I’ve used mobile devices for over a dozen years. The input mechanisms of these devices have ranged from handwriting recognition and Graffiti with a stylus, to a portrait and landscape oriented physical keyboards, slider keyboards and virtual keyboards.
Over that time I’ve gained an affinity for hardware keyboards over virtual keyboards, and portrait keyboards over landscape keyboards. As I switched from a BlackBerry to a Droid 2 for the last month, and with the prospect of the iPhone coming to Verizon within the next few months, I’ve taken a little time to try to quantify the reasons I prefer hardware keyboards (and could I realistically make the switch to a virtual keyboard).
Virtual vs. Hardware Keyboards
When using a hardware keyboard, I don’t try to touchtype but I do know the QWERTY layout well enough to type very quickly. While pressing the key for one letter, I look ahead to the next letter I’m going to press. In this usage, I’m always one step ahead, not looking at the key I’m currently pressing. With the hardware keyboard, I can feel if I missed the key I was trying to hit and immediately correct.
With a virtual keyboard, I have a choice. I can use the look-ahead method described above, not worry about missing the letters I was aiming for, and rely on auto-correct to fix all the typos. Or I can look at the letter I’m typing and see the confirmation pop-up above the key (Android and iOS), sacrificing speed for accuracy. I’ve used an iPhone since the first generation and I think the virtual keyboard is far superior to the virtual keyboard found on the smaller Android devices, but I still find the experience to be exceedingly frustrating.
This is a religious debate in the tech community. My iPhone toting friends exclaim that the virtual keyboard is just fine, that the auto-correct fixes most typos, and that there is no need for a physical keyboard. I contend that for many of these folks, the iPhone is their first smartphone and they really haven’t experienced an alternative. If the auto-correct was a viable option, we wouldn’t have websites like this.
Portrait vs. Landscape Keyboards
The other difference in mobile keyboards is the orientation. All of my experience until the last month had been with portrait keyboards (Treo, BlackBerry, Palm Pre). I find this orientation to be much faster to use than a landscape keyboard, simply because of the finger travel distance required. If I have to move my eyes and fingers farther to hit the keys, that is slower.
Over the last month, I’ve been using the landscape hardware keyboard on the Droid 2 and it’s OK. I still prefer the portrait keyboard, but I use the landscape hardware keyboard over the portrait virtual keyboard on the Droid 2 95% of the time.
I understand that input methods are definitely an area of personal preference; but the reasons for the preferences above are pretty cut and dry to me. I think I’m probably going to stick with an Android device with the keyboard I prefer for the near future – even with the allure of the iPhone 4′s excellent camera.