[This is part of the Android Diary.] I sure hope they’re tasty, because I’m gonna have to eat some. Not too long ago, in Phone Keys, I wrote about how great it was to have a hardware keypad. Well, the Android I’m currently using doesn’t have one, and it’s not that bad.
Background and Disclosure · What happened was, I was visiting Silly Valley and a couple of the Android guys invited me to drop by for a talk, and then they gave me a present: A new HTC Magic, AKA T-Mobile MyTouch, which is quite a bit like the G1 I’ve lived with since last Christmas. It’s smaller and lighter but has no keyboard, and I’m using it all the time.
So, conflict of interest? I suppose. I mean, I’ve been doing mostly-favorable Android reportage for pretty well all of 2009, and I’ve put a lot of my own personal time into figuring it out and writing about it. If things don’t pan out with me and Oracle (or who knows, maybe even if they do) I’d like to work in the Android space. If I were Google I’d sure be giving people like me phones.
But anyhow, There Has Been A Freebie, so please calibrate your suspicion monitors accordingly.
The Phone · As a phone, well, it’s really an awful lot like the G1. It seems a little snappier and the GPS improved, but it’s sure not night-and-day better.
I just found the smaller smoother lighter form factor enough of a win that I didn’t miss that hardware keyboard I was going on about so recently.
Soft Keyboards · I’d already been feeling a little nervous about my public keyboard fetish, especially when it dawned on me, via Gruber and others, that that soft keyboards are, well, soft, and can reconfigure themselves in application-sensitive ways.
So, Android’s own built-in soft keyboard is kinda awkward for my big farmers’ fingers, but the word prediction, while not as best as the slickest T9 I’ve seen, is pretty good, and a time-saver.
In recent days I’ve been using TouchPal (here’s a video) and I think it’s going to be a winner, but, like most power tools (for example the QWERTY keyboard itself) it takes some learning. The predictive leap-ahead is spooky and initially distracting; you have to learn how look mostly away from the keys themselves and towards where it’s reading out its guesses for you to choose from. At the moment I figure that once I get used to it, I’ll go very fast indeed.
And of course the built-in Android keyboard will get smarter and better too. And I suspect that all those companies who are shipping keyboardless handsets probably know what they’re doing.
Comment feed for ongoing:
From: Anders Pearson (Aug 20 2009, at 08:16)
Do you find yourself using different applications though? On my G1, I use Connectbot to ssh to my server and check my email with mutt or do whatever sysadmin task I need to do. That works well with a real keyboard, but when I've attempted it with the built-in soft keyboard or TouchPal, it's been pure pain and I haven't been able to imagine the predictive capabilities getting good enough to really make the commandline usable.
From: Dave (Aug 20 2009, at 08:46)
@Anders: surely the command line could have it's own specialised keyboard and predicton routines?
Isn't that part of Android's charm, that you can replace fairly core elements? I'm not sure, I've not got an Android phone but it appears this TouchPal is a 3rd party product.
From: Bruce McL (Aug 20 2009, at 09:29)
I am just starting with the mT3G myself. May I suggest trying out the HTC keyboard that is floating around the Internet? I like it better than the standard Android keyboard. Look for htc_ime.apk and Clicker.apk.
From: Scott Hudson (Aug 20 2009, at 09:29)
Thanks for the tip on TouchPal. So far it looks like a much better soft keyboard!
I'd be very interested in a future post on your "must have" android apps.
I'm new to the smartphone world, but so far LOVE the myTouch!
Thanks and best regards,
From: Anders Pearson (Aug 20 2009, at 09:38)
@Dave: possibly for the bash prompt or something, but a lot of the tools I use already have interfaces that are optimized in ways that I don't see the soft keyboard being able to help with. Eg, most operations in mutt are bound to single keys. With a physical keyboard, muscle memory takes care of making it efficient so nothing needs to be predicted. How is a soft keyboard supposed to predict that I'm going to hit 'c' to compose a message? Or tab to let bash complete something?
I think the soft keyboard can do great things for applications that work on the model where you have an "input" and you type a bunch of stuff and then it goes into that input and then something is done with it. But for applications where the keyboard is really part of the interface for actually interacting with the application rather than just typing data into it, I don't see how it can replace a physical keyboard.
From: Michael (Aug 20 2009, at 10:29)
@Anders Pearson: As a rule, pure touch based interfaces and the applications written for them will institute a different method for invoking commands. Such as laying out commands as buttons on screen or using gestures, etc. Keyboard shortcuts aren't really necessary when you're interacting with the device directly. Their original intention in GUI based systems was to save time moving your hand from the keyboard to the mouse and having to dig through menus looking for the command. And of course to appease those moving from command line interfaces, which was all keyboard.
Any touch interface that uses keyboard shortcuts for quicker access to functions / features is a poorly designed one.
From: Anders Pearson (Aug 20 2009, at 11:01)
@Michael, you've kind of missed my point. Of *course* a good touchscreen interface won't rely on keyboard shortcuts. But that makes touchscreen apps a fundamentally different category. With my G1, I can access an entire world of mutt, irssi, emacs, vim, htop, git, svn, python/ruby/lisp REPLs, etc. I've been using those tools for years and have a large amount of personal infrastructure built up around them. The keyboard's a bit cramped, but it's usable. With a soft keyboard, I feel like I pretty much lose access to that world and have to find acceptable replacements for each of those things.
(sorry folks, I really wasn't trying to derail this conversation)
From: rsm (Aug 20 2009, at 11:15)
Assuming that handset makers know what they are doing when they ship devices without physical buttons may not be the issue.
Assuming that handset makers have usability and customers in mind versus putting out gimmicks that lead people to opening their wallets may be of more importance.
From: Andy Reitz (Aug 20 2009, at 12:47)
Maybe slightly off topic, but can you talk about what the migration path was like from the G1 to the new phone? Is there some way to migrate all of your preferences, music, movies, apps, and other data to the new phone?
I know how this works on the iPhone (iTunes takes care of it), but I've never seen how it works for Android.
From: jhn (Aug 20 2009, at 12:58)
We're only at the beginning of what soft keyboards can do, as the awesome TouchPal shows. I would like a TextExpander for the iPhone, for instance.