Let’s face it: Typing on your touchscreen mobile phone with your big fat fingers is still too difficult and error-prone. Five alternate Android keyboards aim to make text entry on a tiny touchscreen faster and easier using a variety of methods, from radical redesigns to smarter predictive text.
The newest and most ambitious of the bunch, 8pen redesigns the mobile touch keyboard completely by splitting the keyboard area into quadrants. To type, you swipe circles around the quadrants that specify letters based on what quadrant your circle started and ended in. The 8pen keyboard takes dedication and time to learn, but once you do, text entry is very fast with big targets fit for big fingers. You can program certain gestures to output frequently used phrases, too. For example, a circle could output your email address or full name. The 8pen keyboard is free in the Android Market.
Pros: 8pen’s large quadrants and function keys are almost impossible to miss. Custom gestures for frequently-used phrases is a powerful time saver.
Cons: 8pen’s learning curve is extremely steep. Plan to work through the 8pen tutorial and spend at least 20 minutes just learning the placement of the letters in the quadrants.
Skip to 1:18 to go right to seeing what it’s like to type with 8pen:
Like Google’s own Gesture Search input, Graffiti offers Palm-like writing on your Android device. To use it, draw a letter similar to the way you would with a pen on a piece of paper onto the touch canvas. Graffiti is free in the Android Market.
Pros: No pecking, just intuitive swiping, familiar to Palm graffiti lovers.
Cons: There’s a medium learning curve while getting all of Graffiti’s gestures down pat; also, tapping a letter key takes a lot less time than swiping it out Graffiti-style.
SlideIT (Gesture-based on traditional keyboard layout)
Similar to Swype and ShapeWriter, SlideIT is a gesture-based keyboard that uses the key layout you already know. To type a word, slide your finger from letter to letter on a standard QWERTY keyboard. SlideIT involves a bit of getting-used-to, but once you’re there, it’s easy to type very fast even with some inaccuracy in your gestures. SlideIT is about $8 (depending on the exchange rate) right now in the Android Market.
Pros: Easy to learn gestures for people who don’t like pecking; also offers a graffiti mode.
Cons: Takes some time to teach it words it doesn’t know through old-school pecking, like proper names.
ThickButtons (Traditional keys)
ThickButtons is the same keyboard layout you already know, but it integrates smart text prediction into the keys themselves. With ThickButtons enabled, as you type, it enlarges the particular keys it anticipates you want to tap next based on the word you’re inputting. ThickButtons is free in the Android Market.
Pros: Zero learning curve.
Cons: Removes Android’s voice input button from the keyboard.
SwiftKey (Traditional keys)
SwiftKey is also a traditional keyboard, but with souped-up text prediction smarts. Instead of basing its predictions only on the letters of the current word you’re typing, it also uses the word that appeared before it. It learns how you write as you use it, and will predict words in phrases you type often. SwiftKey is free in the Android Market.
Pros: Virtually no learning curve and highly accurate predictions. Also adds other shortcuts, like the ability to swipe across the keyboard to delete the last word you typed.
Cons: SwiftKey crashed my Nexus One once, right after installation, and requires you install a language module to enable predictions.
Mobile keyboard preferences are a personal thing, but out of all five, I liked two of these keyboards the best. If you’re into gesture-based input, go with SlideIT. If you like tapping as usual but just want better text prediction, SwiftKey is a great start–with ThickButtons a close second.
Until our smartphones are smart enough to read our minds, happy hunting, pecking, and sliding.