Physical Or Virtual Keyboard? Maybe We Can Help You Decide

It’s the age old question plaguing the smartphone industry, isn’t it?  And when it comes down to it, isn’t it based on a user’s preference?  “Do I get a device with a virtual keyboard or a physical one?” While I’ll admit that this could be a difficult question to ponder, I’d still love to point out a few things that might help you decide what your next input method of choice could be.  First question I suppose we could ask is, “how bent are you on having a device with a physical keyboard?”  I ask this because for some it’s a major deal breaker.  There is a social demographic out there who shares RIM’s Blackberry arena and  hold that a physical keyboard is a must have and is the determining factor as to whether or not a specific device is purchased.  I too used to be a part of that arena, but have since then reconsidered.  Why?  

Well, for the obvious starter, eliminating a physical keyboard reduces the form factor and size of the device significantly.  I get a much slimmer and sleeker handset when the fatty shavings of a physical keyboard are removed from the equation.  I was a huge proponent of the original Android device, the T-Mobile G1.  Physical keyboards where a must have for me and the G1’s 5 row qwerty (pictured below) was difficult to ignore, despite the monster chin on the device.  However, I slowly became jealous of other Android devices which subsequently hit the market.  I was coveting the seamless effort it took to slide a slim keyboard-less device right into ones pocket, not to mention it was actually comfortable too.  The G1 was nice for its time but it litterally felt like I had a small brick in my pocket.  Needless to say, the thought began to grow on me and eventually lead me to only purchase smartphones with virtual keyboards.  The next device to grace my pocket was Samsung’s original Galaxy device, which made its way to T-Mobile as the Samsung Behold II.  And though this device had more bugs than an apartment in central Jersey, the phone was slim as heck and slid into the pocket with ease.

Devices that followed the lining of my pockets were the HTC HD2 (which I ported Android over to the second it was available), Google’s Nexus One, HTC’s Sensation 4G but ultimately remaining with my current T-Mobile G2X.  All slim, keyboard-less devices that allow me to slip it into a sheath or pouch and still keep it in my pocket comfortably.  In the industry’s defense however, more and more devices are arriving with excellent physical qwerty keyboards and still holding to a slim form factor.  The T-Mobile G2 and newly released MyTouch 4G Slide are among a few to fit this bill.  I think this is great and without a doubt, a move in the right direction.  Can you imagine, whether you want a physical or a virtual keyboard, still having the availability of a slim sleek piece of hardware?

Speaking from personal experience, I believe virtual keyboards continue get a bad rap.  They are often labeled as unreliable and inaccurate however, I’m going to chock that one up to a user error.  I personally find that typing on a virtual keyboard is much, much quicker than typing on a physical one.  Why you ask?  Though I can’t explain it with an exact science, I think most will agree it requires more force to push a physical button than the simple lite tap of a virtual one, thus allowing for a quicker typing experience.  Not to mention, when using a virtual keyboard with Android, you get a suggestion bar.  Meaning?  Meaning while you’re stuck typing out the word “tomorrow”, the one using a virtual keyboard need only type “tom..” and the rest of the word is automatically generated.  And with a quick tap of the space bar, your word is inserted.  A feature like that comes in handy when typing out letters and documents, something a physical keyboard doesn’t offer at the moment.

In addition, the benefits of a virtual keyboard completely out weigh those of a physical one, in my opinion.  Think about it.  With a wide array of keyboards available on the Android Market, you can change keyboards as much as you change your underwear, daily, hopefully for most of you.

Furthermore, can you skin a physical keyboard like you can with Betterkeyboard?  Can you alter the height and width of the keys on a physical keyboard?  Can you Swype on physical hardware?  I think not, however, you can with a virtual one thanks to the openness of Android.  And what do you do when the physical back light goes out on your keyboard?  Overall it’s obvious that, at the time of this writing, I’m bit bias towards virtual keyboards.  But don’t get me wrong, I’ve come across my share of buggy as heck virtual ones too.  Still, I don’t believe it out weighs the benefit of having one over a physical layout.  Don’t agree with me? Let me know in the comments.  What’s your forte?

