updated 04:25 pm EDT, Wed March 23, 2011
Our test of SnapKeys' unique tablet keyboard
Newcomer SnapKeys used an event at CTIA to show off a fresh approach to keyboards on tablets, including the iPad, that only uses thumbs. Ideally, the SnapKeys 2i system would not only make typing on a tablet easier to use but promises a very intelligent auto-correct system that lets users type faster than they would otherwise. Find out in our hands-on below whether it's ready to go or if we think it might face some challenges to adoption.
The system at first looks like it should be impossible: there's just four main touch areas, back and forward buttons and a large amount of blank space. Each of those pads, however, actually represents eight letters grouped around a certain theme, which is how you remember which of the areas to type. One pad handles letters with just a single point of contact on the "ground" in lower-case form, such as "l" or "t;" another is for two points, and the remaining two areas are for letters that either form closed circles ("o," "d," "b") or open curves ("s," "u").
Either space can work by tapping and dragging to a cardinal direction to choose the letter associated with that direction, but if you're experienced enough, you can 'go blind' and just tap. The auto-correction system we saw was surprisingly advanced; much like some feature phones and more so than on most smartphones, it can automatically figure out what you're typing much of the time with common words.
In practice, we had a hard time learning the system, although it was mostly because of the memorization process; we had to remember what a given letter looked like each time, turning it into something of a hunt-and-peck keyboard. The dictionary on the version we tried was also running somewhat low, so it would occasionally guess the wrong word for a complex layout. You can, however, correct typing and add words to the dictionary to improve its accuracy over time.
It's definitely more comfortable on an iPad. Normal iPad thumb typing in portrait mode involves a stretch to hit the middle keys. On SnapKeys' system, your thumbs rarely have to move more than an inch.
We should note that it's definitely possible to move quickly once you've had practice, and it doesn't necessarily require a lot. We saw Business Development head (and co-founders' relative) Ryan Ghassabian blaze through typing, likely faster than if he'd had the iPad in landscape mode on a desk for the QWERTY keyboard. The company also made it a point to mention that a group of 10-year-olds all learned the blind typing method quickly, which if so at least speaks well for younger users.
The technique doesn't have a set release date, but it should reach apps on Android, iOS, and Windows. However, the company also told us it's discussing integration with "major" phone and tablet makers, as well as carriers, suggesting that it may get a Swype-like deal to be included with some (non-iOS) devices from the start.