Physical QWERTY Keyboard vs Touch Screen

Qwerty keyboard of mobile phone

The Nokia Asha 210 and the leaked NEC Terrain will come with a QWERTY keyboard, and I you might be asking yourself if those companies live in the past. I thought that QWERTY keyboard is dead, even BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry Torch come without a QWERTY keyboard. The thing is that even in the days where smartphones with touchscreen rules the market, there is a large crowd that still prefer typing using a physical keyboard, not a virtual/digital one.

It seems that keyboard is not the thing of the past according to Nokia. Nokia ran a poll last year on August 2012, asking people to vote for their preferred input method. They have been given four options: number keypad, Qwerty keyboard, Touchscreen and Voice commands. To my surprise, the QWERTY keyboard won with 48.64% of the votes with touchscreen in the second place with 34.69% of the votes.

Many people find the Qwerty keyboard to be the fastest and most convenient way to write messages. It’s more accurate and more responsive for many users. I think that people loves the separation between the keyboard and the screen itself, and I personally find the virtual keyboard annoying to use on devices with a small screen. I find myself correcting many typos that are due to me having large fingers and pressing the wrong letter many times while typing.

The Nokia Asha 210 is the latest Qwerty phone from Nokia, but this phone like many others, don’t run on Android.

Having said that, there are some Android phone with physical QWERTY keypad, including the following:

  • Motorola Droid 3 (Android 2.3, 4-inch)
  • Motorola Droid 4 (Android 2.3, upgradable to 4.0, 4-inch)
  • Motorola Pro + (Android 2.3, 3.1-inch)
  • Samsung Galaxy Pro B7510 (Android 2.2.2)
  • Samsung Epic 4G (Android 2.1)
  • Samsung Galaxy M Pro B7800 (Android 2.3, 2.66-inch)
  • Samsung Galaxy Y Pro (Android 2.3, 2.6-inch)
  • Sony Ericsson Xperia Pro (Android 2.3, upgradable to 4.0)
  • Sony Ericsson Xperia mini (Android 2.3, upgradable to 4.0)
  • Samsung Captivate Glide i927 (Android 2.3, upgradable to 4.0)
  • Micromax A78 (Android 2.3)
  • HTC ChaCha (Android 2.3 2.6-inch)
  • HTC status (Android 2.3, 2.6-inch)
  • LG Optimus Pro C660 (Android 2.3.3. 2.8-inch)
  • Motorola Fire XT331 (Android 2.3.4)
  • Acer beTouch E130 (Android 2.2)
  • Huawei U8350 Boulder (Android 2.2, 2.6-inch)

There will be less and less of those Qwerty Android phone as people will be adjusted to using a touch screen for typing and as the virtual keyboard technology improves.  So how can it be improved? – well, I can think on one way. If the one can recognize which part of the finger press the key. We usually press the keys with our thumb, and it depends on the distance of the key from the sides and the part of the thumb we use to click the key. For example, If I am right handed, I will probably use the right part of my thumb to press the ‘p’ key and use the middle part of the thumb to press the ‘f’ or ‘g’ keys. The screen will need to know how to recognize the whole part of my finger before I touch it. We already have this technology that allows us to use air gestures, like on the Samsung Galaxy S4. So this can help improve the accuracy of the virtual keyboard, not just by using word completion and correction, what we have right now.

Qwerty phones come in two main designs: as slide out QWERTY keyboard or Candybar QWERTY keyboard. Slide-out (some referred to it as pull out) keyboards come in two variations, either portrait or landscape. Some prefer the landscape / horizontal orientation because the keys are wider, and that leads to less typos for people with large hands.  The advantage of pull out QWERTY keypad is that it allows phone manufacturers to use a larger screen. Those phones are usually thicker than the Candybar qwerty phone. because it comes the slider resides as a second sliding part beneath the screen part.

Candybar QWERTY phone vs Slide out QWERTY Phone
Candybar QWERTY phone vs Slide out QWERTY Phone

Not all Qwerty keyboard are the same, some comes with more rows (ie.  Samsung Epic 4G comes with 5 rows, myTouch 4G Slide comes with 4 rows) and some incorporates unique button layout and functionality.  Some comes with a joystick like keypad for games, others come with dedicated Android buttons.

There is also the Traditional number keypad option, where you can press the keys once to several times to get the appropriate letter. This of course is the less convenient way, because it takes more key presses to write a letter or word.

