I’ve recently been looking for the best mobile productivity device, for working on-the-go. I’ve now written about the Microsoft Surface Pro with the Pro 4 Type Cover and the iPad Air 2, with the Logitech Tablet Keyboard for iPad.
However, both of these devices provide an alternative to hardware keyboards. That’s right, they both offer onscreen keyboards. So, I thought I’d see what the writing experience was like with these 2 devices. Specifically, I wanted to see how easy it would be to type a 500 word article, without a hardware keyboard.
Here’s what I found.
The iPad Air 2 onscreen keyboard
As a pretty fast touch typer, who writes all day every day, I was worried that the small screen size on the Air 2 would make typing really tricky. The onscreen keyboard is far narrower than a regular keyboard. My fingers are trained to expect keys to be a certain distance apart. That was clearly not going to be possible with this device.
I soon discovered that although the Air’s onscreen keyboard is very narrow, everything has been designed to make typing as easy as possible. I found that the keyboard, which was initially designed for the iPhone, where people input with 1 or 2 fingers, is a breeze to use with 10 digits.
One of the major benefits is the exceptionally useful predictive typing feature. Apple has been refining this for years. After typing a few letters, the 3 words that most closely match what you are typing, appear on the screen. With a quick glance at the 3 options, you’re able to find the right word and select it with a click. However, that’s not all. The iOS predictive text feature also guesses what word you’re most likely to type next. This often allows me to type 2 words in a row, with just 2 clicks… without spelling errors or typos.
It’s not perfect though. For some reason, when I type “i” with a space before and after it, it remains lower case. I have to use the shift key to get an “I”. This should happen by default, as soon as you tap the space bar. Another niggle is that some commonly used characters are hard to find. For example, accessing the %, + and – characters requires scrolling through 2 additional screens.
Overall, I was able to get my 500 words written with relative ease and with very little real frustration. And pretty quickly too.
The Surface Pro 3 onscreen keyboard
Whilst I was initially concerned that the iPad Air 2 would be too narrow, I assumed the Surface Pro’s wide screen would make onscreen typing a relative breeze. It wasn’t. In fact, the devices offered almost polar opposite writing experiences.
The Surface’s Windows 10 onscreen keyboard is considerably wider. This made it easy to type on and I found my typing to be more accurate too. And those hard to access characters on the iPad Air 2 were easy to find. This should have been a home-run for the Surface, however, the Surface’s Windows 10 onscreen keyboard is not as intuitive as its iOS counterpart.
Finding the correct keys was easier on the Windows 10 onscreen keyboard, however, the predictive text was less accurate. Also, unlike iOS, which gives you 3 predictive options, the Windows 10 onscreen keyboard offers you up to 8 choices. It places what it thinks are the closest matches on the left, with match quality dropping as you read across. You’d think that more choice would lead to a better experience. What actually happens, is that you find yourself presented with too many alternatives. This slows you down. Whereas the iOS predictive text made things easier, on Windows 10 it became a distraction. I found myself hardly using it by the end of the article.
Here’s the winner and why it doesn’t really matter
The iPad’s iOS onscreen keyboard was a clear winner for me. It’s easily good enough for articles up to around 750 / 1000 words. Personally, that covers around 99% of my work flow.
However, it doesn’t matter.
The thing is, the iPad needs a great onscreen keyboard, but the Surface doesn’t.
The vast majority of iPad users, excluding the iPad Pro, don’t buy a hardware keyboard. So they need an excellent onscreen keyboard. The opposite is true of the Surface Pro. That’s because unlike the iPad, almost everyone who buys a Surface device will use a hardware keyboard. Microsoft sell a Surface Pro 4 Type Cover, which doubles as a keyboard / track pad and screen cover. It’s extremely good. To put that into context, it offers a far better writing experience than most laptops. Unlike the iPad, Surface devices also have a USB port, so any USB keyboard can be used on them.
As you’d expect, neither device offers a good enough writing experience, to replace a hardware keyboard. That said, it’s good to know that if you find yourself without a keyboard and you need to get some work done, you can.
Oh, and in case you were wondering… I wrote this on my iPad, using the Logitech Tablet Keyboard for iPad.