I own a phone with a hardware keyboard in 2017

Thursday 2 Feb 2017

Yes, you read correctly. It's a pretty unusual position to take, I'll admit. Let me tell you the story of how this came to be, and why, in spite of my long love affair, I don't recommend a hardware keyboard any longer.

A long history of loving keyboards

My very first 3G mobile phone was some kind of Panasonic flip phone that my mobile network, Three, provided. It had a camera and the big gimmick of 3G was video calling. I tried it maybe twice ever and was pretty underwhelmed. But I liked the idea of real internet access, and I loved the promise of having a tiny computer in my pocket. I wanted cutting edge technology, so my next phone had to have as many feature-phone features as possible. Then I found this gem: the Sony-Ericsson M600.

m600

Sony-Ericsson M600 (released 2006)

I heard you could run actual applications on it, although they were written in Jave ME. It had a browser. It had a touch screen and a stylus. It had a real qwerty keyboard! I had to have it.

In retrospect, although the touch screen was the resistive kind and definitely needed that fiddly stylus, the keyboard was a stroke of genius. Each button did double-duty as two letters, depending on whether you pressed the left or right side. You needed to use thumbnails to be accurate, but it worked really well for the form factor.

I wasn't using it for much other than texting, but while my friends were still lumbering along with T9 prediction on their numeric keypads, I was racing ahead on my real, teensy keyboard keys.

Next time I was due for an upgrade, I moved back to Nokia to take advantage of a wider keyboard and probably some other stuff I thought was better; I don't remember. It might've just been that Sony-Ericsson stopped making hardware keyboards, actually. Good old Nokia didn't give up though! Their E71 had a keyboard with one key per letter, and while it lacked the touch screen, I didn't need to use a clumsy stylus.

Nokia E71

Nokia E71 (released 2008)

I still thought hardware keyboards were great, and to me there wasn't much competition. Sure, the iPhone 3G came out around the same time, but back then I viewed Apple products with suspicion. I also couldn't believe the virtual keyboard was anywhere near as good as my hardware one. It did boast a decent autocorrect, but why not write the word properly the first time on a more precise keyboard?

Regardless, I was jealous. I wanted apps. I wanted a touch screen. I just didn't want to give up my keyboard.

palm pre

Palm Pre (released 2009)

Oh. My god.

I was smitten.

Because it was so hard to buy a Pre outside the US, I imported one from Spain (I needed a European model to get the right 3G bands). I joined the developer program and released a Twitter client. I mean, of course it was a Twitter client, the todo-list app of 2009. Anyway, things were great. Palm was beloved, the Pre's webOS was revolutionary (true multi-tasking back when iOS ran one app at a time), and that keyboard was actually pretty good. Individual keys with gaps between made it easy to be accurate, and they had a satisfying amount of travel for their size.

When the Pre 2 came out and I still couldn't legally purchase one in Australia, I managed to wrangle getting one free from Palm's developer evangelist people. Things were still great.

Then webOS 2 totally stalled, Palm was bought by HP, and eventually webOS was sold to LG as a TV operating system (which made little sense). Matias Duarte, lead designer of webOS, jumped ship for Android, and I was left to ponder my options. A small group of die-hard Pre fans set up alternative app stores and managed to keep webOS working for a few more years, but I knew that wasn't for me. I was ready to outgrow my 320x480 screen.

I reluctantly boarded the Android train and ran through a couple of keyboard-less phones. I never liked the landscape slider keyboards that were all the rage, finding them a bit wide to type comfortably on. I started with an HTC Desire S, then moved on to a Nexus 4 and a Sony Xperia Z3. And when I accidentally smashed that in 2016, I knew exactly what my next phone would be.

The current situation

Priv

BlackBerry Priv (released 2015)

This phone could have been made just for me. It runs Android and has a portrait-slider hardware keyboard. I had longed for someone to make a portrait-slider since I saw a leaked shot of a Dell Android slider back in 2010 that never materialised. (A similar model later appeared as a Windows Phone 7 device). Here was the phone I'd been waiting for, a successor to my beloved Pre.

As an Android device, it's not too bad. It has a bunch of hardware niggles, like: regularly getting quite hot, and occasionally overheating; a third, centre volume button that doesn't do anything and can't be remapped; power and volume buttons swapped to the wrong sides (I guess to placate Blackberry converts); and a bit of flex in the plasticky back cover. Its battery life is also pretty average, despite a large battery; I'm not sure if this is more because of the large screen, or all of the BlackBerry services built into this version of Android. To their credit, you can turn off practically everything BlackBerry pre-installs and use your own launcher, email apps, and so on. Which I have done. But there's still a lot running in the background that you can't remove.

But how's the keyboard, you ask? Isn't that the entire selling point of this phone?

It is, and it's not worth it.

The problem with portrait sliders is that you can happily use your device without ever sliding open the keyboard. When it's closed, the phone reports it has no hardware keyboard, and the virtual one happily pops up. And herein lies the crux of the situation — there are just so few times when I feel like I need the extra accuracy of the hardware keyboard.

Virtual keyboard prediction and correction have come a long way since those early iPhone days. My keyboard app of choice, SwiftKey, usually does pretty well at understanding my too-fast, inaccurate taps, or my lazy not-quite-there swipes. So for most of my phone usage, it's fine. Rarely do I need to write a long email on my phone; that's what my computer is for.

And when I do decide to use the keyboard... to be honest, it's not that good. The keys are quite small, and using BlackBerry's swipe-up-to-complete prediction doesn't work reliably. I feel more accurate but much slower when using the physical keys, and that's not a tradeoff I want to make any more. I've grown so used to typing like a madman and fixing autocorrected words every so often that I just can't go back. My slider stays unslid.

It's a sad realisation to come to, and to be honest I've eyeing off that BlackBerry Mercury which ditches the slider. But I think that's just denial. I've moved on from physical keys.

So could this setup work for someone else? If you've somehow been using a hardware keyboard all this time, you're probably a BlackBerry diehard who already thinks the Priv is great. Go for it. But if you're an Android fan thinking about adding a hardware keyboard, it's probably not worth it.

About the Blog

I'm a developer in Melbourne, Australia, and co-founder of Hello Code.

I am joshsharp on twitter.