Thursday, March 16, 2006

Mobile Text Entry Showdown

I've gotten in the habit of carrying around a Pocket PC.

My biggest complaint about Pocket PCs and their PDA ancestors has always been the text entry problem, so over the last few weeks I set about looking for ways to overcome it. Voice recording and free-hand writing both have their uses, but at the end of the day I need honest digital text.

The standard on-screen options for this are stylus-pecking on a QWERTY-style keyboard, handwriting recognition, and "block recognition" -- a special handwriting style that brings warm fuzzies to long-time Palm users.

My views on these are as follows:

Too slow.
Too slow and inaccurate.
Too slow.

Enter the new contenders:

In one corner, I had a foldable keyboard for the device. Undeployed, it's not much bigger than the Pocket PC itself, but it's still a little too large to *comfortably* carry in a pocket or on a belt.

In another corner, I had heard good things about the FrogPad one-handed keyboard. At the advice of Outlawpoet, I thought I'd try the Lefty USB version. It was out of stock everywhere, so I patiently waited for one to appear on eBay and plucked it.

In a third corner, I stumbled upon MessagEase, an alternative on-screen keyboard from Exideas. This uses large keys for the most common letters, and directional swipes away from said keys for everything else.

The Folding Keyboard

There's not much to be said about this one. They come in many different sizes and configurations, and a decent one will feel pretty much like a laptop keyboard under your fingers. The only question is whether you will bother to carry it and have a place to put use it. They often don't work very well on laps.

The FrogPad

Outlawpoet's review pretty much sums up my impressions. At the risk of repeating it, I will say that the FrogPad's killer ap is on the desktop rather than with mobile devices. If you spend a lot of time in programs where you must heavily use both the mouse and the keyboard, the FrogPad is for you.

Within a week, however, I realized that I was not, in fact, a heavy user of such programs -- at least not enough to turn a blind eye to some of the FrogPad's tragic design quirks: 'm' and ',' are both much harder to hit than 'z', for instance. Dvorak typists like myself just can't tolerate that kind of oversight. More alarming, some very common typos on the Frogpad put you in ALT or CTRL modes where you can swiftly cause all manner of chaos to whatever it is you were working on. It makes you wonder whether today's Froggers are really just the beta testers for what could, and should, be an improved layout.


The MessagEase, in contrast, begs no such questions. It takes a while before you can find everything without a hunt, but it never, at the end of your search, leaves you screaming, "Why!? Why!? Why!?" Being an onscreen keyboard, it's also easier to learn -- your fingers don't block your view of the keys when you're not typing. And unlike standard on-screen keyboards, you can get to every key and character from a single screen. With not-too-much practice I already find it eerily fast. I'm not easily impressed, but I hereby award MessagEase a "damn clever" ranking, and declare it to be worth every penny of the $19.50 registration price (varies with platform).


The FrogPad would surely prove faster than MessagEase in the long run, but as a keyboard for a Pocket PC it is actually less practical than the foldable keyboards it hopes to replace. One of its selling points is supposed to be that it can be used in tight quarters where table space -- or even lap space -- are in short supply. You can hold it in one hand while typing with the other.

In my tests this proved terribly awkward. The FrogPad is too big to comfortably palm (in my admittedly smallish hands), but, with any other grip, impossible to hold steady while typing. Worst of all, in this situation I have no remaining hands with which to hold the Pocket PC itself. That leaves... my lap? I'm back where I started, and actually worse off than I would've been with a keyboard in my lap, since the LCD screen of the Pocket PC has so many suboptimal viewing angles. And Google help me should I ever need to use my stylus!

So, short of sewing the FrogPad to the side of my leg, I don't see it working as a keyboard for mobile data entry. If I'm packing a bag for a day away from home, a foldable keyboard just makes more sense. It props the Pocket PC up at a useful angle and allows me to bring my full Dvorak speed to the table. (Stowed, both keyboards are about the same size.)

And for anything other than quality time at a quiet table or desk, MessagEase reigns supreme. For one thing, it's discreet. To the untrained eye, I'm just making notes in my "planner," not writing the initial draft of, say, this post. FrogPads and folding keyboards are hard to ignore, and "Conversation Starter" is not a feature I personally enjoy in my gadgetry.

The loser is thus the FrogPad, which saddens me a little. It's pretty nifty, despite the flaws. But in my case the niche it fills is just too small. It's back to the great virtual auction house for this plucky amphibian.


As a sidebar to this little adventure, learning two new keyboarding styles had me looking around for tools to get me up to speed. For the FrogPad, you can get a free trial for their dedicated tutor. It's right-hand only for the trial, but that shouldn't make much difference. Really, any incremental lesson scheme for any keyboard will work for you if you make sure you use the correct fingering; this is equally true for MessagEase or any other keyboarding style. I just ended up using the the page I had used to learn Dvorak back in the day.

There's an awkward competency gap, however, between the time one has a new keyboard memorized and the time one is fast enough to use it in one's daily typing activities. A logical bootstrapping approach is to find a list of the most common words and letter combinations in your language and drill with them intensively. This doesn't get you practicing every key, but it gets your overall speed up to a useful level quickly.

For completely unrelated reasons, I happened to be learning a little JavaScript while I was learning the new keyboards. So, for my first attempt at a useful JavaScript program, I created a "daily speed drills" page. It incrementally drills you on a random selection of letter combinations drawn from a bank of those most common in the English language. Every time the page is refreshed, new selections are made. It's nothing fancy, but I have found it very effective.