Writing On An All-Screen Phone

What’s the best way to enter text on an all-screen phone? Some would say there is no good way, that nothing remotely compares to physical keys and screens are no good for anything much longer than a Tweet. I don’t agree, but it has to be admitted that on-screen keyboards like the default ones on iPhone and Android are no pleasure to use. Simply put, you’re never going to touch-type on keys you can’t feel, and the addition of “haptic feedback” – the fancy name for a buzzer that goes off when a key is pressed – does little to help. The old T9 predictive texting was faster.

Prediction can be used here too of course; a system like autocorrect on the iPhone helps – just not much. (And it can go famously wrong.) It’s very much a band-aid for a flawed approach. Far faster, because they play to a screen’s strengths, are systems that work by drawing a line through letters instead of tapping each one, like Swype.

So effective is it unfortunately that Swype has some exclusive deals with phone makers, meaning it comes pre-installed on certain better Androids but is unobtainable for the rest (though you can get a beta version). It’s not yet available for iPhone either, though curiously it is for Symbian.

But why write with one finger? Typing with both thumbs is much quicker, especially if you have a big screen. And there are some nice keyboards designed especially for it, split in the middle to be more literally under your thumb. Again though the lack of feel slows things down. Logically a good combination should be a thumboard and prediction – Swiftkey is probably the most famous example – but I’ve yet to find one that I really enjoy using.

So what about handwriting recognition? Writing with a pen is never as fast as typing of course, but that’s comparing it to real keys. The great thing about a pen (or stylus) for a screen is that it doesn’t require tactile feedback. So it’s a perfect fit? In theory, I think so.

In practise, not always. Decent recognition of cursive handwriting was only achieved on desktop computers a few years ago, so it’s a lot to expect from a phone. Users of Samsung Galaxy phones will probably have tried the inbuilt handwriting recognition – and given up again sharply. It’s tedious to use, thanks to low accuracy and an overcomplicated interface. There are other apps in the marketplace of course, but some of them are pretty expensive.

And then there’s 7notes with Mazec. Let’s face it, the name could’ve been more informative. A lot of people will overlook this because it’s presented as a note-taking app, and there are countless note-taking apps on Google Play and iTunes. 7notes doesn’t even seem a particularly good one – though it has the unusual ability to store handwritten notes and convert them to type later. Its ‘secret’ however is the Mazec text entry system. This installs like a keyboard and so can be used to write with any app, not just 7notes. Only it takes pen strokes instead of key presses.

Perfect it’s not – could handwriting recognition ever be? – but it can convert scrawl to type with impressive speed and accuracy, comparing well to the pen input in Windows. Obviously it’s ideal for use with a stylus, (and to any other owners of the Galaxy Note out there I say simply: Get this now), but it works very well with a finger.

And it’s cheap. Despite its Japanese-language sibling costing an astonishing (for an app) €9.70, the English version is only 99c for Android and Kindle Fire, and free for the iPhone and iPad. Best cost-to-usage ratio I’ve ever found in an app. It’s my default ‘keyboard’ now.

I just wrote this with it.

Androids And Sunshine

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Again an incredible day. Not hot exactly, maybe about 18C. The sort of temperatures you can wear as little as you like in, yet walk around all day without breaking a sweat. Comfortable weather. Relaxed weather. Sexy weather. I sat by the canal and contemplated my navel. Then I contemplated my friend’s navel. Hers was best.

But back to Android. I’ve had more than a week to get used to the world’s leading smartphone OS. How am I feeling?

Still a little irritated, to be honest. But that’s not really Android’s fault. I’m asking a lot of it – in essence, I want this phone in my pocket to do almost everything I carry a PC around for now. The major exception would be complex Photoshop work for finished drawings, that really would be overambitious, but I hope to be able to do most of my spontaneous sketching, as well as all the online stuff of course. And some serious text editing, such as this.

