Having used a bunch of Android devices for the past few years, I’ve enjoyed several features on Google’s platform, that I’m now glad to see on iOS 8 — most notably third-party keyboard support. This opens up new input methods, personalized dictionaries, multi-language support, customization options and more for users to play with, and there are already a bunch of keyboards available in the App Store to try out. So what are they like to type with, and are they worth getting used to? And which one comes out on top?
I played with 6 new third-party keyboards on my iPhone 5s over the past few days, including a few I’ve tried before on Android. They’re pretty much the same on both platforms, but given that it’s early days for iOS 8 and for developers working on apps for it, there are bugs and kinks to be worked out. So be prepared for a slightly bumpy ride just now, but remember that like death and taxes, updates are inevitable and things will improve. Let’s get typing, shall we?
Third-party keyboards are available in the App Store and can be downloaded just like any other app, and you’ll see their icons on your home screen too — but you’ll need to follow a few steps to set them up before you can use them. The process is simple and most keyboards walk you through it too, but here it is so you know what to expect:
- Download and install the keyboard from the App Store to your device.
- Launch Settings from the home screen.
- Navigate to General > Keyboard > Keyboards, and then tap Add New Keyboard…
- Scroll down and find your newly installed keyboard listed under Third-Party Keyboards; tap it to install it.
- You’ll now find your new keyboard in the list. If it has an arrow alongside it (>), tap it and toggle Allow Full Access. This enables custom settings and themes to be applied to your keyboard.
And you’re done! Your new keyboard is now ready to use across apps (except in certain secure fields like passwords).
Switching between keyboards
To switch to your new keyboard, simply tap and hold the globe key on the default keyboard to see a list of available keyboards, and tap the new one to switch to it. To switch back, or cycle through multiple keyboards, tap the globe key on any keyboard and you’ll see the next keyboard on your screen.
The best iOS 8 third-party keyboards for iPhone
Having championed the gesture-based typing cause for years, Swype is a great choice for those who are tired of tapping tiny keys. All you need to do is glide your finger over the keys you intend to hit to spell out a word, and Swype will pick it up and add a space. This keyboard gets it right most of the time, and beats out the competition when it comes to accuracy. Plus, you can swipe from certain letters to the space bar to quickly add common punctuation marks, and capitalize the first letter of a word by swiping off the top of the keyboard too.
Besides speed, the major benefit of swiping is that you can type with one hand — and you’ll still find yourself to be fairly quick. You can also save words to your personal dictionary as you type, though this requires an additional tap. There’s also a keypad-style keyboard for easy digit entry, a selection of themes and an emoticon key too — but the weird thing is, you can only use that one emoticon and no other in Swype. C’mon, Team Swype, fix this already!
There are other keyboards that offer this functionality, but they can’t match Swype’s speed and accuracy. And those are well worth the $1 asking price, especially when you begin to use it as your primary keyboard.
SwiftKey wants to get to know you, before you put your hands on it. Sound familiar? This keyboard prides itself on learning your favorite words and phrases, by requesting access to your Facebook, Twitter, Evernote Gmail and contacts — and it kinda works. I found that I could type the names of companies and contacts from my email and social networks without SwiftKey messing up my input. This worked a lot better than it did with Fleksy, so those of you who are good at tapping suggested and predicted words above your keyboard are in for a treat.
SwiftKey also supports swipe-to-type and I found it to be nearly as good as Swype, erring only a little more often than the latter. There are other neat features too, including backup and sync so your typing experience is the same across your devices, support for multiple languages without the need to switch between them, a range of keyboard layouts including QWERTZ and AZERTY and handsome dark and light themes to choose from.
Easily the most powerful and versatile keyboard on this list, SwiftKey is my recommendation for users who want to try several new features in a single keyboard.
If you want a clean looking keyboard that gets out of the way while you type, Fleksy might be up your alley. This tap-to-type keyboard features a flat design with a range of background colors and three keyboard sizes to choose from, which is great for those who have either found the default keyboard too small or wanted more room on their screen for their apps.
But Fleksy’s more than just a nice-looking keyboard: it also supports gestures for a range of functions, including adding a space, deleting the last-typed word and choosing between suggested words and punctuation marks. This takes a little getting used to, and I can’t really say it’s faster than typing on a standard tap-only keyboard. However, if you prefer using gestures to type, this is a nice implementation to get started with. And once you get used to using gestures with Fleksy, you can also swipe to hide/reveal the bottom row for increased screen real estate.
