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Which smartphone keyboard is the best?

Posted on 9 Mar 2010 at 13:52

Paul Ockenden puts a series of dedicated and on-screen smartphone keyboards to the test

A debate that crops up time and again is whether it’s better to have a dedicated keyboard on your smartphone (either below the screen or one that slides out), or whether an on-screen keyboard with text correction is adequate.

It’s a debate that hotted up recently as some phones with screen-based keyboards started to provide tactile feedback, either using an ultra-quick spin of their vibration alert or, like the BlackBerry Storm2, using clever piezo-electric technology to simulate the feel of a button press.

The manufacturers claim that this makes on-screen typing as reliable as using a proper keyboard. But in the real world, what is it actually like using these new-fangled screen-based keyboards, and how do they compare to phones with more conventional Qwerty buttons?

Since the various handset manufacturers and mobile networks loan me test devices, I’m in the fortunate position to perform head-to-head tests, and that’s exactly what I did.

On each phone I typed the same slab of text – the first couple of verses of Lou Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes” (a favourite that showed up in a random playlist as I started the test) – a telephone number, a web URL and a username/password. In each case I timed the operation and noted its accuracy: you can see my results in the table below.

Mobile keyboards table

I used each phone in its default mode, as it would present to a brand-new user out of the box. I counted one error for each wrong word in the main text and for each wrong character in the phone number, web address, username and password. In every test I tried not to look at the screen and typed as quickly as I could, allowing the phone to correct any errors. I’m not the world’s fastest typist, so I’m sure some of you could easily beat the absolute times, but as a comparison between devices it’s reasonably valid.

How should we interpret the results of this barely-scientific test? First, physical keyboards would appear still to be significantly faster and more accurate than on-screen keyboards, and second, fancy new screen technologies offering haptic feedback don’t necessarily improve typing speed and accuracy, although they feel nicer in use.

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User comments

Slashdotted?

Wow, one guys experience with six phones.

By DreDay on 10 Mar 2010

Slashdotted?

not many phones :/

By everyday on 10 Mar 2010

Barely scientific?

More like least scientific test ever...

By ruskamsf on 10 Mar 2010

Extremely biased

ok so you compare your experience, being a life-long hardware keyboard user, to touch keyboards? wrong approach.
Even as a comparison between soft keyboards, you admit you both want to resemble a first time user, but without looking at the screen... huh? Finally, you have not quoted the text you typed, which is crucial to the nature of this text, since you are essentially comparing the error correction ability of individual phones.

Overall... good writeup, bad everything else.

By hexblot on 11 Mar 2010

Readers should be circumspect of these results

I appreciate your attempt to help readers understand the differences between hardware and on-screen keyboards when shopping for a smartphone. Unfortunately, your informal keyboard comparison test and the conclusions you draw from it are almost entirely subjective, based on your experience alone. When putting your write-up together, did you happen to consider:

- Asking nine additional folks to complete the same keyboarding test that you did? I realize that would involve more time and effort, but you would be able to average the results from 10 different typists, which would make your results at least 10 times more valid than they are now.

- How some key variables might affect the outcome of the test you conducted? For instance, what smartphone do you use on a daily basis? You never say, but that's important because your familiarity and experience should give you a significant edge when completing the test on that phone - or a similar model. What's more, you never say whether you conducted your iPhone test in portrait or landscape mode. I know from personal experience that I type faster and with far fewer errors when using the landscape keyboard, which is available on the iPhone for all of the content you mention as part of the test. I'm not certain whether the other phones with on-screen keyboards also include landscape modes. This question needs to be answered and the benefits of using landscape keyboard modes should have been explored.

- How well each keyboard fares with repeated, day-to-day use? I know this question is difficult to answer when conducting a quick-and-dirty test, but readers need to be reminded that their typing speed will improve the longer they work with a particular keyboard. The No. 1 fear I had when switching from a Blackberry to an iPhone was that I wouldn't be able to get used to the on-screen keyboard. It definitely took a week or two, but after nearly two years as an iPhone owner, I can type much, much faster on the iPhone keyboard than I ever couldo on a Blackberry, even though the opposite was true at first. I would argue that the physical design of the keyboard only has so much to do with a user's ultimate ability to type on it. The way the keys are laid out and the software that handles auto-correction, logic, etc., is probably more important. Several years ago, I used the venerable Blackberry 7100 which features RIM's SureType key layout. It was a significant adjustment at first but I eventually mastered it, and today I can still SureType my way through e-mails and tweets faster than I could tap them out on a Blackberry Bold (though admittedly SureType can't compete when typing URLs and e-mail addresses).

