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How To Find The Right Android Keyboard For You

Compared to your full-sized desktop keyboard, typing on your phone’s tiny software keyboard just plain sucks. Luckily, Android users can choose from a myriad of different keyboards, meaning you can find one that caters to your typing style. Here’s how to find the right one for you.Photo remixed from an original by Mike McKay.

Android has quite a few alternative keyboards in the Market, but choosing one can be overwhelming. You don’t necessarily need to try them all, though. There are a few main styles of typing on a phone, and everyone usually has one that they prefer — whether that be swiping over the keys, using advanced text prediction, or just going to town on a traditional point-and-tap keyboard.

Below, we’ll discuss the different kinds of typists and recommend a few best-in-class keyboards for each. In each case, I’ll note our favourite of the bunch too. That way, if you don’t know what kind of typing you prefer, you can download the “best” of each category, decide which you like, and then explore the other keyboards in that area more closely if you’re still not satisfied.

Style One: The Tap Typist

How the Tap Typist Works: This is the style that most of you are probably used to, since it’s the “default” type of keyboard on most phones, and what everyone used before fancy text prediction and alternative keyboards were invented. The Tap Typist taps each letter separately, typing out the entire word and just barrelling through text as fast as possible. It doesn’t necessarily have the potential to be as fast as some of the other methods, but it’s also very similar to typing on a desktop keyboard, so you don’t need to work at “acclimating” yourself to another typing style.

The Best Point-and-Tap Keyboards: Sadly, no Android keyboards in this category can match up the the glory that is the iPhone keyboard, but a few come close. Our favourites include:

  • Android 2.3′s default keyboard: If you have Gingerbread on your phone and you’re running a stock ROM (that is, you don’t have a separate UI like HTC Sense or Motoblur), this keyboard comes with your phone. This keyboard is easy to type on, has multitouch capabilities (thus letting you type faster), and has been “reshaped” from the old keyboard for better aiming. If you don’t have Gingerbread, or if you have a special UI on top of Gingerbread, you can download a slightly modded version of the Gingerbread keyboard from the Android Market, both in free and paid flavours.
  • Smart Keyboard: If you’re willing to spend a few bucks in the Market, go pick up Smart Keyboard Pro. It’s a great multitouch keyboard, that adds a ton of different settings that let you customise how big the keys are, how far apart they are, add different shortcuts, and even the look of the keyboard. It also adds the ability to press and hold almost any key on the keyboard to type a symbol, which is nice, and a little bit easier to use than the Gingerbread keyboard’s method of putting them in the text prediction box. You can also switch to a 9-key T9 keyboard, which gives you bigger keys that are harder to miss (but relies a lot on text prediction).
  • HTC’s IME keyboard: If you have an HTC device, the default keyboard that comes with it is pretty darn good — far better than the default pre-Gingerbread keyboard. It isn’t quite on the level of Android 2.3′s keyboard, but it has a few extra features, like arrows that let you sift through text and a button that hides the keyboard. It also has the hold-to-insert-symbol feature mentioned above. If you don’t have an HTC device, you can download the HTC IME keyboard and sideload it onto your device.

Our Favourite: Smart Keyboard is probably the best of the three, what with all the options and tweaks available. However, if you just want to try out the point-and-tap method, you might not want to pay $2.66 for it yet — so grab the free version of the Gingerbread keyboard and give it a shot. Then, if you like it, you can try out the others and see how they fare.

Style Two: The Text Predictor

How the Text Predictor Works: Text prediction is one of the few things the original Android keyboard did right, and if you really love having that bar across the top of your keys guessing the words you want to type, the Android Market has a few special keyboards for you. These keyboards put a specific emphasis on text prediction, learning from you as you type and serving you the most likely words in any given situation. They’re especially useful for people that type the same sentences over and over again (“OK, see you soon”).

The Best Text Predicting Keyboards: While the vast majority of Android keyboards feature text prediction, only a few focus on it so much that it becomes a defining characteristic. These include:

  • SwiftKey: SwiftKey is a keyboard with a mind reader built-in. SwiftKey learns as you type, and puts almost more emphasis on text prediction than actual typing. Once you’ve used it for a little while, it’ll know you so well that you can form entire sentences just by tapping the word predictions at the top. If you use the beta of the new SwiftKey X keyboard, it can even scan your Facebook posts, tweets and emails to better learn your style of typing and sentence formation. The keyboard has some minor annoyances, but again — after a while, you wont even be using the keyboard that much anyway.
  • A.I.type: A.I.type is similar to SwiftKey, in that it aims to intelligently predict what word will come next based on what you’ve typed before it. The biggest difference between A.I.type and SwiftKey is that A.I.type uses the Gingerbread keyboard as its base, meaning the keyboard is a bit friendlier to use than SwiftKey’s. It also gives you more than just three words across the top, which is both good and bad, depending on your preferences.

