What's the Best Way to Type on a Smart Phone?

By Ryan Whitwam

There are a myriad ways to enter text on a smart phone. We test them all in a physical vs virtual keyboard showdown.

In this day and age, as mobile devices become more and more integral to our everyday lives, text entry has become important. It's not enough for a phone to just make and receive calls well (though there are times we can forgive a deficit in that department), we expect to be able to get some work done on that mobile device. That usually means taking care of email, jotting down notes, and of course, texting.  Text entry on mobile devices has come a long way, with both physical and touchscreen options that can get the job done with minimal aggravation. But is one keyboard automatically better than another?

RIM has just announced the newest additions to their family of Blackberry phones with the 9100 and 9105 Pearl smartphones. What makes this relevant to the discussion at hand is that these two phones possess different hardware keyboard implementations. The 9100 has a 20-key SurePress style keyboard, and the 9105 has the rarely seen 14-key T9 style layout. BlackBerry fans made due with these layouts before QWERTY became the de facto standard, and while they might not be the best, on a small device they are acceptable. Both of these keyboards will attempt to guess what a user is typing, as each key has multiple possible letters. This can get a bit confusing when in the middle of a word, but if it guesses correctly significant time can be saved.

Another hardware option is the landscape QWERTY found on devices like the T-Mobile G1 and Motorola Droid. These layouts tend to give users a little more breathing room, but at the probable expense of speed. Those comfortable with a portrait QWERTY just have less distance to cover to reach the next key than those using a landscape keyboard.

ambivalent. The Droid has a membrane keyboard where the buttons are basically floating on a plastic overlay. The keys are clicky, but a little too stiff. There is also the problem of key arrangement. The Droid keyboard is laid out in a grid, making the divisions of keys hard to feel. Overall, it's not the best, but most people seem to get used to it over time.

The T-Mobile G1's version of the landscape slider has individual keys instead of the membrane pad like the Droid. It also uses a staggered key arrangement as opposed to the Droid's Grid style layout. The G1's unique opening mechanism also allowed for more space, it has a 5-row keyboard with a dedicated number row. For the most part, it's a more usable keyboard.

For those looking for a slimmer phone, there are a wide variety of touchscreen keyboards out there. You'll probably get a lighter phone, but it might not be as intuitive as hitting a real key. Certainly, the phone that made touchscreen keyboards usable is the iPhone, and it still has arguably the best touchscreen keyboard you can get. It implements multitouch with so-called "chording". This means that it will register presses while a different virtual button is held down. This functionality is extremely helpful when typing quickly. With the iPhone (and iPod Touch/iPad) you get predictive text as you type as well. The phone will pop up a suggestion that you can accept by pressing space bar, or reject by tapping the pop-up.
interpret your presses based on what it believes you're typing. It basically makes the targets slightly bigger for the keys it thinks you will use.  

The only problem with this system is that if using non-dictionary words, you'll find yourself tapping the suggestion pop-up frequently to keep the phone from inserting the wrong word. There's also no way to manually add words to the dictionary of suggestions. Only after repeatedly dismissing a suggestion with the system learn the new word. Even then typing in some apps, like Notes, won't help your phone learn any words.

Android debuted a software keyboard in the 1.5 update, and it has been getting better with each update. The Android keyboard has a more robust autocorrection system that the iPhone does. While typing, users are presented with a bar of possible suggestions. At any time one of these can be tapped to insert it, or if the highlighted one is correct, pressing space will insert that one. The option at the far left of the bar is always what you have typed so far. Long-pressing on it will manually add it to the dictionary, which is user-accessible from the menu. This is a very nice feature, especially if you use a lot of tech jargon. We also like the swipe gestures in version 2.1. Swipe down to hide the keyboard, and to the left to access voice transcription.

One thing working against the Android keyboard is a lack of multitouch. While Google insists it is behind the scenes working it's magic, we've never seen any evidence of it. This means that when typing quickly, you're more likely to miss. But this is just stock Android. If you use a phone running HTC Sense, the experience is totally different.

One wild card here is Windows Phone 7. While these phones are unreleased, a few lucky individuals have been able to play with demo units, and the keyboard has been getting fairly high marks thus far. The design looks similar to the Zune HD keyboard, and is noted to be very responsive. It will offer suggestions while typing, but it has another trick that the others don't. The spell checking can work more like a standard PC. Any word you have typed that is not in the dictionary can be selected, bringing up a list of suggestions.

Having good text entry is necessary on any modern smartphone. There are several good options, no matter your predilections. Some people require a hardware keyboard, while others are just as efficient on the touchscreen version. As virtual keyboards have become more usable, more people have migrated in that direction, but there is clearly still a market for the physical variety. Physical keyboards have the tactility, but cost in weight and thickness. Touchscreens can be highly adaptable, but inaccurate if poorly implemented. Where do you come down? What's the best method of text entry on a mobile device?