With the launch of iOS 8, Apple opened the floodgates for third-party developers to create keyboards for the iPhone and iPad. Already, the App Store has seen the launch of a number of new entrants into the keyboard space, and I’m sure that there are more coming in the near future.
If this sea of new typing options has left your head swimming, don’t worry: what follows is GeekWire’s guide to the best typing options available on the App Store.
These keyboards do what you’d expect from an everyday, modern mobile keyboard. When opening up a text field, odds are you’ll want to use one of these, rather than a more specialized keyboard. Many of the ones available today are designed to make typing on a phone faster by minimizing the amount of work needed to type a word.
Most of them are powered by predictive text engines that are designed to, well, predict the next word that someone wants to type. Apple offers its own take on that concept with its built-in QuickType keyboard, but there are a bunch of other companies that have honed their own solutions for determining what someone wants to say before they say it.
While it is an elder statesman of the third-party keyboard space, Swype is still able to keep up with the best, and its iOS incarnation was one of my favorites out of all the keyboards I tested. Unlike others, Swype’s keyboard (including its recommendation engine) is entirely self-contained. Users don’t have to allow the keyboard access to the Swype app in order to do their typing, it just works from the moment they set it up.
Couple that with Swype’s excellent predictive engine, and you get one of the fastest ways to type on an iPhone. Swiping does take a little bit of getting used to, since it requires a different sort of muscle memory about where all the letters are on the keyboard, but the payoffs in speed and convenience are worth it.
If you’re looking to dip your toe in the third-party keyboard world before jumping off the deep end, I’d heartily recommend Swype. It does a lot of things really well, and has the best swipe implementation I’ve tried.
The keyboard also features SwiftKey Flow, which allows users to type words just by swiping across the keyboard, similar to how Swype works. While the predictive engine powering Swype’s behavior is usually more accurate than SwiftKey’s, Flow does a reasonable job of keeping up with my swiping.
What set SwiftKey apart from the competition was the layout and design of its keyboard. It’s really hard for me to quantify, but SwiftKey just feels better than anything else on the market to me. If there’s one downside to SwiftKey, it’s that the keyboard requires access to the company’s app in order to recommend words, and SwiftKey suggests that users connect the app to the SwiftKey Cloud service for better recommendations and recommendation syncing across devices.
I’m not quite comfortable with sharing every word I type with the cloud (thankfully, it’s not required), but I do think that SwiftKey does everything else reasonably well. People interested in learning more about how SwiftKey handles data can do so here.
There are a handful of other standard keyboards out there that didn’t make my top 2, but may be interesting to other people.
Minuum takes a minimalist approach to the idea of a smartphone keyboard, shrinking down to a single row that uses predictive text to determing what people are typing.
Personally, I like a full-size keyboard, so Minuum’s defining feature is essentially lost on me. It may help some iPhone 4S users who chose to upgrade to iOS 8 and are interested in maximizing the amount of screen real estate they have available, though.
In addition to speeding up normal typing, a crop of new keyboards that handle pre-programmed snippets of text have also made their way into the App Store. Like computer programs that do the same thing, these keyboards are designed to take a small amount of input (like a pre-defined string of text) and turn it into a larger block of text.
They’re hugely useful if you’re the kind of person who has to send the same sort of email again and again, or if you have a favorite template for taking notes.
People who are already used to TextExpander’s Mac app will find themselves at home with the new keyboard. All they have to do is type the keystrokes they already have set to expand a snippet (in my case, ‘xgvnum’ expands into my Google Voice number), and TextExpander will fill in the rest.
The keyboard allows people to programmatically insert certain pieces of information into a snippet, like the current contents of the clipboard, the date and the time, which cuts down on typing time.
TextExpander on the desktop supports fill-in sections for snippets, which allow a user to fill in text fields or pick from a few pre-defined choices when expanding a snippet. Right now, those aren’t supported through the keyboard, though people who rely on them can still use the TextExpander Touch app.
If there’s one criticism I have of the TextExpander keyboard, it’s the fact that the keyboard feels the least accurate out of any that I’ve used. I don’t have any insight into how hard it is to make one that works (I imagine it must be reasonably difficult) but when I switch to TextExpander, it’s only going to be for typing snippets and then moving back to SwiftKey.
After all, I’m not using a snippet keyboard for its typing capabilities, I’m using it because it will allow me to input large amounts of text with minimal effort. Rather than requiring users to remember a database of triggers, users can just scroll through and tap the snippet they want.
When the app launches on the App Store, it will be available for free, with an option to purchase additional pro features like importing snippets from a TextExpander database saved in Dropbox.
Overall, I think that SnipsKey and TextExpander are serving two different groups of people. Snipskey’s system is way better for people who have a handful of snippets they use frequently, and maybe a deeper database of ones they use less often.
On the other hand, I have upwards of 50 snippets which I use with varying frequency. It’s a lot easier for me to remember the different triggers for each, rather than scroll through a list, or have to dig through folders filled with snippets.
Schneider told me that he plans to add support for fill-ins and placeholders in a future update, but the lack of placeholders right now also makes SnipsKey a tough sell for my daily driver keyboard.
Just for fun
Support for new keyboards also comes with greater opportunities for developers to do something wacky, like create keyboards to insert emoticons or animated GIFs.
Gifmoji offers users a number of different, expressive options in one. The keyboard features a tab with animated emoji like a laughing smiley and a face that winks while sticking its tongue out. The next tab offers page after page of complex emoticons like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and (╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻. The third tab offers users several pages of animated GIFs that they can use to react to what their friends are saying.
PopKey plans to take that last bit one step further with support for a wider variety of GIFs and by allowing users to upload their own GIFs for use in messages.
I’m sure that we’ll see other novelty keyboards crop up in the coming year as more people plan to develop for iOS 8
Putting everything to use
Once a new keyboard is set up, most of them will require users to tap on the name of the keyboard, and switch “Allow Full Access” on. That will allow the keyboard to communicate with the already-installed app to provide certain types of functionality like recommendations or access to a database of snippets.
It doesn’t automatically mean that a keyboard will send everything you type to another server, but it does open up that possibility. While Apple doesn’t allow third-party keyboards to run in password fields, they can and do show up in other fields that contain sensitive information like addresses and credit card numbers. People who want to make sure that they keep that information under wraps will have to switch back to Apple’s native keyboard if they want to be sure that no data is leaving their phone.
That speaks to another risk of the new system: installing too many keyboards. At the peak of writing this article, I had 9 keyboards all installed on my iPhone, which made switching between them a real pain. I’ve now cut that number down to 5, and that’s probably about where I’ll stay for the time being.
That setup has made it easy for me to switch back and forth between whatever keyboards I want, but other users may find laying things out differently will work better. To change the position of the keyboards, tap the “Edit” button in the upper right-hand corner of the Keyboard preferences, and drag the keyboards into place on that list.
And there you have it – a quick and dirty guide to the best keyboards on the iPhone today.
Have a favorite keyboard that I missed? Let me know in the comments.