Could Nokia E7, HTC Desire Z, and Droid 2 be signalling a QWERTY keyboard revival?

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As the owner of a Nokia N900 and an avid advocate of hardware QWERTY keyboards, I've been slightly worried by the trend of fewer and fewer smartphones and MIDs featuring full keyboards and simply relying on soft touch screen alternatives and other software solutions such as the admittedly impressive Swype instead. The lack of hardware QWERTY has probably been most notable in the Android camp with only a few examples such as the original HTC G1, and more recently the Motorola Droid. But with the recent launch of the Droid 2, and now the announcement of the HTC Desire Z and Nokia E7, things are definitely looking up for keyboard enthusiasts.

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The HTC Desire Z marks the company's return to the Android QWERTY-packing smartphone space with a device that is similar to the existing HTC Desire but that has a unique pop-out "Z-hinge" revealing a full four-row QWERTY keyboard. The new smartphone features a 3.7-inch WVGA capacitive S-LCD touch screen, a slightly slower 800MHz Qualcomm 7230 CPU, a 5MP rear-facing camera capable of recording 720p HD video, and runs Android 2.2 with the latest version of HTC Sense and the company's newly revealed HTCSense.com online services. The Desire Z is set to be available in European and Asian markets next month, with a US version to follow later this year. 

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In the other corner we have the Nokia E7, basically a related design to the upcoming Nokia N8 with the addition of a larger 4-inch capacitive AMOLED touch screen, a slide-and-tilt four-row QWERTY keyboard, and a lower-res 8MP/720p capable camera. Otherwise most other hardware specifications are nearly identical between the two devices. Aimed more at business users compared to the mass market N8, the E7 boasts a wide-range of corporate features and apps including built-in support for Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync. The larger 4-inch screen has the same 640×360 resolution as the N8, but features Nokia's new ClearBlack display technology said to provide better visibility/legibility in outdoor environments. Like the N8, the Finnish giant's latest device will also run the new Symbian^3 operating system. With its anodized aluminum body being available in silver white, dark grey, green, blue, and orange, The E7 will be available in the last quarter of this year with an expected retail price of €495 (around US$650).

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Moving back to the topic at hand now that the latest torchbearers have been introduced, these new QWERTY keyboard-equipped smartphones is very positive for those of us who favor buttons for typing, but does this mark the start of a QWERTY revival?

I believe the answer is a mix of yes and no. Clearly there is still a market for QWERTY devices, but I feel it remains a bit of a niche feature for certain users. The new breed of QWERTY phones are definitely aimed at this niche, but I think they're aimed at trying to differentiate the respective manufacturer's devices from the sea of other touch screen phones and MIDs flooding the market. The differentiation may also be an attempt to gauge and increase the popularity of hardware keyboards and I think Nokia, HTC, Motorola, and others will be watching the sales numbers closely before bringing more QWERTY-packing devices to market.

But as with most things, whether a QWERTY keyboard is better really comes down to personal taste and requirements. While I believe a hardware keyboard is superior to a software touch screen alternative for typing, devices that feature keyboards are usually bigger, heavier, and more expensive, although HTC and Nokia have certainly massaged the designs of the Desire Z and E7 to get them as slim as possible. It's also important to recognize that for many others, a hardware keyboard may simply not be necessary with soft solutions ever-improving including new layouts, algorithms, and software like Swype. And with those thoughts I leave the debate to you: Is this the start of a QWERTY revival? Do you still prefer a device with a hardware keyboard? Or are software alternatives now good enough to make it irrelevent?

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Jeremy To

Jeremy is a former editor at Pocketables.

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