Acer A100 review, part 1: accessibility and input

A friend of mine sent me an Acer Iconia A100 tablet (16 GB) and stand for Christmas hoping I could use it; he’s a big Android fan. (Also, he felt bad that the Lilliput touchscreen didn’t last very long.) I’ve never used anything but Windows desktops, so I am gingerly figuring things out as I go. Of course, before I could do anything much, I had to find out how accessible it was.

Before I did anything else, I wanted a stylus so as to spare my index finger. So far I’ve cursed every stylus I’ve tried, from a generic to a BoxWave to a Pogo. Maybe I just need practice, but they all seemed simultaneously over and undersensitive, particularly when typing. I felt like someone stubbing out a cigarette. Either the letters wouldn’t register or I’d get a string of them when they did, with or without a screen protector. So far, though, I’ve had some dubious luck with the Pogo Sketch. I kept that one.

First thing out of the way: Android speech recognition is horrible and not meant for continuous input. So I really wanted a good keyboard, preferably one with word prediction instead of completion. It took a bit of scrolling through the Market results for “keyboard” and some trial and error. Luckily, you can get a refund within 15 minutes of your purchase. The best, if not the only, predictive keyboard I could find was the SwiftKey Tablet X. It costs $4.99, but there’s also a trial version. It’s well worth it for me. Since I need wide keys to hit the letters accurately, I am usually in landscape mode, and being so careful makes my typing even slower. So anything user friendly that reduces distance is much welcomed.

SwiftKey is multilingual and can support three languages simultaneously. I have English and Spanish. The keyboard detects the language automatically, but even so, I rarely have both active at the same time; I prefer to switch between them manually since I write in English more often than Spanish.

They talk a lot about their split layout, but there’s also a standard straight layout, which I of course use. The most efficient single finger or stylus layout is QWERTY, but there are also two thumbed Dvorak and Colemak layouts accessed via the tiny keyboard next to the language in Settings.

Layers underneath the letters make the keyboard extremely functional. To get numbers and common punctuation symbols, hold the letter keys. (You can adjust the duration in the settings.) To access a numeric keypad, touch the 123 key. There you will also find a #!? key, which will give you access to emoticons, symbols, and so forth. (If you want to go straight to that key, hold 123.) If you’re using another language dictionary, there’s an option to show foreign characters. If you want to access quick emoticons, hold the Enter key.

There are three large prediction keys at the top of the board, for both words and punctuation. The predictions are based on common word combinations. It will learn new words unless you check “Spacebar will always insert a space” in the prediction settings. To use a new word, touch its key. To delete any word, hold its key. If you choose, you can accept the highlighted suggestion with the spacebar. To erase the last word entered, flick your finger across the keyboard right to left. (This requires enabling gestures .) The prediction keys will also sometimes show possible autocorrections as you type, but these are unobtrusive and occasionally even helpful. In fact, you can see all kinds of prediction stats in the settings. Perhaps the best feature is the ability to clear the learned data every now and then, and start the predictions fresh.

I also tried Perfect Keyboard, but it was completion rather than prediction, and the choices were very small and hard to hit; you can’t enlarge the choices the way you can the keys. However, it could be useful if you use a lot of abbreviation expansion, which SwiftKey doesn’t yet have. I tried the SlideIT keyboard too and found it interesting, but it’s still completion rather than prediction. Also, sliding is harder with a stylus.

As assistive technology, the SwiftKey itself is wonderful. I hadn’t expected to find quality word prediction like that. Over the course of a week or so, I used SwiftKey to write this review, then my desktop to edit and post it.

However, other than this review, I don’t think I’ll be using the tablet to do any kind of long writing or serious work. My most reliable input device is still Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Even though I have good word prediction with the SwiftKey, typing with a stylus is unreliable so far. I had to use my index finger to type reliably, which is why it took so long; I had to be careful to avoid twitching and joint pain. It’s not hopeless, though. The tablet does have other uses, which I’ll detail in a subsequent post.

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