Why Are We Still Using Hardware Keyboards?

Why Are We Still Using Hardware Keyboards? Of course, when asking that question here, i’m referring to the little keys that reside underneath certain phone’s screens – certain phones like those in RIM’s line. RIM’s future doesn’t look that good, especially with the growth in Android and iOS devices that opt for a large touchscreen in lieu of some small, tacky keys.

However, HTC took a U-turn and created the HTC ChaCha (or “the Facebook phone”, as some call it). The ChaCha is an Android 2.3.3 device that comes complete with QWERTY keyboard and dedicated Facebook buttons, even though it also features the common capacitive navigation buttons below the screen.

Is a hardware keyboard worth the cost of a smaller screen size? And why would you not just stick with the now-standard touch interface? Let’s discuss.

HTC ChaCha

In the HTC ChaCha’s case, there’s a BlackBerry-esque QWERTY keyboard beneath the screen, which comes with its own dedicated Facebook button that lets you quickly share things with your friends. However, the space taken up by the keyboard means, to avoid this turning into a tablet-sized device, the screen only comes in at 2.6″. For scale, an iPhone’s screen is fairly small at 3.5″ whereas the latest Samsung GALAXY S II features a 4.3″ screen (although it looks a bit like a big iPhone :P).

The HTC ChaCha.

BlackBerry

Of course, the HTC ChaCha looks very much like the distinctive brand that is BlackBerry. RIM is still (for now) a major player in the phone market. The BlackBerry is technically a smartphone, but it’s priced a lot lower than the popular iOS and Android devices. For example, my mother’s BlackBerry costs only about £120 unlocked, whereas my iPhone 4 cost me a whopping £510!

I know many people who use a BlackBerry, and they’ve adapted to the demands and style of typing on a keyboard that small, in the same way I have to touch screen keyboards. I’ve said before that i’d have no problem exchanging my hard keyboard for a soft one on a tablet (except, at £400+ a shot, that’s one expensive keyboard!). It doesn’t seem like typing is a problem on a hard, tactile keyboard, but it offers few obvious advantages.

RIM have started moving toward’s touch-based interfaces, but the QWERTY keyboard still remains on their phones as a hallmark of their brand.

An upcoming BlackBerry (which actually looks pretty nice, from a design perspective).

The Benefits of a Soft Keyboard

Steve Jobs really explained well why soft keyboards are better. They adapt to the specific scenario, and can be customized down the line if you want to add a new feature. The stock Android keyboard changes slightly depending on the input field (for example, the @ symbol is more prominent if typing into an “email” field), and if you don’t like it, there are plenty of others to choose from.

We’ve learnt to adapt to soft, touch-based keyboards in the same way a lot of us subconsciously know the layout of a standard QWERTY set. There’s no real reason to not use a capacitive touch keyboard that can hide at will to give you more space to manoeuvre on your phone or tablet.

In fact, most Honeycomb tablets no longer have hardware or even capacitive buttons for the normal navigation functions in Android. Instead, they are part of the screen tablet and can be controlled in the same way a keyboard is, dimming out when they aren’t required.

Final Thoughts

If you want to add another feature down the line that requires a specific key, it’s a lot easier (in fact, it’s only possible) on a handset with soft keys since all that is required is a firmware or app update. Giving more control to the core functions of the phone into the software means a feature can be fully manipulated by software developers, and even customised to the specific user.

What do you prefer, BlackBerry or Android? Would you optionally choose a hardware keyboard on your phone? Let us know in the comments. I know I wouldn’t!