When I was in Grade 9 (first year of high school) in the early 70’s, I made a very good course choice for all the wrong reasons. I liked math and sciences and I did not like languages, history, geography etc. So to fill out my credits I took a typing course. At the time this course was aimed at giving girls the skills needed to be a secretary (times have changed:)). For me, this was a lark, but it turned out to be one of the best courses I’ve taken as it taught me how to touch type.
By the time I started my first co-op job in 78, the secretaries job was already starting to disappear at Bell Northern Research (first employer) and by the time I joined BNR full time, in 82 after graduating from University, everyone was already on COCOS (an internal BNR email system at the time) and most professionals were typing their own reports using mainframe based word processors. And since then the skill of being able to touch type has been ever more useful to me.
On smartphones, the keyboard is the most important feature to me, so much so that I happily give up screen size to have a physical keyboard. That being said, I must say that Soft keyboards on smart phones have made great strides in the last few years, to the point that I find myself constantly reassessing the physical keyboard vs larger screen question.
In this episode of the SmartPhone Diaries, I will compare and contrasts the current state of soft keyboards on all 4 smartphone OSs.
All the soft keyboards work in a very similar manner, whenever you click on a field the appropriate keyboard pops up. For typing paragraphs, there are essentially 4 keyboard:
- Lower case letters
- Upper case letters
- Symbols 1 – Numbers plus important punctuation symbols
- Symbols 2 – Secondary symbols
The following image shows the lower case keyboard for all 4 phones. I am representing these keyboards in relative size as seen on the screens of the phones. If you want to see how big they are in real life, scale the picture so that the iPhone keyboard is 5cm wide. In this blog, I will use a few keyboard diagrams to illustrate the points I’m trying to make. As an addendum to this blog, I provide as complete a listing of the different keyboards as I can.
The keyboards are very similar, the only real difference is that all the keyboards have a comma and a period key except for the iPhone.
The other significant difference is that the Android keyboard has all the characters for the symbols 1 keyboard displayed small and in grey in the upper right corner of each key, this is quite useful, as when you press and hold a key the symbol 1 character will come up. I will discuss these quick access features for all keyboards later. At the end of this blog, I’ve included most of the available keyboards in the same format as above.
All the Phones operate essentially the same way:
- The keyboard appears when you place the cursor in a field, which keyboard depends on the field
- Autocaps for the first letter of a sentence and of names
- To capitalize you click the arrow and one letter is capitalized and the keyboard goes back to lowercase. Android and Windows shows the letters in either upper or lower case while Blackberry and iPhone only show uppercase letters on both upper and lower case keyboards
- You select the symbols keyboard by 1 or 2 presses on the lower left hand button (?123 or &123). This toggles the symbols keyboard until you press the lower left hand button again to go back to lowercase
All the phones have a caps lock capability. For Blackberry, Android and WindowsPhone, you hold the shift key for a few seconds. For iPhone, you double tap the shift key. To disable the caps lock, just tap on the shift key again
In many cases while you are typing you want only one symbol, say ?. All the phones allow you to do this by pressing the symbol key and then dragging your finger to the desired key and then lifting your finger. The character will be inserted and the keyboard will go back to lower case. On the Blackberry, you can also swipe down and that will toggle through the keyboards (Sym1 – Sym2 – lc ), when you press a key after this, the keyboard will go back to lower case ( I find this one the easiest to use).
This to me is one of my most used keyboard features and each phone implements it different or not at all. One of the reasons I probably use this feature a lot is that you always discover it in normal typing when you leave your finger on a key longer than normal.
On the diagram below you can see the different implementations. All the phones allow multiple languages, I had a third language on the iPhone that’s why it has more accents than the others
- Blackberry – press for lower case, hold for upper case and then accents.
- Windows phone – press for lower case, hold for accents
- Android – press for lower case, hold for symbol and accents
- iPhone- press for lower case, hold for accents.
Double space will insert a period on all phones
This feature is extremely useful and only Blackberry and iPhone implement the feature.
It works like this, you take a word or a phrase or even a paragraph that you often use and you give it a short form. For example, I have “cj” which expands to:
When I’m finishing a letter I type cj space and it expands to my ending. There are lots of uses for this feature, its only really limited by what you can easily remember. For example hn can be your home phone number.
Blackberry provides 20 or so built in examples, but it also goes a step farther by allowing you to use system variables like the current date, time, your pin, your cell phone number, etc. See the figures below for examples
On Blackberry, the expanded text is shown on the space bar and inserted when you hit the space bar. If you change your mind or you simply want lt in this case, you backspace and twice and it goes back to lt and wont expand.
iPhone provides one example built in and as far as I can tell you can just do text substitutions.
On iPhone, the expanded text appears below the caret and is inserted when you press the space bar. If you change your mind you have to delete the letters. If you don’t want the expansion you can click the little x.
On all keyboards, deleting works by hitting the back key and it removes one letter at a time, or if you have selected a word or a sentence (more on selecting in another blog) the back key will delete the selected section.
Blackberry adds another way to delete, by swipping backwards with one finger on the keyboard it will delete one word. Two fingers deletes two words, it works up to 4 fingers, but its pretty hard to swipe with 4 fingers :). But even with one finger you can delete a sentence or a paragraph pretty quickly.
All Smartphone ecosystems have a version of AutoCorrect which you can choose to turn off.
