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

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.

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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