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Alternative touch screen device input methods

Alternative touch screen device input methods

smartphone

I am not a big fan of touch screen devices for input. I may be old school, but I think touch should not be a primary mode of input for any reasonably complex computer with a small display area (which most smart phones/tablets are). Touch input is best used for simple menu based information retrieval systems where the screen has a grid of large icons and at best, require simple numeric input occasionally. Unfortunately the smart phone revolution has ensured that touch input has become the norm on mobile devices. On-screen text entry methods are not ergonomic and quite inefficient for typing large amounts of text by design, because these devices are primarily meant for voice/video communication, portability, and consumption of information and entertainment, not content creation.

But using a powerful smartphone/tablet just for communication, information or entertainment consumption seems to be a gross under-utilization of their computing power. As I pointed out in an earlier post, apps like Collabora Office allow mobile devices to become reasonable productivity devices. Both Android and iOS have a wide variety of productivity apps for note taking, photo-editing, digital painting, music composition and much more.

There are, of course, some common alternatives to touch input on mobile devices. In this article, I’ll explore some of their advantages and limitations.

Passive styluses

Passive styluses are simple, cheap alternatives to using a stubby finger on small screens. But they are just that: finger substitutes. They need a reasonable contact area with the screen which makes them not quite accurate for touching an exact point on the screen. Besides, stylus touch is not recognized as any different from using bare finger/hand touch, so if you plan to draw or write using a stylus, then you have to make sure your palm and fingers are off the device surface to avoid unwanted input. To me, styluses are a fairly comfortable alternative to using bare fingers for basic user-interface functions like swiping, scrolling, mark-making and on-screen keyboard input on smaller screens for fat-fingered folk.

Advantages: very cheap and usable on all capacitive touch screen devices.

Disadvantages: almost as inaccurate as using finger for touch input; not distinguished as a distinct input type by the device.

Active pens

“Active” pens are a more recent technology as far as touchscreen mobile devices are concerned. The most famous examples are the Apple Pencil (1st and 2nd generation) and the Samsung Galaxy S-Pen. Of course, there are quite a few third party active pens for supported Android tablets and Apple iPads. The distinguishing feature of active pens are that their input is treated as distinct from actual touch input thus allowing for touch rejection/palm rejection when they are in use. They are usually battery powered and use bluetooth/NFC technology to communicate with the devices. Their biggest advantage is that they are small-tipped and allow accurate and smooth writing on the screen, meaning that they are practical for note-taking and also doodling/drawing.

Of course, with some active styluses like the Apple Pencil and Samsung’s S-Pen you get extra features like pressure-sensitivity and tilt-sensitivity, making these pens useful for digital painting and artwork with apps like Procreate[1] and AutoDesk SketchBook[2].

Advantages: very accurate, allowing for short note taking and doodling/drawing apart from substituting for the basic touch operated functions; treated as distinct input from touch allowing for additional features like touch/palm rejection while in use and pressure sensitivity and tilt sensitivity.

Disadvantages: usually expensive; specific to devices that support them only; battery operated and thus require recharging from time to time; pen tips are subject to wear and tear and may require replacement after prolonged usage.

External Keyboards

External keyboards for mobile devices fall into three categories: wireless (bluetooth), wired and proprietary. Bluetooth keyboards are less expensive, more common and made by numerous third parties and work with Android, iOS and even Windows devices. Compact wired USB keyboards that can be plugged into Android devices with USB ports are available, but these are rarer these days. Specialized keyboards with proprietary connectors made for specific hardware like the Apple Smart Keyboard which work only for Apple iPads are quite expensive. The best choice in my opinion is bluetooth, since bluetooth works with most devices. In this segment, there are quite a few external keyboards which come with integrated protective cases for specific model of tablets which make them convenient to put away safely with the device when not in use.

Advantages: allow for more comfortable typing than on-screen keyboards, making longer text entry more ergonomic and efficient for things like e-mail composition and shorter documents.

Disadvantages: are quite cramped compared to full sized desktop or laptop keyboards; bluetooth keyboards require pairing and consume battery power, so require regular recharging; external keyboards, however small or lightweight, make mobile devices just a bit less portable.

Voice input/dictation

Voice input/dictation mode has become popular with the increasing computing power of mobile devices. But having used voice input a few times, I can say that voice recognition is still a bit faulty and voice input is unsuitable in noisy environments and also environments where you are not expected to disturb those around you, like open office environments. I personally haven’t much use for voice input, but I think it’s a convenient method both for recording short snippets of information in the form of voice memos or for dictating short e-mail messages or SMSes. A third common use for voice input is voice commands using tools like Siri and Google Assistant for common tasks.

Advantages: No external physical device required, hence zero cost; convenient for voice commands for common device actions and dictation of short e-mails/messages.

Disadvantages: Unsuitable in noisy environments and in environments where speaking aloud will cause disturbance to others.

Final thoughts

While I’ve covered the common methods of input in mobile devices, I believe heavy-duty input is still a big issue in mobile devices, with or without external accessories. Long form text entry is the biggest issue and only external keyboards resolve the issue to some extent. While text input through touch can be slightly improved using third party apps to replace the in-built traditional QWERTY layout on-screen keyboards, having to use touch itself is an ergonomic problem that cannot be resolved in software.

