T9 is great but it sucks

Category : Geeking Out, Mobility
Date : January 5, 2005

As I explained in my last post, I love my new smartphone, an Audiovox SMT5600.  The only serious problem I’ve had with it is with text input.  Admittedly, the device was never meant to replace a keyboard but since I’d like this phone to replace my PDA in addition to being a phone, I wish there was some way to enter text more efficiently.  As a Windows Mobile Smartphone, it’s meant to be used with one hand.  It was never meant to compete with the likes of the PalmOne Treo 600/650 or the RIM Blackberry which have full qwerty keyboards.

It actually is pretty good at one-handed operation.  I’ve quickly gotten used to the menus and am more or less able to get around and find what I want when I need to.  Naturally, for dialling numbers (when you know the number to dial) a numeric keypad is much easier to use than a qwerty keyboard.

On the other hand, to enter text on the 5660, you have to use T9.  Before T9, to type text on a phone was a royal pain. Using the letters assigned to the various numeric keys on the telephone you would cycle through the various letters until you found the one you wanted.  To type the word ‘how’, for instance, you would hit the ‘4’ key twice, the ‘6’ key three times and the ‘9’ key once.  T9 is a little better than this.  It still uses the numeric keys (the term T9 means typing with 9 keys) but it has a decent sized dictionary of English words (with many other languages available) and it basically tries to guess what you’re trying to say.  So to type the word ‘how’ using T9, you hit the ‘4’ only once, the ‘6’ key only once and the ‘9’ key only once.  As you’re typing, T9 is using the dictionary and stats to try and figure out what you mean to type so when you hit the ‘4’ key it displays ‘i’.  After you hit the ‘6’ key it shows ‘in’. And finally when you hit the ‘9’ key it shows ‘how’.  It’s pretty cool when you think about what it’s doing and it sure does save time over cycling through the letters on each key.

The problem is that, for me at least, it’s still pretty darn slow.  The visual feedback of typing what your brain thinks is one character but shows on the screen as another is something to get used to.  Also, it sometimes can’t figure out what you’re trying to type.  It might be a word that’s not in the dictionary (like a person’s name or place) or might be an acronym but for whatever reason there are a lot of words that can throw it off.  Because of this, for me, the 5600 becomes basically limited to being a read-only device.

I’d really like to be able to enter small notes for myself while I’m away from my laptop.  These might be reminders to do something. They might be calendar entries for meetings.  They might be someone’s name and phone number.  And of course they might be short emails or text messages that need to go out asap.  Most of these things (except for the email) I could do on my PDA using a stylus so not being able to do it as easily now is frustrating.

I know that people use T9 to type and some apparently can get to be pretty good at it.  According to studies I’ve seen, novice users of T9 can type at about 9 wpm but with practice that can quickly go up to 25 and for the experts it can go as high as 46 wpm.  Some people must have a lot of time on their hands.  How do you get up to speeds like that and still get stuff done?

I remember when I got my first Palm I was able to learn Palm’s original text input method called Graffiti quickly using a game they included called Giraffe.  It was a stupid game that had letters falling from the the top of the screen to the bottom while you used graffiti to input the letters.  The letters would disappear if you entered the right one.  The object, of course, was to input the letters before they hit the bottom.  The letters would come down faster and faster as you got better.  Yeah, it was dumb but effective.  A few minutes a day and I quickly became proficient enough that I got to a speed where the Palm was more than usable.

I wonder if there anything similar to Giraffe but for t9 on a smartphone?  I’ve done some searching and haven’t been able to find anything.  If you do know of anything like that let me know by posting feedback to this post or sending me email.  I’m begging you…