Is the Mobile Device Keyboard Dead?

By Tony Rizzo, Editor in Chief — April 03, 2012

We have been and are continuing to test the Motorola DROID 4 and the Samsung Stratosphere, primarily within the context of a business user but also from a consumer perspective, and we've actively put them to field use over the last month. There isn't anything particularly new to add with respect to each of these high end smartphones (and their specs are available in numerous places) that hasn't already been written elsewhere. Both of them offer excellent touchscreens, and both of them offer quality keyboards.
 
During our time with the devices, the similarities between each smartphone have been much more evident than any particular differences they have. The Motorola DROID 4 does have a palpable edge in terms of overall build quality and the keyboard is superior to the Stratosphere's. The reason for this is related to the build quality - the DROID is much more solid in its entirety and that solidity extends to the keyboard itself. It also has a marginally better feel to the keyboard keys - they feel just a bit more reliable and not as difficult to type on. The Stratosphere has Samsung's Super AMOLED screen in its favor, though neither device looks anywhere near as good as the iPhone 4S. We've also found Samsung's UI easier to navigate than the DROID - an important issue for more novice users.
 
Both phones are Verizon LTE devices and they are both quick on the download side, although over time one loses the sense that either is significantly quicker than EV-DO or AT&T's 3G network. 
 
For comparison purposes, we stacked both phones up against an AT&T BlackBerry Torch and at AT&T iPhone 4S. The Torch and iPhone are both personally owned devices. For background, we are long time BlackBerry users going back to the early 2000s. We've lived through most of BlackBerry's iterations over the years, and we've always been steadfast in our belief that we couldn't operate without a BlackBerry keyboard. Hence eager anticipation for, though ultimately disappointment in, the Torch.
 
At the beginning of 2012 we finally made the switch to a touchscreen phone, and though we did extensive evaluations of Android devices, the iPhone 4S was the only device that captured the imagination. Remarkably to this reviewer - and against all previously held beliefs - it took no time what so ever to get used to typing on the iPhone's touchscreen - something we had not thought personally possible based on our Torch experiences.

Even more remarkable was the fact that typing on the Apple touchscreen significantly improved typing speed, and typing errors were no worse than they had been using an actual keyboard (the BlackBerry). This is true whether sending off a quick email, jotting down a note or crafting something significantly more substantial. The virtual keyboard is superior.
 
With that in mind, our keyboard slider device reviews ended up with a shift to focusing on the issue of whether or not a keyboard is still a necessary feature to have. 
 
Neither the DROID 4 nor the Stratosphere can be called sleek designs. The keyboards necessarily change the profiles of the devices to give them a fairly heavy appearance, and when the keyboards are not being used - which is approximately 90+ percent of the time, based on keeping track of daily usage, they simply add heft and weight to each device. In turn they make the iPhone (and various touchscreen-only Android devices on the higher end of the premium scale) appear all the sleeker. 
 
That said, the landscape orientation of the keyboards and their larger size makes them easier to use than the BlackBerry keyboards we've long been used to. It becomes significantly difficult to want to return to the BlackBerry devices of old - or the most recent Torch or Bold for that matter. There is a key lesson here for RIM to understand.
 
We need to note as well that the virtual keyboards themselves do play a role. BlackBerry's virtual keyboard on the Torch was not good enough - either in landscape or portrait mode, to switch. Both the Stratosphere and the DROID 4 offer superior virtual keyboards to the Torch, and they are both good enough to make the physical keyboard unnecessary.
 
Ultimately, we've arrived at a conclusion we did not think was possible just four months ago. We are now fully of the belief that a physical keyboard is no longer a necessary requirement for a smartphone - either for consumer or business use.

If we had to make a choice, we would now choose the landscape keyboards of either the DROID 4 or Stratosphere over any traditional BlackBerry keyboard. And, as hard to imagine as it once was, we will choose a high end mobile device without a keyboard over a device that sports one if given the choice.

The keyboard is no longer a smartphone necessity.

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