If at all you plan to use a tablet or mobile device for regular long form text entry, the best choice remains a cheap external bluetooth keyboard. Passive styluses are best for fat-fingered people who just want a more elegant touch input method. Specialized and more expensive devices such as active pens make no sense for long form text entry despite text-recognition technologies like Apple Scribble. Their use case is taking short handwritten notes, marking up PDF documents and doodling/painting.

  1. paid software, iOS/iPadOS only[]
  2. free, available for both Android and iOS/iPadOS[]
The limitations of mobile photography

The limitations of mobile photography

Of late, I’ve been doing quite a bit of photography with my mobile, earlier on my old iPhone 5s and now on my new Samsung Galaxy M31s, a decent mid-range Android phone. Though I appreciate the advances in mobile photography in recent times, it’s obvious that there are quite a few limitations with mobile devices, some of them practically impossible to overcome. But before getting into the article, here are a couple of photos I’ve recently taken with my Samsung M31s from which it’s obvious that mobile photography has come a long way in terms of photographic quality as well as creative control.

Solanum Torvum
Macro mode on the Samsung Galaxy M31s – a dedicated macro lens allows for some creative control otherwise not possible on mobile cameras
From the terrace
64 MP primary camera test – the ability to capture so many pixels allows for a fair bit of cropping

As you can see, mobile phones these days come with extra lenses (and sensors) for additional creative control, like dedicated macro and wide angle lenses. With increasingly higher megapixels, techniques like pixel-binning are being used to increase image quality. Some years ago, such features would be almost unimaginable from a mid-range mobile phone. With effects like artificial blurring of backgrounds for the (not quite as natural) bokeh effect, auto-HDR, and creative instant filters and you’ve got a pretty decent package.

But coming to the main point of this article: what are the limitations of a mobile camera as a photography device; or to put it differently, under what circumstances would I not consider using a mobile camera?

Lack of optical zoom

This is the most obvious drawback of mobile devices — lack of (optical) zoom[1]. While a few very rare mobile models with an optical zoom barrel do exist, the fixed wide-angle lens on most mobile cameras makes it almost impossible to get clear and well framed shots of distant subjects. While prime-lens enthusiasts may disagree, zoom is a versatile photographic technique, the lack of which cuts out a whole range of subjects and creative control.

Poor low light performance

Despite so many advancements in image processing technology, one cannot get past the fact that minuscule sensors paired with tiny lenses can only capture so many photons. It’s obvious that mobile cameras, even the high end ones, struggle with low light performance because of this factor, the two biggest problems being high-ISO noise or softening of detail due to aggressive noise reduction applied by the camera processor and blur caused by camera shake due to slow shutter speeds. While it’s possible to get decent night shots with some mobiles, the quality is nowhere close to those captured with an APS-C DSLR/mirrorless camera, let alone full-frame ones. For people who love to photograph indoors or in low natural light, particularly past sunset, mobile cameras can seem very limiting.

Lack of manual controls

I know that there are camera apps which expose some manual settings in device cameras, but this is the second biggest limitation in mobile photography. While it’s nice to be able to shoot in Auto mode occasionally with a proper camera, what really makes photography interesting is the ability to experiment with settings like manual focus, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity etc[2]. With the small-sized sensors and fixed lenses, mobiles cannot do much even with such control of settings, but the lack of control takes away quite a bit of experimentation with, for example, depth of field, slow shutter speed, long exposures and so on. And even with mobile camera apps that offer manual control over settings, touch screen controls are just not ergonomic enough to use quickly and effectively.

Other drawbacks

There are other significant requirements which only proper (SLR-like) cameras can fulfill, like the ability to accurately track focus on moving subjects (for example, in Sports and wildlife photography), a much higher dynamic range, fast burst mode, ability to shoot RAW, using external flash, the versatility of being able to use different lenses for different purposes, using physical filters and so on. Of course, not everybody requires all features of a full-featured SLR-like camera, but most enthusiast photographers appreciate quite a large subset of the available features, even if they don’t reach out to use them all the time.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned, particularly the physical limitation of small sensor-lens combinations, I think it’s next to impossible that mobile photography will significantly affect the popularity of advanced point-and-shoot and SLR-like cameras among the enthusiast crowd who find these limitations unacceptable.

The one significant reason for me to cheer the advancement of mobile photography technology is that mobiles are almost always with us while we cannot always carry along a camera wherever we go, and this allows us to take photos that we would otherwise miss. Capturing those moments in super-high quality is icing on the cake.

  1. The so-called digital zoom offered by many phone cameras is not zoom at all[]
  2. Even most budget point and shoot cameras lack fine grained control like aperture priority, shutter priority and full manual modes[]
Collabora Office – a full fledged LibreOffice port for mobile devices

Collabora Office – a full fledged LibreOffice port for mobile devices

A while back, I searched for a decent Office suite for opening and editing documents on my iPad and found Collabora Office, a full-fledged port of LibreOffice for Android and iOS / iPadOS. This is one of the few Open Source office suites for mobile devices around and one of the few that are almost as functional as desktop equivalents — most mobile office suites I’ve found are (a) not open source, (b) feature-limited, (c) not free and/or (d) ad-supported in their free avatars.

