Tapping out a message with a finger or two on a smartphone is catching up to the speed of typing on a traditional keyboard.
Two-thumbed mobile typists generated an average of about 38 words per minute, according to what researchers describe as the largest experiment to date on mobile typing. That's still a quarter less than the 51.56 word-per-minute average in physical keyboard users, but the gap isn't as big as expected, researchers said, adding that they were "amazed" by the results.
Mobile typists who use auto-correct are faster than those who use word-prediction tools, according to a study that looked at 37,000 volunteers tested by researchers at Finland's Aalto University, the University of Cambridge and ETH Zürich.
Many children grow up with some kind of school training to learn how to type - 10 fingers on the keyboard, index fingers on the F and J keys, looking at the paper or the screen instead of the keys.
Earlier devices such as the BlackBerry promoted typing on miniature keyboards, too.
Now, most smartphone users type on their devices with one or two thumbs. Some also type with a single index finger.
As the smartphone has claimed a bigger and bigger portion of our communications, many educators and researchers have posed questions about the longer-term effects the move to typing on a digital keyboard may have - particularly on younger generations.
The better-than-expected results surprised researchers, because typing on a smartphone "is a type of motor skill that people learn on their own with no formal training, which is very unlike typing on physical keyboards," study co-author Antti Oulasvirta said in a news release.
In fact, 10- to 19-year-olds type about 10 wpm faster than people in their 40s do, regardless of whether the keyboard was on a smartphone or a computer. The best typists could do more than 80 wpm.
The study's authors predict that the typing gap may close at some point as the population becomes less skilled with physical keyboards and as mobile typing technology improves.
Still, there are some trade-offs when it comes to typing on a smartphone. Those participating in the study left more errors uncorrected, something that also resulted in less backspacing.
"A possible explanation is the higher interaction cost of correcting mistakes on mobile devices and the limited text editing methods," according to the researchers.
The researchers collected the typing data from thousands of individuals using an online typing test. The test asked participants to transcribe a series of sentences, and recorded their keystrokes, errors, speed and other metrics. It also asked them to self-report their demographic data, as well as information about how they type and the sort of keyboard they used to complete the test.
Smartphones may have some of the ergonomic risks associated with their more traditional counterparts, professors say.
Ira Janowitz, an ergonomics consultant previously associated with the University of California at Berkeley, said that with a touch screen it's easy for a user to push harder on the keyboard than is necessary, which could cause physical problems over time.
Smartphone usage can lead to neck, shoulder and grip issues, said Bradley Chase, an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of San Diego.
“The concerns aren’t fewer, just different” than those with traditional keyboards, Chase said.