Keyboards, touch typing, dictation

Shawn Blanc has done some research on keyboards for the Macintosh and written an exhaustive piece on using them as a professional writer: Clicky Keyboards. It’s not clear from the piece if Shawn is a touch typist but my guess is he is.

In 1985 I witnessed my friend Steve Splonskowski (still in college) typing at lightening speed on the awful Macintosh 128K keyboard. He was looking at the screen and typing away and it was a thing of beauty. I wanted to type like that so I bought a copy of the keyboarding instruction program “Typing Intrigue” and started playing the rain game (type a letter as it falls from the top of the screen) and quickly moved on to typing odd practice sentences.

At that time I was starting to contribute articles to early computer magazines and between that writing and early email with AppleLink, bitnet and a few other email networks I had enough of a writing load so that within a few weeks I was able to leave hunting and pecking behind. Once I’d made the transition to touch typing my speed and accuracy went down for a while but as I felt more confident and kept my eyes comfortably on the screen and my writing the feedback loop between fingers and brain got tighter and faster. The more writing, the better it got and as a person who had avoided writing for most of my life, a computer and touch typing was like opening a dam: writing spilled out of me on a daily basis.

The way to become a better writer is to write more. If improving your writing tool (a keyboard, a pen) helps then improve it.

Touch typing has changed my life by being one (important) part of the process of getting my ideas outside my head and encoded into writing. Before computers, keyboards, and touch typing my image of myself did not include “writer.” Here’s a now dated piece I did on the mechanics of this experience: How Computers Change the Writing Process for People with Learning Disabilities.

At some point, maybe after I’m compost, touch typing will probably go the way of cursive handwriting but until then it’s a useful skill to have and if you have it the layout and feel of your keyboard is an important part of your writing experience.

One of the things that will send keyboards and with them, touch typing to their grave is dictation: being able to talk to your computer, iPad, iPhone or whatever and have the device type out (encode) your voice. We used to call this “speech to text” or “speech recognition” but the single term “dictation” will no doubt supplant those awkward phrases.

I bought a new iPad (3) for one reason (not the screen): it has dictation capabilities. I’ve been using dictation quite a bit on my iPhone 4S and I’m finding it quite useful and it’s quite good on the new iPad as well. However, it’s a very different writing experience from touch typing and so, my brain is making a feeble attempt to adapt. I really like the tight feedback loop that happens with touch typing and dictation is a different kind of experience. We’ll see how touch typists like me adapt (or not).

No doubt we’re in transition: I’m touch typing this on my MacBook Pro’s keyboard which works quite well for me and for any longer piece of writing/editing I’ll probably be using this tool but for a lot of the other writing I do I’ll just as easily be using the iPad or iPhone with dictation (or with their awful but useable onscreen keyboards).

8 thoughts on “Keyboards, touch typing, dictation

  1. Andreas

    Richard, thank you for this insightful article. Several of my attempts to learn touch typing have failed. I still type a lot but it might be more comfortable to touch type than my dilettante hybrid approach.

    I noticed that you bought a new iPad. I am also contemplating it for its retina screen, which should make it more comfortable for reading. Though I haven’t decided between the 32GB and 64GB version. I have a 32GB iPhone and occasionally have to reorganise my data on it to free some space. I assume the iPad’s storage fills up much quicker. Thus it might be better to buy the top model. What is your advice? How have you decided which model to buy?

    All the best

  2. Richard Post author

    Andreas: It’s an interesting time to be making decisions about learning touch typing because there are now real alternatives on the horizon. Still, as long as you have and use a computer with a keyboard and do a fair amount of writing I think its a useful skill to have and once you have it you’ll wonder how you ever survived without it. I can’t recommend the best software to learn with but something simple with both a letter catching game and sentence practice, then make an attempt to launch into it for your writing. Let me know if you try it and how it goes.

    I got the new iPad less for the retina screen, more for the dictation and I’m glad I did as it works extremely well.

    I have (so far) bought 64GB versions of both iPhone and iPad and I fill each up with media: the iPhone is my iPod so it’s loaded with music, my iPad is my movie watching tool and it’s loaded with ripped and compressed movies. I think it’s safer to buy the bigger models as you may not know what you want to store on them yet.

