Hands-On: SwiftKey X and SwiftKey Tablet X Android Keyboards
One of the advantages of using Android over iOS is the ability to choose alternate keyboards. Even if the one that comes with your phone or tablet is good, there’s always the possibility of something better.
Back in September of 2010, a company called TouchType released a beta keyboard into the world of Android called SwiftKey. This offering wasn’t merely another stock keyboard replacement with better accuracy, but actually offered something different. SwiftKey made typing easier and faster by predicting which word would come next in your sentence and presenting it in the same space as spell-corrected words would normally go. The idea is a great one, though there were times when the software’s predictive powers were so good it was scary.
Starting a sentence with “I’m feeling…” and having the keyword show “depressed” as the next most likely word can mess with your head. At the same time, when composing simple or rote sentences it saves a lot of time when the next word is ready and waiting one tap away.
Recently, TouchType released a final version of the keyboard for Android phones and tablets: SwiftKey X and SwiftKey Tablet X. Normally, these apps cost $3.99 and $4.99, respectively. But today SwiftKey X for phones is available for free via the Amazon App Store. Are they good enough to replace your Android keyboard?
How It Works
The technology behind both keyboards is called Fluency 2.0, a “language inference engine” that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to offer more accurate predictions the longer one uses SwiftKey. The app also has the ability to learn about your writing style from Gmail, Facebook and Twitter, though you can opt out of allowing it to read your messages on these services.
Another tool the keyboard uses to make typing faster is analysis of your touchscreen typing habits. If it senses that you always hit the space between N and M when you’re trying to type M, the app can adjust.
This technology is not only available in the English language (US and UK), but also in Czech, Danish, Dutch, French/French Canadian, German, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Portuguese (Brazil), Spanish, and Swedish.
Installation and User Experience
Installing SwiftKey is more straightforward than most alternative keyboards. Instead of having to go into settings in multiple places to enable and switch, the app has a wizard to walk users through the process. This is a good thing as the app has so many options and settings that offering a guide through them is helpful. The choices presented include determining what kind of typist you are – rapid or precise – the type of alternative characters you want available, and even the theme (on the tablet version). There are many more settings under the hood, but those are the most important for getting started.
In the tablet version users have another cool option: using the keyboard in a normal or split layout (in landscape mode only). The default is split, the mode I prefer, because it makes typing while holding the tablet in two hands far easier since my thumbs don’t have to stretch all the way to the middle of the screen. Numbers conveniently fill the middle section. Even when I’m typing with the tablet propped up in a case that allows for more traditional typing, I find using the split leads to more accuracy.
I wish the split was available in portrait mode on tablets as well, since on a 10-inch tablet I still find those middle keys a bit harder to reach than I like.
Just above the top row on the keyboard is the predictive text area – right where you’d expect to see spelling and suggestions on any Android keyboard. The area is split into three sections, with a word in the middle and within thumb reach on the right and left.
As you type, the keyboard will not only attempt to complete the word it thinks you’re typing but also the next word (once you hit the space bar). The most likely suggestion appears in the middle slot, and users can choose it by pressing the space bar. The next likely word appears in the right slot, and the third most likely word on the left. You can choose either of these by tapping them, which helps SwiftKey to learn. After using it for a week I’ve definitely seen a difference in the quality of suggestions.
Just as with the first version, there are times when I’ve completed up to half a sentence using the offered words. SwiftKey even has some grammatical knowledge, as it will suggest commas and periods when it thinks that’s what should come next.
Layout and Alternate Characters
Beyond the cool predictive typing thing, SwiftKey is just a good keyboard overall. Alternate characters are just a long press away and shown on each key, so you don’t have to hunt for or guess at them. On the tablet version, if a key has only one alternate, long pressing will just insert that character. If it has many, you’ll get a menu of choices. The phone version doesn’t offer alternate text characters (such as those with accent marks) in the English US language version, but punctuation and numbers are available. As with most keyboards, there are secondary and tertiary full keyboards as well.
SwiftKey includes a couple of nice gestures as well: swipe from right to left across the keyboard to delete a word; swipe down to hide/dismiss the keyboard.
The only things missing are the directional keys on the main layout. You can reach them by drilling down to the third sub-keyboard, but that’s far too much work.
Both SwiftKey X and SwiftKey Tablet X are worth the price, particularly if your phone came with a less than stellar keyboard. Tablet users in particular will appreciate how much easier it is to type in landscape mode. And you may find that rattling off boring work emails takes less time, allowing you to get back to the important task of beating the next level on Angry Birds.