Typing Chinese faster: QWERTY vs T9 keyboards

Albert Liang
Tech Sketches
Published in
3 min readApr 30, 2018

Unlike English, smartphone keyboards are not well-optimized for Chinese input. “Swiping” was a new invention that made writing English words bearable, but for Chinese, it’s less than ideal.

For starters, Chinese “words” are too short and too similar for swiping to accurately decode. Try swiping “the cow intently squints at your rice” in Chinese (母牛努力瞇你米 — muniu nuli mi nimi).

Furthermore, the frequency of letters used in Chinese is very different than English. The above example contains a disproportionate number of “i” and “u” letters compared to “a”, “e”, and “o”.

Of course, my little example above is a little extreme. To make a fairer comparison, let’s look at the heatmap of “Lorem Ipsum” in both English and Chinese.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, impedit sadipscing consectetuer ei est. Doctus argumentum in sit, nostro signiferumque ad nam. Per et veniam invenire, qui tantas vocent nominavi an. Per nisl prodesset ei, ex per omnium molestiae. Nec solet periculis voluptatum ad, et causae hendrerit efficiendi eam.
English Lorem Ipsum heatmap
ta xiang shang duihua liao wu xun yi xiao qing ji change ba shi xie kuang xie ji xie fagei cha yi zhi ji zhan xie zhong tiao cha wu pai che wu xie jing xuan gong tiao tong
Chinese Lorem Ipsum heatmap

Both English and Chinese have extreme emphasis on some letters (“e” in the English example and “i” in the Chinese example), but the Chinese example has much less purple in general. Chinese input on QWERTY does not distribute the letter frequency across the keyboard as well as English.

Now, if we switch to a T9 keyboard layout, the Chinese Lorem Ipsum example looks a little bit more uniformly distributed:

Chinese Lorem Ipsum heatmap on T9 keyboard

Yes, there’s still a heavy emphasis on the “4” key, but the color distribution is much better — which should, in theory, mean you can type more efficiently since touchscreen input only uses 2 fingers. In the QWERTY case, one of your fingers is eternally trapped near the letter “i” and you’re basically typing with 1 finger.

Another advantage of T9 is that the layout is more compact, allowing you to type with just one hand (irrespective of English or Chinese).

I loved T9 dearly in the early pager and cell phone day, and I’m happy to see it still has a place in this modern era of smartphones and touch screens. If you type Chinese on your smartphone, I encourage you to give T9 a try! There’s a small learning curve, but the long-term payoff is worth it!

For those curious, here’s English Lorem Ipsum on T9:

English Lorem Ipsum heatmap on T9 keyboard

The key frequency is nearly evenly distributed over 6 of the 8 keys. (The “1” key does not count.) If it weren’t for swiping, perhaps English touchscreen input should go back to T9 as well!



Albert Liang
Tech Sketches

Tech junkie, entrepreneur dreamer, practical engineer