All the AutoCorrect features work the same way, when you press the space button the corrected word is inserted along with a following space and you keep typing. All AutoCorrect features are integrated with the predictive text feature which I will discuss later.
The main difference between the phones is in how the corrected suggestion is displayed and chosen.
- Blackberry displays the corrected word on the space bar itself, at this point you have the choice to choose the corrected word by hitting the space bar or to use the misspelled word by sweeping up (more on this later). I find this is particularly effective, as you keep typing (using predictive text) and when you are about to start a new word your eyes go to the space button as that is the next key you want to hit. Your eyes are already looking at the space button so the choice of autocorrect does not require you to look somewhere else make a decision and then return to the keyboard.
- WindowsPhone makes one of the predicted words (listed above the keyboard) bold, this is usually the first word on the left and if you hit the space key it will insert this word. This works ok but your eyes are moving back and forth from the keyboard to the list of words. Also there is no way to keep the incorrect spelling at this point.
- Android puts dots under the middle word, when the dots are visible pressing the space button will insert the corrected word. The same issue here as on the WindowsPhone of having to move your eyes from the keyboard to the list of corrected words and then back to the keyboard. If you want to keep the incorrect spelling, that spelling is the first word on suggested word line and you have to click on it and then add a space to keep typing.
- iPhone displays a single word under the cursor, when that word is displayed and you hit space the corrected word will be inserted. If you want to keep the incorrect spelling you hit the x under the cursor add a space and keep typing.
Another difference between the AutoCorrect functions on all the phones is what happens when you choose the autocorrected word and you actually wanted the word that you typed even though your dictionary thinks its misspelled.
- Blackberry: backspace twice and it reinserts what you originally typed. I’ve also noticed that if you explicitly choose a misspelled word, then the next time you type that spelling it will not be autocorrected.
- WindowsPhone: backspace and delete letters until all the corrected letters are gone, this time when you type the misspelled word WP will not auto correct
- Android: backspace and it reinserts what you originally typed.
- iPhone: Backspace to the inserted word and you will be give choices, one of them will be what you originally typed, select it and it will be reinserted.
For me, predictive text is the main feature that makes smartphone that do not have a physical keyboard at least useable. (you can refer to the above diagram for how predictive text works).
All smart phones except the iPhone have a predictive or context sensitive text feature.
- Blackberry: The predicted words are displayed over the next letter you would type if you were typing the word. In this way, both your eyes and your fingers are going to that spot on the screen. If the word you want is above the letter you swipe up and the word + space is inserted and you continue typing the next word. The suggested words are context specific and will also guess as at typos you may have made and suggest words. Sometimes using this feature its quite amazing how it guesses at the words. It constantly learns your style and seems to get better and better at predicting your next word. If you don’t want the suggested word you just keep on typing and maybe the next letter will suggest the word you want.
- WindowsPhone: The predicted words are displayed along a line above the keyboard in the order of the most likely guess. This works, but it tends to be slower than the blackberry approach as you always have to stop typing, look at the suggested words and move your finger to press the word.
- Android: Android is the same as the WindowPhone but it suggest only 3 words.
- iPhone: Does not implement this feature.
For one of the best videos of how predictive text works you can check out this link. Z30 Vs iPhone 5S Typing
Swype typing is implemented by both Android and Windows phone. It is a very novel approach to typing and works well once you get used to it. It involves drawing your finger or thumb across the keyboard from one letter to the next letter in the word
Auto tuning where you press (This is not the official name )
This feature applies only to the Blackberry phone. One of the main problem with small keyboards is that when you actually press on a key, your finger or thumb is covering several keys so to some degree you are guessing at which key you actually touch. On all the phones (Android and WP with Swype typing disabled) will allow you to move to an adjacent letter if you hit the wrong one. In all cases popping up the letter you are going to get when you lift up. To improve the likelyhood of you hitting the letter you are going for, the blackberry implements an infrared sensor where the keyboard is and over time adjust the target point for each letter based on how you have corrected yourself overtime. This may be a little much for some people, but I have found that my typing accuracy (hitting the letter I’m going for) is much higher on the blackberry than on any of the other phones.
When it comes to smart phone keyboards, be they physical or virtual, Blackberry wins hands down. Its predictive text coupled with positioning the words just above the letter you would be about to type and using a flick up to choose the suggested words puts it ahead of all the others. Also the text substitution feature is very usefull.
I was however quite delighted by both the WindowsPhone’s and the Android’s virtual keyboards. They were not as refined as Blackberry’s but they were both a close second.
For many people I think the Swype Typing feature of WindowsPhone and Android would move them ahead of Blackberry.
iPhone’s keyboard was a distant last place in my opinion. Its most advance feature was spell checking and that’s been around for decades. It was nice to see that iPhone is planning to catch up a bit in the virtual keyboard space by adding predictive text in the next version of IOS due in the fall this year.
Addendum – Keyboard gallery
This gallery gives a fairly complete look at all the possible english keyboards. For the standard keyboards, I used the email keyboard on all phones. In some of the diagram I touch on some key differences. I’m sure I will find some different keyboards as I dig deeper into some of the applications, I will highlight those in the respective blog.
I am representing these keyboards in relative size as seen on the screens of the phones. If you want to see how big they are in real life, scale the picture so that the iPhone keyboard is 5cm wide.