Shaping Windows 8.1 and adding Russian custom phonetic layout

I’ve been using Windows 7 for quite some while now. And I’m really happy with it. Even so happy that I continue recommending friends and family to go for Windows 7 when buying a new computer, if they’ve got any chance to avoid Windows 8.

But, a couple of weeks ago we needed to get a new computer for my wife. And this time, we didn’t have any choice. So a couple of hours later, I started my attempts to turn a computer with Windows 8.1 into a useful tool for work.

Bad surprise number 1: Windows 8 doesn’t really bother about the the difference between a laptop and a tablet.

It’s weird, but even with an ever so normal laptop, text input, games and many programmes (sorry, “apps”) are tuned towards use on a tablet. Skype (being owned by Microsoft) is preinstalled as a full-page app, which you can uninstall and replace by the normal desktop program. In Windows 8, you can easily add many of the typical games you’ve got used to in Windows. But now they are redressed into full-screen apps that don´t run in resizable windows on your desktop. Good thing: I’m not the first one to get stuck on this. A quick google search brought a lot of wisdom to my eyes. (I used the third party program Classic Start Menu 4.1.0 to solve many of my issues with Windows 8.)

Surprise number 2 (main topic for this post): You (kind of) can’t use custom keyboard layout any more. (But you can!)
For ages, I’ve been using custom keyboard layouts. I’m Swedish. In addition to Swedish, I frequently use both Russian and English. (And now more and more Spanish.) One could argue that the QWERTY keyboard layout is strange and not very logical. And I agree. But I know it, I even know it very well. When I was 14 years old, I learned typing on mechanical typewriters with a Swedish version of the QWERTY layout. The machines were fitted with a special shield on top of the keyboard, so that one had to remember and feel, rather than looking at the keyboard all the time.
By the time I started writing in Russian, most typewriters had been retired and replaced by computers. I simply saw no meaning of learning yet another layout. For Russian, I created my own customized layout, based on where the corresponding letter was located on a Swedish keyboard. Microsoft offers a free download MSKLC (Microsoft keyboard layout customizer) which makes this a quite possible way forward. So, whenever I need to type something in Russian, I’ll quickly install my custom keyboard layout (which I grab from the web, of course, at and in a couple of minutes, I’m off writing.

BUT, MSKLC doesn’t run on Windows 8! I found a note that sometimes a layout made with MSKLC will work on a system with Windows 8, though. So I installed it, but I still couldn’t add my layout.
Then I spotted that Microsoft provides their own way on handling Russian, “Russian mnemonic keyboard”, which I then activated. I got stuck already on the first letter! How much I ever wanted, I couldn’t type the letter Ч. I walked over the keyboard and the needed letter was simply not there! After some googling and reading it turned out, that this mnemonic keyboard doesn’t employ the concept of “one key–one letter”. Certain letters are supposed to be written by a combination of keys after each other. When you hit C, for instance, Windows will wait and see what you do next, before it decides which Russian letter would be "most appropriate". But they forgot to inform the user about this… Anyway, that was too far an approximation for me to become any happier. I decided to give my own layout another try. And this time it worked! I managed to install my own layout and activate it.
The trick seems to be the following:
When you install your own keyboard layout, you need to already have the corresponding language active in the system! So, for Russian:

  1. Add Russian, with any built-in keyboard layout.
  2. Install the custom layout (link provided above).
  3. Now add your preferred input method
  4. Remove that built-in input method you’re not going to use
  5. Ready!

Remember that if you want to customize the layout first, then you need to do that in MSKLC on a computer with Windows 7 or older!


    • Roman on February 26, 2015 at 04:14
    • Reply

    Hi, thanks for the post! I’m Russian and what surprised me the most about this mnemonic keyboard is:
    you type Ч with CH; Ю-YU; Ш-SH; SC-SC; but Ж is just X. But it is more logical to use the zh combo.
    Do you by chance know if there is any way to modify the layout file to include that option? It could be both, x and zh.
    It’s really confusing to me, that’s how i typed translit sms in the pre-t9 days, so it’s really stuck in my head…

      • Tobi on February 26, 2015 at 07:55
      • Reply

      Hello Roman,
      Since more than 15 years, I’ve been using my own specific keyboard layout for typing in Russian. It’s mostly my own phonetic adaptation of the QWERTY layout, where most of the special characters coincide with a typical Swedish keyboard layout.
      Once I found out, that I still could install my own dll that I made earlier with MSKLC, I gladly decided that I don’t need to learn, nor tweak, the horrible solution MIcrosoft included with Windows 8.

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