Living with the iPad

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Typing on the iPad

Even back when the iPad was still a mythical product that was everything to everybody, one thing concerned me above all others: if the device was to truly be usable for my productivity, for not just consuming but for producing things, Apple would need to be able to deliver a great—dare I say “magical”—way to input text. But what Steve Jobs pulled the wraps off of last January seemed little more than an enlarged version of the iPhone’s keyboard.

After a month of living with the iPad—and an intensive weekend spent reviewing the 3G models—I’ve had a chance to to type more than a few words on it and figure out whether or not it lives up to expectations. The verdict? It’s better than you might think—but not as good as you might hope.

Portrait or landscape?

The iPad's keyboard in portrait orientation is an awkward size that's too small for ten finger typing, and a little too big for thumb typing.

First things first: typing is one facet of the iPad where it's critical to recognize the device’s divided nature. It’s really two, two, two keyboards in one. The landscape and portrait keyboards provide two very different typing experiences.

While the portrait mode is hardly unusable, there’s no question that it’s the less functional of the two keyboard orientations. The keys are at an awkward size that’s too small for ten-finger typing but a little too big for you to be able to comfortably thumb-type, iPhone style.

Much to the likely dismay of my typing instructor, Mavis Beacon, I’ve ended up forswearing ten-finger typing in the portrait mode for a hunt-and-peck strategy—either with both index fingers, if the iPad’s resting on a surface, or with one-finger as I cradle the iPad in the other hand.

In that case, it’s not as fast as thumb-typing on the iPhone, but it’s respectable for a quick note or Twitter post. In the grand scope of things, it’s probably the slowest way of entering text on the iPad.

In landscape mode, the iPad's keyboard is a little smaller than a MacBook's, but surprisingly usable.

But in landscape mode, the whole situation changes. The keyboard’s larger—still not as large as an actual MacBook keyboard, but definitely usable with all ten fingers. In fact, it’s comparable in size to the keyboards of netbooks that I’ve encountered: cramped and with an odd layout, but serviceable. I’ve been able to ten-finger type on the landscape keyboard, but I make far more mistakes and type at a much slower pace than I do on a standard computer keyboard.

Strangely enough, I’ve found myself adopting a slightly weird hybrid typing strategy with the landscape keyboard, using all five fingers of my right hand and just the index finger of my left hand. It’s weird, no question, but it prevents me from obscuring the entire keyboard with my hands and lets me more easily trigger the Shift key with my left hand.

A whole new meaning for “touch typing”

While typing in the iPad’s landscape mode on a flat surface is doable, I’ve found that having a slight incline, such as that provided by Apple’s iPad case, is preferable: it makes both typing and reading easier. And, if you don’t have a handy surface to rest the iPad on, I’ve had good luck with holding the iPad in one hand and typing with all five fingers of the other hand. It feels somewhat awkward at first, but it’s possible to get a surprising amount of speed in this manner without having to worry about the cramped size of the keyboard.

The lack of tactile cues for discerning keys definitely is an annoyance for touch typing. That said, the difficulty is somewhat neutralized by the fact that you’re usually looking at the iPad’s screen—where the keyboard is located—anyway. But here we also encounter a problem that Apple cleverly solved on the iPhone with those little pop-ups that appear when you touch a key—on the iPad, your fingers cover the keys when you’re typing, sometimes making it tough to tell which ones you’re hitting.

From an ergonomic standpoint, typing on a hard, unyielding surface doesn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. For whatever reason, the glass of the iPad screen has a sort of tactile illusion that makes it feel to me like there’s a little bit of give—just enough to not make my fingertips feel like I’m just drumming them on a tabletop.

I also find the iPad’s keyboard layout annoying. My left pinky longs for the full-sized Shift key that you find on a physical keyboard; the iPad’s is merely the same as the letter keys. I also miss having number keys on the same screen as letters, since having to toggle back and forth to access those and many punctuation marks is definitely a time-suck. If you’ve gotten used to typing on the iPhone, then the one difference that will probably bug you the most is that Apple has moved the delete key back into the space it normally occupies on a hardware keyboard, the top right. On the iPhone, it’s always resided in the bottom right.

However, Apple has also made some welcome improvements to the iPad’s keyboard from the iPhone’s. For one thing, you can now type a period, a comma, an exclamation point, or a question mark without leaving the “letters” screen. While many have knocked the absence of the apostrophe on the first screen, Apple’s also included a handy trick here: quickly swipe upwards on the comma key and it’ll automatically type an apostrophe. (You can also tap and hold the comma key for the apostrophe, or an inverted exclamation point, or a semi-colon.) That tip, first pointed out to me by Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser on Twitter, has been a godsend.

As with the iPhone’s keyboard, you can access many special characters, such as accented letters, by tapping and holding on a base key. Besides the punctuation marks, for example, you can tap and hold on “e” and you’ll get the option to type é, è, ë, ê, and more. It’s not terribly useful if you need to type a lot of accented characters, but if you’re writing in another language, you’d probably want to switch to one of the iPad’s many other keyboard layouts anyway.

The second set of keys that you bring up by tapping the “.?123” button in the lower left corner is similar in most respects to the iPhone’s keyboard, with the addition of an Undo button. Occasionally that comes in useful, especially since the “shake to undo” feature, though present, is a bit unwieldy on the iPad.

