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I went on a scouting mission to the Apple Store today. This was going to be my first chance to hold and use an iPad mini. As an iPad 2 owner, I wanted to see if the new mini would work for me: is the screen too small? Is it too slow?

I managed to fight my way through the crowds to spend about 15 minutes putting a black iPad mini through its paces. I came away seriously impressed.

To my mind, the iPad mini is the iPad Apple should have made from the start. Its size and weight are incredibly pleasant; it feels “just right” in my hand. I can hold it in one hand to read for extended periods, but in active mode I can readily use both hands to interact with on-screen elements, and they’re not too small at all.

One of my chief concerns — can I read comfortably on a smaller screen — was immediately obviated during my time with it. It’s no retina display, but it’s very comfortable, and considerably better than my iPad 2. Another concern was about performance, and the iPad demonstrated itself quite capable of running all the apps I tried without a hitch, proving once more that the iPad is a computing appliance.

Most of the reviews on the web echo my positive impressions of the device, and you can read about them yourself (one of my favourite might be The Verge’s, but you won’t have to look far for more).

But as I was driving home today, one thought stuck with me: text entry on this iPad is a real problem. Unlike with the 9.7-inch iPad, you can’t work the landscape keyboard touch-type-style (if you will). You have to type in a style more akin to the iPhone — with your thumbs in portrait mode. And it works great, for that purpose.

But as I wrote in my Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover review, even a landscape 9.7-inch iPad on-screen keyboard offers much better typing efficiency than an iPhone: up to 63 words per minute, versus a best time of 26 words per minute. It would seem the iPad mini on-screen keyboard is going to really limit my ability to get text into this device.

And you just can’t get away from that problem. Even on a full-sized iPad, I lose 20 words per minute, in a best-case scenario — programming is right out!

As I was thinking about this, it struck me that while the 7.9-inch iPad mini is a fantastic device, I wonder if Apple originally went with 9.7 inches in 2010 because it would give them the closest approximation to a full-size on-screen keyboard? Back then, a keyboard that you could approximate touch-typing upon would have been vital. Today, people are sold on the idea of an iPad for more than setting text, and will (I’m sure) devour the new smaller iPad at a terrific rate.

And yet.

What can be done about this most vital problem of ever-smaller computers? The 7.9-inch display is (to my mind) perfectly suited for so much of what I want a tablet for, except for text entry. What other ways can we use to make this better?

I have some ideas. They range from interesting to crazy.

Talk to the Hand

First, there’s speech recognition. Obviously. I’ve actually been very impressed with the accuracy and speed of speech input on the iPhone 5. For sending text messages, beating out a three-sentence email, or even getting a search term into Safari, it’s not too shabby. But it comes with a pack of gotchas: you really need a quiet, preferably private, environment (despite the fact I make Tiberius, I feel awkward talking to computers in front of people), you have to wait to see if your text was even recognized, and there are hilarious (or frustrating) mistakes to contend with. Until Apple invests a lot more into speech recognition, it’ll remain a secondary option to typing.


Now let’s go a bit sci-fi. Imagine a technology that is to typing what subvocalizing is to speaking. Instead of actually typing, you could make the finger motions and it could be recognized. In a way, it would be like thinking what you wanted to type, and ideally much more accurate than a real keyboard.

Turns out that idea isn’t entirely nuts — I found mention of something kinda-sorta similar in a very old issue of Wired. The first item on this page (“Hand Job”… eeewwwww) talks about a project to attach special chips to your fingers in order to recognize motions. There’s no other mention of it anywhere else; I suppose it sunk into oblivion. But I would love to see this idea manifested, Apple-style.

“Aggressive Autocompletion”

Finally, let’s say that we are happy with the way we input text for blogs and emails. It remains that the on-screen keyboard is totally useless for writing code: even terrific apps like Diet Coda can’t bring sufficient access to the special keys needed.

But what if you were coding in an environment that knew exactly what you might be typing? I think of it as “aggressive autocompletion”: if you’re coding HTML, you tap a tag button, and pick a tag from a list. Then all you fill out are the attributes. Imagine typing an anchor tag: hit “a”, then type in the contents of the “src” attribute, and the rest is filled in.

A hypothetical Cocoa development environment would aggressively remember variables and class names, and supply them on demand with a given keystroke. It could be more intrusive, but I wonder if, done right, it couldn’t make programming possible on a touch display.

Maybe one of these solutions will replace the keyboard. Maybe a combination of them. Maybe none, and we’ll be hunting and pecking from the bridge of Discovery while an alien entity tells us to attempt no landings on Europa.

When I watch Star Trek, I think about the ways that characters interact with their PADD devices; they seem to tap at them in nonsensical ways. Jake Sisko, the captain’s son in Deep Space Nine, was a writer, and we see him sometimes using a stylus when he’s composing on his PADD. That doesn’t make sense either. I hope that by the time we hit the 24th century, we’re doing better than that.

In the meantime, I’m going to take my chances on an iPad mini as my next tablet. The 32GB, black, with LTE, in case you’re wondering.

[Photo credit: The Verge. But you could tell from the giant “The Verge” in the bottom corner, right?]