You can see from the screenshot that Collabora is LibreOffice, with minor caveats[1] and tweaks for the touch screen. In fact, it features the traditional desktop UI, complete with menubar and toolbar rather than a mobile-centric one, making it highly familiar for experienced LibreOffice users.

A screenshot of Collabora Office running on my iPad

I often make slight edits/modifications to documents within Collabora on my iPad when I cannot be bothered to open my laptop. One minor issue that I found is that the on-screen iPadOS keyboard doesn’t seem as full featured as with native Apple software[2]. With a compatible physical bluetooth keyboard, it might be possible to compose longer documents conveniently.

I’m surprised that Collabora Office doesn’t appear to be popular enough to merit an entry in most top-10 office suite lists for mobile devices that you can find with a simple internet search.

  1. Collabora features the equivalent ports of LibreOffice Writer, Calc and Impress, which I guess is enough for most of us. LibreOffice Base and a few other components of the full LibreOffice desktop suite are conspicuously missing.[]
  2. for example, missing auto-capitalization of the first word in a sentence, unable to type full-stop with two spaces and not working properly with some language keyboards like Tamil Anjal[]
Why mobile games are usually so awful

Why mobile games are usually so awful

Try installing any random game on your Android phone or iOS device and chances are that the game sucks. More often than not, the game is severely curtailed in its free avatar and requires you to make micro payments to advance further into the game. And most likely the “game currency”[1] cannot be earned enough in-game and usually require to be bought using real currency. Even paid games suffer from this to some extent, in the sense that you usually pay mainly to remove ads and enable some content, but unlocking more content/levels require further micro payments. Over the years, this mechanic seems to have become the de-facto norm for mobile games. In “free” games, on top of such crippled gameplay you also get annoying in-game ads interrupting every few minutes that simply takes away any sense of immersion. And then, of course, you have the problem of “games” that are not really games but pure-and-distilled crappy spyware.

Search for “why are mobile games so bad” on the internet and you’ll find that this is a popular sentiment.

From my perspective, the answer is this – there is no market for serious gaming on mobiles because budget to mid-range mobiles are usually underpowered, and mobiles are not ergonomic enough for serious gameplay. High end mobiles which make somewhat decent gaming possible are expensive enough to be a niche market. Most casual gamers are not going to shell out big money for mobile games[2] and mobile game developers probably cannot make enough money to justify developing high-end games, which would only work on the expensive devices anyway. The bigger problem, is that, being primarily touch-operated devices, mobile games have to keep the input and interactivity simple and basic while many serious games require complicated inputs, including keyboard interactions to be ergonomic enough for sophisticated gameplay.

What is more surprising in my opinion is that, there is no real popular open source eco-system for mobile software (including games) similar to the desktop open source software eco-system that developed around Linux. You can be productive in a desktop system with entirely open source software on an open source operating system (Linux) not having to deal with any crapware/adware/spyware, but no such popular open source app eco-system exists for Android that I am aware of.

  1. coins or gems or whatever that are required to unlock higher levels of gameplay/mechanics/content[]
  2. serious gamers who almost never play mobile games simply won’t care[]
What happened to the sub 5 inch Android phone market?

What happened to the sub 5 inch Android phone market?

smartphone

Is it just me, or are there other smartphone users who’d prefer a device that can be held and operated on one hand and a thumb?

Is there no market for such Android phones that you can operate from one hand? It appears that there are very few small form factor Android phones on the market these days. There are no decently specced models that are less than 5.5″ that I can find online. This is simply annoying because not everybody wants a large screen[1]. For me, and I suspect for a lot of people, operating a phone with two hands is an ergonomic issue. Even my Nokia 2.1 (which is a 5.5″ model) is hard to operate with one hand alone for some tasks. I frequently find myself switching the phone to my left hand to use the right forefinger for touch operations. On the other hand, my old iPhone 5s which its 4″ screen is still a delight to hold and operate. Yes, the keypad is too small, but still usable at that size. I think the 4.7″ to 5″ form factor is ideal.

I do understand the need for large screen smartphones, since some people want to use their phone as a mini tablet (especially with the monster sized 6.7″ screen phones), but surely there must be users who just want to conveniently hold the phone and operate it with a thumb. Besides smaller phones fit snugly into the trouser pocket.

The other issue with larger screens is that they draw more battery power and drain even powerful 4000+ mAh batteries in a short duration. So manufacturers have to stuff the phone with more powerful batteries just to get the same charge duration. I also find the overall weight of larger phones to be an issue.

Maybe the trend will once again change and soon we’ll have reasonably sized smartphones once again. In the meantime, the still somewhat pricey older iPhone 7 and 8 (with 4.7″ screens) seem to be the only options in the sub 5″ smartphone category.

Edit: There is a list of current 5″ smartphone models compiled by digit.in. And yes, the iPhone 7 is at the top of the list.

  1. some of us use phones as phones, not as video-watching devices[]