A Week With the Hipster Keyboards

A Week With the Hipster Keyboards

Jan 17, 2012

A while back I sat down and did a blog post on three of the most popular traditional “soft” keyboards on the Market. There’s no question that a hard keyboard is better than their virtual cousins, but the sacrifice of a smaller screen and larger profile are just something that most people aren’t willing to make. A few weeks after doing that blog post I found that the honeymoon was over and I was just not entirely satisfied with my choice. So I started wondering about some of the more radical keyboard apps out there, and maybe, given some time to adjust I could find a diamond in the rough.

The three keyboards I looked at all broke the molds of traditional static keyboards. My early favorite was throwback to the days of the Palm Pilot’s gesture based text input system called Graffiti Pro. I was a huge fan of this way of typing back in the day when Palm owned the PDA market, and for those who are unfamiliar with Palm’s Graffiti input system it removes the keyboard entirely, having you instead just write the letters inside of a blank area. This allows you to basically write what you want instead of tapping on a virtual keyboard. I loved the Palm version but this port falls short. Laggy on-screen gesture tracing and slow recognition and overall performance dooms this app. I was very disappointed because this app doesn’t do what’s promised: making entering text faster and more efficient.

The other two keyboards were the strangely polarizing MessagEase and the more traditional Thick Buttons. MessagEase is a very fresh take on the keyboard and takes away everything you thought you knew about typing. It reconfigures the keyboard into a 3×3 grid and combines tapping and swiping. If this sounds confusing, it’s because it is. Describing this wouldn’t do it justice, so here.

As you can see, if you want an ‘e’ you simply tap the ‘e’ square, and if you want a ‘c’ you would swipe to the left on the middle ‘o’ tile. I will give the creators of this high scores for creativity and efficiency. Unfortunately, by using this keyboard you are trying to suppress decades of typing practice. I gave this app a shot, I really tried for a few days to adjust, but ultimately I found that I could not get the hang of it and spent too much time searching for letters in the cluttered middle tile. If the letters were more evenly distributed and arranged more like a keyboard this app would be a little easier to grasp, but trying to quickly locate keys that are suddenly in a radically different arrangement proved to be much more challenging than I initially thought. If you can master MessagEase then it is a very powerful app that, due to large key size, can be very accurate. Also, MessagEase comes with plenty of customization options to keep those perfectionists happy.

Rounding out our list is Thick Buttons. Now, a first look at Thick Buttoms shows just a normal keyboard, but once you start typing that’s where all hell breaks loose. As you type, the mostly accurate text prediction resizes the keys making it easier to hit the ones you want. For example, if you wan to type the word ‘noodle’ as soon as you hit the letter ’n’ letter such as ‘c’ immediately shrink down and your ‘o’s and ‘e’s get bigger. On paper, this seems like a great idea, but in practice the rapid resizing can become total chaos causing you to subconsciously move your thumbs to adjust to the moving keys. While the keys aren’t actually shifting their base position the resizing is strangely unsettling and gives an illusion of floating, shifting keys. Type just one letter wrong at the very beginning of a word and you are doomed to end up with a something drastically different.

My conclusions after this week of hanging with the hipsters of the keyboard world is that, for better or worse, keyboards are here to stay, simply because they are so engrained into our brains that forcing a totally different arrangement of letters is just so mind-blowing that we can’t handle it. I would love to see the makers of MessagEase meet us half way here, because the tapping and dragging combo has real promise.