Despite their popularity, tablets get knocked on productivity—largely because entering data on them is slow and cumbersome. But that doesn’t mean you have to boot up your laptop every time you need to type a lengthy document. From add-on keyboards to alternative on-screen keypads and general screen-typing tips, here’s a host of ways to speed up data entry on your iPad or Android tablet.
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, most users will get much faster performance by typing on a physical keyboard. Go ahead and try it for yourself. Using the iPad’s on-screen keyboard, I was able to reach all of 37 words per minute—half my normal typing rate on a full-size physical keyboard—with a (very high) 4-percent error rate. Using an external (albeit pint-sized) keyboard, I hit 64 words per minute with zero errors.
While typing on the smaller iPad keyboard wasn’t as fast as typing on a full-size one, it still beat tap-typing on the screen by a huge margin. There are a number of reasons for this, including:
Limited character set on the on-screen keyboard—At first glance, the iPad’s on-screen keyboard looks rather full-featured, but once you begin typing a document you start to notice some gaping holes. Numerical keys are subjugated to a secondary keyboard, along with almost every form of punctuation aside from the period, comma, question mark, and exclamation point. Characters that are extremely common in both casual and formal writing—including the forward slash, colon, and parenthesis—are buried and difficult to find, and the layout changes based on which app you’re using. It doesn’t help that these symbols aren’t even aligned with the numerals they normally adhere to. The @ symbol is traditionally typed as Shift-2 on a regular keyboard, but on the iPad you’ll find it beneath the 9 key. All of this hunting and pecking through the secondary keyboard slows you down.
Difficulty of making corrections easily—Most of us take for granted the oversized backspace key at the top right of our keyboards, and we make generous use of it on a daily basis when we mistype things. As expected, the iPad features a backspace key as well, but it’s harder to use. Not only is the key reduced to the size of a regular character key, it’s harder to locate without looking for it, because the keyboard doesn’t have a physical terminus that you can feel.
Screen real estate consumed by the on-screen keyboard—A big issue with typing on any tablet is the fact that the on-screen keyboard overwhelms everything else. In fact, more than half of the screen can be eaten away when the keyboard is active. This doesn’t directly dampen input speed, but it does impact your overall productivity by requiring considerably more scrolling around on the page in order to see the context of what you’re trying to type.
Lack of tactile feedback—Don’t discount the value of actual keys that click when you push on them. This powerful feature kept the BlackBerry alive for years, and it’s a major selling point for aftermarket keyboards on tablets today. When you press a key, you know your keystroke has been registered. Tapping a screen offers no such assurances, as you might have tapped the wrong character, your finger might have landed between two characters, or your tap might not have registered at all. Unless you slow down considerably, mistakes are common to the point where auto-correction features are now essential (if sometimes comically confused). But most of all, this feedback is important because for generations of users that cut their teeth on typewriters and computer keyboards, typing on a physical keyboard just feels more natural.
So, which keyboard is best? You can use just about any Bluetooth keyboard with your tablet, but chances are you’ll want one that attaches to the device and echoes its profile. I looked at three of the most noteworthy keyboards designed for the iPad, all of which double as cases or covers. (Android-compatible versions are available for each.)
Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover ($100)—This keyboard attaches magnetically to the iPad and doubles as a cover, though not exactly a case, since it doesn’t protect the rest of the device. It’s a basic, stripped-down keyboard with the focus squarely on the alpha keys.
Numerals are shrunken down to half-size and do double duty with function keys. Though very thin, it has acceptable action, boosting me to 64 words per minute with no errors. Separate versions for the iPad mini and iPad Air that incorporate the same basic design are also available.
Keep reading for more Bluetooth keyboard picks…
Belkin QODE Thin Type Keyboard for iPad Air ($100)—This magnetic keyboard cover’s typing area is a bit deeper than the Logitech’s, due to the addition of full-size numeral keys and a row of custom keys dedicated to media playback, volume control, and the like.
Strangely, the colon/semicolon key is pushed down next to the space bar—a decision may well flummox touch typists—but otherwise it is on a par with the Logitech cover, though with slightly smaller keys. None of this overly impacted my performance: I hit 73 words per minute with a 1 percent error rate, making it my overall “fastest” keyboard by a sizeable margin.
Kensington Pro Plus Folio with Backlit Keyboard ($100)—The selling point here should be obvious: Backlighting means this is easier to use in the dark. It’s also a full, padded case, so it offers more protection in case of a drop, and—a feature not to be overlooked—the actual keyboard is removable, so you have lots of flexibility when it comes to positioning screen and tablet.
Like the Belkin, it has a full-size row of number keys and custom function keys up top, and I really liked the sharp, crisp action on the keys, smallish though they are. Unfortunately, I ultimately hit only 51 words per minute with a 5 percent error rate, because my keystrokes didn’t always register. Considerable training to hit keys with extra force, which is tough on a keyboard this small, is essential.
If you use an Android keyboard or have a jail-broken iPad, you can change the stock keyboard layout by using an alternative keyboard app. (Users of non-jail-broken iPads can also use these keyboard apps within certain other apps, but they can’t replace the stock iOS keyboard throughout the OS.)
