Palm Pre (US) review


Keys to the kingdom

The question of physical versus virtual keyboards is one of the Mac-versus-PC debate of the smartphone niche. To hear Palm tell it, users everywhere are demanding physical keyboards. It’s true that physical keyboards hold some advantages over the virtual keyboard popularized by the iPhone: the tactile feedback of actually pressing a key, for example. However, the more I used it, the more it became clear to me that the thumb keyboard will eventually be considered a kludge, a holdover, a vestigial input method—an evolutionary road not taken.

Part of this may be that the Pre’s physical keyboard is particularly bad. The phone's design means that the keyboard is confined to portrait orientation. Thus, the keys are tiny—each one smaller than the tip of your average pencil eraser—and, because of the Pre’s slide mechanism, the top row is jammed up against the bottom of the sliding front panel.

Here's the nub of the issue in the physical versus virtual keyboard debate: they necessitate entirely different styles of typing. On physical keyboards, we’re trained to strike keys precisely and avoid hitting multiple keys at the same time. This works great on a standard laptop-sized keyboard, where the size of the keys is appropriate for fingers.

However, the size of the smartphone physical keyboards confer a couple of particular challenges. For one thing, the orientation and ergonomics of the phone mean that the thumbs—the thickest of your fingers—are the only digits correctly positioned for typing. And since your thumbs are much bigger than the keys, in order to avoid hitting other keys by mistake, you need to minimize the amount of surface area that makes contact with the keys. Most people thus end up typing with the very tips—or even the sides—of their thumbs.

Even then, the chance of making contact with other keys is still high, in part due to the other major challenge of physical keyboards: your finger necessarily obscures the key you’re trying to press, so there’s no way of knowing whether you’ve pressed the correct key until it’s displayed on screen. At which point, it’s already too late to do anything about it other than delete and re-type it.

Then there’s the matter of special characters. Palm has a rather conflicted approach to typing most non-letter characters. Numbers, for example, are arrayed in keypad fashion on several of the QWERTY keys and rendered in orange—that makes sense, as you hit the orange button to switch into number mode (or press it twice to enable num-lock).

However, many of the other keys have special symbols displayed on them (#, ?, :, !, $, just to name a few). These symbols are not displayed in orange, so your initial impression might be that you would have to hit the “Sym” key at the keyboard’s bottom right. That’s not correct, though: that instead launches a software-based interface for picking other, less frequently used characters (©, ™, é, etc.).

Give up? Turns out you still have to hit the orange button, even though those characters aren’t marked in orange. I understand the desire to make the numbers pop out, but the unintuitive nature of that decision is kind of emblematic of the problems confronting the physical keyboard.

In general, I found myself far more frustrated with the Pre’s physical keyboard than with the iPhone’s virtual keyboard. To be fair, I have been using the iPhone for two years and the Pre only for around two weeks, but I found typing even short messages—texts, IMs, Twitter updates—a slow and torturous affair.

The iPhone has a very smart auto-correction function that helps make typing a lot easier by correcting common misspellings and offering to complete your words. The Pre has a similar system, but it's far less aggressive than the iPhone's, and there's no visual prompt or feedback to let you know it's working until it actually corrects a word. There's also no auto-completion.

I tried in vain to get the Pre to fix my typing, but I discovered that pretty much the only reliable way to see it in action was by typing a common contraction without the apostrophe—a move it would immediately jump to fix. The rest of the time, the Pre leaves you to the vagaries of your own spelling, for better or worse. On the upside, however, fans of typing certain expletives will find that the Pre doesn't immediately insist on censoring them.

NEXT: Oh what a tangled webOS we weave


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