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Uncanny valley of keyboards: Do small keys bother you?

How important is a keyboard to you when buying an ultraportable, and do fuller keys make you happier? In reviewing Lenovo's latest Netbooks, we began to wonder.

Typing on the Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2. Sarah Tew/CNET

In testing Lenovo's IdeaPad S10-2 and IdeaPad S12 Netbooks this week, an interesting thought occurred to us. Technically, both laptops are nearly similar inside: Intel Atom N270 processors, 1GB of RAM, 160GB hard drive. What differentiates them more than anything else are their screen sizes (10.2 inch and 12.1-inch) and their keyboards.

While screen size has been often discussed among Netbook owners, keyboard size and comfort hasn't as much. And, to a degree, it's the only true factor differentiating smartphones and Netbooks as far as interface is concerned. The real advantage to Netbooks is that you can type on them, like a laptop. But here's the question: are almost-regular size keyboards more difficult to use than intentionally small keyboards on MIDs and smartphones? Click through to hear us out.

Even though any Netbook keyboard is better in theory than any smartphone keyboard, slightly-smaller-than-full-size keyboards provoke a strange effect on prolonged typing. Fingers can get cramped, hands tired, and keyboard errors are made more often. We found that it's just when we begin to relax when the problems begin, because our fingers are ready to go into touch-typing mode, where we know key positions based entirely on sense memory. Being, for instance, 80 percent full-size means we overshoot, and lose a feel for where we are.

Typing on the Lenovo IdeaPad S12. Sarah Tew/CNET

I'll go ahead and speak from personal experience. On significantly smaller keyboards, such as my iPhone 3GS virtual keyboard, for instance, I've specifically adjusted to through a separate learning process. I don't ever lose myself in attempting to touch-type. For nearly-full keyboards like the Lenovo S10-2's, it's like the uncanny valley is to digital animation, where the more something approaches photorealism, the more eerie it becomes until true photorealism is obtained. In the Netbook keyboard's case, does 90 percent of normal size get more distracting than 50 percent?

Perhaps I'm overthinking this, or failing to appreciate the fact that affordable tiny laptops with functional keyboards are even available at all (I remember, once upon a time, when rigging a folding keyboard to a Palm Vx was my idea of ultimate portability). Anyway, do you feel this way about keyboards? Or am I just spoiled from seeing too many laptops and Netbooks? Is any keyboard, no matter what the size, sufficient? In short, which would you rather have: a small Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2 Netbook with a smaller-than-normal keyboard, or a larger, more typing-friendly Lenovo IdeaPad 12?

Our Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2 review.

Our Lenovo IdeaPad S12 review.