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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Perfect tablet typing: The best tips, apps and add-ons Part I

Despite their popularity, tablets get knocked on productivity—largely because entering data on them is slow and cumbersome. But that doesn’t mean you have to boot up your laptop every time you need to type a lengthy document. From add-on keyboards to alternative on-screen keypads and general screen-typing tips, here’s a host of ways to speed up data entry on your iPad or Android tablet.

Add-on keyboards

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, most users will get much faster performance by typing on a physical keyboard. Go ahead and try it for yourself. Using the iPad’s on-screen keyboard, I was able to reach all of 37 words per minute—half my normal typing rate on a full-size physical keyboard—with a (very high) 4-percent error rate. Using an external (albeit pint-sized) keyboard, I hit 64 words per minute with zero errors.
While typing on the smaller iPad keyboard wasn’t as fast as typing on a full-size one, it still beat tap-typing on the screen by a huge margin. There are a number of reasons for this, including:
  • Limited character set on the on-screen keyboard—At first glance, the iPad’s on-screen keyboard looks rather full-featured, but once you begin typing a document you start to notice some gaping holes. Numerical keys are subjugated to a secondary keyboard, along with almost every form of punctuation aside from the period, comma, question mark, and exclamation point. Characters that are extremely common in both casual and formal writing—including the forward slash, colon, and parenthesis—are buried and difficult to find, and the layout changes based on which app you’re using. It doesn’t help that these symbols aren’t even aligned with the numerals they normally adhere to. The @ symbol is traditionally typed as Shift-2 on a regular keyboard, but on the iPad you’ll find it beneath the 9 key. All of this hunting and pecking through the secondary keyboard slows you down.
  • Difficulty of making corrections easily—Most of us take for granted the oversized backspace key at the top right of our keyboards, and we make generous use of it on a daily basis when we mistype things. As expected, the iPad features a backspace key as well, but it’s harder to use. Not only is the key reduced to the size of a regular character key, it’s harder to locate without looking for it, because the keyboard doesn’t have a physical terminus that you can feel.
  • Screen real estate consumed by the on-screen keyboard—A big issue with typing on any tablet is the fact that the on-screen keyboard overwhelms everything else. In fact, more than half of the screen can be eaten away when the keyboard is active. This doesn’t directly dampen input speed, but it does impact your overall productivity by requiring considerably more scrolling around on the page in order to see the context of what you’re trying to type.
  • Lack of tactile feedback—Don’t discount the value of actual keys that click when you push on them. This powerful feature kept the BlackBerry alive for years, and it’s a major selling point for aftermarket keyboards on tablets today. When you press a key, you know your keystroke has been registered. Tapping a screen offers no such assurances, as you might have tapped the wrong character, your finger might have landed between two characters, or your tap might not have registered at all. Unless you slow down considerably, mistakes are common to the point where auto-correction features are now essential (if sometimes comically confused). But most of all, this feedback is important because for generations of users that cut their teeth on typewriters and computer keyboards, typing on a physical keyboard just feels more natural.
So, which keyboard is best? You can use just about any Bluetooth keyboard with your tablet, but chances are you’ll want one that attaches to the device and echoes its profile. I looked at three of the most noteworthy keyboards designed for the iPad, all of which double as cases or covers. (Android-compatible versions are available for each.)
Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover ($100)—This keyboard attaches magnetically to the iPad and doubles as a cover, though not exactly a case, since it doesn’t protect the rest of the device. It’s a basic, stripped-down keyboard with the focus squarely on the alpha keys.
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Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover
Numerals are shrunken down to half-size and do double duty with function keys. Though very thin, it has acceptable action, boosting me to 64 words per minute with no errors. Separate versions for the iPad mini and iPad Air that incorporate the same basic design are also available.
Belkin QODE Thin Type Keyboard for iPad Air ($100)—This magnetic keyboard cover’s typing area is a bit deeper than the Logitech's, due to the addition of full-size numeral keys and a row of custom keys dedicated to media playback, volume control, and the like.
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Belkin QODE Thin Type Keyboard for iPad Air
Strangely, the colon/semicolon key is pushed down next to the space bar—a decision may well flummox touch typists—but otherwise it is on a par with the Logitech cover, though with slightly smaller keys. None of this overly impacted my performance: I hit 73 words per minute with a 1 percent error rate, making it my overall “fastest” keyboard by a sizeable margin.
Kensington Pro Plus Folio with Backlit Keyboard ($100)—The selling point here should be obvious: Backlighting means this is easier to use in the dark. It’s also a full, padded case, so it offers more protection in case of a drop, and—a feature not to be overlooked—the actual keyboard is removable, so you have lots of flexibility when it comes to positioning screen and tablet.
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Kensington Pro Plus Folio with Backlit Keyboard 
Like the Belkin, it has a full-size row of number keys and custom function keys up top, and I really liked the sharp, crisp action on the keys, smallish though they are. Unfortunately, I ultimately hit only 51 words per minute with a 5 percent error rate, because my keystrokes didn't always register. Considerable training to hit keys with extra force, which is tough on a keyboard this small, is essential.

On-screen alternatives

If you use an Android keyboard or have a jail-broken iPad, you can change the stock keyboard layout by using an alternative keyboard app. (Users of non-jail-broken iPads can also use these keyboard apps within certain other apps, but they can’t replace the stock iOS keyboard throughout the OS.)
A number of alternative keyboards are available. Here’s a look at some of the major players.
Fleksy—This is a popular alternate keyboard that incorporates basic gestures (swipe left to delete, swipe right twice to add a punctuation mark) with a simple, no-frills keyboard. With its larger keys and clean interface, Fleksy makes it easier to hit characters correctly, and its predictive-text feature seems to be uncannily accurate. However, if you need to input numerals or special characters, you’ll still have to dig into secondary menus. I was actually slower with Fleksy—22 words per minute with a 5 percent error rate—than with the stock iOS keyboard, but I expect practice would improve that quite a bit. Considering the world text messaging speed record was set with a Fleksy keyboard at a rate of over 82 words per minute, it’s an option worth considering.
Flesky: more accurate data entry
Swype—Why type when you can Swype? So goes this alternative keyboard’s slogan, an allusion to the way you interact with the keys: by fluidly dragging, or swiping, your finger from one character to the other instead of tapping on them individually. Swype is available for Android only, but similar keyboards can be found for iOS if you want to give them a try in a sandbox. Swiping action aside, I also preferred the Swype keyboard layout, which features more punctuation and the ability to resize the keyboard, but there’s a learning curve. Ultimately I was able to work my way up to 30 words per minute with a 3 percent error rate, but I never felt as comfortable as I did with regular typing, particularly when trying to enter longer words. Google’s own Android keyboard (downloadable if your device doesn’t have it preinstalled) now has Swype-like technology built in, as does the well-reviewed SwiftKey.
Swype-ing may be faster than typing for some.
Keep reading for more onscreen keyboard picks...
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