The Ultimate QWERTY Smartphone Smackdown

With that mobile internet getting more and more pervasive you’re gonna need every available inch of real estate on your sidearm to hammer out emails, IMs and texts. Here then, as a public service, is the best of the best QWERTY keypads I could get my hands on.

A couple of disclaimers…

  1. This review about hardware only — operating systems, software, etc. will dealt with in a future post.
  2. The photos below are of dummy display models, but rest assured I’ve also had first-hand experience with actual, working units.
  3. A notable emission is the new dual-sliding Ocean from Helio. I live in Canada and can’t get my hands on one, but if someone wants to oblige or pay my way down to CTIA I won’t say no!

The Nominees:

Blackberry 8700Representing BlackBerry, the 8700 — just yesterday I went to my local Rogers store and checked out their version of the new 8800. GPS or not, it’s crap. The keys are entirely too close together and have these weird ridged surfaces that are supposed to tell you where you are without looking, but will more likely annoint your precious digits with blisters.

And the Pearl? I played with one for ten minutes and gave up. Blackberry zealots tell me I should give the hybrid keypad and SureType system at least a week before I pass judgement on it, but who has time for that? Smartphone + learning curve = no deal.

Thus, the 8700 gets my vote as the best Blackberry keypad available. It’s a solid performer, but not without shortcomings. When you press the outer keys on either side you feel the relatively sharp edge of the unit’s front fascia. Also, the keypad has been designed so you can’t input a period or comma without pressing the ‘alt’ key — a bit odd as BlackBerry’s target market tend to be more grammatically inclined than the USRZ OF OTHR MSGNG DVISEZ OMG LOL WTF?!!1!

The final strike against it’s usability is that you must press the jog wheel while holding the ‘alt’ key to edit text — not very intuitive if you ask me…

Treo 750Representing Windows Mobile (and Palm), the Palm Treo 750 (and 680) — Yes, I lumped Windows Mobile Smartphone and Pocket PC Editions into the same category. The Samsung BlackJack, best-of-breed for the Smartphone version of Windows Mobile is a nice, tidy little device but its keys are literally only as big as a grain of rice. That, and the strange layout of the integrated numberpad bumped it from consideration.

Just to show I’m not playing favourites here I’ve also nixed the HTC TyTN, a device that I actually own and use when travelling. While it has nice big fat keys on a dedicated slide-out keypad there is zero space between them, making for an ultimately frustrating typing experience.

So stepping up to the plate for Windows Mobile is the Treo 750 (and for Palm the 680). Treos have historically been known for their high levels of usability, and this unit manages to strike an almost perfect balance between keypad size and overall device width. The keys are small, but they have a nice domed contour that makes typing a breeze. Plus, you can use it one-handed — try that with a TyTN!

Nokia E61/62 Representing Symbian, the Nokia E61/E62 — Yeah, I lumped all the flavours of Symbian into category, including Sony Ericsson’s UIQ. The P990? Try doing anything on that tiny keypad and you’ll end up pulling your hair out. The Nokia E70 looks interesting, but for me it’s fatally flawed by the split keypad and lack of space between keys.

So what we’re left with is Nokia’s BlackBerry-killer, the E61 (or E62 if you’re stupid enough to trade built-in WiFi for a couple of bucks and the burden of a multi-year contract). This beast is wide like a scientific calculator from the ’70s, but the extra space pays off with nice big keys, and even some space in between ‘em! Kudos to Nokia for pinching the dedicated ‘@’ symbol beside the space bar from the hiptop/Sidekick — it’s a natural fit for a dedicated messaging device.

I guess I should subtract marks for the slightly unconventional layout of the integrated numberpad, but it’s better than the BlackJack and really, who actually makes calls on these things, anyway?

P.S. I can also vouch that the keypad on the new E61i is every bit as good…

Danger hiptop/Sidekick 3 And Representing Danger, the hiptop/Sidekick 3 — purists who argue that the hiptop platform isn’t really a smartphone can kiss my ass. It’s got its own operating system, downloadable content and full web access, so suck it.

And yet this dummy display unit from T-Mobile is probably the closest thing we’ll see to a hiptop 3 in Canada, but that’s another story…

The rubberized keypad from the hiptop 2 has been replaced with hard shiny plastic keys, but since their size and layout is pretty much identical any difference is negligible.

The hiptop pioneered the dedicated ‘@’ symbol to the left of the spacebar — and I have a dummy hiptop 1 to prove it! The staggered layout of the numberpad isn’t an issue in use, and the simple fact is I’ve logged many hours of typing on my hiptop 2, and can tell you from experience that the keypad works great.

Two drawbacks, though — the landscape orientation of the device negates one-handed use, and the space needed to stow the screen when flipped shut makes for a slightly longer distance your fingers have to travel to make contact with the keys.

And The Winner is…

Nokia E61/62

The Nokia E61/E62 (and soon E61i).

The hiptop/Sidekick came very close but the deciding factor for me is one-handed use — you won’t know you need it until you’re on the bus or streetcar with a bunch of shopping bags and have to fire off an emergency email to your boss explaining why you’re not at work!

Of the three variations I would hold out for the E61i — it’s got a camera and has replaced the joystick thingy with a reportedly better four-way navigation button.

I’d give second place to the hiptop, a bronze medal to the Treo and to the BlackBerry… Hey, thanks for coming out.

Of course, we haven’t even begun to talk about operating systems, software and synchronization with your important data. That, my friends, will just have to wait for another post…

About Andrew

Mobile phones, Linux and copyright reform. Those go together, right?
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