Editorial: On-Screen Keyboards are Better

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For the longest time, I’ve felt that serious e-mailers and texters needed a hardware keyboard to have the best typing experience possible. In fact, it was the Motorola Q9h that I felt had the best hardware keyboard of any mobile phone. Trouble is, the software on the Q9h is far from modern (kicking it with Windows Mobile 6), so using it today just isn’t feasible. Today, there are no shortage of smartphones that utilize an on-screen keyboard for text entry. And in fact, that’s fine by me, because I think they’re better. Here’s why.

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In a keynote in 2007, Steve Jobs paved the way for the on-screen keyboard revolution by describing hardware keyboards as “being there whether you need them or not. They all have these controls buttons that are fixed in plastic and are the same in every application. But every application wants an optimized set of buttons, just for it. And what if you think of a great idea six months from now? You can’t go back and add a button.” And looking back, Steve was right.

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Fundamentally, it’s tough to make the case for the hardware keyboard today, as it’s a limiting factor in precious screen size. Consider devices like the Droid Pro. It has the best of both worlds (sort of), with a touchscreen AND a full keyboard. But at what cost? The cost is that the screen is a mere 3.1 inches, and is HVGA resolution. That makes for a sub-par experience when browsing the web, reading eBooks, or looking at high-res photos. If Motorola were to make the screen bigger and they wanted to keep the front-facing keyboard, they’d have to either produce an extremely tall (and thus unusable) phone, or squash the size of the keyboard (thus defeating the purpose of having a keyboard in the first place). Most of us want a nice-sized screen of at least 3.5″, and adding a hardware keyboard to the mix just makes this impossible (unless you’re going to get yourself a PN1 dream phone). Unless, of course, you’re adding a side-sliding keyboard, but don’t get me started on the annoying ergonomics of having to tilt the phone to slide open a keyboard. Plus, phones with side-sliding keyboards are thick and heavy, even the newest ones on the block.

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So the iPhone came out, and with it the world saw for the first time how a fantastic on-screen keyboard could operate. Previous to the iPhone, on-screen keyboards were comprised of mini grids on a resistive display that could only be operated with a fingernail or with the included stylus. The iPhone, with its ultra-sensitive capacitive touchscreen and intelligent keyboard software (that didn’t require you to hit each and every letter dead-on) made for a breakthrough experience. In 2007, I found myself typing as fast, if not faster, on the iPhone than I could on my Motorola Q9h. It took some practice, but using two thumbs on the iPhone instead of an index finger, I was typing at a pretty fast clip.

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Then we saw HTC change its strategy a bit to focus on more touch-friendly interfaces. We got TouchFLO, TouchFLO 3D, and with it, a new, finger-friendly on-screen keyboard as found on the Touch Diamond, Touch Pro, and so on. But these keyboards were still matted to a resistive touchscreen. Entering text was frustrating on these devices because you had to wait for one finger to lift before dropping the next finger (no multi-touch).

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For those in the Windows Mobile world, the HTC Leo, known as the HD2, changed everything. It brought a capacitive screen, plus HTC’s great on-screen keyboard. That, plus the never-before-seen massive 4.3″ display size made for an extremely comfortable typing experience. For the first time, Windows Mobile had a really compelling on-screen keyboard. Couple that with the fact that you could install other keyboards like Swype, and everyone was happy.

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But I still wasn’t an on-screen keyboard convert until several years later when the number of smartphone with on-screen keyboards greatly outnumbered those with physical keyboards, and I was forced to use on-screen keyboards for product reviews. Google made the mistake of including a mediocre keyboard in Android 2.2 and below. For a while I was using the Nexus One (with AT&T 3G) as my daily driver, and the stock keyboard just didn’t cut it. Instead, I used Swype.

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Today, with Android 2.3 touting a redesign keyboard with multitouch, and with screen sensitivity and size increasing with each passing generation of device, we’re finally at a sweet spot where on-screen keyboards are mature. The newest phone operating system, Windows Phone 7, has an incredible on-screen keyboard with large buttons, a satisfying clicky sound, and great text prediction. On-screen keyboards of today are spacious, accurate, and even good-looking. I truly prefer a phone with an on-screen keyboard now because I don’t have to compromise on screen size or resolution. Steve Jobs was right…it’s silly to connect an unchanging hardware keyboard to a device that has changeable software.

In Summary, here’s why I think on-screen keyboards are better than hardware keyboards.

1. No compromises on screen size or resolution (Droid Pro, as an example). Also, a hardware keyboard typically means a thicker and heavier phone. Who wants that?

2. I can change the keyboard (Swype, etc), or, the keyboard can change itself (in the case of entering a web address, entering a PIN, etc).

3. A good on-screen keyboard can allow for faster text entry than a hardware keyboard, with practice, because your fingers are traveling a lesser distance while typing.

4. Why have a keyboard available at all times when you don’t need a keyboard at all times?

How about you? Which do you prefer?



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About The Author
Brandon Miniman
Brandon is a graduate from the Villanova School of Business, located near Philadelphia, PA. He's been a technology writer since 2002, and, in 2005, became Editor-in-Chief of Pocketnow, a then Windows Mobile-focused website. He has since helped to transition Pocketnow into a top-tier smartphone and tablet publication. He's so obsessed with technology that he once entered a candle store and asked if they had a "new electronics" scent. They didn't.