On Portability – Systems Part 5: Android keyboards

The last post (mournful trumpet sound) on Portability covered the core systems and browsing experience of the Transformer tablet. Looking at things is a reasonable pleasant and uncomplicated experience on a tablet. Where it gets frustrating is actually typing something, and after that, trying to edit.

I think many people who use the iPad came from the iPhone, where it’s a miracle that you can type anything at all. After that experience, being presented with the huge clear keyboard of the iPad was so liberating that it almost seemed beyond criticism. However I will criticise it, because in many ways it’s characteristically Apple (not in a good way). Firstly, the keyboard keys are always shown in upper-case no matter what case you happen to be typing in. Then to type anything except Alpha characters, you have to go to a secondary keyboard, and then return for the Alphas. Finally there are no cursor or navigation keys.

As far as I can tell there are no alternative system-wide keyboards available for the Apple – or none in the App store anyway. There are dozens for Android. And here is the best of them – the second single reason for buying an Android tablet – the wonderful Thumb keyboard. It’s shown below.

I’d like to take you on a quick tour. Firstly, note that the keyboard characters are in lower case. They turn to upper case when you hit the shift key. Then note that it’s a split keyboard. That’s designed for the way you actually hold a tablet, which is usually with on hand on each side. The split arrangement allows you to type pretty fast with each thumb, and still hold it in your lap. In between the two blocks of letters, are a useful set of number and punctuation characters, plus a few special keys I’ll come back to later, so you almost never have to go to a secondary keyboard (there are several provided, but rarely used).  Almost all special characters can be accessed by a long press of the alpa key. Also in the central block are cursor keys – so no longer do you have to try to stab your chunky fingers on the screen to try to get the bl**dy cursor in the right place.  Finally, for me the piece de resistance, the custom keybar at the top of the keyboard.  This is configurable but on mine I have a normal delete key (i.e. like the PC delete key, it deletes characters to the right) – not available bafflingly on almost all other tablet keyboards.  Then a ‘home’ key to take you to the beginning of a line, and an ‘end’ key to take you to the end of one.  Plus ‘paste’ and ‘copy’ keys so no more pressing my finger at the tablet screen waiting for something to happen. Brilliant!

Another excellent feature is the configurable text shortcut key.  This enables you to quickly enter frequently-used text as shown below.  These shortcuts can also be included in the custom key bar. I don’t have a PC keyboard that can do this.  Of course the keyboard also does predictive text, and spell checking, plus autocomplete, so typing can be quite accurate.

Now you don’t always want a split keyboard. Sometimes you want a normal iPad-y one. NP. Dedicated keys change to full, split, and right thumb only (really for phones). Here’s the full keyboard.

Think this is too small compared to the iPad keyboard? No problem, the height of the keyboards are configurable – separately for portrait and landscape, as is the width of the space bar (I have an extra wide one) and many other features. Here’s a really big keyboard that takes up the entire screen.

A bit exaggerated, but you get my point. Now this is just excellent stuff. But it is not perfect. Typing on a flat screen is never going to be the best experience. And the lack of drag-and-drop means that text correction is painful. But it is certainly usable, and for small amounts of text entry, for example when browsing, or handling short emails, it’s brilliant.

OK, I think that’s enough for this post. I will continue on the text entry end editing theme in my next post – where the limitations of the tablet start to become more apparent.

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