Feature: Are Virtual Keyboards the Wave of the Future?

As I continue the search for my next smartphone, I’ve had a few of my more technologically-inclined friends chime in with their opinions on the matter. A good number of my closest acquaintances love their Apple iPhones very much, but I’ve already decided that I’m not going to take the route of Cupertino. It’s not that the iPhone is a bad handset — it’s got a lot going for it — but I really want to have a physical QWERTY keyboard.

You Can Thank the iPhone Again

When I brought up this preference with one of my iPhone-touting buddies, he told me that hardware keyboards were the way of the past and that I should seriously consider getting something with a virtual keyboard instead. He went on to list some of its biggest advantages and how a virtual keyboard is so much more superior to a physical one. He told me that virtual keyboard are the wave the future.

The more I think about, the more I think that he may very well be right. At the same time, I don’t feel that virtual keyboards are quite up to the standard yet where I can rely solely on a touchscreen for everything. Some may disagree, but that’s how I feel. Why are virtual keyboards the wave of the future? Let me count the ways.

The Most Versatile Configuration

When you get a conventional smartphone like the BlackBerry Curve or Motorola Q9h, half of its footprint is dedicated to the physical QWERTY keyboard. The other half is used for the screen and that’s where you’ll see what you’re doing. The trouble with this is that you don’t always need that QWERTY keyboard. If you’re only making calls, you only need a numeric keypad. If you’re listening to music or watching a video, you only need media controls. The rest of that space remains quite useless during these kinds of functions.

By opting for a large touchscreen, you can maximize the usage of the screen and of the phone. Media controls show up as needed. Camera controls only pop up when it’s time to snap a pic. And the QWERTY keyboard appears virtually when you’re typing out an email or composing a text message. In this way, you have no wasted space and your phone is as versatile as possible.

More Screen When You Need It

Following in this line of thought, you effectively gain much more screen real estate when you need it. If you are watching a YouTube video on a BlackBerry Bold, for instance, you only get a screen that is the size of half the phone. If you watch the same video on a BlackBerry Storm, which has about the same footprint and platform as the Bold, you can watch it at about twice the size. It may not be twice the resolution, but you get double the size.

In like manner, when you are surfing the net or reading through a lengthy email message, you want to see as much of it (the webpage, message, or whatever) as possible. With a virtual keyboard, you can gain full access to nearly the whole front face of the phone. With a conventional smartphone, this is not the case. The keyboard’s there when you need it and not when you don’t.

Improving the Tactile Experience

There are certainly advantages to going with a full touchscreen smartphone and opting for the virtual keyboard. The HTC Touch Diamond is substantially thinner than the Touch Pro, because the latter has a slide-out keyboard. The BlackBerry Storm has a much larger screen than the BlackBerry Bold, despite being about the same physical size.

For the casual user who doesn’t need to type all that much (or has grown particularly skilled at it), using a virtual keyboard is not an issue at all. I don’t foresee virtual keyboards infringing on the corporate market too much yet, though, since these guys need to bust out lengthy email messages throughout the day and they need a physical QWERTY keyboard to be the most effective.

Even though I don’t type all that much on my smartphone, I still want a hardware keyboard. I guess it has something to do with the tactile response and the ability to “feel” the keys. The Storm tries to replicate this with the clicking screen and the LG Voyager tries to do it with vibration, but it’s just not the same.

Virtual keyboards may be the wave of the future, but they’re not for me (yet).


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