A Virtual keyboard has many advantages over the physical hardrware Qwerty keyboard, including:

  • Change to letter from different languages (more than two languages) – you can change to a English, Arabic, Spanish to Japanese if that’s what you need
  • One click to enter symbols (ie. ampersand, dollar sign, brackets, copyright symbol, trademark symbol, etc.)
  • Custom keyboard layout and functions, among them Hacker’s Keyboard, Swype and Smart Keyboard Pro (for Android devices, downloadable from Google Play apps store)

So it depends on how you sue the phone, the languages that you are communicating with, your finger’s size and what you are used to with previous phones.  The goal is to type fast without needing to correct yourself. Virtual keyboard have much better flexibility, but many users don’t have the option to choose between the two.  Most people don’t buy a phone based on whether it has a Qwerty keyboard or not, they buy it for its large screen, processing power, longer battery life or whether it has dual-SIM cards or not. These are a few reasons, but the fact is that most phone manufacturers don’t release phones with Qwerty keyboard.

QWERTY phone variants
Some QWERTY phone keypad layout variants

It’s still nice to see new devices with QWERTY keyboard, but inside I know that the days of the Qwerty keypad are numbered. Most people who are into those type of physical Qwerty keyboard buy a Blackberry device, which its OS optimized for it. With the BlackBerry Q10, BlackBerry took the hybrid path, offering all-touch or QWERTY, offering users the best typing experience. So with the Q10 you won’t have to chose between the two, you have the option to use both. The downside is that the screen is only 3.1-inches, so it’s pretty small for today’s standard, and especially for a touch sensitive screen. For the mass market, the alternative is to indeed choosoe the hybrid path and pick up one of the Qwerty Android devices that I’ve mentioned above. The downside is that you will have a thicker and most probably heavier device, but if you are used for Qwerty keyboard, the advantages will outweigh the cons.

If you already are use to work with Android devices and you want a physical QWERTY keyboard, I recommend going with a pull out QWERTY phone, which you can enjoy a QWERTY keyboard but also enjoy a relatively larger touchscreen as well.

So which one do you prefer, a physical QWERTY keypad, touchscreen or the hybrid one (both physical and touchscreen)? – share your thoughts by commenting below.

3 thoughts on “Physical QWERTY Keyboard vs Touch Screen

  1. I will be so sad to see a qwerty keyboard go by the wayside. I use my cellphone all the time for emails and texts and such and can guarantee that I’m faster than someone on a virtual keyboard. I wouldn’t mind dictating the email or text message but fixing typos is a slow process. I may be a physical-keyboard-loving dinosaur but I’m a very productive, efficient one!

  2. I think your argument for the virtues of touchscreen keyboards over physical keyboards is questionable for a number of reasons.

    1) The virtual keyboard cannot be used by human beings as quickly as physical keyboards. This is not a matter of insufficient learning, this is a matter of certain facts about how human beings evolved through natural selection. Human beings, although very good at manipulating abstract objects in their minds, are not very good at making abstract distinctions with their hands without the aid of touch (and in this sense I mean feeling the difference between one object and another). After all, in our evolutionary history was it ever necessary for human beings to imagine that the s button is x cms away from f in order to manipulate one’s digits in the appropriate way? Nope. However, we certainly evolved to make finer distinctions with our fingers whenever there is something to discriminate between by touch.

    2) With the virtual keyboard there is no way to make these finer distinctions without looking at the keyboard itself and since it is the case that your hands are in the way of field of vision, your visual system is only of limited benefit to you while you are typing on such devices. In other words, because you cannot see through your hands, there is only one way left to make the discriminations you need to be able to make to type, and that’s with a physical keyboard.

    3) All human beings produce oil from their hands. Touchscreens do not work well when they are covered with oil. But you need to type with your hands to use the touch screen. Therefore, by virtue of using a virtual keyboard, you are preventing the keyboard from doing what it’s supposed to do.

    Now, here are the virtues of a physical keyboard:

    1) Although you might think you are better at typing on a virtual screen than a physical keyboard, you are mistaken. This is because your brain in coordination with your hands evolved to make finer discriminations by touch, and not by imagining where something would be if it were physically real.

