The iPad is officially on the loose this morning, and while I still haven’t had a chance to play with one in person, I finally did get an answer to a question I’ve had since day one: How exactly are we supposed to type on this thing? Steve Jobs has made it clear that he things the iPad is the device you should buy if you want something in between a smartphone and a laptop, not a netbook. But while the iPad is clearly designed primarily for consuming content rather than creating it, the only way it could really serve that niche is if it can handle text input at least comfortably enough to write a few email messages and maybe type up a short document or two.
Laptop Magazine has posted a video overview of the on-screen keyboard, and it really doesn’t look all that bad. While most of the promotional videos Apple has released show people typing by sticking their feet up on a table and propping the iPad on their knees, Laptop Magazine shows that you actually can hold the tablet in both hands and use your thumbs to type the same way you would with an iPhone. In fact, in portrait mode, you can probably type faster on the iPad than an iPhone, thanks to the larger keys — although things get tricky in landscape mode where your thumbs have to reach a lot further.
If you pick up the optional iPad case for $39, you can also use it to prop up the iPad to a more comfortable typing angle. That’s because there’s a flap that folds out on the back of the case that makes a sort of triangle/wedge shape which tilts the iPad so that you can look at the screen while you type with the tablet on your lap or on a desk.
To be honest, it still looks like you’d have to bend over a bit to get a good look at the display while typing with the iPad on a table, even with the case. But overall the experience of using the on-screen keyboard doesn’t look that bad. I don’t expect users to be able to type as fast on the iPad as they can on a netbook with a physical keyboard. But on-screen keyboards do have their advantages. For example, the keyboard can take a different shape and configuration depending on which application you’re using. Need a numeric keypad for editing spreadsheets? No problem. One is included at no extra cost.
I’m not ready to throw out my physical keyboards just yet. But I am pleasantly surprised.