Tablets and the ultimate victory of the keyboard - and the hinge

Tablets and the ultimate victory of the keyboard - and the hinge

Summary: A new generation of tablet keyboards shows that what we really want is a device that's the tech equivalent of a mullet: business in front, party at the back. And it's all down to the lowly hinge.

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TOPICS: Tablets, Hardware
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When you go into a coffee shop, sit in a plane, or ride public transport, take a look at all the tablets around you. Some have keyboards, some don't.

But if you look at what people are doing with those tablets, it's quite clear just why those keyboards are there.

The tablets that are being used as pure tablets are displaying books, crushing candy in casual games, browsing the web, or reading email.

Those with keyboards are editing documents, filling in forms, and answering mail. Watching those tablets, it's clear that the keyboard isn't going away; while tablets have introduced simplified interaction modes, for deeper interactions the keyboard still reigns supreme.

Back when the iPad was new, I'd see people at conferences and events trying to take notes on its touch keyboard. Now those same people are unwrapping and unfolding keyboards and typing away, just like they'd have done with a laptop.

It turns out, for note taking, that a physical keyboard is more comfortable and less prone to error than its touch alternative — and it doesn't take up half the screen while doing it.

It's not just the people I watch using keyboards. It's also me.

I recently bought an iPad Mini; anticipating the launch of Office on iOS. My previous test iOS device was an ageing iPhone 4 that was showing the strain of running iOS 7.

Now, after a couple of weeks of using the iPad purely as a tablet, I'm seriously considering buying a keyboard/case combination. Yes, I can use its touch keyboard for notes when I hold it in portrait mode, but I still lose a lot of screen — more than I do with my 8-inch Windows tablet, or with my Nexus 7. But I'm holding out for a keyboard with a hinge.

At CES and a recent computer accessory event in London I saw a lot of Bluetooth keyboards, with support for virtually every tablet out there. Most were simple standalone devices, perhaps with a slot to hold a tablet as if it was a screen, or were built into fold-out leather cases.

They were all very attractive, some with backlit keys, some with keys that replicated the features of their touch alternatives. But most of them seemed to be missing something — something that Asus had put into its Transformer series of Android devices.

What was that missing sweet spot?

It turns out that it's the key feature of a laptop PC (be it Windows or Mac): the hinge. Do you want to be carrying a flexible plastic keyboard that's likely to fail as soon as it flexes, or a sturdy keyboard that weighs more than your tablet? Or do you want something that's flexible, strong, and reliable, like the good old hinge.

While Microsoft's Surface replicates the hinge with its mix of magnetic keyboard covers and kickstands, a new generation of tablet cases is on the way that bring all the benefits of a laptop hinge: they're stiff, strong, well balanced, and secure.

Put a tablet into one of these new cases, and you'll turn your tablet into the equivalent of a small laptop, just with a removable touch screen.

Docked in its hinged keyboard case, the tablet folds up on a hinge to reveal a backlit keyboard. There's no need for a kickstand, or any other way of propping up the tablet. Instead the whole combination is neatly counterbalanced (and can come with extra battery power for the tablet), keeping moving parts and connections to a minimum.

With one of these cases you can use your tablet as a tablet when you want to, and you can use it as a laptop when you need to. It's the best of both worlds, and there's no need to switch between ecosystems when you change operating modes.

Back when Apple launched the iPad, the tablet was seen as a separate and new category. But that wasn't how people wanted to use it — but they also didn't want another laptop. A modern keyboard case can help us extend our devices across categories, and give us the hybrid device we really want.

Further reading

Topics: Tablets, Hardware

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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53 comments
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  • Agree Completely

    I've been saying for ages that the (Transformer) form type is 'The' one for business or occasional business use. It's a 10" tablet when you want it to be one, and it's (effectively) a laptop when you want it to be one. I still have my 7" tablet which I use around the house and in the sofa or reading in bed, but the rest of the time the Transformer does it for me.

    Now, if I could only get an Android port for WoW ......
    5hagg1
    • Hybrid's / Convertables

      They make a lot of them now. I have a 15" one which I think is the perfect size. The article misses the point of digitizing touch that uses a pen also. OneNote is awesome with it. It knows the difference between your finger and the pen and responds differently. The 15" basically give we a sheet of 8.5X11 inch paper and a few support icons. I have now gone completely paperless.
      MichaelInMA
      • What

        make and model do you have?
        calfee20
      • And for the ipad mini?

        Author claimed to have an iPad mini - for a screen that small, I'd expect a resurgence of the famous Thinpad "butterfly" folding keyboard.

        For those pondering the difference between a tablet and a laptop, I'd mention: interfaces. USB, ethernet, SD card readers and video are the most common. Working in secure areas [where WiFi and Bluetooth are banned] is impossible with a tablet; laptops without these radio emitters are getting rare but they DO exist.
        alan_r_cam
        • Curse you, edit facilities!

