Changing the text: Some alternative Android keyboards

I'm sure many of you are wondering what all the fuss is about; we've been happy with our QWERTY keyboards since the 70s (yes, the 1870s) – why do we need a different kind of keyboard?

As someone who can comfortably make several mistakes per word, let alone page, on a full-sized keyboard I’m happy to embrace a keyboard revolution. 

And this has become especially true as full touchscreen QWERTY keyboards have become the norm; if I'm struggling on a keyboard (with 'real' buttons) that’s a foot wide, what chance have I got on 3.5-inch touchscreen with 4mm keys…

SwiftKey Keyboard

Now in its fourth iteration, SwiftKey is the number one 'paid' app on the UK Google Play store (and many others) – and for good reason. It will set you back £2.99 (March 2013), but with more than 70,000 five-star reviews from users it’s one of the safest app buys you can hope for.

In terms of being an alternative, this isn’t as much a reworking as a 'best in class' QWERTY. Its superfast, has support for more than 50 languages (you can enabled three at once) and has what it claims to be "the world’s most accurate autocorrect".

Better still, SwiftKey will predict which word you're going to type next – with unnerving accuracy. This is because, with your permission, it crawls your Gmail, Facebook and Twitter – even blog – accounts and learns how you tick in terms of language.

The latest version also includes SwiftKey Flow – a concept made popular by the Swype app. This lets you drag your finger across the keyboard, rather than typing individual letters/words, predicting the letters to ignore along the way. Flow even lets you do entire sentences without taking your finger from the screen, although this functionality takes a bit of getting used to.

Snapkeys Si

If even a perfected QWERTY is still too, well, qwerty for your liking – how about something completely different? Snapkeys laughs in the face of the 26 keys from SwiftKey and says, I can do that with four. Yes, four.

Well, actually, it’s five: four keys have three letters each (YIT, WNA, ESL, ROD) while the fifth (essentially the empty space in the middle of the other four) is used for any of the other letters of the alphabet. Using predictive text based on the old T9 system made famous by feature phones with traditional phone keyboards, it manages to work out what you’re typing.

And would you believe, it works. It may take you a day to get to grips with it – and it may not be quite as quick or accurate as the likes of SwiftKey – but as an alternative it has some fascinating extra functionality.

For a start, as it's just four keys, it overlays the programme you're using it in rather than forcing you to work on a screen half dominated by a QWERTY. Better still, once typing becomes second nature you can change the transparency of the buttons – even down to 0%, so you’re typing on an invisible keypad. Yes, it’s as cool as it sounds.

Right now Snapkeys Si is in beta on the Google Play app market, so can be downloaded for free. Even if only out of curiosity we’d suggest you give it a go.

Some interesting options

If those don’t take your fancy, here are the best of the rest in terms of quirkiness (and don’t forget your handset probably has the likes of Swype as options built-in already – on an Android handset, just go to 'settings' and then 'language and input'):

  • Thumb Keyboard: As someone with 10 thumbs, this is essential. Seriously though, Thumb Keyboard has some interesting features and is highly customisable. It's especially useful for typing on larger devices (including tablets, iPads) as the keypad is split (QWERT on the left, YUIOP on the right) with the numbers and symbols in the middle. This makes typing with a device in two hands manageable. £1.87
  • 8pen: Like Snapkeys, 8pen (pictured, right) completely reinvents the wheel – by, well, using a wheel. It's innovative, although certainly not for everyone and is going to take you a while to get to grips with, but for 99p it's better than some games I've played! In fact, if you do download it be sure to also get 8pen Wordcup – a game that helps you learn how to use this odd yet endearing keyboard.
  • MessagEase: Like Snapkeys, MessagEase goes for the 'less is more' approach with just nine large keys. Optimised for one or two fingers, each key has one main letter and one other letter – except the centre key (that caters for nine) and the centre bottom key (that has three). The main letter on each key is chosen by pressing, while the others are accessed by dragging your finger to the spot you need. It's also free.

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