"Virtual" keyboards

More flat touchscreens means more flat keyboards.

Virtual keyboard hero

More flat touchscreens means more flat keyboards. They are called “virtual” keyboards and they’ve existed ever since we started using smart phones and tablets. In general they are pretty terrible but there are some good ones.

Android operating systems allow users to install keyboards other than what shipped with the system. With the new iOS8, Apple users have been given this freedom as well.

In this article, I’m looking at keyboards on phones rather than tablets. This means short messages, rather than long periods of typing.

How to activate a new keyboard

In both Apple iOS and Android, you download new keyboards just like regular apps. Once downloaded, open them up and follow the steps to install them as a keyboard.

In Android, the new keyboard will be your default keyboard for every application. If you want to change back there is usually a settings button in the bottom that will let you choose which keyboard you want.

In Apple, after installing the keyboard, pressing the international “globe” button in the bottom left will cycle through your keyboards. This includes any pre-installed non-English keyboards you may have activated in settings.

Swyper keeps swyping

Swype was one of the first keyboards to give users an option other than typing letter by letter. “Swyping” involves simply pushing your finger over the keyboard from letter to letter of the word you want without lifting your finger. So if you want to write the word “consumer” you would swipe your finger from “c” to “o” to “n” and so on.

It’s a very quick way to write and a lot of other keyboard makers have developed similar systems that can be turned on and off in the settings.

The words right out of my mouth

The smartest thing that new virtual keyboards do is predict what you are going to type. There have been various versions of this technology over the years but the latest versions are now incredibly smart… sometimes.

The best example of this is done by SwiftKey. SwiftKey’s system uses your previous messages and social media entries to personalise suggestions for you (you have to allow SwiftKey access to Twitter, Facebook, Gmail etc). You can set it up so that pressing the spacebar will autocomplete the suggestion, this means that if the system is smart enough you can type most of your sentence by just pressing space.

My pick

SwiftKey is easily my favourite keyboard to use on Android, though it’s not quite as good on iOS. The prediction system is excellent and the built-in swiping system works very well. The issues I had with the iOS version are mainly design-based, so hopefully they’ll release some new themes and upgrades soon.

On iOS8 (using the new iPhone), I actually preferred using the basic Apple keyboard, however the prediction system is pretty awful. If you incorrectly choose a suggestion (by pressing space) the process for fixing your mistake is annoyingly difficult.

First look by Hadyn Green


Member comments

Get access to comment