The debate over which is preferable between on-screen keyboards and hardware keyboards on mobile have gone on for years. Usually, adherents of either camp pitching

Display Size And Onscreen Keyboards

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The debate over which is preferable between on-screen keyboards and hardware keyboards on mobile have gone on for years. Usually, adherents of either camp pitching their tents without consideration of a number of factors that influence the choices involved.

If you don’t have the time to read a full article, here’s the summary: the two most important factors are the size of the user’s fingers, and the size of the touchscreen display.

If you have the time for the detailed analysis, here goes.

Exhibit One: Tablets

I am not sure that there has been anyone who has used a tablet and complained that the onscreen keyboard is inadequate. The reason is simple: the tablet’s display is large enough to deliver a pleasant typing experience. As such, there is very little valid reason to desire a hardware keyboard.

Exhibit Two: Budget Smartphones

At the other end of the divide are those budget touchscreen smartphones with 2.8 inch displays. Maybe even those with up to 3 inches in size.

Have you tried typing on some of those? I have used and reviewed the Gaga phone. Simply, put: it is not impossible to type on it, but with my big fingers, it is painful and fraught with errors.

EveryOne Has A Tipping Point

The truth is that everyone has a tipping point at which finding touchscreen typing uncomfortable or unusable becomes a non-issue.

Very likely, the smaller your fingers, the lower your tipping point. For example, many users find the 3.5 inch displays of the iPhone and others like the Nokia N8 a comfortable spot. Those are usable for me, but that’s not my tipping point.

Exhibits Three: HTC HD 7; Samsung Galaxy S II

What do the HD 7 and Galaxy S II have in common? A 4.3-inch display. I find that with my large fingers, I am able to comfortably type on the on-screen displays of both of these devices?

Is 4.3 inches my tipping point? I doubt it. But I am almost fairly certain that the 5.3 inches display of the Galaxy Note will be. or maybe not. One thing is for sure, I don’t find myself longing for a hardware QWERTY keyboard on a tablet. That tells me in what direction to look.

Conclusions

In my opinion, it isn’t a case of hardware keyboards being obsolete. Below a certain display size, a hardware keyboard is a more efficient text input tool. Above that, things begin to change. The tipping point – that point where you no longer find a hardware keyboard an absolute necessity – is different for everyone, but I believe that it is there.

The question is: What is your tipping point?

15 comments

  1. The size of the user’s fingers and the size of the touchscreen display.
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    If you use a software like Dasur SlideIt / Swype, which offers the option to SWYPE rather than TYPE, the size of your finger becomes inconsequential. The fingersize is even more irrelevant if you use THE BACK of your fingernails to do the swiping. The other advantage of using the BACK of your fingernails (rather than your fingertips) is reduced fingerprint stains on the touchscreen.

    Besides, if your fingers are GARGANTUAN like King Kong’s, you could use your stylus, could you not?

    As regards display size:..
    If you (learn to) ‘swype’ (using a virtual keyboard app that supports that) – rather than ‘tap-tap’, displaySize is not of earth_shaking importance. I actually believe that a screen size of say 4.3” or ABOVE would make using a ‘Swype_like” app difficult to use– because of the comparative amount of ‘travel’ the finger needs to make.

    So – a 2.8” virtual_keyboarded phone will benefit immensely from a ‘Swype-like’ app, and would be eminently useable (the Huawei ‘Gaga’ – for example)

    To expatiate, when I use my Nokia 5800 in landscape mode (2.7” by 1.8”), ‘Swype’ is not as effective and easy_to_use as when I am in portrait mode (for the reason I stated above).

    When browsing and using landscape mode, you get the feeling of using a bigger phone. But when swyping, a portrait mode is better. I therefore have an app combination installed (SettingBar & QuickRotate – for Symbian). Together, they allows me drag “from anywhere’, tap, and the screen orientation changes. (I use QuickRotate rather than the ‘orientation sensor’ to conserve battery power).
    You can make your diminutive screensize appear bigger by using a font_magnifying app like FontZoomer and stick to landscape mode semi_permanently (as I do).

    I could almost ‘blind_swype’ on my Nokia 5800, using ‘Swype’. I only use ‘peripheral_vision’ when ‘looking’ @ the Virtualkeyboard (that is what the Authors recommend, and it works for me).
    I am convinced the positives for the VirtualKeyboards sure outnumber the hardware keyboards.

    All in all, I would conclude that most of the gripes against VirtualKeypad useability are software_addressed / software-addressable.