Fleksy can also learn your writing habits and favorite words from Twitter, Facebook and Gmail, which you can grant access to from the app’s Personalization menu – though I saw no evidence of this. You can also add words manually to the dictionary. These features definitely help speed up your typing a bit, but other than that, I felt like I was at the same pace as with the default keyboard, if not a tad slower. The main reason for that is that suggestions don’t appear on a separate bar, but rather as tiny text overlays on the top row of buttons, which means they’re hard to see. Plus, you have to swipe up to choose a suggestion on the left and swipe down for a suggestion on the right, so until your brain is fully trained to follow this method and switch quickly between tapping and swiping, you won’t be typing at top speed.
There are a couple of nice touches in Fleksy, including the ability to switch between languages by swiping on the space bar and invoking emoji with the return key (no need for a separate emoji keyboard). However, I didn’t care much for its learning curve, limited color themes, and unnecessary gamification (why do I need to unlock badges even with my keyboard app?). Still, it does allow you more space on your screen while allowing you to tap and type, so regular note-takers might find some appeal in this.
Want an even smaller keyboard? Take a look at Minuum’s innovative one-row concept. All 26 letters of the alphabet are smushed together in a narrow space so you can enjoy more space for your apps. And while it looks like typing would be incredibly hard on this keyboard, it really isn’t! As long as the keys you intend to hit are somewhere beneath your tapping fingers, you’ll be okay: the smart keyboard figures out the words you meant to type pretty accurately, and the suggestions help things along.
There’s also a full mode for when you need to spell out new words and add punctuation — and that’s kind of the problem with Minuum: these two functions require you to break your flow, switch keyboard layouts, add in your word/punctuation and then get back to typing on the mini keyboard. So while you can achieve respectable speeds on this tiny keyboard (while also using simple swipe gestures for space and delete), it kind of defeats its own purpose with these exclusions.
Minuum is also low on extraneous features: you can’t customize the look or keyboard layout. At this point, it’s nice to play with, but if you reply to emails and write notes often on your device, Minuum might not be the best choice.
Unfortunately buggier than the rest at the time of writing, TouchPal is a free swipe-to-type keyboard that isn’t quite there yet. For instance, words show up only after you’ve typed them and moved on the next one. Another major bother is the lack of a period key on the main keyboard — you have to toggle symbol view to access it. It tries to make up for this by offering a full emoji keyboard accessible via the return key, but that doesn’t really speed up my typing much. Here’s hoping an update will help, soon.
My father has had a thing for handheld mobile devices for as long as I can remember, and one of his prized possessions was his Palm Pilot. I was blown away by its handwriting recognition, that was surprisingly intuitive, accurate and forgiving all at once. Stack reminds me of those days, with a large empty canvas for you to draw characters and gestures to type with, one on top of the other.
Stack is accurate for the most part, and its predictions help things along, provided you train yourself to switch quickly between drawing and tapping. In fact, tapping predictions becomes crucial to prevent errors that arise from missing the space bar — something I did way too often. I just couldn’t get to a speed that I felt was reasonable to keep using Stack.
Now, the developers say that it’s made for short entries such as contact lookups, web searches and tweets, but I don’t feel like I was faster or more efficient using Stack for these tasks. It might find fans in stylus-weilding iPad ninjas, but on the iPhone, I just don’t see the point of scribbling large ugly letters with my fingers when I can tap or swipe.
My iOS 8 keyboard wishlist
On Android, Swype has a neat text field navigation keyboard, which allows you to move the cursor up, down, left and right, and also toggle text selection mode, and cut, copy and paste text. Given how painful it is to fix typing errors on iOS, this would be a blessing, and would make it easier to recommend Swype too. I’d also like to see more keyboards support text expansion, similar to Shortcuts on the default keyboard. And finally, a number pad row above the keyboard for quick entry, kind of like the keyboard in Fantastical 2. As I said, these are the first official releases of these keyboards, so we can hope to see at least some of these ideas being implemented soon enough.
I’m so glad to be swiping to type again on my primary mobile device — even if things aren’t as smooth as I’d like just yet. I believe Swype offers the best swipe-to-type experience right now, but at the same time, SwiftKey offers a bunch of useful features for tap-typists. Plus, SwiftKey actually learned from my other accounts and isn’t half-bad with its swipe-to-type support — making it a great choice for tap and swipe fans alike. And if their track records on Android are anything to go by, Swype has always been slower with updates and bug fixes. If you must choose one, stick with SwiftKey.