write properly capitalized and punctuated text into any window as if it were an ordinary keyboard. It can send command strokes such as Enter or Escape, giving it complete equivalence to the qwerty keyboard. It's also a robust and convenient text entry system, suitable for writing, coding, chatting, and kicking people's butts at online typing games.
What does Plover look like in action?
Here's a video of me kicking someone's butt in TypeRacer, an online typing game that lets people race against each other by hammering out random snippets of text at high velocities:
And here's a demonstration of Plover with eSpeak, a free text-to-speech engine, which can be a way to talk at a normal conversational pace by people who don't use their voices to speak, as discussed in How to Speak With your Fingers.
This is Mirabai's demonstration. It shows the keys pressed along with their resulting output. Read more about it from her blog post
What's next on the feature list?
Better dictionary management (Plover comes with a 124,000-word dictionary, but every stenographer's writing system is different, and currently the dictionary can only be modified manually using a text editor rather than adding or editing entries on the fly while using the program); support for more steno protocols; a port for Android. You can see the current priority list here.
Who's responsible for Plover's development?
Mirabai Knight, Certified CART provider for StenoKnight CART Services, Hesky Fisher, lead developer, and Joshua Harlan Lifton, freelance Python coder, with additional help from readers of the Plover Blog and members of the Plover Discussion Group.
Does the Plover Project accept donations?
Absolutely. Contributions of money, code, testing, documentation, publicity, or TypeRacer cannon fodder are gratefully accepted.