Our Favourite: The key with the predictive keyboards is to give them a chance to “break in” before you judge them. They’ll learn as you type, and the more you type, the better they’ll become, so don’t give up on them too quickly. Give each at least a week or two before you decide that one isn’t for you. Both are free, and both are good ones to try out. I’d recommend giving SwiftKey a go first — it’s well established, and is sure to give you a good idea of what this kind of keyboard will offer.

Style Three: The Swiper

How the Swiper Works: We’ve begun to see a surge in popularity for “swiping” keyboards — that is, keyboards that let you type by swiping between the keys rather than tapping them. There’s a good reason for it, too: They’re fast. Really fast. They might not be as fast out-of-the-box as the Gingerbread-style keyboards, but once you learn all their little tricks, you can blaze through texts at blinding speeds.

The Best Swiping Keyboards: With this keyboard style’s popularity on the rise, you have a few choices. The best include:

  • Swype: Swype is the most well known of the swiping keyboards, and with good reason. It’s a fantastic keyboard, with very smooth swiping, a ton of hidden little shortcuts, and a huge dictionary that can read from your contacts and Facebook. It also has regular text prediction along the top, which is useful when Swype guesses a word wrong — all you need to do is tap on the word and then tap on the prediction you want to replace it with. It’s very well-done, and a good first stop if you want to try out a swiping keyboard. Unfortunately, it’s mainly distributed pre-installed on certain devices, so if you don’t have it already, you can only grab it when it’s in open beta. So head on over to their beta page and sign up so you can grab a download as soon as possible.
  • SlideIT: SlideIT works in almost the exact same way as Swype: you drag your finger across the keys to type. While I haven’t found SlideIT to be quite as smooth and accurate as Swype, it does have a number of cool extra features. For example, it has a Palm-like “graffiti” pad that allows you to type numbers and symbols by drawing them on the screen rather than tapping a bunch of menu buttons. It also has support for a ton of different languages (even more than Swype), and it’s available on the Market for $$6.02, whereas Swype is more difficult to get your hands on.
  • Ultra Keyboard: Ultra keyboard actually contains a number of different keyboard styles inside one package, but it stands out from the others with its swiping abilities. By turning on “tracing” in its settings, it becomes a swiping keyboard that surprisingly rivals the pros like Swype and SlideIT. It’s super smooth, and pretty darn good at predicting what you’re trying to type. It isn’t quite as full-featured as the other two when it comes to the swiping side of things, but it does have a ton of customising options as far as tap typing, and (most of all) is free on the Market.

Our Favourite: Each of the swiping keyboards has a pretty fervent community behind it, so it’s hard to pick just one. I personally love Swype, but lots of folks swear by SlideIT. Swype, unfortunately, is a bit harder to come by, and SlideIT is a bit expensive for a keyboard that you don’t know you’ll like, so I’d grab the trial of Ultra Keyboard to give swiping a chance. If you like it at all, grab one of the other two. If you can get it, we seriously recommend Swype.

Style Four: The Adventurous

What Adventurous Typers Prefer: These typers are a wild card, preferring experimental typing methods that save time, but take a lot of getting used to. Often this involves a completely nontraditional keyboard layout and an unintuitive, but very fast method of typing.

The Most Interesting Experimental Keyboards: They’re all a little different, but if none of the above are really doing it for you, we recommend trying one of these out:

  • 8pen: Previously mentioned 8pen introduces a strangely efficient way of typing. It arranges letters within quadrants, the most used letters closer to the centre of the “board”. To type, you place your finger in the centre of the quadrants, and draw a ring around the letters until you reach the one you want. It’s difficult to describe (check out the video above); but it works pretty well, despite its similarity to a rotary phone.
  • MessagEase: Similar to 8pen, MessagEase aims to cut down on your typing by giving you only a few “areas” on the keyboard to think about. It has nine keys, each one with a main letter assigned to it, and a number of secondary letters. The nine primary letters are the most oft-used. To type one of them, you just tap on the key. To type a secondary letter, you hold the key containing the letter and drag your finger away, still holding down on the screen. Again, it’s something that has a bit of a learning curve, but is a surprisingly valid approach to faster typing.
  • Flit: Flit is very similar to MessagEase: you type on only a few keys, tapping your finger for that key’s main letter and dragging it for its secondary letters. Instead of MessagEase, though, which is organised by how often you use each letter, Flit is organised like a regular QWERTY keyboard for somewhat easier acclimation. Again, it still takes quite a bit of getting used to, but has the potential to make you a bit faster and a bit more accurate since you only really have eight or so keys to work with.

Our Favourite: We’re pretty wowed by how wacky 8pen is. While there’s definitely a learning curve, you get used to it a bit faster than you think you would, and if you have patience, there’s a good chance you can get faster with 8pen than you would with a regular keyboard. If the other keyboards are making you pull your hair out, you might as well go nuts and try out 8pen for a really new experience.

This is not an exhaustive list of keyboards, but it is a list of the ones we think are the most worth looking at. You can head to the Market and check out others like the super skinnable Better Keyboard, or the Gingerbread-based Perfect Keyboard, but take our word for it — it doesn’t get much better than the above. If you’ve got your own favourite keyboard, let us know what it is and why it works for you in the comments.