As I was saying earlier, I was spoiled for mobile blogging with the Nokia N900. By its excellent desktop-like browser, but also its hardware keyboard. I am getting to like using Swype though, the text entry method where you trace from letter to letter on the keyboard. It is very good, but there are one or two things Android really, really misses badly.

Like Ctrl+z.

To my shock and astonishment, there its no universal command in Android for “undo”. And undo is something I use a lot. A lot lot. On every keyboard I’ve owned, the Z is always first to wear off. So its absence is deeply disorientating. And painful. I was writing this column yesterday, and accidentally hit the “select all” option. How to undo that? I try the Android “back” key, as conceptually back is a little like undo.

Only – and this is a mistake I’ve made many times in my first week – instead of hitting the back button in the bottom right corner, I hit the return key on the keyboard, immediately above it. Which overwrites everything with a new blank line.

So I… Wait, I… There isn’t anything I can do. Two wrong key presses, and I’ve consigned an hour’s work to oblivion. Crap.

That ain’t good enough, Android. As there is no undo feature in the OS, entering text into a Web page becomes extremely hazardous. (A browser has no undo feature, as it assumes one exists in the OS…) Of course an individual app can have the facility, but guess what? The WordPress one doesn’t.

So until Google fix this shit I need a new approach. I found two. The first was a custom keyboard that also has undo functions. That means doing without Swype unfortunately, but it may be the solution for some special purposes. Or if you don’t happen to like Swype anyway. The one I’ve tried is called Programmer Keyboard, a lovably OTT solution that gives you a full 101-key desktop board on your phone!

And it also gives me the other thing I really miss from Android – arrow keys. Oh but you can select things with your finger! Yeah, or the letter next to the one you want, and then the one the other side of it, and then the line below… Gimme arrow keys.

A better approach though is to avoid composing the text in the page or app altogether, by using a proper text editor. The one I’m trying – and liking – is called Jota. (Pronounced “iota” rather than “jotter” apparently; I have no idea where the developer is from.) This has all the essential editing tools, for both writers and coders, even in its free version – and that includes multi-level undo.

Oh, and you can put arrow keys on its toolbar too. People, we have a winner.

Getting To Know Your Android

Screenshot of Android 4 on Galaxy Nexus
Android 4, which I don't have yet

Ah, the slow terrible frustration of it…

I’m trying to be good here and give my new phone’s battery the best possibly start in life. I was advised that the way to do that is to completely flatten it and then recharge it for seven or eight hours, while switched off. Several times. That means I can’t use it while it’s charging, and as most of what I do want to do means going online, I can only squeeze maybe eight or ten hours of messing around with it out of a day. No of course that’s not enough!

Connecting it to the PC would charge it too, so I can’t synchronise it properly and, what’s much worse, can’t download the latest firmware. Ah! Nerd hell. And of course, I can hardly use it as my working phone either. So for the first few days it’s an invalid.

Just as well perhaps. At least I’ll have had some practice using it before anyone sees me trying in public. Having a phone as noticeable as this and not knowing what the hell I’m doing with it has too much comic potential. And I’ve never had an Android phone before (well, I did have an experimental Android install on my N900, but it wasn’t really usable), so I’ve little experience with it.

It has to be admitted, Android is a whole other operating system.There’s a lot I like about it already, but there are constant reminders that it’s not Windows or Mac OS, or even Maemo. I think what I miss most is control keys. Control+z especially… After that, definitely arrow keys or an equivalent. Moving back a single letter, for example, is not easily done by poking text on screen. I feel like the interface was conceived to work with single as well as multi-touch input, and in consequence is more restricted than it really needs to be now. But the Swype keyboard at least tries to make up for that, and works impressively well.

Plus I haven’t really used a capacitive screen before. With the N900 I could hit tiny links and so on with a fingernail, without having to zoom in, and it’s frustrating now when that doesn’t work. Basically I have to unlearn what I spent the last year learning.

First world problems.