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SpoonFed: Save the Sliders! Why I Hare Touch Keybordes

I recently stopped into Dunkin’ Donuts to grab some breakfast and saw that there was a long line. Like everyone else, I whipped out my phone to kill time. My wife, who could see me through the window from our car, sent me a half-joking text message: “Stop obsessing over your phone! Put it away.” Not wanting to address my tech addiction head on, I attempted to text back, “Just waiting on the bagel.” The first time I tried to reply, the message came out “Just waiting on an Angel.” (That might not have gone over well.) I backed up and tried again: “Just waiting on the bagels.” I didn’t even touch the S key. These are supposed to be smartphones, right?

If you look at cell phones from an evolutionary perspective, devices with physical keyboards, such as the traditional BlackBerry, are the ones portrayed as standing semi-erect on the March of Progress, while sleeker all-touch handsets are the most advanced. And now phones with mammoth 4.3-inch—and even 4.5-inch—screens are all the rage. Best Buy recently shared with us that as far as consumers are concerned, the bigger the better. Having a big display does make typing on a touchscreen easier because the keys are larger. But that doesn’t mean unintended errors don’t occur. They do—and all too frequently.

While reviewing the all-touch LG Revolution a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that the auto-correction software on that phone’s keyboard had a mind of its own. For instance, when I pecked “yup,” the device wanted to enter “hip.” You can select the word you meant to type from a list, but why should you have to? These kinds of typos can be funny. In fact, the website Damn You Auto Correct is dedicated to sharing some of the most entertaining mishaps. However, a text or e-mail with the wrong words could also get you in hot water with a client or colleague.

People have developed a certain level of tolerance for touch keyboard errors, but it just looks unprofessional. And if you have to take the time to correct errors that you didn’t make, it defeats the purpose of carrying a device for communicating on the go.

Android phone owners in particular have plenty of alternatives to the bundled keyboard, including Swype, which lets you trace a line between letters to create words. This technology works well, but not for proper names and passwords. Plus, it’s best to alternate between swiping and tapping when entering shorter words, which requires thought for what should be a thoughtless task.

Ironically, the 3.5-inch iPhone continues to offer the most accurate and fast touch keyboard of any smartphone I’ve used. Maybe it’s the way Apple spaces out the letters or that the company just does a better job of tuning its capacitive screens and software, but every time I go back to the iPhone 4 from an Android device I breathe a little easier. Which is not to say the iPhone is perfect. As with all smartphones, you still have to switch modes to type numbers and then switch back again to enter letters, a task that’s more easily accomplished on physical keyboards. In fact, there are a lot of reasons physical QWERTYs shouldn’t be viewed as archaic.

Take the Samsung Epic 4G that debuted for Sprint last summer (pictured). We gave that device a 4.5-star rating instead of 4 stars because of the well-spaced and tactile physical QWERTY, complete with a dedicated number row. In landscape mode on touch-only Android phones, the keyboard covers up all of the content when you’re typing, but not on handsets like this. Still, I won’t sacrifice screen size for cushy keys. Some may like that phones such as the Droid Pro have keyboards directly beneath the display, but it results in a tiny 3.1-inch LCD that makes Angry Birds look like Angry Fleas.

So what do we have this summer? HTC EVO 3D. Samsung Galaxy SII. LG Thrill. Motorola Bionic. All the most high-profile superphones are all touch input, all the time. Good old-fashioned physical QWERTY smartphones such as the upcoming Droid 3 and the Pre 3 are still being made, but I’m afraid devices like those will soon be extinct. I love 4G speeds, dual-core processing power, and qHD displays. But I love zero typos even more.