Typing on a glass keyboard

David Sparks writes about writing with iPad screen keyboards after years of touch typing. Much of what he says resonates:

“It started with the iPad Air. On that machine I got quite good at thumb typing in portrait mode. It’s nothing like touch typing but still pretty great to sit on an airplane and thumb my way through an outline or a pile of email.”

Like Sparks, I started with light thumb-typing on my iPad 2. Nothing more than tweets and simple return email one-liners. When the lighter, slightly smaller iPad Air arrived I graduated to thumb-typing for longer stretches.

Using a real keyboard with an iPad

For anything more than a paragraph, I needed a physical keyboard. At least I thought so. Either I’d attach one of the many sample keyboards people had sent me to the iPad Air or I’d use the MacBook keyboard.

Sparks goes on:

“Speaking of airplanes, I recently took a flight where I was seated right between the window and a big guy that made pulling down the tray and using my iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard cover impossible.

“I had four hours on that plane and was determined not to thrown in the towel. So I placed the iPad on my lap and started typing. I then went into one of those hypnotic work-states that I often feel on airplanes and before I knew it the pilot announced we were about to land.”

This echoes my first serious glass typing session. I was on a plane. While crammed in economy I tapped out an entire feature on the iPad Air screen keyboard. Like Sparks I hit the writing zone and tapped into a familiar well of productivity but in an unfamiliar setting.

Phoning it in

Something similar happened with an iPhone 6 Plus. Although it worked at a pinch, the iPad is a far better writing device, even in a cramped space.

Unlike Sparks who found himself writing on screen with the larger iPad Pro, my typing-on-glass-while-flying epiphany was thumb-typing on an iPad Air held in the portrait position.

I’ve used the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in the way Sparks describes. It works for me. At a pinch I can also do the same on the 9.7-inch iPad if I lay it flat in the landscape orientation and use the larger size keyboard.

Trains and boats and planes

Yet, I’ve become so adept at portrait orientation thumb-typing, it’s now my preferred way of working on an iPad. I find it is perfect for planes. I’ve done the same on railway journeys, the Birkenhead-to-Auckland ferry and, less successful, while riding in an airport bus.

It works for me in airport lounges, cafes and even when I’m sitting in an office reception before a meeting or in a quiet room at a conference. Sometimes I’ll write this way sitting at home on the sofa. When I was recently in bed with ’flu, I managed to type a long-form newspaper feature this way.

I wouldn’t say it trumps writing on the MacBook Air using a full typewriter keyboard, but it isn’t far behind. By the way, I’m writing this blog post using the thumb and portrait mode technique on my 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The iPad keyboards are gathering dust.

Natural born killer technique

Writing this way on the iPad or iPad Pro now feels natural. At first thumb-typing was slow. Now I’m almost as fast as on a real keyboard. I’m a long-time touch typist, so my speeds there are good. Achieving something close on a glass keyboard surprised me.

Typing on the iPad screen is more, not less, accurate. The iPad’s built-in spell checker almost never comes into play. I’ve no idea why I mistype less characters on the glass screen, but it’s real.

Another observation. As a touch typist, I don’t look at the typewriter keys when writing. My focus is on the screen. When thumb typing on glass, I do look at the keyboard. The distance from the on-screen keyboard to the text is only a few millimetres, so I can check my output as I go.

Application independent

iPad thumb-typing works well with all writing apps. I wrote this blog post using Byword, now my favourite writing tool. I could equally have chosen Microsoft Word. Pages or iA Writer. They all work just fine.

In his post, Sparks says he still has pain points:

“Text selection is still far easier for me using a keyboard. Also, typing on glass at least once a day my finger accidentally hits the keyboard switch button which brings my work to a screeching halt. On that note if I were in charge, I’d make the keyboard selection button something where you had to press and hold to switch between keyboards.”

From manual typewriters to glass

I don’t have either of Sparks’ problems. I almost never use text selection during writing. I learnt to type on manual, paper-based typewriters. That means I’m disciplined about not constantly moving blocks of text.

My technique is to write, almost as a stream of consciousness. Years of experience mean I can structure a story in my head before starting. I write, then walk away for a breather before returning to edit the words. This, by the way, is a good technique. Unless you are pressed for time, do something else before self-editing.

I’ve not had Sparks’ problems hitting the wrong keys on the iPad screen keyboard. This surprises me, the individual keys on a 9.7-inch iPad screen in portrait mode are tiny, just a few millimeters square. And yet I rarely mistype.

There are no pain points for me. I’m more than ready to give up attaching a keyboard to the smaller iPad Pro. It’s reached the point where I can now attend a press conference or interview armed with nothing but an iPad and come away with clean copy.

For me, the iPad screen keyboard is a productivity boost. The story you’re reading now is around a thousand words long. I wrote the first draft on my iPad in relative comfort in about 45 minutes. I doubt I could do better on the MacBook with a full keyboard.

9 thoughts on “Typing on a glass keyboard

  1. I’ve long been a fan of Swype gesture typing on my Android devices.It’s faster for me than tapping on a glass keyboard. And although I haven’t measured it, I think it’s as fast as normal typing on my laptop.

    But Swype only works well on a smaller tablet and then only in portrait orientation. Wider keyboards force you to slide your finger a greater distance than is comfortable. I don’t think it would be great on a larger iPad, but it would be good on the 8 inch model. Works great on my 8 inch Asus Zenpad in portrait, but not so good in landscape (no problem because I prefer to work in portrait anyway).

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