Bennett Haselton writes: I can't stand switching from a slideout-keyboard phone to a touchscreen phone, and my own informal online survey found a slight majority of people who prefer slideout keyboards even more than I do. Why will no carrier make them available, at any price, except occasionally as the crummiest low-end phones in the store? Bennett's been asking around, of store managers and users, and arrives at even more perplexing questions. Read on, below.
In my rant about the sucky LG Optimus phone that I got from T-Mobile, I admitted that I stuck with it anyway and let them keep my money, because I couldn't stand switching away from the slideout keyboard on the phone. Same reason that I kept the Stratosphere from Verizon for so long, despite the other features of that phone sucking too. But after failing to find even one true smartphone with a slideout keyboard after visiting the local AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile stores, I started to wonder if I was just an old fud who couldn't get with the times.
(The slideout keyboards are usually called "QWERTY keyboards" in the marketing, but I'm using "slideout keyboard" in order to distinguish them from phones like Blackberries that have a physical QWERTY keyboard and screen all on the outer surface of the phone, since that forces the keyboard and the screen to be much smaller.)
Slideout keyboards have always felt more natural to me in a couple of ways. You can let your finger or thumb center on the correct key, and then press the key in a separate action, resulting in far fewer typos then if you're required to land your fingertip on the correct spot on the screen. (Fewer typos also means you can turn off autocorrect and worry about fewer idiotic auto-corrections.) A slide-out keyboard also makes it easier to hold the phone in a relaxed grip -- with the keyboard out, you can rest the phone on your other fingers while using your thumb to keep it in place, rather than having to grip the phone around the edges with your fingers to keep the screen uncovered. The relaxed thumb-centered grip makes it much easier to tilt the phone at different angles and even hold above your head without dropping it (handy for the first texts you answer before getting out of bed), all while hardly having to tense your fingers at all.
I mentioned this to the Sprint sales guy and he shook his head and said, "Oh, no, everybody wants touchscreen phones now." When I mentioned later to the AT&T store manager that I felt I must be in a shrinking minority, he said that he preferred slide-out keyboards, most other people preferred slide-out keyboards, and the industry was just moving away from them regardless. Who was right? Skeptical as ever about people's claims that they've "heard lots of people saying so-and-so," I posted a survey on Amazon's Mechanical Turk ( which I have used in the past for all kinds of weird stuff), seeking out respondents who had used both a phone with a slideout keyboard and a phone with a virtual keyboard, and asking which one they preferred, and why.
Out of 49 respondents, 27 said they preferred slideout keyboards and 22 said they preferred virtual keyboards. And I know the Internet survey-takers weren't just clicking answers at random, because most of them gave details as to the reason for their preference (even though this was not enforced by the survey form). Obviously that's too small of a sample to be very precise about the percentage of users that prefer slide-out keyboards (apart from the fact that Mechanical Turk users are unrepresentative of the general population in several ways), but it does mean that the near-extinction of slideout-keyboard phones in retail stores is probably not in proportion to what people actually want.
You can download the raw survey data here; some of the highlights from people who said they preferred slideouts:
"I preferred using an actual keyboard because I can actually feel the keys. After my hands get used to the keyboard, I could type very fast. Using a virtual one is much harder because you don't actually feel the keys you are typing."
"I can put my fingers on the actual keys just like a typewriter and know they won't slip off and hit the wrong key. I was heartbroken when then got rid of almost all qwerty keyboards in the new phones. They are now almost impossible to find."
"The slide-out keyboard offers more accuracy and feedback than a virtual keyboard. I can easily tell if I'm pressing the wrong letter key on a physical keyboard than a virtual one. I also prefer my keyboard to be off of the screen so I can easily see what I'm typing."
"I think its easier to type on a slide out keyboard. With the virtual ones I'm always spending half the time correcting the mistakes."
"I preferred slide-out keyboards because you could actually feel the crevices that separate each letter on the keyboard, and this allowed you to type much more efficiently. There's just something more beautiful and human about physically touching something rather than using the heat in your fingers to make unreal letters type on a screen."
On the other side of the aisle, the most common reasons that people gave for preferring virtual keyboards were that slideouts were too flimsy or bulky:
"Virtual keyboards are sturdier than slide out keyboards."
"The decreased overall weight of the device due to the lack of physical keyboard is the biggest benefit to me. Plus the added benefit is that virtual keyboard technology has come a long way in the last few years and offers unique features such as swiping words whereas a physical keyboard still limits you to typing and switching between buttons and the screen in order to select or correct words."
"A virtual keyboard is faster and less cumbersome than a slide out keyboard."
"I liked the tactile feeling of the slide out keyboard. I found the keyboard slide to be more bulky however. I like the virtual keyboard because it allows me to use a larger amount of screen space on my phone when I am not typing. You can also do cool keyboard gestures with the virtual keyboard, such as sliding the finger to type. The virtual keyboard also has an auto correct feature built in which is handy. My old slide out keyboard phone was cool at the time but lacks the features modern virtual keyboard have. Also, real keyboards make clicky noises, which can prevent you from sending texts out under your desk during meetings, haha."
(That last guy's right -- I've been out of the workforce long enough that I forgot you can't get away with texting in a meeting on a slideout, unless other people in the room are covering your noise by "taking notes" typing on their laptops.)
So - not everyone wants slideout keyboards, but a lot of people really, really want them, and the stores refuse to stock them. What gives?
The AT&T store manager simply said that they were more expensive to make, and people return them more often because they break more easily. Well of course it makes sense that the extra component costs more, but it seemed counterintuitive that the slideout keyboards are usually only found on the cheapest phones in the store (which don't qualify as true smartphones). It's odd for an expensive extra component to be found only in the cheapest models of a product line, as if Ford had announced that their self-parking technology would only come bundled with the Fiesta.
More importantly, it seems strange that a more expensive or even a more fragile component, cannot be made available at any price when so many people want it. If it costs more, surely they could just charge more. I'd pay at least an extra $100-$200 for a phone with a slideout keyboard (which is more than the entire retail cost of a dumbphone with a slideout keyboard, so the price increase on a real phone should be less than that). If it makes the phone more fragile and more likely to be returned, surely that could just be reflected in a higher monthly "insurance" fee to cover the cost of exchanging damaged phones (which is only about $5 per month anyway). Is this another example of market failure, even in a competitive industry? It's easy for Facebook to force changes down our throats, since we have nowhere else to go, but how did Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint all end up abandoning such a sizable portion of their customers, even while locked in a cutthroat battle with each other?
Maybe this can be the next big thing that T-Mobile does to differentiate themselves from everybody else (like when they broke ranks and decided to sell all phones at retail price with no long-term contracts) -- everybody knows their network is spottier, but it's usable, and if they're doing one thing right that you really care about, and everyone else is doing it wrong, that's reason enough to switch. Their pink-shirted CEO certainly likes making waves with his colorful metaphors about the other carriers screwing you over. If T-Mobile sold me a real phone with a slideout keyboard, I'm sure I'd stay with them for years, even though yesterday the rain (a fairly common phenomenon here in Bellevue, where T-Mobile U.S. is headquartered) caused the reception on the phone to go from 4G to 2G and then down to "G," which I didn't even know was a thing.