Despite the ubiquity of touchscreen keyboards, no one has figured out how to make tapping words on glass a pleasurable experience. But the Android app SwiftKey (priced at £2.99) comes close. While iOS users are stuck with the stock keyboard, SwiftKey takes full advantage of Android's openness and swaps out your mobile device's existing keyboard for one that's better designed for thumb-typing (and also makes smart predictions about what you'll write next).
While it won't replace a traditional keyboard for accuracy and speed on long documents, SwiftKey's Flow input – a new feature, similar to Swype – makes firing off quick messages a breeze, and its smart suggestions get better the more you use the app.
SwiftKey supports 60 languages, including several that use non-Latin character sets. You can select up to three languages at a time, toggling between different keyboards by holding down the space key, surely making life easier for polyglots everywhere.
However, I did notice some quirks. When I activated a Cyrillic keyboard for testing, two of my friend's Twitter usernames appeared as top suggestions in SwiftKey. While these would surely disappear with time if I trained SwiftKey more, the app appears to have confused the "@" character at the start of their Twitter handles with a Cyrillic one.
The words must flow
Flow is SwiftKey's take on Swype-style typing, where you drag your finger over keys to spell words instead of tapping them out. I have always disliked using Swype, so I was surprised by how natural Flow felt. As I moved over letters, different suggestions appeared above the keyboard. Releasing my thumb selected the suggested word, hovering over a letter added a double letter, and swirling in the middle cancelled.
Typing out long words and sentences was difficult with Flow, and required knowledge of the keyboard that went beyond the level I possess as a fairly competent touch typist. I also found it hard to see around my thumb to the letters I was highlighting, or the suggestions the app returned. However, it shines while dashing off text messages or search terms.
SwiftKey goes one step further than autocomplete by attempting to deduce your words based on context and your habits. The app presents its predictions in three slots above the keyboard; the centre is what it believes is the most likely, and the ones to the left and right are the runners up. While testing on a Samsung Galaxy S3, I found SwiftKey's predictions to be uncannily accurate, and much more useful than autocorrect. The catch is training yourself to look at the suggestions, and to pick one before you complete a word.
In practice, SwiftKey actually changes the way you type. For instance, if you're frequently firing off the phrase "see you later," those three words are more likely to appear in succession in the app's predictions. Instead of typing out those 11 characters, you may eventually see a suggestion for "see" followed by "you" and then "later."
SwiftKey's CMO Joe Braidwood explained that the company started with an advanced language model scraped from the largest repository of novel utterances available: The Internet. When you fire up SwiftKey for the first time, it downloads this default database and uses it to power its suggestions. The more you use SwiftKey, the more personal data the app has to draw from, and the more accurate the predictions become.
During setup, you can give SwiftKey access to your Twitter, Facebook, and Gmail accounts to fine-tune its prediction engine to your unique mode of speech. This step is entirely optional, but doing so definitely affects the suggestions the app presents.
Admittedly, the app accumulates a remarkable amount of information about how you speak, but for now that information stays on your phone. However, the app ignores password fields, and users can easily delete specific suggestions from SwiftKey by tapping and holding them.
SwiftKey also makes changing your default keyboard painless, walking you through each step and providing useful advice such as reminders to hit the "back" button when necessary. What's more, the grey on black keyboard with tall, slightly curved keys looks fantastic.
SwiftKey is one of the few apps to take full advantage of Android by changing something as fundamental as the keyboard, and it looks great doing it. With its smart design, powerful engine, and an array of options, SwiftKey seems as perfect a mobile keyboard as there can be.