Duck You, Autocorrect: Returning To A Physical Keyboard After A Year

A few months back, I penned a Brutally Honest Question Corner in which I asked, Are Physical Keyboards Dead? That article came -as all good ones do- as a result of a barroom conversation. I was with a handful of BlackBerry-toting friends who bemoaned their antiquated software situation, but steadfastly maintained that they could never give up their stodgy Canadian hardware for one important reason: RIM‘s world-class physical keyboard.

I went on to make the case that touchscreen keyboards were the future, and I still believe that’s true. Touch input is faster, it allows for sleeker hardware design, and haptic feedback -when implemented properly- already provides a passable substitute for the tactility of real keys. Autocorrect, still a ripe ground for hilarity, is getting better all the time. When the predictive software behind it makes the next big leap in intuitiveness and customizability, it’ll be the final nail in the coffin for those little boards of plastic Chiclets still clinging to the bottom of some smartphone displays.

But that day hasn’t yet arrived, and genuine physical keyboards are still a selling point for some smartphone buyers. I was reminded of this when the Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE arrived at my door a few days ago. Just a couple minutes into my unboxing experience, in the midst of taking the phone out of its packaging for the first time, I breathlessly remarked “Wow. I forgot how thick these devices can be when they have a sliding keyboard.”

Know what I also forgot? What it’s like to type on one. For the past year (give or take a month or two), I’ve used nothing but touchscreen input on my daily drivers, and even my review units. The new Photon Q is my first experience with a smartphone physical keyboard since giving up my HP Veer for my Samsung Focus and Galaxy Nexus LTE (RIP) last winter. Here’s what it’s been like, in chronological notes taken from my experiences.

“Day 43: Still no sign of ‘Landing’ button. Rations running low.”

“Really awesome travel really amazing feeling… forgot how luxurious this could be”

You know that feeling you get when you just know you’re in a well-engineered car, because all of the switches and buttons are precisely machined, the steering is tight, and the car doors provide just the right kind of clunk when you close them? After months and months of using nothing but a touchscreen keyboard, any physical keyboard feels like that. The return of tactility after so long spent with thumbs on smooth, cold glass is almost heartwarming, in a weird way that I know you understand because you’re a Pocketnow reader. You get it.

Still … takes longer due to physical key travel

I touched on this in the above-mentioned article. The very nature of physical keys makes them inherently slower than their capacitive counterparts, because of the requirement that they travel downward to close a physical contact in order to register a key press. True, we’re only talking a matter of microns here, but in the aggregate, the nanoseconds those nanometers demand makes a huge difference– even over the course of a 160-character text message or 140-character tweet. Typing just takes longer on physical keys.

I like hittimg enter…  muvh more satisyfimg than tappimg a touvh control

As the typos will indicate, there’s a learning curve to the adaptation process. No, I wasn’t drunk.

Wow ive gotten so lazy in thu,b typimg precisiom…   we offload a lot of the 5himking to autocorrect these days!

This is maybe my favorite observation of the entire experience, because it’s something I never thought about before. To fully grasp what I’m talking about, have a look at this screenshot:

Look at all those red marks! Seriously, it looks like an SAT essay by Miss Teen South Carolina 2007. By default, autocorrect isn’t enabled in aggressive mode when using the Photon Q’s keyboard, and it shows. That’s not a slight against the device, but more a very clear indication of just how dependent we’ve all become on software-based text correction.

That’s also not to say that autocorrect isn’t possible with physical keyboards; it certainly is, and it can actually work quite well. I remember autocorrect being a big help on the Veer’s tiny keyboard. But it’s different on a touch screen, and it’s amazing just how much imprecision has crept into our mobile typing in the name of speed. Even more amazing is how much of that imprecision is routinely corrected my software on a daily basis, and how much better it will get as software smartens up going forward.

Nice to have tab key. Lets you navigate the sw like an old school DOS prompt along with the enter key.

I once shared an office with a guy who hated using his mouse. Not because he was a luddite; on the contrary, he was a brilliant programmer. And many folks of his stripe, raised on keyboard shortcuts, find mouse or trackpad input less efficient, so they stick with what works.

Do your thing, bro.

That’s what I felt like when I figured out the Photon had a tab key, and that Android lets users move a highlight around the screen with it, much like old-school Windows. That came in handy, because …

Forgot about dissociative feeling of usimg both phys keyboard and touvh screen…  disjointed experience.

As a user-interface geek, this is perhaps my greatest challenge when dealing with physical keyboards on smartphones. All mobile devices running modern OSes need touchscreen input; I’m a big fan of gray areas, but there really isn’t one here (unless you want to argue that Symbian or BlackBerryOS are somehow “modern,” in which case, please do that elsewhere).

Touch screen input is primary. It’s predominant. It’s awesome. And using the physical keyboard in concert with that is … well, as I said in the note, it’s disjointed. Every time you switch between the tactile keyboard and the smooth touchscreen, you’re shifting between a hard-press and a soft-touch interface paradigm. That causes some brain weirdness that I’ve written about before in my piece on why the smartphone home button needs to disappear.

My hands ache. Day one. This takes some getting used to.

There’s only one proper response to this.

Somebody call it.

Finally, there’s one last bit of profundity to be milked from this experience so far:

I wonder how much of my keyboard favoritism is just nostalgia. For phys kbs of old.

I really do wonder about this. I’ve found mobile-phone typing on a physical keyboard to be more cumbersome, slower, and less accurate than the touchscreen input I’ve been doing for all of 2012. Yet somehow, part of me likes it more.

Maybe it’s that I’m starved for tactility in this cold, stark, lonely world. Maybe it’s just something new and different, a novelty I crave. Or maybe it’s because, as I’ve admitted recently, I’m prone to bouts of sentimental nostalgia, and I long for the BlackBerrys, Treos, and Motorola Qs that inducted me into the world of smartphones. Whatever the reason, there’s something about being back on a physical phone keyboard I love, despite its multitude of disadvantages.

I’ll share more insights on this in the future, possibly in an installment of Empty Nest after I’ve been forced to return the rare keyboard-packing Photon Q. Until then, watch for my review of said device, follow me on Twitter for more misspelled and typo-ridden dispatches from the world of achy thumbs, and say a little prayer to cure my keyboard-nostalgia disease.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA. Read more about Michael Fisher!