- Doing a Google search to see if anyone else has conducted similar typing tests? I found at least half a dozen test comparisons between Blackberry devices and the iPhone using a variety of methodologies. Weaving the highlights of those test results into your report would give readers useful context to help in their decision-making process.

In wrapping up your piece, you acknowledge that you aren't a great typist, but that doesn't stop you from concluding that hardware keyboards remain significantly faster than their on-screen counterparts. That conclusion seems presumptuous considering all of the holes I've poked in your reporting. Deeper analysis and more context hopefully would have helped you realize that the there are too many variables to choose a clear-cut winner in the smartphone keyboard debate at present. Perhaps the best advice would have been to reassure smartphone shoppers that no matter what device they buy the keyboard should be up to speed if they take the time to master it.

But unless readers make it down to the comments, I'm afraid all they're going to take away from this piece is a flawed conclusion that's little more than the writer's subjective opinion. This piece should have been vetted more closely before publication. The fact that it wasn't is disappointing and a blow to the respect PC PRO has earned in the nearly 10 years I have been a regular reader. Simply put, I'm pissed off - disappointed really - because I like you guys a lot. So, for all of us loyal readers, please don't let something like this happen again.

By lenfischer on 11 Mar 2010

@lenfischer, thanks

Thanks for taking the time to respond, and I'm sorry that I made you feel "pissed off". As a long term reader you must surely know that the Real World columns within the magazines are by their very nature just one person's view, and they also tend to be opinionated.

The test was in no way meant to be scientific. I thought I'd made that very clear, but if that wasn't the case - if that point wasn't made strongly enough for you - then I can only apologise.

To answer some of your specific points:

- Asking 10 people to do the test really isn't what these RWC columns are all about. As a long term reader I'm surprised you didn't realise this.

- The phone I use on a day to day basis varies. Like I said in the column, I have most of the recent smart phones here in my toy box. Each day I'l usually pick a different one. Yes, some days it'll be a BlackBerry, but other days it'll be an iPhone, and then the following day it could be a Nokia N97 mini. It really does vary.

- Likewise your comment about repeated use. I've used all of the phones in the test extensively. In fact, the phone that 'won' the test was the least used, because I hadn't had it that long when I did the test.

I hope that addresses some of your concerns, but like I said in the column, it isn't (and was never meant to be) a scientific test. As everything in the RWC columns, it was simply one person's view...

Thanks again for the feedback.

Paul Ockenden

By PaulOckenden on 11 Mar 2010

what about Bluetooth keyboards?

I use my Touch HD on screen letter recognition for the odd quick text. However, as a touch-typist of 25+ years, there is no substitute for the feel of finger on full sized physical key. I have used a folding keyboard for my PDA for 10 years, progressing to a Bluetooth keyboard in the past 5 years. I still don't understand why they are not more popular. They are ideal for taking notes in lectures or meetings, take up little room in a crowded train and can achieve similar typing speeds to a conventional keyboard with little fatigue.

By pbarclay on 12 Mar 2010

A good solid keyboard is best

I like the tests and the comments it has provoked. I have a slide out keyboard on my LG and also a touch screen if I really want it. However using the hard keyboard is far faster and less error prone. But the smaller the phone gets, the smaller the keyboard :( luckily phones seem to want to get bigger so hopefully they will provide better spaced out keyboards - though here I like keyboards that slide out of the side rather than the bottom as the latter tend to be far more cramped, plus typing texts in landscape view is far more comfortable than the Blackberry - which often leaves me with hand cramp.

By nicomo on 14 Mar 2010

Agreed with PcPro that fastest writing is by physical keyboard "thumbing"

My fastest writing experince is actually my Nokia E61i with "thumbing". Absolutely more physiological to use physical keyboard. To overcome using onscreen keyboard for example iPhone uses dictionary correction, otherwise it would be much worse...

By HopeLESS on 15 Mar 2010

It may not be the most scientific test in the world, but then it doesn't need to be. Why spend £10million pounds on a test when £50 will do as the test tells us what we all know.....

Simply put we've sacrificed keyboard functionality for touchscreen functionality which has allowed developers to create different user experiences. Depending what a phone is primarily used for will dictate which means of input is preferred.

By the way phones without touchscreens still out sell those with by a HUGE margin!

By anthonysjones on 16 Mar 2010

keyboards,who needs them ?

I've not had a decent keyboard on a phone since my Nokia 9000 died.
Current phones are,for me, simply too small and as a result keyboards impractical.
Perhaps its about time we had speech to text on phones like Dragon Naturally speaking on my PC, or just make bigger phones:-))

By UK_Snapper on 1 Apr 2010

Touchscreens

I gave up on my touchscreen phone when I couldn't read the d@mn thing in strong sunlight.

By downview on 3 Apr 2010

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