Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Keyboards Compared—Treo, G1, and Pre

Size isn't everything. That's what we tell ourselves and to a certain extent it's true. At least it's true in the case of smartphones. I've compared the Treo 680's keyboard to that of the T-Mobile G1 before and now that I am migrating to the Pre, I have another comparison to make.

I am making more typos with the Pre but it's more than just a matter of the keyboard. Most of the typos that I make with the Pre are on web forums where the font can sometimes become uncomfortably small and hard to read for my aging eyes. While I can easily zoom in and out to compensate, when I do this I can no longer see everything I am writing.

Still the small keyboard is a little harder to type on than my old 680 keyboard was. Both the G1 and the Pre have a problem with causing fatigue during long writing sessions but for different reasons. While the G1's big keyboard is fairly comfortable to type on at first, the G1 itself doesn't feel quite right in my hand while I'm typing and that leads to fatigue. With the Pre the keyboard's small size is the culprit for my fatigue. So of the three the oldest machine, the 680, is the best for thumbtyping. It's smooth, domed keys feel better than the G1's flat keys and the Pre's sticky keys.

The 680's keyboard is also easier to see with their bright backlighting. Of all the phones I've played with, the Treo 650/680 had the best backlighting. The G1's wimpy backlight can actually impair its visibility in certain lighting conditions as it turns the keyboard letters a light gray color which contrasts poorly with its silvery keys. The Palm Pre represents a nice compromise between these two extremes. The Pre's backlighting is very subtle and almost impossible to see under most lighting conditions but under total darkness it works perfectly. While this may not seem like a huge achievement, it's a huge improvement coming from the G1. And even coming from the 680 the visibility of the Pre's keyboard is good as its bright white letters and orange numbers pop nicely when viewed against their black background.

One of the problems with the G1 ane Pre's sliding keyboards is the fact that they are not always available. They have to be opened in order to be used. With the G1 it's a struggle to open with one hand, it is inherently a two-handed device. The Pre by contrast slides open quite easily with one hand—you just push your thumb against the screen. As a result, one handed use—which was one of my favorite features of the Treo—is very easy with the Pre. One-handed of the G1 nearly impossible although the onscreen keyboard which was added in the Cupcake update helps in this regard. But for me virtual keyboards are more difficult and uncomfortable to use than physical ones so the G1 is ultimately a more cumbersome device for me.

Obi-Wan KenobiImage via Wikipedia

The Pre by contrast is much more elegant and this is especially true in contrast to the G1 and the 680 both of which very utilitarian in their design. It's system of gestures works very naturally and fluidly and even helps enhance the keyboard by acting as a virtual menu key for using the Cut, Copy, and Paste shortcuts. When I handle the Pre, I can't help but think about Obi-Wan Kenobi's line in Star Wars about his light saber, "a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age." I suppose this sort of statement makes me a huge drooling fanboy but gadgets are as much about the way they make their users feel as they are about helping them get work done. When I used my 680, I was frustrated by its bugs. When I used the G1, I was frustrated by its sluggishness. With the Pre, I just flat out enjoy using the device and its bugs don't bother me as much as the bugs on the 680 and the G1 did.
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