    2) By being able to physically feel the differences between the buttons, you are able to overcome the problem that your hands pose by preventing your eyes from seeing the keyboard. This is why keyboard manufacturers fitted the home row keys with little protrusions that help you discriminate the home row keys from the rest of the keyboard, because you cannot rely on your eyes to tell you where your hands are. This is also why we were taught by our elementary and high school teachers not to look at the keyboard, but feel where our hands are located on the keyboard.

    3) It doesn’t matter how much oil your greasy hands produce. A physical keyboard will not be prevented from doing its task by you simply touching it.

    Here is why your so-called advantages do not work:

    “Change to letter from different languages (more than two languages) – you can change to a English, Arabic, Spanish to Japanese if that’s what you need.”

    1) This is false. You can change the language of your keyboard on any device with a physical keyboard. I think what you meant to say is that you can change the way the keyboard symbols look. In which case you are right in one sense, but wrong in another because with a physical keyboard you do not actually look at the keys to type. After all, if you’re competent in more than one language, you’re competent at not looking at your hands when you type on a physical keyboard.

    “One click to enter symbols (ie. ampersand, dollar sign, brackets, copyright symbol, trademark symbol, etc.)”

    This is not true. Some virtual keyboards require three clicks to get a question mark. Even if it were true, and it might be for some virtual keyboards, this one benefit could not make up for the amount of errors typing with a virtual keyboard produces.

    “Custom keyboard layout and functions, among them Hacker’s Keyboard, Swype and Smart Keyboard Pro (for Android devices, downloadable from Google Play apps store)”.

    All physical keyboards can be changed to have different layouts. The only thing they cannot do is swipe. But swiping can never be as quick as a physical keyboard because swiping uses only one of your digits to type, whereas you can use all of your fingers to type with a physical keyboard.

    Final comments:

    I am in an academic discipline that requires lots of typing all of the time. Thus, I always want to use the fastest, most intuitive system to produce my work with. Virtual screens–and I have used many of them–are a hindrance rather than a benefit. Sure, they look cool and we all want to live in star trek, but they are really of no benefit to someone who has to write accurately in complex paragraphs.

  3. Agreed. I use an LG Mach (ICS 4.0.4) for my laptop substitute. I do a lot of writing, editing and graphics, much of it with different fonts. With a list of over 800, I need to scroll through them very quickly. I tried using my touchscreen, but always ended up landing on the wrong font and would have to start all over, wasting a lot of time, energy and patience. With the keyboard slid out, I can speed through with the arrow keys, mouse-style, and never have to touch the screen until ready to make my selection. For writing, nothing beats having an uncluttered display for viewing my work in complete paragraphs, stanzas and other forms used for poetry. As for auto-correct and predictive text, I disabled those a long time ago in the “settings” menu, as they were more of a headache than help. I trust my own ability to spell and use punctuation. Also, if you’ve ever tried to use idioms, foreign words, names or phrases, it can get very frustrating having the meaning of my work changed without my control. I think I tried every virtual keyboard on Google Play, but none of them came close to real typing. Also, if my thumbs get tired, I can always lay the phone on a table, chair arm or my lap and use my other fingers. When it comes to operating systems, sometimes you have to make compromises. Newest is not always best for business people or creatives. WPS free office suite (by Kingsoft) seems to work best with ICS and allow hardware keyboards to be fully functional. Also, if you’ve ever tried to watch a video or stream a network TV broadcast, the majority of them still use Flash. Ice Cream Sandwich is the last OS Adobe will support. For a mid-range slider, this phone has many higher-end features, like NFC, DLNA, a dual-core 1.2 GHz CPU, Adreno 225 GPU, 1 GB RAM, 4G LTE (where available), 8 GB internal storage (expandable up to 32 GB with micro SD), front and rear cameras that take stills and videos, LED flash, 5 rows of tactile-click keys (separate row for numbers). This phone was never given the publicity it deserved and was discontinued. Spare parts are pretty easy to find online, if you want to DIY. I recommend strong reading glasses or a jeweler’s loupe for those so inclined. Toolkits are also available. The only thing to be careful with is the vibrator motor—it’s soldered to the charger port. Everything else plugs in and out, like on a computer, and is functionally labeled where it attaches. You can still find it on Amazon and several independent vendors’ stores, including Ebay. Sprint might still let you flash it to their service—mine is from Boost. You might also be able to use it on Ting or another MVNO. It uses CDMA, so the SIM is built into the motherboard, hence, no separate card. You never have to worry about running out of battery, since you can remove and upgrade to one with more reserve and use a separate charger for the spares.

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