The tablet's Achilles heel: Lack of a physical keyboard

The tablet's Achilles heel: Lack of a physical keyboard

Summary: Try as you might to argue that the tablet is still not mainstream, the fact they are seen everywhere would counter that argument. Even so, the need for a keyboard limits its use for some.

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A tablet here, two tablets there, these days you see tablets everywhere. The brand is no longer important, nor is the platform they are running. It's time to admit the tablet has gone mainstream.

Keyboard mountain
iPad Air-- left; Keyboard Mountain-- right (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

This probably has a lot to do with the form factor: tablets are very portable, weigh little, and among other things are very good web appliances. This appeals to mainstream consumers who have bought 100s of millions of the things. For many, tablets are the best form to perform the activities they do a lot. 

That holds true until the need arises to enter a lot of text. Whether a report for school or documents to create for the job, that's when the shortcoming of the tablet is felt by many.

Keyboards have been the preferred method for text entry for decades, and nothing's changed with the arrival of the tablet.

Tablets use onscreen touch keyboards for text entry, and for some users they're not really that bad. The Windows 8.1 keyboard is quite good as are the many Android keyboards. Even the iPad's keyboard is OK, although not as good as those on the other two platforms.

For many, that falls by the wayside when you have to use them to do a lot of writing. None of the tablet keyboards are that good for lots of text entry. Touch typists in particular can get frustrated at the lack of typing speed using those little touch keys on the screen.

Those who can't touch type may like the touch keyboard better than the rest of us. I've quizzed a few such tablet users, and they are willing to make longer text entries using the device's integrated onscreen keyboard. I'm told that's because they're used to hunt-and-peck typing, even though that takes a while for longer entries. They do admit getting annoyed at the experience from time to time, however.

I'm a writer, and that makes me an atypical tablet user due to the amount of typing I do. Given the number of tablets I see in use with physical keyboards, I may not be that different from the average tablet user, however. I'm happy using onscreen keyboards for short entries, eg responding to email, but longer than that and I must have a physical keyboard for pounding out text.

The platform doesn't matter in this regard, it's a function of how we've learned to work with computing devices. Keyboards have been the preferred method for text entry for decades, and nothing's changed with the arrival of the tablet. We like tactile feedback when we type on a keyboard, and onscreen models don't cut it.

Since those who can't touch type seem to like onscreen keyboards better than those who can, maybe it's time to stop teaching typing in school. No sense creating an army of frustrated tablet users, since it's not likely slates are going away any time soon. They'll be better prepared in the future when desktops and laptops disappear. OK, you know I'm kidding, right?

To be clear, there are certainly some tablet users that find using onscreen keyboards to be fine. Those are the lucky ones, though, as the rest of us need a real keyboard to get the most out of our tablets. That's why laptops aren't going away soon.

I'm not complaining here, I'm perfectly happy using a keyboard with the tablets I own. I'm just pointing out for those planning on buying a tablet that you'd better be prepared for that "I need a keyboard" moment that you'll probably experience like a lot of us.

Those supporting tablets in the workplace, particularly in BYOD environments, should be aware of this, too. It may look good on paper to have workers using tablets sans keyboards but that's not likely the way it will work out. Windows 8.1 hybrids make a lot of sense in this scenario.

I hear from a bunch of folks who feel that if you need a keyboard with your tablet, you may as well use a laptop. That makes sense for some, at least for those who forget you can detach the tablet and use it alone. As long as the onscreen keyboard is tolerable. And a physical keyboard is nearby.

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Topics: Mobility, Android, iPad, Tablets, Windows 8

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101 comments
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  • Define a tablet with a keyboard?

    Define A Tablet with a keyboard : It's called a touchscreen laptop!
    Define a laptop without keyboard : It's a tablet!
    so what, laptops are still there. even if they got a detashable touch screen it's just another form.
    FadyNabilNashed
    • James doesn't mention the various form factors available now.

      The biggest introduction to this scenario is the hybrid tablet. This form factor goes straight to his issue of a physical keyboard.

      The ASUS Transformer series of tablets introduced 3 years ago changed all that. The dockable keyboard is a great form factor, and ASUS's implementation is the best one around.

      I have a Transformer Prime with dockable keyboard and I've been very happy with it.
      laequis
      • Agree, a keyboard is invaluable

        However, care is needed when buying a keyboard that it has F keys and Insert/Delete keys, which many don't, and without which the keyboard is almost useless. A Windows 8 tablet, plus keyboard plus bluetooth mouse means that it can be a temporary notebook replacement (eg, if your notebook has to go for repairs or is stolen.
        jonc2011
    • Tablet with a Keyboard

      You are right on Fady... a tablet with a keyboard is a laptop, duh! Why some of the writers keep making the wrong comparisions is beyond me.
      cew42
  • Just ditched my old laptop...

    My laptop battery was due for replacement, and since I didn't use it much I decided to replace it with my iPad. I bought a physical keyboard (Clamcase Pro) a couple of weeks ago, and I can do pretty much everything I was doing with my laptop (won't EVER replace my desktop, however). The physical keyboard completely changes the experience - much less painful typing e-mails or even alphanumeric passwords, for example. The keyboard can be folded all the way behind the iPad to give it back its tablet form (useful if you want to read a book), although it now weighs roughly double what is used to. There's no free lunch. ;)

    Donated the laptop to CompuCorps yesterday.
    MichelR666
    • Don't you get the gorilla arm?

      How does touching the screen constantly work for you, in comparison to using a mouse?
      Earthling2
      • Gorilla arm only happens with desktop touch screens

        On thing people forget when making 'gorilla arm' comments is that the mouse is not on the keyboard. Using a mouse requires moving one hand away from the keyboard and then returning it to continue typing. Since tablets are small, the distance needed to move one's arm to scroll or press something is minimal and often doesn't require lifting an arm off the table.

