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Input Required – Debate on Virtual vs. Physical Keyboards

by on September 7th, 2010

Because of iOS, it’s safe to say that virtual keyboards are more prevalent now than ever before. Despite that, it’s still surprising that virtual keyboards have yet to successfully jump the divide back on to desktops or laptops. Much of the reasons behind it is because virtual keyboards have generally been the domain of cell phones and ultra-portable devices, but with the success of the iPad to date, and its full QWERTY keyboard, could we see a surge of virtual keyboards on desktops and laptops? Or perhaps the iPad needs a physical keyboard to make it even remotely useful? I decided to do a quick Pros/Cons list to find out.

Traditional/Physical Keyboards – Pros

  • It’s comfortable and familiar because most of us grew up typing on one. Also, physical keyboards with clearly defined and raised keys are also useful for providing haptic feedback, and knowing where the home row is. [Oh the little nubs on the F & J keys...]
  • It’s ergonomically flexible. Having an external physical keyboard allows you to move the keyboard around so that it’s physically comfortable for you, not the other way around.
  • It has keyboard shortcuts and hot-keys! This is something I wouldn’t be able to get with a virtual keyboard.

Traditional/Physical Keyboards – Cons

  • It’s grimy. Look down at your keyboard. Now look back up at the screen. Now look back down. Do you see how filthy it is? There are probably crumbs, dust bunnies and other unmentionables that you can see. Now imagine all the microbes you can’t. Traditional keyboards are simply filthy.
  • It’s bulky. Even the smallest and most portable physical keyboards are kinda bulky, and tend not to fit in bags very well. There are some foldable keyboards, but they tend to be quite pricey.
  • It breaks. It’s just a fact of all things physical. They break because of regular wear and tear, not to mention when they get judo-chopped by angry co-workers.

Virtual Keyboards – Pros

  • It’s portable because it’s built-in. Any kind of physical keyboard would simply add weight and extra hardware to the iPad.
  • It’s flexible. A virtual keyboard can change the size of the keys or even the layout with ease. You just don’t have that kind of flexibility with a physical keyboard.
  • It’s clear. Have you ever mis-typed because you suddenly hit a secret hot-key that changed the language settings [to say French (Canadian)?]. A virtual keyboard would solve this problem because the keyboard changes with the language!

Virtual Keyboards – Cons

  • It’s still grimy. Even the best oleophobic screens smudge, and typing on a virtual keyboard will definitely add smudges to that gorgeous screen.
  • For the virtual keyboard to be usable, it has to take up a lot of screen real estate. This really cuts down on how much of the actual screen you see when you start typing. For those of us with larger hands, it can make it very difficult to proofread what you actually type.
  • It’s simply ergonomically awkward. Unlike the iPhone or other cell phones, it’s hard to type with your thumbs. To efficiently type on the iPad, one would need place it on a table [at a slight angle] and type with both hands. This forces you to bend your head down at an awkward angle, and you don’t need a chiropractor to tell you that is just bad for your posture.

So, given the pros and cons, what do I recommend for typing? Well, I think it depends on how long you intend to type for. If you’re sitting in a coffee shop blogging all afternoon, then I would definitely recommend a physical keyboard. It’s just more familiar and comfortable. However, for short, quick typing sessions, then the virtual keyboard will do just fine.

As for the other question, I’d like to think we’re inching closer to a reality where we have ‘external virtual keyboards’, i.e. smaller devices that can act as keyboard peripherals for iPads or desktops. Think something like Art Lebedev’s Optimus Maximus keyboard, the Virtual Laser Keyboard, or even using your iPhone to type on your iPad.

Still, what does the iPad In Canada nation think? How do you type on the iPad? Is there anything that bothers you about the virtual keyboard? How would you improve your input experience?

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  • Christopher Jones

    How do you get your iPhone to act as a keyboard for your iPad? I own both and am going to college, so this could be very handy to have

  • Janani

    I hate virtual keyboards for the simple fact that I can’t rest my hands anywhere. Whenever I try to type, my fingers want to touch the keys for positioning and finding those little nubs. To position your hands without touching the screen (and don’t get me started on a place to rest your wrists) is super awkward, and if you refuse, you end up with a screen full of home row chars :(

  • http://twitter.com/scwleung Sam Leung

    At the moment? Most likely via JailBreak apps. When I wrote the article, I didn’t think anything like that currently exists. Maybe someone would come along and build something like this. It really is a good idea, no?

  • http://twitter.com/Xaroc  Xaroc

    Physical keyboard takes the cake due to the fact that I can type faster, and more accurately on them. But for compact, and on the go without reducing screen size (like blackberry) touchscreen keyboards are awesome. So I would go like this

    At home: physical
    On the go: virtual (touch screen)

    I enjoy having that extra screen size while I’m out

  • Aloombox

    Physical keyboards are much better for me, I can type faster on them and being a girl with long nails, it’s not at all comfortable typing on a virtual keyboard without worrying about the screen. So I need to use a physical keyboard, I am just waiting for more selection in the case/keyboard combo gadgets and I am definitely getting one.

  • OnlyGodKnows

    Virtual keyboard all the way. I have had my ipad since launch day and i do basically everything on it. In fact i have typed on it so much that i can type faster on it then i can with my physical keyboard. and when ever i make mistakes the keyboard automatically corrects me.

    Embrace the future. Forget the past!

  • Paul Danjou

    How come we don’t have access to a french canadian virtual keyboard ? In my case i like the flexibility of having a virtual keyboard instead of a hard one, but it’s a shame that we cannot write memo correctly. It’s like misspelling a simple word…
    But i really enjoy my ipad (1).
    Paul