About the Author: Joe Sirianni

Joe was born in New Jersey and spent most of his childhood moving around from state to state. He eventually made his way to Pennsylvania where he met his Portuguese beauty and made her his wife. He now has three great kids and full access to all of the Portuguese food he can eat. Joe's love for mobile technology began when he bought his first Palm Pilot, a Palm M130 and left it on top of his car, driving off, causing it to smash into a thousand pieces. Forced to buy a new device, he quickly discovered that specs were changing so rapidly he was buying a new device every six months just to keep up. Since then, he has constantly felt the need to have the latest and greatest. When the "smartphone" revolution began and integrating cell phones and PDA's was the norm, he quickly jumped to Windows Mobile for several years until the first Android device was launched, the T-Mobile G1. Joe began appreciating all of the free utilities Google provided and sold his soul (his precious data) to Google long before they got into the mobile OS business. So, there was no hesitation at all for him to jump on board and ride the Android train as an early adopter. And boy has it been a blast. Joe now works in the Engineering & Operations dept for a major mobile carrier where he remotely troubleshoots cell sites and loves being an Editor for TalkAndroid.

  • I love my D2G physical keyboard, but not physically.

  • Lol

    I want both. predictive physical keyboard, just like the desktop.

  • I feel physical keyboard give me more screen state than the virtual one. And in a 3.7″ ~ 4.2″ device this is important
    but maybe slim factor is more important for others.

  • Niklas

    Which keyboard are you using on the image at the top? I like that green text on the buttons.

    • Joe Sirianni


      That is “Betterkeyboard 7” for Android with the skin called “pluto” (free on the market). Has a bit of a Windows Phone 7 feel to it, which I like the look of.

  • Masai

    Great 1-sided commentary… vk’s waste screen realestate and are slower, FAR SLOWER, for a large portion of people. Use whatever your more comfortable with. I like that I can type without looking at the keyboard on a physical keyboard, makes me WAY more accurate and fast. To each his own.

    • Reşat Erel

      Physical keyboards are waste of time and VK is the future, so I guess you saw the difference in these 6 years. No new models with keyboards anymore, except this nonsense Crackberry.

  • Mitch Wright

    I’ve found virtual keyboards to be better, with the small exception being portrait style keyboards which are on very few phones. Most phones go with the horizontal keyboard which force (at least for me) an awkward angle for my hands for typing. I can type much faster on a virtual keyboard as well, as the autocorrect (particularly on the stock Gingerbread keyboard) is usually worlds better than anything I’ve found on a physical. Oddly enough, my very favorite keyboard was on the Palm Pre, which most people are going to strongly disagree with. Just goes to show that user preference will greatly vary :-)

  • Odotwood

    Virtual keyboards all the way. I work in a corporate environment. Sending emails with words outside of the vk’s dictionary are time consuming a balls. Foreign (to USA) names are difficult with vk’s. Time consuming because of pressure on keys sounds lazy to me. I find myself pressing virtual keys longer because I am unsure if the button registered .

  • I love my physical keyboards but am ready to get on board with the virtual ones. Found this article while trying to assess which is faster and also find out if there is an Android Siri type application that works as well… or do I really need to join the club and get an iPhone (shudder). #NotesOnTheFlyAtTrafficLightsViaBluetoothVoiceCommandSchtinks

  • Liam

    I’m on the virtual side as well. One version that never seems to make the light of day are the compact styles. I used Smart Keyboard PRO by Dexilog. There’s others I haven’t tried, but what kept me on this one was exporting my dictionary, auto-completes and something else. Buy another phone and just import these things. Supports multiple languages, and my favorite style is compact. If you have big thumbs, compact is the way to go. It looks like the old T9 typing style, but it’s not. It predicts the words you’re typing as you go. If you need a special word, then you can type the old T9 way, but it’s just a bit different. But once you type the word once, add it to your dictionary, it’ll start auto-completing the same.