The war between the virtual and the concrete has been over for some time, and there’s no real dispute that the former won. Software keyboards now dominate the smartphone space in no uncertain terms. But the conflict was long and protracted, with manufacturers like BlackBerry and Motorola fiercely holding on for years, fighting the good fight like those infamous WWII Japanese holdouts – even after it became clear that virtual keyboards were the wave of the future.
That’s not to say that physical keypads are entirely obsolete; “losing the war” in this context just means they’re no longer the dominant input method. Indeed, it’s prudent for manufacturers to continue offering at least a handful of physical-QWERTY devices for those customers coming from feature phones, those with specialized needs, or those who simply prefer a more tactile typing experience on their smartphones. But as these ‘boards have fallen from popularity, sliding from high-end phones to the midrange, they’ve become less and less relevant.
This isn’t our first trek down this road. Just a couple weeks back, Taylor Martin asked readers if they’d use a device with a hardware keyboard again. Last summer, I posted a log of my experience returning to a landscape QWERTY slider after an extended virtual-only period. And over a year ago, I penned a Brutally Honest Question Corner piece asking if physical keyboards were, in fact, dead.
But it’s one thing to speak in abstract about the physical-vs-virtual debate, and quite another to experiment in the real world. I’ve just spent three days using a physical QWERTY smartphone -the BlackBerry Q10- as my daily driver, and the experience has given me some perspective on what physical keyboards mean in 2013. This is similar to my August 2012 piece documenting my return to physicality, but with a crucial difference: there, the device was a Motorola Photon Q. Here, it’s a BlackBerry. The latter company, for all its failings, has always been known as the king of keyboards; the former … hasn’t. So if there’s such a thing as the perfect device for testing out the best physical keyboard money can buy, the newest high-end BlackBerry is it.
I took the Q10 on a weekend excursion to Maine, during which I used it as my primary communication device. Here’s some observations from my weekend of getting physical. Again.
It’s a huge shift
The key arrangement is the same. The basic functionality is the same. Even the shortcut functions like voice input are placed in essentially the same spots as on most touchscreen devices. The Q10’s keyboard layout is beyond familiar. But even with all these similarities, typing on it is incredibly different. That’s borne out my some notes I took at the start of the experience last Friday:
Amazing how antiquated it feels. It’s also reassuring and nostalgic, but it’s really not anything like virtual kb. Autocorrect isn’t the same. I’m not used to this. Pressing and holding for shift and caps – these things are alien to me. Joining of this and the touchscreen is a lot like a Windows 8 laptop – I touch AND I type? What is this sorcery?
That last bit harkens back to an observation I made during my time with the Photon, the odd paradigm shift between touching and typing which I not-so-eloquently referred to as “brain weirdness.” Despite the fact that we’re talking about BlackBerry 10 here instead of Android, that odd mental disjoint remains: the tap-swipe-and-gesture world of the touchscreen is completely different from the thumb-push-and-click world of its physical keyboard counterpart below. As we learned long ago with the Palm Pixi, that disconnect takes some getting used to.
It’s more satisfying, and maybe more precise
Once you get used to it, though, the disjointedness gives way to a strange feeling of fulfillment. The mechanical feedback of a spring-mounted button clicking under a fingertip is satisfying in a way that tapping a sheet of glass isn’t. And though I still prefer the more widely-spaced keyboards of the Curve line to the compressed, fretted arrangement of the BlackBerry Bold and the Q10, it surprised me how quickly I was able to adapt. I’m still not as fast on the physical keys as I am on the all-touch Z10, but I’m now able to bang out messages pretty quickly after a weekend of thumb-clicking.
Speaking of the Z10: BlackBerry’s new predictive-typing software was one of the bright points of our review of that device, and though a version of it is included on the Q10 as well, it’s just not the same. The Z10’s auto-complete engine was so good that we could often compose entire sentences just by a series of up-swipes, typing a hundred characters with as few as ten gestures on the virtual keys. The Q10’s physical keyboard obviously can’t offer the same functionality; while its stand-in text suggestion software is good, it’s actually turned off by default. That provides a clue as to the builder’s intent: BlackBerry seems to be saying that those who use a physical keyboard are less likely to make typing mistakes than their virtual-tap counterparts. Once I got used to the feeling of the key nubs under my thumbs, I started to understand why: while I couldn’t type as fast as I could on the Z10, HTC One, or Galaxy S 4, I could type more accurately.
It’s still an endangered species
No matter how satisfying, nostalgic, and practically useful it is, though, I can’t help but feel that physical keyboards like the Q10’s are living on borrowed time in the modern smartphone world. Every major platform -iOS, Windows Phone, Android, and BlackBerry 10- has brought amazing innovation to the touchscreen keyboard space, and that innovation has been augmented by incredible third-party developments as well. Virtual keyboards are beyond mature; even conventional ones are now being supplanted by still-more-efficient input modalities like Swype. With world’s-fastest-texter competitions being won by typists using these gesture-based methods, it’s easy to envision a world in which tapping virtual keys is the new tapping physical keys. The old new is the new old.
Little plastic chiclet keys aren’t dead yet, though; other, more-recent texting competitions prove that. And there’s still a huge enthusiast community that cherishes the spring-loaded square letters of yore – a community large enough that manufacturers will probably continue offering physical keyboards on smartphones for a few years to come. I have to admit that my weekend with the Q10 may have bumped me closer to that enthusiast status; the cocktail of tactility and nostalgia is a strong one indeed. But like a carnival goer taking home a prize goldfish, I’m going to try not to get too attached. It’s a courtship not likely to last.
Old keyboard pic via computerhistory.org