The keyboard battle: hardware or software?

Evan Selleck
Contributing Editor from Arizona
Published: October 17, 2013

Two years ago I picked up a BlackBerry-branded device that had a physical keyboard, and after I got rid of it I promised myself that I wasn't going to look for another device with that particular style of keyboard again. I've always had a thing for them, some weird fascination, but I've never been able to keep them very long. It would be easy to blame the device in some, maybe even most cases, but even if you aren't a big fan of BlackBerry you have to admit their keyboards are second-to-none.

I don't think it's the device, but it could be. Especially when we're looking at handsets that feature a slide-out keyboard of some kind, instead of the candybar-style that BlackBerry is so proudly known for. Those devices tend to be pretty big, and I've always been worried about a time when that slide-out feature just stops working as well as it did the first month or so. What happens if you can't get to your keyboard?

I remember with the HTC Arrive, Sprint's first Windows Phone-based device way back in the day, I used the physical keyboard quite a bit, and enjoyed it for the most part. It wasn't the best hardware keyboard to date, but it wasn't terrible, either. So I used it, forcing the phone into landscape mode even when I didn't necessarily want to, and thought that I enjoyed it. 

Then I realized I had started using the software keyboard more, to the point where I just stopped using the physical 'board altogether. As soon as that happened, I just decided to return the phone and go with something else. If I was just going to use the software keyboard, I didn't have any reason to have such a huge phone. So, on to thinner things it was.

I'm pretty sure it's been like that ever since.

I'm not sure there's a perfect keyboard out there, but I know that people have their opinion -- especially when it's about comparing the hardware variety versus the software options. Fans of the all-touchscreen will probably tell you that software keyboards are the best, and diehard BlackBerry devotees would probably tell you otherwise (unless they've jumped on board with the Z10, maybe).

Over the years, I've used a lot of keyboards and I generally know what to expect from them at this point. I'm sure you've used a ton of keyboards, varieties and layouts, too. My fellow editor Anna loves to find new keyboard replacements, and there are certainly quite a few to choose from. Both Fleksy and the Minuum keyboards are unique in their own right, and offer plenty of "new" (features, looks, etc.) when compared to the other, older options.

But when I hear about software keyboards, I don't go long without hearing about SwiftKey, and just how good it is. I've recently seen that the latest update actually adds new layouts to the 'board, and so you can choose to split it across your display, switch it to one-finger typing, or have the more traditional layout. Those kinds of options are pretty great, especially considering just having a software layout makes those things possible. You can't change the layout with a physical keyboard, so I'm kind of surprised that more designers and developers haven't embraced that option yet.

I'm sure they will, though.

I have a couple of favorite keyboards. Maybe a few. I am still a huge fan of the hardware keyboard on the BlackBerry Bold 9900 series. That keyboard made typing quick, easy, and accurate in a way that made me rethink my love for software keyboards practically on a daily basis. That 'board is probably my favorite hardware keyboard of all time.

When it comes to software options, though, I can't help but think the iOS keyboard is pretty awesome. It's always been ridiculously accurate, and that really shines when it's under sustained typing speeds, with thumbs (or other digits) flying across the screen to spell out words. However, Microsoft's standard onscreen keyboard stands out amongst the crowd, too. It may not be as quick as iOS, but I have found in my time with it that it's definitely just as accurate.

I have never spent a lot of time with third-party keyboard replacements for some reason. I think I just tend to like the things, or try to like the things, that come right out of the box. I want to experience a handset the way the manufacturer thinks I should, without having to change it to make it better. I know I'm probably missing out, though, especially with so many options available for the Android platform.

I want to find out what your favorite keyboard is, but not just out of the software options, or just the hardware options, or even just the first-party 'boards. Is the physical keyboad dead? I want to know, out of all the keyboards you've used over the years, which ones have been your favorite and why? Do you prefer hardware or software? Do you only use replacement keyboards? Let me know which one, or ones, stand out to you!

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