Before the iPhone arrived in 2007, no one really thought typing on touch-screen keyboards was a good idea. Since then we have become expert at tapping on the glass of our phones and tablets.
While the built-in keyboards from Apple, Google and other device makers are much better than they used to be, they are not the only options available.
One of the most surprising third-party keyboard apps for Apple devices comes from Apple’s arch-rival Google. The new Gboard app works just as any sort of touch-screen keyboard does. It has a clean and simple design that doesn’t distract you as you tap away. It also offers all the usual punctuation and emoji via obvious controls. It even looks good, appearing superficially similar to Apple’s own keyboard.
Gboard, though, has some very nice extras. The space bar doubles as a track pad that lets you scroll the cursor around in text you have already typed.
Also, Google has incorporated search features directly into the keyboard.
Hit the Google button as you type a message and you are typing in a search box. All of Google’s search results are then accessible, ready to be copied and pasted into the text—useful in looking up a word definition, checking a street address, or finding a GIF or a YouTube video. You can even search for emoji, which saves you the trouble of hunting manually.
Gboard also offers the option to glide-type—swiping between consecutive letters instead of tapping on the screen—and many of the app’s features are customisable through settings.
If you are worried that Google will log what you type, Google says it will not record your messages, be they love letters or musings on the latest news or gossip. Gboard is free.
While Gboard has much to like, my favourite third-party keyboard app is SwiftKey. It deals with one of the biggest problems with typing on a touch screen: mistakes. SwiftKey autocorrects them.
But that’s just the start. As any smartphone user knows, autocorrect can mangle what you are trying to type even further. SwiftKey uses artificial intelligence to learn about your writing style over time, building up an understanding of the words you like to use. So, when you are typing a long message, the app can usually do a good job of correcting typos you make because it can guess the word you intended to use.
SwiftKey also suggests the words you may want to type next so they can be entered with a single keystroke. SwiftKey can even learn your slang and emoji habits.
The app does a good job of detecting which language you are using, automatically switching its correction of typos even if you switch languages mid-message (a common weak point of other keyboards’ autocorrect systems, as bilingual typists like me know well).
The app supports glide typing, and it is quite customisable, so that its layout can be changed to a split keyboard, for example, or the background colour can be changed. SwiftKey is free for both iOS and Android, but some of the colourful themes cost $1 to $2.
If SwiftKey doesn’t polish your typing skills, Fleksy is a similar third-party keyboard app, free for both iOS and Android, that has many of the same features. Fleksy’s keyboard layout is customisable in colour and size, and the app is good at auto-correcting typos.
As with Gboard, the space bar doubles as a track pad, and Fleksy has a one-handed typing mode, which is handy if you are carrying something in your other hand.
The app’s main feature is that it has customisable keyboard rows, so that particular words or keys can always be available.
Then there is the old but still good standby Swype. Swype helped popularise the gesture-based, glide-to-type text entry system.
Swype is still a very good app. It offers many of the same features as its rivals, like predicting the next words to be typed, and lets gestures perform tricks like scrolling back through text that has already been entered. It also has different themes, so its look and feel can be changed. But Swype has not advanced as quickly as its peers in adapting to new trends and offering new features.
It’s also $1 on iOS and Android, and some of its colourful themes cost upward of $1.
Finally, for another surprising keyboard app, check out Microsoft’s Word Flow, which is free on iOS.
All the standard keyboard tricks are there—predictive text, smart auto-correction and glide typing. But Word Flow is one of the best-looking keyboard apps, and its customisation options let you place an image behind the keyboard instead of simply colourful themes.
There is also a one-handed typing mode that rearranges the keys into an arc around one corner of the screen, so you just have to swivel your thumb to hit the right key. This curved keyboard is very clever and could be very useful, though it does take a bit of getting used to. Word Flow is free, but for now, sadly, it is iOS-only.