The hardware option

There were cheers in January when Apple announced that the iPad would not only have a dock with a hardware keyboard but would also add support for Bluetooth keyboard. I’m not ashamed to say that my cheer was among the loudest.

Like I said, I write a lot. Despite the layer of abstraction that a keyboard might put between you and your words, years of usage has made that abstraction fade into the background. The muscle memory is so strong that I don’t have to look at either the keyboard or the screen to know what words I’m typing. If the iPad was ever going to be a useful work tool for me, support for hardware keyboards was a must.

Still, it’s an odd decision for Apple, which eschewed hardware keyboards publicly and vehemently with the iPhone. But it’s strangely reminiscent of a comment Steve Jobs made at the 2003 All Things Digital conference when he said that Apple had no plans to make a tablet because it turned out that people wanted keyboards. In true Jobsian fashion, at least part of that was true.

Using a hardware keyboard with the iPad—and I speak here having only used Apple’s Bluetooth wireless keyboard—is a joy. It’s as responsive as typing on a MacBook, and as a benefit it lets you use many of the traditional keyboard shortcuts: you can jump around to words using option and the arrow keys, or to the beginning or end of lines using command and the arrow keys. You can select text by holding shift and using the arrow keys. You can even copy, cut, paste, undo, and redo with the usual shortcuts. Plus, you can type non-standard characters like ™, £, and © with the option key, just like on your Mac.

Given the utility of that, however, it’s all the more jarring when certain things don’t work. Command-I doesn’t italicize text in Pages, for example, nor Command-B bold—and Command-F for finding text is similarly absent. Though you can type a tab character, you can’t tab to different fields in Mail or Safari without tapping the touchscreen, and I’ve yet to find a place where the Escape key functions as it does on the Mac.

The iPad is clearly designed for the onscreen keyboard, with the hardware keyboard support bolted on as an afterthought, an appeasement to those who will inevitably claim that the onscreen keyboard just isn’t good enough. But for straight-up typing, using the hardware keyboard is faster and less error-prone than any of the onscreen keyboards. That’s fine, because if I plan to write something particularly lengthy, it’s not a big pain to bring the keyboard with me. But the onscreen keyboard is more than sufficient for quick e-mails, searching the Web, posting to Twitter, and the like. The key here is that Apple has given us the choice of which keyboard entry method to use—and that’s great. If you don’t have a hardware keyboard, you’ll never notice the lack.

Spellbound

Just as with the iPhone, the iPad boasts an auto-correct system that will try to figure out what you mean to say even when you can’t quite hit the right keys. The system is a mixed blessing: when you’re quickly typing on the virtual keyboard, mistakes happen, and the software fixes many of them. But sometimes it’s dogged about fixing things that are already correct.

I’ve seen two different types of auto-correct on the iPad: the first is the one you’ve probably become accustomed to from the iPhone, where a suggestion bubble appears below the word and you can hit space or a punctuation mark to accept it, or tap on it to reject.

The second, however, is a silent system more akin to the Substitutions feature introduced to the Mac OS in Snow Leopard. In this case, the iPad will fix what it perceives to be a common misspelling without providing any suggestion. For example, fixing “thier” to say “their” or replacing “teh” with “the.” Most of the time it’s a helpful adjustment, but every once in a while it fixes something that was correct (often involving merging two words into one), which you might not notice until you’re proofreading later. But the only way to turn that off is to turn off the entire Auto-Correction system in Settings -> General -> Keyboard.

As with many Mac apps, Pages on the iPad will underline misspelled words. Pity it doesn't see eye-to-eye with the built-in dictionary.

Some apps, such as Pages, underline misspelled words, just like on the Mac. Sometimes that’s quite handy, since it can help catch mistakes that you might otherwise miss, but unlike on the Mac or with the usual iPhone-style autocorrect, there’s no way to make the spellcheck ignore a particular word. It’s annoying for names or other jargon terms that don’t necessarily appear in the dictionary.

Speaking of which, the fact that iBooks and Pages let you access a built-in dictionary for looking up definitions is great, but as with the Mac, I’m frustrated that there are many words that appear in that dictionary that are still flagged as incorrect by spellcheck.

Despite its flaws, the system is good enough that it seems to often know exactly what you meant to type and I’ve found myself wishing more than once that my MacBook was just as smart.

Are you the keymaster?

While not as magical as I might have hoped, typing on the iPad’s really pretty good. The saving grace, however, is that the heavy reliance on the touchscreen interface means that I don’t have to type that much. Plus, I rarely compose lengthy missives and, if I plan to, I can always throw a Bluetooth keyboard in the bag—just in case.

It’s an unusual move for Apple, especially in the day and age of the iPhone and iPad, opting for choices instead of fixating on one solution to rule them all—whether you like it or not. Perhaps that’s because the company has realized that there isn’t a perfect solution yet. At least until somebody invents a way that you can think words and have them appear onscreen.

I hear that’s coming in the seventh-generation iPad and that it will be truly magical, indeed.

[Senior associate editor Dan Moren wrote much of this article—though not all of it—on his iPad.]

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