  2. @Eye.Bee.Kay The thing is, not many people would want to go app-hunting just to be able to do a mundane thing as type easily on a phone. My fifty-something year old dad, for instance wouldn’t want to get a ‘settingsbar’ and a ‘quickrotate’ because he simply wants to send a text message, create a reminder or send a quick email. Rather, methinks he’ll rather get a phone with a screen big and sensitive enough to accomodate his large fingers/thumbs, or simply get a qwerty phone, maybe a blackberry.

  3. but we cannot rule out the points been made by eye.bee.kay. the article is not taking into cognisance the power of Swype. Swype defies some of the rules above. I have since gotten better with TouchPal though. a Swype like app.
    when it comes to traditional typing with on screen keyboards, I get comfortable from the 4′ to the galaxy note’s 5.3′. I have tried the iPhone’s 3.5′ ,the comfort is more from the keyboard technology than its size.

  4. Not sure if it’s a finger-size thing, it seems more to do with preference.

    I had a Samsung F800 that I never had a problem with neither screen size or typing. With a HTC Wildfire I found it annoying trying to type in portrait mode. Likewise with the Desire, though it had a sightly larger screen. The Samsung Galaxy S II is not something I’d consider as the size of the device doesn’t appeal to me; I’d go for the Galaxy S/S Plus or Galaxy W first.

    The best touch QWERTY keyboard I’ve used on a phone to date has been on the iPhone.

  5. The thing is, not many people would want to go app-hunting just to be able to do a mundane thing as type easily on a phone

    ….
    Well- lots of phone makers and modern OSes now generally recognize the importance of an adequate keyboard-virtual or not. Some of them even come with apps like Swype preinstalled..

    It is impossible for an OS to get all the little nuggets right. Android, for instance, recognizes this by making its design modular..

    ‘Hunting’ for apps when you USE a smartphone – is a fact – necessity- of life. Otherwise you should stick to a feature phone and stop wasting YOUR money. A smartphone is NOT a decorative item! Besides, the’hunting’ is easier with the advent of ‘App Stores’

    My fifty-something year old dad, for instance wouldn’t want to get a‘settingsbar’and a‘quickrotate’because he simply wants to send a text message, create a reminder or send a quick email.

    The most important interface element is the input. so any effort expended to improve its effectiveness-would be worthwhile. Part of that effort is ‘hunting’ for the right virtual keyboard software.

  6. What Eye.Bee.Kay said concerning swipe input is a fact, but there is this thing about humans that when we learn/know one method that works, it is always difficult learning/knowing another method even with a promise of working better or in fact is proved to work better.

    Before discovering TouchPal, I was nerve comfortable with touchscreen QWERTY layout in portrait mode nor was I comfortable with using any touchscreen in the landscape mode. I preferred the LG keypad with its T9-like text prediction, and that’s not saying their implementation of QWERTY is bad, it is just that I’m also not comfortable typing on a physical QWERTY on smartphones.

    The moment I downloaded and tried TouchPal, I felt very comfortable with it and it didn’t take a lot of doing to become accustomed to it. Why I prefer TouchPal ahead of Swype is because of its combination of features and its flexibility and it is by far smaller in size and comes free.

  7. my major issue with the physical keyboards is the fact that they make the device bulky. Having used sets of galaxy s phones. Device size and weight cannot be compromised.

  8. @Eye•Bee•Kay

    The Jbak keyboard has potentials but without word prediction, I guess it can only impress people like Mr. Mobility who prefer tapping/typing everything. I’m so in love with swiping these and tapping/typing ocassionally.

    Not a bad start at all and I’m Jbak keyboard will get there soon but not before supporting any form word predoction and autocorrection.

    By the way, I typed this comment with Jbak keyboard and the accuracy is not bad at all. Another good thing about this app is its tiny size though that will definitely change when it starts supporting word prediction and even swipe input.

  9. Maybe i will get an AndroOhone just because of JBAK..vacillating, contemplating, ruminating… (* pulling lips*)

  10. Not yet, except you do not make extensive use of word prediction. I do. I also would like it to support regular alphanumeric keypad style of input and of course with prediction.

    I think dictionary and prediction are the two features missing far and of course swiping would be very good. I so much like the way alphabets are combined with symbols on the same key layout. It makes things easy typing both alphabets and most symbols on the same layout switching.

  11. Mr Mobility; “In my opinion, it isn’t a case of hardware keyboards being obsolete. Below a certain display size, a hardware keyboard is a more efficient text input tool. Above that, things begin to change. The tipping point – that point where you no longer find a hardware keyboard an absolute necessity”

    I couldn’t agree more. There is a finite size of on screen keyboard and size of remaining screen from which typing become a pain instead of pleasure. Even hazardous! That sweet point to me is 3.5 inches screen diagonal! Anything less, is torture. Trust me, I’ve experienced this first hand!!

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