A number of alternative keyboards are available. Here’s a look at some of the major players.
Fleksy—This is a popular alternate keyboard that incorporates basic gestures (swipe left to delete, swipe right twice to add a punctuation mark) with a simple, no-frills keyboard. With its larger keys and clean interface, Fleksy makes it easier to hit characters correctly, and its predictive-text feature seems to be uncannily accurate. However, if you need to input numerals or special characters, you’ll still have to dig into secondary menus. I was actually slower with Fleksy—22 words per minute with a 5 percent error rate—than with the stock iOS keyboard, but I expect practice would improve that quite a bit. Considering the world text messaging speed record was set with a Fleksy keyboard at a rate of over 82 words per minute, it’s an option worth considering.
Swype—Why type when you can Swype? So goes this alternative keyboard’s slogan, an allusion to the way you interact with the keys: by fluidly dragging, or swiping, your finger from one character to the other instead of tapping on them individually. Swype is available for Android only, but similar keyboards can be found for iOS if you want to give them a try in a sandbox. Swiping action aside, I also preferred the Swype keyboard layout, which features more punctuation and the ability to resize the keyboard, but there’s a learning curve. Ultimately I was able to work my way up to 30 words per minute with a 3 percent error rate, but I never felt as comfortable as I did with regular typing, particularly when trying to enter longer words. Google’s own Android keyboard (downloadable if your device doesn’t have it preinstalled) now has Swype-like technology built in, as does the well-reviewed SwiftKey.
Keep reading for more onscreen keyboard picks…
KALQ—This new keyboard layout is designed for thumb-typing, and it radically alters the layout of your character set, putting 11 commonly used characters under your right thumb and the rest under your left. The learning curve here is the steepest since you have to learn a whole new layout, but if you’re not a touch typist, it may well be the easiest way to pick up a few extra words per minute. The developers claim most users gain an extra 30 percent in speed when switching from QWERTY to KALQ.
What about handwriting recognition?
A whole article could be written about handwriting apps like Notes Plus and WritePad, which can convert your longhand into legible, editable text. But if it’s speed you’re looking for, handwriting probably isn’t the answer. I was able to squeeze about 20 words per minute in writing by hand while maintaining a modicum of legibility, hardly worth the extra effort compared to typing. Using a stylus instead of a fingertip didn’t speed things up significantly, but it did at least make my chicken-scratch a bit easier to read (and for the OCR tool to convert to text).
While it’s difficult to account for personal preference, handwriting on tablets seems better suited to note-taking than actual writing (because you need to look less frequently at the screen and can focus more fully on the speaker), and for anything requiring freehand illustrations.
Screen-typing tips for any tablet
Assuming you don’t have the ability to break out an external keyboard—definitely the best way to improve your input speed—you can take a few steps to improve your typing performance even without one. Try these and see how your input speed improves.
Use two hands. It may sound obvious, but holding your tablet in one hand and typing with the other is about as slow as you can get. By putting your tablet down and typing with two hands—even just using two fingers, one on each hand—you’ll more than double your speed.
Try four fingers. It’s nearly impossible to touch-type with eight fingers (plus thumbs) on the tiny screen of a tablet: The keys are too small to hit accurately with your little fingers, and (more importantly) holding both hands over the screen completely obscures the keys themselves. After much trial and error, I found a four-finger strategy tends to work best and fastest. Try typing with the first three fingers on your right (or dominant) hand, and the index finger on your left. Your right hand will roam from about the T, G, and V keys to the right edge of the keyboard. Your left hand will pick up the remaining letters, plus deal with the Shift key when needed. Practice a bit and you’ll probably find you can type comfortably fast with solid accuracy. Over time, you might throw in another finger on your left hand when certain words require the extra effort or when you need to use Shift a lot. Let this come naturally as you get into a touch-typing groove.
Steady your tablet on a solid surface. A corollary to the first tip, your tablet will need to be set down and stable if you want to type with accuracy. Propping it against your knee will result in too many mistakes and plenty of discomfort. Whenever possible, place your tablet directly on a supportive surface like a table. A stand (or a case that folds to create an incline) can be even better if it mimics the slight incline of a standard computer keyboard. Typing like this, with your head craned downward, isn’t the best for ergonomics, so try to limit typing time using any on-screen method.
Use voice to text when possible. It’s often inconvenient, impossible, or just feels weird to dictate to your tablet, but voice translation—built into Android and available for the iPad through tools such as Dragon Dictation—has become remarkably accurate, and it’s much faster than typing under any circumstance. Dragon unfortunately has a 60-second limit for each dictation session, and ambient noise can be a problem.
Practice! Some users report that walking through a learn-to-type app on their tablet can help make the jump from keyboard typing to screen typing with better speed and accuracy. If all else fails, give this a try.
Christopher Null is a veteran technology and business journalist. He contributes regularly to TechHive, PCWorld, and Wired, and operates the websites Drinkhacker and Film Racket. Disclosure: He also writes for Hewlett-Packad's marketing website TechBeacon.