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Tappa-tappa-tappa

One of the biggest conundrums facing cell phone makers these days is how to cram an entire keyboard into an ever-shrinking plastic case. As more and more people are looking to their cell phones for more than just talking, the need for a functional QWERTY keyboard, or at least a simulacrum, becomes all the more apparent. I recently tested out two new devices whose makers have come up with two different, and interesting, strategies to combat the form-factor problem: The LG AX490, and the Blackberry Pearl.

One of the biggest conundrums facing cell phone makers these days is how to cram an entire keyboard into an ever-shrinking plastic case. As more and more people are looking to their cell phones for more than just talking, the need for a functional QWERTY keyboard, or at least a simulacrum, becomes all the more apparent. I recently tested out two new devices whose makers have come up with two different, and interesting, strategies to combat the form-factor problem: The LG AX490, and the Blackberry Pearl.

The LG phone uses the remarkably ingenious FasTap design which separates the letters from the numbers, placing the former on raised keys at the corners of each of the number keys. When I first saw it, I immediately felt like smacking my forehead. “Why didn’t I think of that?” I said to myself. Apparently, the Canadians have had these phones for about two years now (time to move to Toronto?) It was such an ingenious design that I couldn’t wait to start texting my friends. That’s when I ran into problems.
After several days of sending text messages, I still found myself hunting for letters and, when I was really in a groove, constantly typing the same wrong letters, which I thought was bizarre. After all, there’s no triple-tapping involved, and all the letters are right here, in plain sight, and in the same basic layout as any other phone. So what was the problem? As I see it, going from a triple-tapping to single tapping, my mind subconsciously switched from phone-typing to computer-keyboard-typing mode, which, of course, is all about the QWERTY layout, and I suddenly became as good a speller as I was in the second grade.

The second “don’t-call-it-a-phone” device I tried out was RIM’s BlackBerry Pearl, which was designed to make sure that executives aren’t going to be the only ones tethered to their email wherever they go. This is the most un-BlackBerry BlackBerry out there (which is a compliment, guys). It looks like a phone, feels like a phone–it even has a little camera that takes halfway decent shots–but I’m here to talk about how it types.

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The Pearl, so named because it features an illuminated white trackball, replacing the venerable thumb wheel, has a modified QWERTY keyboard layout. Each key is assigned two letters, along with a number or symbol, depending on its location. The idea is, you type just as you would a regular keyboard, and its SureType application automatically figures out what word you’re trying to spell. This works fine in most cases. The snafus come when the same keystrokes can be used for multiple words, or you’re trying to type in a URL or email address. In the first case, say you’re trying to type the word “are,” which happens to be the same keystrokes as “see.” The software presents you with a drop-down list of possible words, and you pick the one you want. The real problems come in the latter case, when you’re trying to email someone. SureType comes up with some crazy combinations when you’re typing in an address, and you have to revert back to double-tapping to get what you want.

So, what does this all mean? Two valiant attempts to deal with two converging, conflicting needs of a full keyboard and a small phone. All in all, the BlackBerry comes closer than the FasTap phone, even though I liked the design–at least aesthetically–of the latter. Are we doomed to the tyranny of QWERTY? Will human evolution result in smaller fingers to be able to press increasingly microscopic buttons? Do you have either of these devices? What’s been your experience?

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