One of my biggest reservations with a potential tablet was the preconceived notion about using an onscreen virtual keyboard for text input was the primary typing mechanism.  I decided to test drive the Xoom to see if it is indeed a usable device for casual keyboarding, or if it’s too frustrating to be of much use other than consuming content.   I had started with the default Honeycomb keyboard, and also tried some of the alternate keyboards that are available, and came to my own conclusions below on how usable the Xoom would be for myself.

Default Honeycomb Keyboard - Landscape
Default Honeycomb Keyboard – Landscape

Honeycomb Default Keyboard

The default honeycomb keyboard is quite capable when typing short messages or snippets of text.   You can hold the table with one hand and use your other hand to hunt and peck for the key you need to use.  Since the Xoom is wide, you have a lot of back and forth movement to enter in all the keys you need for your text.  If you need to enter a larger amount of text,  you can place the Xoom on a flat surface and use both hands to type rather quickly, with a relatively high accuracy.

The keyboard settings allow for common text auto correction which increases the accuracy as it makes corrections to commonly misspelled words as you type.  The level of auto correction is customizable from off to aggressive so you can customize it’s ability to your own typing pattern.  When you hold the wide tablet in portait mode,  since the device is rather slender,  you can easily grasp the device with two hands and use your thumbs to pretty much reach all the keys as needed (depending on your hand size of course).

While the keyboard is more than adequate for text input,  I couldn’t help but feel it could be an easier experience with a split/radial keyboard so that you can reach all the common letters while holding the device with two hands.  If anyone remembers Microsoft’s original “Origami” devices, they showed a radial keyboard for this exact reason, and I see how it makes sense for using such a device.

ThumbKeyboard on the Motorola Xoom - Landscape
ThumbKeyboard on the Motorola Xoom – Landscape

ThumbKeyboard for Android

Fortunately, unlike other mobile platforms, you can choose to use an alternate keyboard which you can find in the Android market.  After perusing the Android Market for just such a keyboard, I came across Thumbkeyboard, which promised to offer a split keyboard designed for various sized tablets.  The ThumbKeyboard offers several different layouts which are intended to be used on Android phones, 7 inch Tablets, 10 inch tablets, or custom layouts.   The 10 inch tablet layout also includes an onscreen numeric keyboard and directional arrow keys which come in handy while entering in text.   I found this split layout ideal for typing on the wide tablet, with little discomfort and added speed.  The default setting is to use the Full screen interface which is distracting on a large screen such as the Xoom, so I would suggest turning off this feature in the ThumbKeyboard settings.

Honeycomb Browser - Radial Menu
Honeycomb Browser – Radial Menu

Honeycomb Browser- Radial Menu

While not a keyboard itself,  the web browser in Honeycomb offers a feature found in the labs menu which presents a radial menu for common functions.   Essentially it removes the traditional address bar and text entry area, and gives you the ability to swipe your either thumb from the edge of the device toward the center to popup a radial menu.  The menu has keys for common functions such as refresh, back/forward, address bar, history/book marks.   This is a welcomed feature when you are browsing through sites and don’t need to scroll all the way to the top to choose an option.

SwiftKey for Tablets

Another split layout keyboard I am looking forward to, is Swiftkey for Tablets.   Swiftkey is an excellent alternative keyboard on my Droid2,  so I am excited to see how it will perform on a tablet like the Xoom.  Swiftkey is currently in preview, and should hopefully be released soon.  You can see a preview of it here:

Surprisingly usable!

With the alternative keyboards available, and the ease of switching between them,  I was surprised to find that light text entry is not at all an issue when using the Xoom.   Indeed the layout does take getting used to, but I’ve become quite proficient at rapid typing with decent accuracy (I’m sure the auto correction is helping out).   If you are considering the Xoom or Android tablets,  I think because of the choices on the Android market, you can find a keyboard that fits your typing style with a bit of research and testing of your own.

update: thumbkeyboard beta site is here

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