Can You Ever Have a Good Keyboard Without Real Keys?
Lenovo’s new “Yoga Book” is a refreshing and strange take on the years-long quest to reinvent both the laptop and the tablet. Announced today at the IFA tradeshow in Berlin, Lenovo’s new device is a striking and weird attempt to straddle the line. It’s got a hinge and two halves, like a laptop, but neither of them is a keyboard.
Available either as a full-fledged Windows 10 device or in a version that runs Android (i.e. one that’s more laptop, and one that’s more tablet), the half of the Yoga Book where you’d expect to find a keyboard is instead a pressure sensitive field. By drawing on this field with Lenovo’s special stylus (don’t lose it!) it you can let your notes flow out of your hand and directly onto the screen.
And if you’re not using the stylus, that other half can be a keyboard, albeit a completely flat one. The screen offers a little bit of a haptic buzz for feedback when your fingers touch down, but otherwise it’s almost like typing on an iPad, except that the keyboard isn’t taking up room on your screen.
The idea of typing on a flat, immovable surface has been kicking around for years, and was most recently and famously explored by Microsoft, with the “Touch Cover” keyboards that were available for its first generation of Surface tablet-computers. Touch Covers were not completely flat-they had raised but immovable bumps for they keys-but still were met with middling reviews. Microsoft ultimately scratched the Touch Covers in favor of improving its “Type Covers,” extremely thin keyboards with actual moving keys.
Earlier this year, I talked to Rob Bingham, senior hardware program manager for Microsoft and steward of the Type Cover project, about the incredibly difficult process of fine-tuning a keyboard, which involves tweaking the weight, spacing, and shape of the keys with nigh imperceptible detail. In our chat, he expressed skepticism at the idea of flat keyboards taking over to the exclusion of traditional ones. “There’s always gonna be this need to feel something move,” he said. It’s the obvious opinion for a keyboard designer to have, but one that also seems to be true.
Alongside the rollout of the iPad Pro, Apple released a physical keyboard. It was a page from Microsoft’s book as well as a tacit admission that typing on a flat screen just isn’t great. Countless other companies-including heavyweights like Google and Amazon-have been exploring tablet-and-keyboard combos as well. It seems like the world is admitting that flat, on-screen keyboards aren’t good enough. Yet here we are.
Early hands-on tests seem to indicate that typing on the Yoga Book is weird, but not horrific. CNET says the experience is “akin to on-screen typing on an iPad, but the matte surface is much better for finger control than a shiny laptop or tablet screen” and that using it is “very doable.” Engadget’s take is a little more sour:
Even though Lenovo thoughtfully designed the layout with more generously sized keys and spaces, implemented haptic feedback, predictive text and autocorrect (the latter two are only on the Android model), I still struggled to bang out more than a few words at once without a typo. Lenovo said it would take about two hours to get used to the new keyboard, but I’m not sure I believe that.
The prospect of a flat keyboard-whether its wildly thin like the Touch Cover or doubles as a drawing pad like the Yoga Book’s-is an enticing proposition for sure. But the trusty keyboard with moving keys is still a cornerstone of modern computing, and the fastest way to get any serious writing done. Despite touchscreen devices everywhere, it’s still a vital tool, and it’s better and thinner than ever. It’s hard to imagine it going away any time soon.