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Android Smartphone Keyboards With the Magic Touch

Typing on touchscreen smartphones with small virtual keyboards can be challenging. But various keyboard apps are available that try to make the task easier. For Android users, Swype was an early entrant in this category — it allows you to type words by dragging your finger from letter to letter in one continuous motion. It sounds crazy, but it works. That said, if you prefer the more traditional method of pecking at individual keys, there are options for you, too.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been using two Android smartphone keyboard apps: SwiftKey 3 and Thumb Keyboard. SwiftKey 3 aims to improve the typing experience by learning how you type and predicting what you’ll write next, based on context. Meanwhile, Thumb Keyboard offers a split-key layout that makes it easier to type with your thumbs; it also offers text prediction. The default Android keyboards have long offered predictive typing to auto-complete a word, but what they currently lack is the contextual intelligence to guess what word comes next.

SwiftKey 3, which is developed by TouchType Ltd., costs $3.99 and comes in a smartphone and tablet version. There is a free version that lets you try out the app for a month. Beansoft’s Thumb Keyboard costs $2.49, but is currently on sale for $1.26. The app offers both phone and tablet keyboards, but there is no free trial version.

I tested the apps on the HTC One X smartphone, and I liked them both. I would prefer using them over the keyboards preloaded on Android smartphones today. Thumb Keyboard offers a comfortable thumb-typing experience, and I like its various customization options. But it didn’t always automatically correct mistakes. Meanwhile, SwiftKey’s keyboard isn’t quite as spacious, but it was better at fixing errors, and its text prediction capabilities are on-point, so I found it to be the better keyboard of the two.

SwiftKey 3 is different from many standard software keyboards because it tries to customize itself to you. You can sync it with your Gmail, Facebook and Twitter accounts, text messages and RSS readers, so it can learn your typing habits and vocabulary.

The company that makes SwiftKey says it doesn’t collect any personal data without a user’s permission or disclosure, and it doesn’t store entered passwords. But if you’re worried about security, you don’t have to sync with your accounts. It will just take SwiftKey a little longer to learn your typing style.

I enabled syncing with my Gmail, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and was amazed at SwiftKey’s prediction capabilities, even after just a day of use. After sending several emails, I started typing a new message with “Hi, how” — and in the prediction area above the keyboard, SwiftKey suggested “are” as the next word. Once I selected that, “you” came up as the next suggestion.

SwiftKey even remembers weird phrases and non-dictionary words that you’ve used. For example, I have a silly phrase that I use with my brother — “sheesh kabobs” — and as I completed typing “sheesh,” “kabobs” came up in the prediction box. I wasn’t able to write an entire sentence using just text prediction, but the feature definitely saved time, since I was able to select whole words instead of typing them out.

SwiftKey is also good at correcting mistakes. The keyboard’s “Smart Space” feature detects when you have a misplaced space or forgot to insert spaces while quickly typing a string of words, and it worked well in my tests. SwiftKey also fixed many of my spelling errors, and if you need to delete a word, you can do so by swiping from right to left on the keyboard.

I do wish SwiftKey had a slightly roomier layout. I frequently used the keyboard in portrait mode, and found that it was a bit cramped for typing with both thumbs at a fast pace. You can increase the height of the keys in both portrait and landscape modes, but I’d still hit the wrong key at times.

This wasn’t so much a problem on the Thumb Keyboard, which offers wider buttons and a unique, split-key layout. You can choose from three different layouts for your smartphone: Standard, Split-Large or Split-Compact. The latter two split your standard keyboard in half. In portrait mode, the left-side set of buttons are located at the top left, while the other half is located at the bottom right. The difference between the large and compact versions is that the former takes up more screen space and has dedicated number buttons. In landscape mode, the keyboard is simply split down the middle.

Again, I mostly used the Thumb Keyboard in portrait mode, and while the new layout takes some getting used to, I was able to comfortably type with both thumbs at a pretty good clip. The bigger keys also helped with accuracy.

Even so, I didn’t feel as confident typing on the Thumb Keyboard as I did on SwiftKey, because it didn’t always correct spelling mistakes. In a rush to write some emails and text messages, I forgot to hit the space bar between some words, and Thumb Keyboard only highlighted the error with a red line.

Also, the Thumb Keyboard’s text prediction requires a little more work. Using the same “how are you” example I mentioned earlier, I had to start spelling out “are” before it surfaced in the suggestion box. Beansoft says its prediction technology can learn frequently used words and phrases, but it never picked up some of my favorite sayings, even something as simple as “haha.”

Thumb Keyboard does let you store up to 25 custom words and phrases in a list, but it requires several steps to access, so it’s not much of a time saver.

As such, I would choose SwiftKey 3 over Thumb Keyboard. It has a more intelligent text prediction and correction system, so you can type more efficiently and accurately.

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