It's been nearly four years now since the release of the original iPad. This is an annual date that seems always to bring out a series of articles exploring whether an iPad can be used for work and/or in replacement of a laptop. A key critique routinely brought up in these articles is the purported limitation of typing on a virtual keyboard - with the oft-repeated conclusion that one will never be able to type as quickly on glass as on a mechanical keyboard.
While this is often written as accepted dogma, it is, in fact, an empirical question: Can a person learn to type as fast on a virtual keyboard as on a mechanical keyboard?
Back when I first got my iPad I compared my typing on glass to my typing on the iPhone and on a mechanical keyboard, and found that it was faster than the iPhone, slower than the keyboard, but improving over the month or so that I had owned the device. It's been nearly four years since I first wrote that review, and I've been using iPads on a daily basis since then. This article made me curious to see where I was at with all of that practice under my belt.
To explore this effectively, used a couple of different typing speed websites. I wanted to be able to include results from my iPhone, as I had back in 2010. Unfortunately, the difference in devices makes direct comparisons somewhat challenging. Probably the best site I've found for checking typing speed on the iPhone is the aptly named iPhone Typing Test. This site also works quite nicely for the iPad, but is functionally impossible to use with a desktop computer (to end your entry requires you to tap a "done" button that appears on the iOS software keyboard, but doesn't have a hardware equivalent - that I could find - on the desktop). So - to perform the test here I used iPhone Typing Test for the iPhone and iPad, and a separate site called Typingtest.com for the iMac.
I did six practice sessions on each device, and then recorded my performance on six subsequent sessions for each device.
The two sites use different techniques to measure typing speed. iPhone Typing Test randomly rotates short passages (you are presented with a different passage each time), and reports your time when you finish each passage and tap "done". TypingTest.com provides a list of passage options and grades against how much is completed at the end of a minute; it also provides both total wpm and a corrected result against errors. I cycled through the first six choices on TypingTest.com to simulate that effect (e.g. A different passage for each trial). Note - this wasn't random; I cycled through them in sequential order. However, they were longer passages, and I only saw each twice, so I did not become familiar with them. Plus, truly random assignment would be quite a bit of work, and it was really farther than I was prepared to go for a casual blog entry.
All of the typing was completed sitting at the work desk in my home office - a very familiar environment. Typing on the iMac was completed using the Apple Bluetooth Keyboard. Typing on the iPad was completed on-screen, with the iPad in its DodoCase, mounted on the original Compass Stand from 12 South in typing position. The iPhone, by necessity, was held in my hands, but I was sitting at the desk in my desk chair.
The results of my test are shown in the first graph above. As can be seen, my results on the iPad and the iMac are quite similar, particularly when the iMac results are corrected for errors. This seemed relevant to include, as autocorrect on the iPad significantly reduces my rate of error when typing on that device.
In fact, I was able to locate a second site that allowed a more direct comparison between the iPad and the iMac (though not the iPhone) - calculatorcat.com has a typing test that has simple on-screen controls that could be worked easily from both devices and did not attend to errors. Those results are shown in the graph below.
In both cases this shows that, after four years of routine - daily - use, my typing speed on the iPad is functionally indistinguishable from a hardware keyboard.
Also notable within all of this is the overall effect of all that practice. My typing speed on the iPad has improved considerably from that first test four years ago - from ~64 wpm then to ~74 wpm now. Not only that, but my speed on the iPhone has also shown a marked change - from ~33 wpm in 2010 to ~57 wpm now.
All of this brings the idea that a virtual keyboard is inherently less effective sharply into question.
The people who make these assertions are, fundamentally, people who are long entrenched in a system of hardware keyboards and pointing devices. Joanna Stern, in her recent wsjonline article (found courtesy of John Gruber at Daring Fireball ) for example, rakes a number of tablets over the coals because she cannot match her accustomed 92 wpm on their (external) keyboards. But this fails to take into account the fact that she most likely achieved that 92 wpm on a keyboard with which she was intimately familiar. Expecting similar results from borrowed, significantly less familiar equipment is unfair and unreasonable at best.
I suspect we are at the leading edge of a sea-change in how people interact with their computers everywhere - not just at home. As Benedict Evans so ably notes recently, we tend to get stuck on how we do things, forgetting that the relevant detail is what we want to accomplish.