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Phone Decision 2004: Keypad vs. Thumbboard

One of the decisions I had to make in choosing a new phone/wireless devices is what kind of text input I wanted. Some devices, like Smartphones, use a traditional 12-button phone keypad. Since each key has 3 or 4 letters on it, you are required to use one of two methods for entering text.

“Multi-tap” requires you to tap each key a certain number of times to enter the desired letter. For example, to type the word “Hello” in multi-tap, you would hit 5533555(pause)555(pause)666. That’s 13 keypresses and two pauses to type one word. Not the most efficient or speedy way to enter text.

Predictive text input (a.k.a. T9) uses software and a word dictionary to guess what word you are entering, requiring you to hit each key only once. For example, to type “Hello” in T9, you would hit 43556. The predictive software knows there are only so many words that can be spelled with that combination of keys. In the event that there are more than one possible words available, you can choose which one you meant. Predictive input is faster than multi-tap, since you’re using fewer keypresses, but it can be frustrating and/or difficult to enter unusual words like usernames, email addresses, and URLs.

For a device with a traditional 12 key number pad, these are pretty much your only two options. Neither are very effective for entering large amounts of text. SMS/text messages are usually fine, but I’d never try to compose a long email with either of them. Instant messaging presents a unique challenge for a device with a keypad. Unless the person you’re chatting with is also using a phone keypad, they’ll almost always be able to type faster than you.

The other common text input method for mobile devices is a thumbboard – a tiny QWERTY keyboard shrunken down to fit the phone. Devices such as the Treo 600/650, Sidekick/Sidekick II, and Blackberries use thumbboards.

The advantage of a QWERTY thumbboard is one key per letter and a familiar layout (for those comfortable with a full size QWERTY keyboard, anyway). Text input is generally much faster and more efficient on a thumbboard, though most require a learning period and some practice to get proficient. The downside of a thumbboard is that it usually makes the device bigger. Manufacturers have to strike a balance between how small they can make the thumbboard, and how much size it adds to the device.

The Treo 600/650 device is quite popular for its thumbboard, which is quite usable while not adding too much size (especially width) to the phone. RIM’s new Blackberry 7100t has a unique hybrid thumbboard. It’s a QWERTY keyboard, but there are two letters per key, and it uses predictive software to guess which word you’re typing, like T9. This allows the device to remain rather slim, while still providing a full keyboard for easy text input.

So which of these factors influenced me in my decision? On my MPX200, I was always signed in to MSN Messenger, and had it tied to my Hotmail account using Izymail as an IMAP gateway to keep everything in sync. Reading email was easy on the MPX200, but I rarely wrote more than very short emails, because of the time it took to enter text using T9. I’m rarely away from my laptops when I’m at home or at work, so it wasn’t essential for me to be able to write a lot of email on the go, but an easier text input method would make instant messaging easier, which I did do a fair amount of on the Smartphone.

Decision: I wanted a more flexible text input method than a 12-key number pad, but something that didn’t make the device too bulky. I’ve been very happy with my choice (which, of course, I’m not going to reveal just yet).

Next up: display, applications/OS, connectivity, PIM syncing, and more.

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