Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Tag: keyboard

Japanese input on the iPhone

I don’t expect to do a lot of Japanese text entry on my iPhone, but I’m glad that I have the option, and I’ve been enjoying playing around with that feature.

Any Japanese text-entry function is necessarily more complex than an English one. In English, we pretty much have a one-to-one mapping between the key struck and the letter produced. Occasionally we need to insert åçcéñted characters, but the additional work is minimal. In Japanese, the most common method of input on computers is to type phonetically on a QWERTY keyboard, which produces syllabic characters (hiragana) on-screen—type k-u to get the kana く, which is pronounced ku; after you’ve typed in a phrase or sentence, you hit the “convert” key (normally the space bar), and software guesses what kanji you might want to use, based on straight dictionary equivalents, your historical input, and some grammar parsing. So for the Japanese for “International,” you would type k-o-k-u-s-a-i; initially this would appear on-screen as こくさい, and then after hitting the convert key, you would see 国際 as an option. Now, that’s not the only word in Japanese with that pronunciation—the word for “government bond” sounds exactly the same and would be typed the same on a keyboard. To access that, you’d go through the same process, and after 国際 appeared on-screen, you’d hit the convert key again to get its next guess, which would be 国債, the correct pair of kanji. Sometimes there will be more candidates, in which case a floating menu will appear on-screen.

The first exposure most English speakers have had to the problem of producing more characters than your input device has keys has come with cellphones. T9 input on keypad is a good analogue to Japanese input on QWERTY: you type keys that each represent three letters, and when you hit the space key, T9 looks up the words you might have meant, showing a floating menu.

The iPhone, of course, uses a virtual QWERTY keyboard for English input, which is pretty good, especially considering the lack of tactile feedback and tiny keys. It guesses what word you might be trying to type based on adjacent keys. It does not (as far as I can tell) give multiple options, and isn’t very aggressive about suggesting finished words based on incomplete words. For English, at least, I’m guessing Apple decided that multiple candidates for a given input are too confusing. In general, the trend for heavy English text input on mobile devices seems to be towards small QWERTY keyboards, despite the facility some people have with T9. I’m wondering how many people are put off by the multiple-candidate aspect of T9, and if that’s why Apple omitted that aspect, or if it’s simply that not enough English-speakers are accustomed to dealing with multiple candidates.

Japanese input on the iPhone is different. It is aggressive about suggesting complete words and phrases. It does show multiple options (which is necessary in Japanese, and which Japanese users are accustomed to). In fact, it suggests kanji-converted phrases based on incomplete, incorrect kana input. Here’s an example based on the above:

iphone Japanese input sample - 1

Here, I typed k-o-k-u-a-a-i (note the intentional typo), which appears as こくああい. It shows a bunch of candidates, including the corrected and converted 国際, a logical alternative 国内, and some much longer ones, like 国際通貨基金—the International Monetary Fund. Since it has more candidates than it has room to display, it shows a little → which takes you to an expanded candidates screen. Just for grins, I will accept 国際通貨基金 as my preferred candidate. Here’s another neat predictive trick: immediately after I select that candidate, it shows sentence-particle candidates like に が, etc.

iphone Japanese input sample - 2

Let’s follow that arrow and see what other options it shows:

iphone Japanese input sample - 3

I’m going to select を as my candidate. It immediately shows some verbs as candidates:

iphone Japanese input sample - 4

Here, 参ります is a verb I used previously, but 見 and 食べ are just common verbs—I’m guessing they’ve been weighted by the input function as likely for use in text messages (the phrase 国際通貨基金を食べ is somewhat unlikely in real life, unless you are Godzilla).

The iPhone also has an interesting kana-input mode, which uses an あかさたな grid with pie menus under each letter for the rest of the vowel-row. It looks like this:

iPhone Japanese input sample - 5

To enter an -a character, just tap it:

iPhone Japanese input sample

To enter a character from a different vowel-line, slide your finger in the appropriate direction on the pie-menu that appears and release:

iPhone Japanese input sample - 7

You can also get at characters from a different vowel-line using that hooked arrow, which iterates through them. I haven’t figured out what that forward arrow is for. It’s usually disabled, and only enabled momentarily after tapping in a new character. Tapping it doesn’t seem to have any effect.

