Quick: What are the most important apps on your phone when it comes to getting stuff done?
If you're like most people I've asked, "the keyboard" probably wasn't one of the first things that came to mind. When you stop and think about it, though, the interface that lets you input text plays a critical role in your mobile productivity. Whether you're editing documents or simply sending an email, it has more of an impact on your on-the-go efficiency than almost anything else on your device.
And yet, it's all too easy to settle on one keyboard -- whether you downloaded it yourself or just stuck with your device's default -- and then never revisit the subject again. Even I'm guilty of that: I started using SwiftKey years ago and hadn't given much thought to other options since. It wasn't until the app's sale to Microsoft last month that I stopped and said, "Huh. I wonder if this is still the best keyboard for me?"
As it turns out, Android's array of keyboard apps is constantly evolving, from sophisticated next-word prediction to customizable one-touch buttons, advanced swiping options and even handwritten input. There's a rich and diverse field of choices out there these days, each with its own set of advantages. If you haven't taken the time to evaluate your mobile typing setup in a while, you might be in for a surprise.
I sifted through the Play Store's numerous keyboard apps to find the ones with the most compelling, polished and distinctive user experiences. The titles outlined below are the apps that stood out most to me, organized by their strengths and for what types of users they make the most sense.
So start stretching those fingers, folks: It's time to find the right typing companion for you.
Fleksy: The tap-typing power user's dream
Cost: Free, with optional in-app purchases for extra themes or extension slots
Who should use it: People who prefer tap-based typing and want a highly customizable keyboard with lots of clever bells and whistles
Looking for something a little different from the typical Android typing experience? Fleksy might be just the app you need to shake things up.
Fleksy revolves around the idea of customizable extensions that let you add a variety of interesting functions onto your keyboard's top row. The Editor extension, for instance, gives you one-touch buttons for commands such as copying and pasting, along with a trackpad-like bar for accurately positioning your cursor. The Hotkeys extension allows you to create icons that insert your own custom phrases (like your street address or a favorite emoji) with a single tap. And the Launcher extension gives you the ability to place shortcuts to other apps right within the keyboard for easy access.
Flesky offers numerous themes and even comes with a custom theme creator that gives you full control over your keyboard's appearance. You can set your own photo as the keyboard's background if you're so inclined, or pick a context-sensitive theme that automatically changes to match the color scheme of whatever app you're using.
Fleksy's method of input does take a little getting used to: The keyboard is designed specifically for manual tapping, without any reliance on swiping and with only basic as-you-type word predictions (which, somewhat annoyingly, can be used only if you also accept suggestions for stickers and GIFs). The app utilizes aggressive correction to fix errors and has some clever gestures, like swiping up on the keyboard to cycle through auto-correct results and swiping leftward to erase the entire previous word.
All in all, it makes for a refreshing and power-packed new take on mobile text input.
Google Handwriting Input: The once-in-a-while writing method
Who should use it: Anyone who wants to input text via handwriting -- using a stylus or just a finger -- some of the time
Want an easy way to input text by handwriting while still using another keyboard most of the time? Try Google's Handwriting Input keyboard.
The app does exactly what you'd expect: It gives you an open surface for scribbling on your screen and then translates whatever you write into regular text. It works with print and cursive (even my barely legible versions of both!) and can also recognize hand-drawn emoji. The system supports 87 languages, including some that might be tricky to handle with a more traditional tap-based input method.
You probably won't use Handwriting Input as your primary keyboard, but if writing on your screen appeals to you, it's a great way to have that option when you want it. Installing the app will actually place a small globe-like icon in the lower left corner of the regular Google Keyboard so you can toggle quickly between the two; with other keyboard apps, you'll need to use the system-level keyboard-switching command to jump back and forth.
Google Keyboard: The fuss-free minimalist option
Who should use it: Anyone who wants a clean and simple keyboard that just works well, without any frills or extra features
Attention, those seeking something super-simple and free from fuss: Google's own aptly named Google Keyboard is probably the keyboard app for you.
Google Keyboard is essentially the stock system keyboard for Android -- but since Android is an open source operating system that's frequently modified by manufacturers, there's a good chance it didn't come as the default on your device. Thanks to Google's ongoing move to deconstruct Android, though, it's easy to download and install on any phone or tablet.
Google Keyboard supports both tap- and swipe-based input, and does a decent job at next-word prediction. It learns as you type and can sync your history across any devices you use over time. And it features a minimalist design that fits in perfectly with the Material Design vibe seen on Android and an ever-increasing number of third-party apps.
The caveat is that Google Keyboard is pretty bare-bones compared to other options. You can't do much to customize it, nor can you switch to alternate layouts (like a compact or split configuration) for easier tablet typing. And you won't find much in the way of add-ons or beyond-the-basics features.
The question you have to ask yourself is whether all of that sounds like an advantage or a limitation to you. If simple is what you're after, Google Keyboard is tough to top.
SwiftKey: The total package
Cost: Free, with optional in-app purchases for extra themes
Who should use it: Someone who's looking for a versatile and excellent all-around typing experience for smartphones and tablets
Some keyboards have specific approaches that appeal to certain types of users. SwiftKey is different. It's just a solid all-around performer -- not a member of any particular niche, but simply a commendable keyboard that excels at all types of touch-typing.
SwiftKey is second to none at prediction, using your typing history to offer timesaving and often shockingly accurate guesses of what word or phrase you're going to want next. When it isn't figuring out your thoughts for you, the app allows you to type by tapping or swiping (interchangeably). You can choose from a variety of size and layout options, including a positionable floating keyboard and a split-apart thumb-typing setup -- both of which can make the awkward act of typing on a tablet a little more natural.
Other SwiftKey highlights include automatically synced data and preferences across devices, a variety of theme choices and seamless support for auto-correct even as you move between multiple languages.
If you don't have any specific needs and just want a classy keyboard that's customizable and easy to use, SwiftKey is a good place to start. (And despite its aforementioned Microsoft acquisition, the company swears it'll stay the course and continue to develop its Android app.)
Swype: The gesture-crazy keyboard
Cost: $0.99 with optional in-app purchases for extra themes (also available in free 30-day trial version)
Who should use it: People who really like using gestures to control text input
Swype was the first app to popularize the idea of typing by swiping your finger from one letter to another. While that method of input has since spread to numerous other places, Swype continues to do it exceptionally well while also offering a variety of other advanced gestures for controlling your keyboard.
Most of the gestures revolve around a special "Swype key" in the keyboard's lower-left corner. Swipe from that key to "A," for instance, and you can quickly select all text in your current field. Swipe to "5" to pull up a number pad, to "Shift" to toggle the case of a word or from "M" to the space bar to enter a question mark.
The list goes on and on -- and that's part of the problem: Unless you're seriously dedicated to memorizing all the various commands, Swype's gestures can be pretty overwhelming. But if you don't mind taking the time to learn them all, they could be a useful way to speed up your input and save time (minus all the minutes devoted to memorization, of course).
Gestures aside, Swype has a fairly full set of features -- including next-word prediction, cross-device data sync and the ability to switch to more tablet-friendly layouts. It even has a built-in option for inputting text by writing with your finger on the screen.
Take note, though: The app forces you to use its own voice input system for dictation instead of the native Android voice input system (which most other third-party apps utilize). While it's roughly comparable to Android's system in accuracy, it lacks Android's ability to display words as you speak them -- instead, Swype waits until you're finished talking and then plops everything you said onto the screen at once.
Not being able to see the transcribed text as you go makes voice input rather difficult to use, something potential users will have to weigh out and consider.