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cyber

Stick the words computer-, net-,  web-, online- or digital- directly in front of other words and you won’t scare the population half to death:

  • Computer-gaming
  • Net-gaming
  • Web-gaming
  • Online-gaming
  • Digital-gaming.

None of these are remotely frightening. They barely raise an eyebrow.

This is just as true when whatever being discussed has negative, or less than positive implications. You know these things aren’t necessarily good. They can be scary, but they’re not going to terrify anyone:

  • Computer-surveillance
  • Net-neutrality
  • Web-porn
  • Online-privacy
  • Digital-disruption

But when cyber is used as a prefix it is almost always viewed as something bad:

  • Cyber-bullying
  • Cyber-crime
  • Cyber-sex
  • Cyber-war
  • Cyber-terrorism

Although it was big in the 1990s, the term cyberpunk is out of fashion. There may be pockets of geekdom where it is still celebrated, but as far as techno-muggles are concerned, it is faintly threatening.

Even the innocent and, now anachronistic, cyberspace now sometimes carries faint negative connotations. At least in some circles.

This is because we’ve become used to newspapers and TV reports using cyber as their favoured technology-bogeyman word.

That’s not always a bad thing. It’s a form of shorthand that flags what’s coming next. Getting the attention of the great unwashed then warning them to take appropriate care with passwords, privacy and security can often be difficult. So telling them in advance the story is scary at least gets a warning message across.

Likewise, those dreary, cliched clip art images of burglars in striped shirts and balaclavas sitting at computer terminals is another useful form of shorthand. Sure it is crass and unimaginative. Yet people get the message that something’s afoot even if they switch off to the main story being told. And who can blame them for switching off? Often the stories are dull or incomprehensible to everyday folk.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7Technology publications and daily newspapers are full of gushing Samsung Galaxy Note 7 reviews.

Samsung deserves much of the praise. It’s an impressive phone. Expect a review here in the next few days.

Where reviewers give stars, the Galaxy Note 7 either gets five or 4.5. When they give a percent the scores are often north of 90 percent.

Glowing praise

Many of the words reviewers use to describe the phone are glowing. One phrase that pops up a lot, is best ever. Some call it the best ever Android phone. Others are more general. You might also see best phone period.

Which means reviewers like it. But best ever?

On one level the phrase is meaningless.

Few Apple product launches pass without an executive saying a product is the best ever.

Of course an iPad launched in 2016 is the best ever iPad. Apple would be in a sorry state if this year’s model was worse than last year’s.

Language inflation

It’s not just Apple that talks about products this way. Everyone talks up their business. We’ve become immune to inflated marketing language.

Yet reviewers should be dispassionate observers. At least the ones working for respectable publications are.

When they say a phone is the best ever, they are passing an objective judgement. The implication is that they have seen lots of phones and of all they have seen to date, the one in question is the best.

Which it might well be.

That Apple logic applies to reviews. Most of the time this year’s phones are better than last year’s phones.

When they are not, that happens sometimes, it’s a big story.

Looked at that way, saying best ever is the same as saying new or improved.

iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover
iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover

Apple’s Smart Keyboard Cover feels like an essential partner for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. That’s not the case with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

Both Smart Keyboard Covers are compact, light and made from a nylon fabric. On the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro the Smart Keyboard Cover adds what amounts to a full keyboard.

It turns the larger iPad into something more like, but the not the same as, a hybrid PC.

While it’s not a perfect keyboard, it doesn’t fall far short of ideal on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

Smart Keyboard Cover misses

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover misses ideal by a larger margin. You may think that it is only a matter of size. That’s true up to a point.

Yet the different, smaller size changes the nature of the beast more than you’d expect.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the reduced size of the 9.7-inch Smart Keyboard Cover means it is harder to type on. It’s harder still for touch typists.

Because the smaller keyboard harder to work with, you’re less inclined to use it. It’s not the first port of call when you need to get words into the iPad Pro.

This gets you into a vicious circle. Because the small keys aren’t always where your fingers expect, you are less productive. This means you use it less. Which in turns mean your fingers have less opportunity to learn where the keys are.

On screen typing easier

Second, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is smaller and lighter. This makes it easier to pick up and use in the portrait orientation. Smart Keyboard Covers only use the landscape orientation.

Typing on the glass from the portrait orientation is easy and comfortable. At least it is in my hands. I found myself doing this all the time.

In the end I took the Smart Keyboard Cover off the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, swapping it for a Silicon case and a Smart Cover without a keyboard.

The plan was to see how long I’d go before I needed to go back to the Smart Keyboard Cover. That was six weeks ago. Today I packed the Smart Keyboard Cover back in its case ready to return to Apple.

If you need a keyboard to go with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, this is a good choice. For some people it will be an occasional option. For others it will be a permanent fixture, in effect turning the iPad Pro into a small light laptop or hybrid.

It’s worth remembering the 9.7-inch iPad Pro can also work with many of the third party Bluetooth keyboards on the market. But for me, I’m sticking with the screen keyboard. I find it suits how I work.

myscript stylus

MyScript Stylus is a free handwriting recognition app for the iPad Pro.

The app is a keyboard extension. It replaces the normal on-screen qwerty keyboard with a space where you can write.

While the app will work if you write with your finger or any kind of stylus, you’ll get the best results if you spend NZ$189 on the Apple Pencil.

Clever

As handwriting recognition apps go, MyScript Stylus is clever, even impressive. As you fill up the line across the screen the writable area scrolls left. When you pause the whole screen shifts left giving you more writing room.

Handwriting is automatically converted to text. The app inserts into the open iOS app. It works well with apps like Mail and even Twitter, but it comes into its own when you use a text editor, iOS Notes or an iPad writing app.

MyScript Stylus stores the handwriting ink that has scrolled off the screen. This means you can use two fingers to scroll back to edit earlier mistakes. It has a number of gestures to insert, delete and otherwise edit text.

Even scruffy handwriting

The handwriting recognition is good. Far better than the first generation Apple Newton MessagePad. Both devices coped well with my scruffy handwriting. There are errors, but with practice you can tear through words at a typewriter-like pace.

If you prefer handwriting to typing this could be the right app for you. Likewise if you’re comfortable with the Apple Pencil for sketching on an iPad Pro screen, this would feel almost as natural as writing on paper.

Flaw

There is a flaw. The screen zone at the bottom of the writing area is used for some commands — there’s a delete button among others. I found I would often hit these buttons with my fingers by mistake when writing. With time you can develop a technique to avoid this.

While there’s something satisfying and elegant about MyScript Stylus, it’s hardly a breakthrough. Windows tablets have had similar handwriting recognition software since the early 1990s.

So did Apple. In 1993 the original Apple Newton MessagePad debuted with a stylus and erratic handwriting recognition. That was 23 years ago.

Moreover, the Windows and Apple Newton handwriting recognition are built-in at a low level. Going instead to a third-party software company for a free app seems an odd move.

screen 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 typewriter to glass keyboard

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.