This method offers the same error-forgiveness and predictive power as Japanese via QWERTY. I don’t find it to be faster than QWERTY though, but perhaps that’s just because I’m not used to it.

One thing I haven’t found is a way to edit the text-expansion dictionary directly. This would be very handy. I’m sure there are a few more tricks in store.

Also, a fun trick you can use on your Mac well as on an iPhone to get at special symbols: enter ゆーろ to get €. Same with ぽんど、やじるし、ゆうびん, etc.

Update Apparently the mysterious forward-arrow breaks you out of iterating through the options under one key, as explained here. Normally if you press あ あ, this would iterate through that vowel-line, and produce い. But if you actually want to produce ああ, you would type あ→あ (Thanks, Manako).

Clicking it old-school

Datadesk 101e keyboard

I am typing this post from my spanking new, and yet very old (in computer terms) Datadesk 101e keyboard. This keyboard is so old it has an ADB port instead of USB—I need to use an adaptor to hook it up to my Mac.

I love it.

I used Datadesk keyboards for years, but when I bought my current computer, my old one was looking especially crusty, and I felt like it was time to enter the modern era. I’d read good things about the Matias Tactile Pro, and so I decided to get one of them. I was never entirely happy with it. Some combinations of keys and modifier keys were simply dead, making some of my preferred MS Word shortcuts impossible. Matias even addresses this issue, saying in short, “all keyboards have this problem.” (I never had that problem with the 101e.)

After a few years of service, my Matias keyboard was starting to misbehave, and it was looking appallingly crusty. So I decided to replace it with the keyboard I really wanted all along, another 101e.

Since no online retailer carries these keyboards anymore, I called Datadesk directly, and spoke with someone who’s apparently in a position of responsibility there. We had a long and interesting (if you’re a Mac nerd) conversation about the history of Apple computers. He tried to talk me out of ordering the 101e, since it doesn’t have USB. I told him I had an adaptor. He laughed, and found there were still about a dozen new-old stock 101es on hand. So he sold me one.

He also told me that the people at Datadesk have been kicking around the idea of updating the 101e for the modern age, but aren’t sure whether to update the electronics to USB and give it slightly updated cosmetics without changing the plastics (which he said would be pretty easy), or to undertake a more extensive physical makeover (which would be a bigger commitment). I think either one would be a viable option.

I’m a keyboard snob. I like keys that have a long stroke and solid action. Not many keyboards these days offer that. And frankly, I’m surprised that more people aren’t keyboard snobs. Until we get direct neural hookups, keyboards are going to remain the primary text input device for many of us. We tap on them thousands of times a day, and even a tiny improvement multiplied out over thousands of repetitions per day add up to a pretty big improvement. It’s a mystery to me that well-engineered aftermarket computer mice are as popular as they are, but not keyboards.

Although most keyboards sold today are cost-engineered disposable crap with lousy feel, there is clearly a market for keyboards with quality engineering. The Matias, despite my problems with it, is much better than most. There’s also the even more retro PC Keyboard, and the intimidating Das Keyboard.

Compared to the Tactile Pro, the 101e is much quieter, though still louder than most modern keyboards. It weighs much more: it stays where you set it on your desk. It’s bigger in every dimension. I don’t mind the fact that it takes up a little more desk real-estate, but it would be nice if the total height were a little lower; a rounded front edge on the space bar would also make it more comfortable to use. But I’m very happy with it. When you push down on a key, it goes straight down. With the Matias, sometimes the keys felt like they were trying to veer off to one side.

If you’re a snob about keyboards and don’t mind using a Griffin iMate, get one of the 12 11 remaining 101es. Or perhaps let Datadesk know that you’d be interested in getting an updated version of the 101e.

Update: Numbers don’t lie (even if statistics do). My best score at keybr.com was about 48 WPM with my old keyboard. 64 WPM with my new one. And I don’t even touch-type.

Another update: According to a fellow old-school keyboardista, although there are other USB-ADB adaptors out there, they can cause problems, so you really want to use the Griffin iMate.

Yet another update: Gruber and Benjamin discuss old keyboards on an episode of The Talk Show, and make sidelong references to the 101e, although do not mention it by name.

A still further update: NPR recently did a story on a kindred keyboard, the Unicomp, which carries on the old IBM Model M.

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