Virtual keyboards have taken over from physical keypads for the vast majority of smartphones around the world, but the revival of the BlackBerry brand means we can expect at least one phone with a physical keyboard in 2021.
Yes, new BlackBerry licensee OnwardMobility confirmed earlier this week that it would indeed offer a keyboard-toting 5G BlackBerry phone next year. The term “keyboard-toting 5G BlackBerry phone” wasn’t a sentence I expected to type in 2020.
Anyway, this turn of events has us wondering whether there’s still a market for phones with physical keyboards. We’ve previously seen successfully crowdfunded devices like the Unihertz Titan (itself being a BlackBerry Passport clone), the Astro Slide 5G Transformer, and the Fxtec Pro 1. This suggests that there is certainly a niche for a smartphone with a physical keyboard, but the size of this market isn’t quite clear.
A case for and against physical keyboards
There are a number of reasons why people might want a hardware keyboard, but the main one is having access to a more tactile typing experience. Being able to feel your keys can make for more intuitive typing, reducing errors and the reliance on predictive text.
Physical keyboards also mean that you don’t have to deal with a virtual keyboard blocking half your app when you enter a text field. You can read more of that Slack thread or WhatsApp chat.
Another notable advantage is that you can also assign app/tool shortcuts to these physical keys, as we saw on TCL’s BlackBerry phones. Tapping the “C” key can launch the camera app, while tapping “G” can launch Gmail, and tapping “R” can launch the Reddit app. It’s a pretty handy solution as you don’t have to navigate to the app drawer or a specific folder to launch your favorite app.
Also read: All the phones with QWERTY keyboards
There are a few disadvantages to offering a physical keyboard though. Virtual keyboards are more versatile these days. These software keyboards tend to be designed with one-handed typing in mind, while many phones with physical keyboards aren’t really designed for this purpose (although the KeyOne and Key2 seem to be more accommodating). In fact, virtual keyboards specifically include a one-handed mode and swipe gestures to make things easier. This versatility extends to features like emoji/GIF menus and obscure characters, as the software keyboard is able to seamlessly offer the relevant menu in the same space as the keyboard.
Another big downside to using a phone with a physical keyboard is that it cuts down on the actual screen size. You’re often left with a much smaller screen with a weird aspect ratio compared to a standard phone screen. Watching/recording video clips in particular can be a less-than-ideal experience due to black bars. This can also lead to app formatting issues in general due to the unconventional screen size.
In any event, it’s clear there are a number of reasons to adopt or ditch a phone with a physical keyboard. But what do you make of this feature, dear reader? Take our poll near the top of the page.