Stop The War on Buttons!

At its most basic level, a computer is simply a device that’s capable of following instructions, whether those instructions require it to solve math problems, crunch videos, or shoot virtual trolls full of arrows. But in the popular imagination, a computer is so much more than just a high-functioning abacus; it’s the physical manifestation of two thousand years of human invention. Now, if some have their way, that physical manifestation will have only virtual buttons. This is not progress.

For years, we’ve watched while smartphone makers built their latest and greatest handsets without QWERTY keyboards. Now, you can’t even get a 4G LTE phone with a keyboard. Verizon recently released the Droid 3 with five large rows of keys, but the carrier stuck with old-fashioned 3G connectivity. Apparently, if you want physical keys, you’re an old fart who doesn’t need speeds faster than 1.5 Mbps to e-mail Life Alert that you’ve fallen and can’t get up.

Update (10/10/2011): Now, over 6 months after its first 4G phone came out, Verizon has finally unveiled the Samsung Stratosphere which is the first slider with LTE. Unfortunately, it uses old-time specs like a single-core CPU, low-res camera, and low-density 800 x 480 screen. Keyboard-lovers are still a generation behind.

Google got in on the buttonless trend when it released its Android Honeycomb operating system with the home/back/layers buttons built into the UI, rather than on the bezel. Thanks a lot, Andy Rubin! Now I have to poke around on the screen to go back home, and on most Android slates, I can’t even get the reassuring buzz of haptic feedback to let me know my tap was accepted.

The worst atrocity in the war on buttons is yet to come. Last week, we learned that Apple is working on a computer keyboard that offers nothing but virtual keys. How could you, Steve? I’m all for pulling optical drives from your MacBooks. But are you saying that our computers should be seen and not heard or even felt?

Real geeks want the world to know that they’re using powerful and complex machinery. I want to roll into the office like a Hell’s Coder with a fan that revs like a Harley, and I want a keyboard with keys so loud and springy that they sound like a jackhammer while I’m typing.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be a PCB-pushing poindexter to understand why physical keys are superior to virtual ones. If you want to touch-type, you need to be able to feel the curvature in your keyboard’s keys so you can type without looking. You’ll also need to feel the response of the keys to know that you hit them correctly without waiting to see what appears on screen.

But don’t take my word for it. Take an ergonomic scientist’s. I asked Professor Alan Hedge, director of Cornell University’s Human Factors and Ergonomics laboratory, what he thought of Apple’s keyless keyboard concept. As it turns out, Hedge tested a multitouch keyboard from a company called FingerWorks way back in 2004. The users in Hedge’s study preferred a physical keyboard by a wide margin—and their typing rates were higher, too.

“The lack of tactile feedback, of key definition (no edges to feel) and the lack of key movement (fingers make ballistic movements when typing so hitting your finger pulp against a surface is uncomfortable and keys need to move to absorb the impact of a finger movement) made this a poor ergonomic design and people preferred regular keyboards and were faster at typing on these,” he told me.

Ironically, FingerWorks went out of business years ago, but sold its intellectual property to Apple.

Unfortunately, too many manufacturers just don’t understand the value of real tactile feedback. They expect you to spend the rest of your life hunting and pecking as you stare at a clunky set of virtual keys and buttons. Mavis Beacon would be turning over in her grave, if she actually existed.

Fortunately, there are a few heroes who are fighting to prevent this capacitive catastrophe. Lenovo decided to include a set of hard, springy menu buttons in the bezel of its upcoming ThinkPad Tablet, even though the same buttons are part of the Android 3.1 UI. A spokesperson told us that customers just prefer the feel and discoverability of physical buttons. Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 is also a boon for button boosters, because it provides the most tactile feedback of any notebook keyboard on the market and even makes a little noise as you type.

A host of third-party keyboard companies are also doing their best to stave off a buttonpocalypse. Das Keyboard sells a board that uses IBM-style buckling springs and comes with no writing on the keys to discourage hunt-and-peck behavior.

In the phone space, HTC has launched a couple of 4G keyboard phones in the last year, including the myTouch 4G Slide on T-Mobile. If only they could bring one of these designs to Verizon’s leading LTE network!

Hard-pressing heroes such as Das Keyboard, HTC, and Lenovo can’t win the button war on their own. They need you to vote with your wallet and support them. Act now or forever hold your keys.

Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and infrastructure of LAPTOP’s web site. With a reputation as the staff’s biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP’s custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek’s Geek column here every week or follow Avram on twitter.

AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. wvbailey Says:

    Not to fret: the real world (as opposed to the Apple world) of business and power-users at home will continue to require keyboards into the future. I’ve used virtual keyboards, and I find them vaguely intriguing for really low-end stuff such as Apple products and really crappy phones and Nooks and other low-enders, but for real work, I use a keyboard, the more ergonomic the better (been known to subsitute a full keyboard for a crappy laptop keyboard in my time, which since I’m not dead, continues).

    BTW I’m writing this on a teensy weensy nettop keyboard, using touch-typing, out-of-doors in the almost-darkness of my deck. Betcha can’t do this on a crappulous virtual keyboard, dudes. If you say you can, I say you’re lying.

  2. dude Says:

    Don’t panic, Apple patented a keyboard without keys. Soon they’ll sell you a laptop with just a completely flat surface in the bottom, I admit it would make for a very thin and nice looking device though (not that I have ever bought a single Apple product in my life). Besides a phone with keyboard could be thicker, cost more to produce and might have durability problem (although it would make it much much easier to replace the phone LCD as I found out.)

    At least there are some interesting things you can do on the software level and with capacitive screen, such as for Android there is “Swype” keyboard that I’ve grown to like, if only its “definition of words” and my phone’s screen were bigger.

    Due to professional activities, demand from the military, and even as a gamer I can’t live without a dedicated keyboard and mouse with optimal response and precision. So I don’t think one should worry too much, but you’ll just have to get use to touchscreen typing for portable devices. I think a simple solution is if someone design and manufacturer a sliding bluetooth keyboard that is attachable to the back of the phone.

  3. Mark Says:

    Hear hear. Android is great but where are the good QWERTY phones?? The solution to not having a keyboard is not getting a bigger screen, it’s getting a keyboard!!

  4. William Says:

    Blackberry Bold 9900/9930. Its a stretch but hopefully on Verizon LTE!

  5. nerdydesi Says:

    Thank goodness for this article! Its a real shame that physical keyboards and buttons seem to be on the decline. Its sad when most people think they are “uncool”, outdated, antiquated, etc. I’ve already seen smartphone fanboys state those that still want a phone with a slide-out keyboard have issues and need to get with the times and adapt to a virtual keyboard. Please.

    And it is a shame that when phones with physical keyboards come out, they are usually low to mid-range, not the high-end slabs we are seeing like the Bionic, Galaxy S2, etc. : (

  6. Jim Ramsey Says:

    Oh dear. I’m one of those nasty old guys.

    I live and breath ssh. Many of the machines I connect to are running Linux. Others are running Windows (of some flavor).

    But still others run AIX or HP-UX and the world is not always GUI.

  7. Chris Says:

    Sadly, the Das keyboard doesn’t use buckling springs. It does use mechanical switches – made by cherry. You can find keyboards with better build quality from Filco.

    Keyboards that use buckling springs are still made by Unicomp.

    A decent mechanical keyboard should last many years

  8. Matt Says:

    I agree

  9. dave Says:

    Speculation about some rumoured Apple keyboard, but no mention of Microsoft’s plastic, no-travel keyboard for their Surface?

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