Top Alternative Keyboards for Android

One of the best things about Android is the level of customization that it allows you on pretty much every level of the device. Almost every detail of the device can be changed, and the keyboard is no exception. But there are so many alternative keyboards out there that it becomes difficult to figure out which one is worth your time (and money). So here’s a short list of some of the best alternative keyboards and what makes them worth it.

Swype
Swype is normally the first to come to mind when discussing different keyboards. The idea is simple: You want to type the word “Hello”. Instead of tapping the H then the E then the L and so on, you press the H, keep pressing the screen, and drag your finger to the E and so on. While this takes a little getting used to, it makes for some of the fastest typing you can do. Literally. The current world record holder for texting (yes, there is such a thing) typed the sentence “The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious” on a Samsung Omnia II in just 35.54 seconds (I got 45 seconds, not too shabby! Feel free to post your results, because you know you want to try it). Swype’s word prediction is really solid, and if it is not sure what you tried to say, it pops up a box with different possibilities. Any words you tap out are also saved to the dictionary for future use.

Swype only has 2 major problems. The first is that it is still in beta. As of this writing, it’s open, so you don’t have to wait to download it. In the past, they have closed it, meaning if you don’t grab it now, you may have to wait later. Recently it has started coming preinstalled on many phones, but if yours doesn’t have it, go here to sign up for it. All of the other keyboards discussed in this post can e found in the Market. The other issue is that words are annoying to delete from the dictionary. If you type anything incorrectly, it gets saved in the dictionary and may replace what your actually meant to Swype by default. To delete the typo for good, you have to double-tap on the word, press the little Info button on the keyboard, and click OK on the dialog. Its just a process that could be streamlined. Overall Swype is incredibly cool and very speedy. Definitely worth the download.

Note: Swype normally is gray with a blue line following your finger. My version is a hacked version, courtesy of myn’s Warm TwoPointTwo ROM for the HTC EVO 4G.

SwiftKey
SwiftKey doesn’t look or act very different from the stock keyboard. What’s special about it is under the hood. SwiftKey features one of the most advanced word prediction algorithms to date. While it does feature the keyboard, the philosophy behind SwiftKey is to press as few buttons as possible. SwiftKey learns from what you type and not only does it’s best to figure out what you are typing as you type it, but also what you might type next. For example, I want to type “I am going to go to the mall.” That’s 29 characters I would type. SwiftKey reduced those 29 key strokes to 13. And the more I type that sentence, the less buttons I’ll actually press because it learns that after I say “going” a “to” is sure to follow.

SwiftKey doesn’t offer that much customization, which is fine since the goal is to not type much anyway. Other than that it is a very solid keyboard choice. If you’re interested, SwiftKey can even show you how much it has helped you in it’s Usage Statistics. I used it for around a week or so and it saved me 1087 keystrokes, making me 12% more efficient! There’s a free version on the Market if you want to give it a shot. The full version is on sale right now for $2.

8pen
And now for something completely different. 8pen changes the concept of a keyboard as we know it. The developer’s philosophy is that the QWERTY keyboard was made at a time when we had large typewriters. It made sense back then, but it doesn’t now. A small touchscreen is much better for a single finger to use sweeping gestures than tapping small boxes. Enter 8pen, the weirdest keyboard I’ve ever laid eyes on. Let’s say you want to type “Hello.” You start at the big black circle in the middle of the X. The H is the second letter located down and to the right. You would slide your finger down then drag it counter-clockwise of the black dot. Passing the yellow line will select the T before the H. Sliding past the red line selects the H. Now drag your finger back to the black dot. You’ve now typed the H. The E is down and to the left, so you repeat the same process you did for the H, but you slide clockwise instead.

Seems convoluted, right? That’s because you’re not used to it. I spent a good week and a half using 8pen almost exclusively. There’s a very steep learning curve because we’ve grown so used to the QWERTY keyboard. If you can get used to it, you do get quite speedy. Not quite as fast as Swype, but still pretty fast. Since describing it is difficult, check out the video below (courtesy of 8pen). The good news is that 8pen is now a totally free application, so your wallet won’t hurt if you try it. Your brain might though.

Thumb Keyboard
Finally, we have Thumb Keyboard. While you won’t see anything here as odd as 8pen, it does still change the traditional QWERTY keyboard around a little. Thumb Keyboard takes a cue from many ergonomic keyboards by splitting the keyboard in half. But instead of angling it for our hands, Thumb Keyboard makes it easier for our most useful digits by making those middle keys easier to get to. Thumb’s main draw is the amount of customization it provides. In addition to the different keyboard skins (emulating keyboards from Honeycomb, Gingerbread, even Windows Phone 7, as seen above), Thumb allows you to change between 6 different portrait keyboards and 5 landscape ones. You can even customize it so that you have different styles for the different orientations (something I’ve long wanted). Some of the different layouts have been specifically designed for different tablets as well. There are keyboards that are optimized for both 7 and 10 inch tablets, something I have been disappointed in manufacturers for not doing themselves. Devices that size just weren’t made for thumb typing, and they aren’t quite big enough for most people to type as they would on a computer. Cutting the keyboard in half really helps even the most opposable of thumbs by eliminating the painful stretch to the pesky Gs and Hs. This app is perfect for phones, Xooms, and Galaxy Tabs alike. You’ll find it on the Market right now for just $1.87.

How To Start Using Them
So you downloaded an alternative keyboard, but when you go to type something, the stock keyboard still pops up. You have to do a few things first. If you click on the keyboard in your app list, it will usually take you through the setup up. In case it doesn’t, go to your Settings (Menu > Settings from the homescreen) and click on Language and Keyboard. You should see your newly installed keyboard on the list there. Make sure the box next to it is checked to activate it. You can also access the keyboard settings from this menu. Now go to where you want to type, and bring up the keyboard. Press and hold on the space you’re wanting to type in and a pop up menu will show up, one of the options being “Input Method”. Clicking on that will give you a list of all the activated keyboards you have. Click on the one you want, and start typing!

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