After about a week with my iPhone, I’m going to start writing up a series of thoughts about individual features of the thing — I’ll start with talking about the keyboard, since it’s central to the experience.
I’ll not mince words: it’s not a great experience. I’ve had probably every sort of device since the Newton Messagepad — handwriting entry systems like that, Graffiti-based systems like the Palm, full keyboards like the Treo, phone keyboards with T9, and most recently the unusual 2 letters per key Blackberry Pearl keyboard.
I’ve never really been a very fast typist with any of these — and with the iPhone’s virtual keyboard, I’m getting to where I’m generally as quick as with my Pearl, but it’s pretty inconsistent. My left thumb overcompensates a little bit — I end up always tapping to the right of where I mean to — and both my thumbs end up obscuring a lot of the keyboard, of course — which matters especially much in this case because there’s no tactile feedback.
But I find that mostly I’m unsure of what I’m typing, and as a result, I’m tentative about it. Apple’s done an interesting thing to address this: they enlarge the image of each key after you type it so you can be sure about what you’re typing. That definitely helps to know what letter you type — it helps a bunch, actually. But it interferes some cognitively with another more important piece of the experience: auto-correct.
Auto-correct — the phone knowing that I didn’t mean to type “Qppke”, but instead “Apple” — is really, really great. It’s the best that I’ve ever used. I think it’s partly because of the large dictionary and partly because they’re doing something with key proximity — knowing that “Q” is close to “A”, for example. (I’m not sure they really do that, but I suspect they do.) And the way that they’re showing auto-correct — with an as-you-type suggestion box showing up under the word you’re typing — works really well — tap on the box or the space bar to accept the suggestion, hit backspace or tap on the original word to keep what you’re typing. (Tapping on the word you’re typing that the iPhone doesn’t recognize will also add it to the dictionary for the future, which is great, except that I just added “Qppke” to my dictionary and don’t have any idea how to take it out again.)
The conflict that occurs is this: my eyes don’t know what to look at — the animated images of the keys that I’m typing or the constant stream of suggested words to fix my typos. So I end up moving my eyes back and forth from one to the other — which I’m pretty sure is slowing me down. I have a feeling that if the keys weren’t animated, I’d instead stay focused on the text entry and be more efficient, but I don’t know that for sure.
Apple & apologists routinely say that the virtual keyboard is great because of the auto-correct experience — but it seems to me that they’re completely orthogonal to each other — the auto-correct system could be implemented with a physical keyboard just as well.
I think things will also get a lot better when more of the applications on the phone will work in landscape mode — right now it’s mostly Safari & Photos that work that way — because a wider keyboard is really what you need. But it doesn’t work in mail currently, so that’s something for the future.
Another quibble with the keyboard is that the “.” and the “,” are hidden under the “.?123” mode key. I use both those keys all the time, and to have them be on the secondary keyboard is a little bit rough. Once you’re in that punctuation & number mode, though, you can get to a third screen full of symbols like international currency & such — that’s a decidedly useful thing.
On the whole, for me, it’s a subpar keyboarding experience, but one that I’m willing to put up with in order to get the large screen. I have a tough time imagining that most of the Blackberry set will ever be comfortable with it, though.