SwiftKey: A swipe in the right direction

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When my Verizon provider told me that keyboard phones had gone out of style, I was distraught until SwiftKey keyboard app came to my rescue. The default Google Keyboard was frustrating to me. I use punctuation when I text (don’t judge me) and Google Keyboard’s punctuation interface was clunky and inconvenient. I also couldn’t use it at all with one hand or finger. Typing coherent texts required both hands and my full attention. After a few days of not texting my girlfriend because it was too much trouble, I searched around for something more usable – SwiftKey was the answer.

I tried all of the major keyboard apps, and most of them had some fatal quirk. Swype had the great Swype-typing feature that worked wonderfully for typing one-handed, but it, too, had a difficult relationship with its punctuation marks. Minuum, as its name would suggest, had a minimalistic interface that could condense the three letter rows of a keyboard into a single small row at the bottom of the touchscreen, but in doing so, it relied heavily on autocorrection and autocorrection has trouble with unusual words. If I wanted tell a friend that I had just played an epic game of Settlers of Catan, fixing the word “Catan” was more trouble than it was worth. Kii Keyboard was great and tremendously customizable, but its punctuation bar never knew which sign I was trying to tap and the punctuation layout on the keyboard wasn’t always intuitive to me. SwiftKey doesn’t have everything, but it comes close.

Like some keyboards, SwiftKey has a useful system for punctuation and special characters. Each letter on the keyboard has a symbol associated with it (e.g. K and L are also home to left and right parentheses respectively), and you can type the symbol by simply holding down the letter instead of tapping it. SwiftKey also has an option to set the length of time to trigger the symbol, and I find the default 450 milliseconds to be comfortable.

Unlike some keyboards, SwiftKey’s symbol layout makes intuitive sense. Frequently used symbols like the apostrophe, quotation marks and dollar sign are grouped together. Minus, plus and equal signs are all next to each other on the G, H and J keys. Left and right parentheses are next to each other, as are left and right brackets. These seem obvious, but it’s surprising how many keyboards can miss the mark on their symbol layouts.

SwiftKey was the most intuitive of the bunch to my mind, but that’s not to say it’s perfect. Not everything can be customized. For example, the symbol layout, sensible though it is, can’t be changed, even though I’d like to move the underscore. SwiftKey will always make a space after a punctuation mark or an auto-completed word, even if I don’t want it to. The punctuation shortcut in the bottom right cannot be customized, so it will have a period, comma, question mark, exclamation point and nothing else. I want to add parentheses and colons, both for complex sentences and for making smileys, but no such luck. The special character system works well, but that little bit of customization would have been nice.

SwiftKey’s developers like to tout its word prediction system, calling it “the keyboard that learns from you” because it can make educated guesses as to what I’ll be typing next based on how I have written in the past. It can also look through Facebook and Gmail to improve its guesses, though I never allowed it to. The smart predictions aren’t inaccurate, but I don’t use them often. SwiftKey displays three possible predictions for the word I’m going to type next, and even if one of them is right, looking at the three predictions and tapping the correct one usually takes more time than just typing the word manually.

It’s Swype-style gesture typing, called SwiftKey Flow, is very usable, though I still prefer pecking letters in most cases. Flow almost always knows what I’m trying to type when I’m being lazy (even the unusual words like “Carcassonne”), which might actually be a good example of SwiftKey’s ability to “learn from you.”

SwiftKey is well supported by its development team, but I wish they would put more effort into the little customizations instead of the smart prediction system I hardly ever use. Still, SwiftKey’s punctuation layout, gesture typing, the existing customizations and even its graphic design make it the best Android keyboard on the market.

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