          Thinkpad. With a K.
          alan_r_cam
  • Tablets and the ultimate victory of the keyboard - and the hinge

    Personally, I don't see any bright future for what we call today as "Keyboard".. I use it today like many others but we should acknowledge some progress we made in different fields that might lead into eradicate the "Keyboard". The recent advancement in the data capturing technologies from optical, voice, fingers and cards reading and to many other sophisticated technologies related to brain signals. In addition and in my opinion, the majority of the data and information that we will interact with in the future, will not be entered manually by a "Data entry agents".. Most of the data woukd be produced by other systems and already exist. We would require only smart interfaces to interact and apply our logic into the data and information to certain extend.
    Saud Al Dhawyani
    • The future suggests "no place for keyboards"

      Personally, I don't see any bright future for what we call today as "Keyboard".. I use it today like many others but we should acknowledge some progress we made in different fields that might lead into eradicate the "Keyboards". The recent advancement in the data capturing technologies from optical, voice, fingers and cards reading and to many other sophisticated technologies related to brain signals. In addition and in my opinion, the majority of the data and information that we will interact with in the future, will not be entered manually by a "Data entry agents".. Most of the data woukd be produced by other systems and already exist. We would require only smart interfaces to interact and apply our logic into the data and information to certain extend.
      Saud Al Dhawyani
      • It will take a while

        I use Siri and voice dictation a lot, but only for simple stuff. It will be a long time before the alternatives to keying in data are able to work well in complex editing scenarios. I agree we'll get there, but it may be up to ten years away.
        Mac_PC_FenceSitter
      • Voice input wouldn't work in the office

        I can't imaging working where everyone is talking to their PC. How do you stop your PC from picking up input from the desk beside you? Do you speak louder? Then the person beside you speaks louder, and it escalates around to everyone in the work place?

        Voice input is a really bad idea, very limited usefulness. Keyboards will reign for a long time to come.
        FrankInKy
        • computers are better than people at some tasks

          Different voices have different pitch patterns. It takes a lot less processing power to distinguish different voices than to interpret speech. Office cacophony won't be a problem for the PCs, only for the humans.

          To accomodate the humans, subvocalization could be used, or very quiet speaking. Mics can be quite sensitive, and PCs can distinguish different voices. Even so, keyboards are going to last for many more years because they're more precise.
          hrlngrv 
          • Great for security

            because typing confidential files is just not as good as talking loudly so that everyone in the open office can eavesdrop.

            Voice input is idiotic for anything but niche uses.
            Pastabake
        • RE: Voice input wouldn't work in the office

          And imagine a hundred people all talking to there tablets in a meeting or conference seminar!
          kb5ynf
      • The ultimate user interface...

        ...is the one controlled directly by the human mind. Until the restrictions of the physical senses are eliminated in user interfaces (and there are definite limitations with voice, sight, touch, and motion focused UIs) and brain waves become the UI, the keyboard will have its place.
        CHIP72
    • Voice? No

      First the privacy, everyone in the train or the aircraft will know what you are trying to write,
      Second, talking all the time is somewhat not comfortable, writing on a keyboard for a long text is more comfortable.
      Third, Imagine a meeting, where everyone is talking notes by talking to his tablet!!
      FadyNabilNashed
      • as opposed to phone use today

        Dunno about your commute, but mine involves too many people making too many phone calls and discussing too much I'd rather not hear.
        hrlngrv 
      • I can type faster than I can talk.

        For anything beyond a few words, typing is more efficient, especially when entering numeric data on a keypad.
        CharlieSpencer
        • Really?

          Obviously, you have not attended an international academic seminar, which is where I am typing this from. Gosh! Most of these people can't stop talking! And fast! Like unending diarrhea from multiple outlets!
          crystalsoldier
    • I disagree

      even now it's easier and faster to type then to dictate. Who wants to be talking through an entire document beginning to end?

      Sure there are places for dictation, but for the long haul isn't it easier to just type in silence, forming thoughts in you head for the next sentence or paragraph?

      Try saying aloud the next paper you type as you type it, see if it's preferable after a while.
      William.Farrel
      • Interesting contrast example

        Most folks are not familiar with the evolution of the PRACTICE of law from a document-creation perspective.

        Decades ago, lawyers hand-wrote documents on legal pads and gave those to secretaries to type up.

        Eventually, some lawyers learned to type and prepared documents themselves although that tended to be only a small portion.

        When voice dictation technology became available (1950's-60's), many lawyers learned to DICTATE their entire document and then have a secretary transcribe that.

        Nowadays, pretty much all lawyers under 70 (I'm 63) are touch typists who draft directly with a wordprocessor.

        REALITY is that DICTATION is MUCH faster than using a wordprocessor. And yet almost no lawyers who graduated law school from 1980 on use dictation -- not even with voice-recognition software.

        Here's a related factor: However you LEARNED to draft is HOW YOU THINK. Lawyers who learned to draft with a legal pad CAN'T DRAFT to a wordprocessor -- EVEN THOUGH they're touch typists! Lawyers who learned to draft with a typewriter can't draft to a wordprocessor. I learned to draft to a wordprocessor. I've tried drafting with a legal pad and it's useless. Also, although I have Dragon Naturally Speaking I can't use it -- my writing style COMPLETELY changes; I have to make so many changes to the wording that it's quicker to just draft directly to the wordprocessor.
        Rick_R
        • Dictation Faster?

          How? You dictate and an hour or days later, you get the a typed copied that needed to be marked up.

          Using Dragon is shown to not be faster for any serious writing.

          Typing 60 to 80 words per minute on a keyboard with the availability of a mouse is the fastest creation method for most.
          Regulator1956