        For touch intensive tasks, arrange the tablet in a different way since you don't need the keyboard anymore. Personally, I keep my tablet in the keyboard almost all the time because it is easier to hold and interact with.

        Now desktop touch screens -- that is a different matter. We do not sit as close to our 24" screens, so that would require awkward and tiring reaching. This isn't a problem though with touch laptops or tablets in keyboards.

        Personally, I prefer a mouse to a tablet for most interactions because it is precise and I like my UI's denser. But if I am using a tablet, I find it better with a keyboard. Especially for bulky and heavy tablets like 9" tablets (iPad) or larger.
        DaveJMo
        • Doesn't happen

          Gorilla arms on desktop touch screens is a myth - I've used large touch screens on the desktop for years - not even minor fatigue
          archangel9999
      • EH!

        Keyboard either touchscreen or on screen, .. .. .. ..
        .. my 2 fingers are just as slow on either.
        fm-usa
    • Apple offers no mouse support on iPad

      Too bad Apple doesn't see fit to offer a way to hook up a mouse to an iPad. I understand that it's just a tablet and it was never Apple's intention to support a mouse, but if one is traveling and doesn't wish to carry around a laptop (that would include a whole bunch of people), it would be nice to be able to use the iPad to effectively remote into an office computer to get some real work done. Business people use Windows, for better or for worse, and they need to be able to use a mouse to get any real work done. Until the iPad offers mouse support, the iPad cannot be taken seriously as a laptop replacement, which in some ways defeats the purpose of owning one.
      Rodgman
      • mouse use

        The majority of my computer use is detailed (software development) editing. Not only keyboards are important: touch is altogether too imprecise for my needs (I'm even very finicky about my mouse-driver settings:-).
        cjcoats
        • And Surface Pro works just fine here.

          I manage to use Visual Studio just fine on the Surface Pro and Type Cover 2 with one caveat - a Bluetooth mouse. It's not as good as a 24" dual screen desktop but when you're in a location where you can't get to the desktop then it ticks the boxes.
          The touch-pad on the Type Cover 2 is about my only beef with the setup. It's fine for basic mouse work but just too awkward and small for frequent and precise use such as Visual Studio.
          For other reasons the active stylus is also great. Quick notes in OneNote are a breeze when a keyboard is not always practical and hand-written entry can sometimes outpace the on-screen keyboard. And my kids love Freshpaint with the active stylus when they can get a turn!
          joneda1
          • Super Netbook

            The Surface Pro is a super Netbook as in a really portable device which can be a whole PC. This is good. What it is not is a great tablet. It is a great portable, like a laptop, PC which is good at home or on the road. Normally used in horizontal position, with keyboard and mouse is one clue as to it being a super Netbook and not a tablet. The iPad tablet can be used by way of voice, touch, and onscreen keyboard for most things -- would not be great for a ton of typing, though it does dictation pretty darn good.
            mytake4this
          • what are you talking about?

            The Surface Pro walks all over the iPad. It's just better in every single way apart from price.
            Pastabake
        • Dell quad HD

          No problem using VS on a Dell quad HD touch screen - can't remember last time I dragged out the mouse - occasionally grab a stylus but it's rare
          archangel9999
      • Android tablets do support mice

        Android tablets have had the capability of reproducing a cursor on the screen almost from day one. It's built-in to the OS.

        The main reason iOS can't do that is because Apple would have to re-write basic iOS code to make that happen.
        laequis
      • Agreed

        Apple doesn;t support mouse pointer in ipad. However using Wyse PocketCloud and Aikotech ThinServer software I'm able to remote to my PCs at office and use the "mouse" software quite satisfactory
        ThinkFairer8
    • There is a free lunch

      Sure there is. I've got a Nexus 7 with Sywpe.

      I can match my WPM (about 45wpm) that I can touch-type at, it's almost psychic how accurate it is, and no physical keyboard required. Very light - half the weight of your iPad - or 1/4 the weight considering your iPad plus keyboard.

      I think that's a free lunch... or many, since it cost me $4 on top of my $199 tablet.
      Your iPad that required you to buy that Rube Goldberg keyboard on the other hand...

      See, this author was similar. He didn't mean to say "tablet" in this article, he meant to say "iOS tablet".
      And "Windows tablet" is a given, since the majority of those seem to come with keyboards or a very strong push to get one, to remind you that it's not really a tablet OS...

      It's not a fundamental issue with tablets, unless you are using a tablet that fundamentally limits your keyboard app options - then your only option is to buy a big physical keyboard.
      geolemon
      • The same free lunch for me...

        .. Is using my Nexus 7 ('13) with Skype as well. From casual to serious work, along with its form factor, it's a great alternative to using a laptop.
        omahapianist
      • Better than free

        I am one of the worst typists in the world, and yet I write a lot. My production and accuracy literally doubles when using Swype on my Nexus 7. It is also somewhat sizable (has a mini size that takes up less than 10% of the screen, and is moveable) so it doesn't take up too much of the screen, like stock on-screen keyboards do.

        I recently purchased a Dell Pro 8, which is a lovely Win 8.1 tablet, but the onscreen keyboard took up about 2/3 of the screen, and covered the text . With no Swype-like app available in the Windows store, I sold it rather than purchase a physical keyboard, which doesn't fit my needs, raises the cost of the tablet, and is another item to lug along. Unfortunate, considering is was a nice package otherwise.

        As of today, Android is the only solution that fits my needs because of a great app that it supports (not so with Win and iOS tablets).
        louishelps