    My wife gets by fine with a 32GB iPad and she has a lot of reading material on her iPad as well as her entire iPhoto library and much of her music. I don’t think she’ll run out of room but if I could do it again I’d buy her the 64GB model, just to be on the safe side.

    The new screen is in fact a huge improvement for everything, the iPad is considerably faster at most things and dictation is excellent. We’re very pleased with the new iPad and I think for many, it now has enough power that it will eat into MacBook Air sales in some markets.

    Let me know what you decide and if I can help you learn to touch type I’m glad to try.

  3. Andreas

    Thank you, Richard, for both your advice on touch typing and the iPad models as well as offering assistance with learning to touch type. It is greatly appreciated and I will keep you updated on both endeavors.

  4. Andreas

    Richard, I am am about to buy the iPad but need to bother you again with regards to your buying advice.

    I was planning to get the Wifi-only model, because I already have an iPhone, which I am already using as a mobile hotspot with my Mac. Likewise one is able to tether the iPad through a Wifi connection with the iPhone to connect with the internet when there isn’t any other Wifi hotspot available. However over the past few days I was wondering whether it would be more convenient and maybe better for traveling to buy the Wifi and 4G model.

    I am not sure, if I need to access the internet with the iPad in places where I don’t have access to a wifi hotspot and even then I could use the iPhone’s mobile hotspot feature. The only advantage of having an unlocked wifi and 4G iPad that is not sim-locked to a provider would be when traveling abroad and one may prefer to buy a sim card from a local provider. It is a € 120 price difference between the wifi and the wifi+4G model in Germany. Should I save this amount or rather invest it to have more options?
    Which model did you chose? What was your reasoning?

    Thank you so much for your kind assistance!

  5. Richard Post author

    Andreas: My choice was easier than your as I don’t travel abroad often enough to have that need influence my decision. I’m not sure I’d even buy an unlocked iPhone for this need.

    There are people in the US who don’t travel abroad who are buying the iPad with 4G and Wifi simply to be online more of the time and this is understandable. For me (and my wife), we use our iPhones when we don’t have a wifi signal and our iPads when we do so it’s a simpler choice.

    If/when you come over to the US or travel elsewhere, the question will be, how available will public wifi be and will that be enough.

    Of course, there is no real downside to getting the 4G iPad and not using the cellular service until needed. You’re right: you can’t add it later and it may be best to have it up front, even if you rarely use it. When you do use it it will be invaluable.

    So, if the difference in cost is about $125 it may be worth it to have the 4G in the iPad from the start.

    I have few regrets about not getting it myself given what I do with my iPad but of course, there are times on trains and elsewhere where I use my iPhone and would rather be using my iPad. Still, these times are so few for me that it wasn’t really a big consideration.

    I doubt this will be very helpful, we’re in different situations and have different needs.

    The simple answer is there is little downside to buying the cellular capability up front except money. If the extra money is less of a problem err on the cautious side and get it. Even if you don’t use it as much as you thought you know you have it just in case.

    Hope that stream of consciousness answer helps.

    Let me know what you do.

  6. Andreas

    Richard, your thoughts were very helpful and assisted me with my decision.

    Even though you and your wife might have slightly different usage patterns to my intended use of the iPad, it was good to learn about them and your explanation gave me an idea of possible limitations of the wifi-only model.

    In the end, I picked the wife+4G model since the mobile option did not seem to be a significant extra amount of money at the already high price point of the 64GB iPad. It appeared more sensible to have this option on board, as I am travelling frequently and intend to replace my notebook as much as possible with the iPad. It would be nice, if the iPad could take the place of my MacBook during trips as it seems so much more convenient.

    So far I am pleased with the iPad. In fact, I am writing this reply on the iPad. It is far more versatile than I expected. Although I have noticed its limitations, but this might be remedied with the increasing number of apps both from Apple and third party developers.

    Again many thanks for your support and good advice, which was a tremendous help. I will keep you updated on how I get along.

  7. Richard Post author

    Great move Andreas. I think as you use the iPad more you’ll find it an amazing tool. Mine is eating into territory I thought was reserved for this MacBook Pro. I never travel anywhere without it.

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