In iOS 8, Apple is adding support for third-party keyboards. This means that iOS users can finally replace the default stock Apple keyboard with a myriad of choices already available on the App Store.
Keyboards are tied with an app. There is not a separate ‘keyboard store’. To find a keyboard, you search in the iOS App Store like any other app. Once you have downloaded an app that contains a custom keyboard, you must then enable it in Settings. Go to Settings -> General -> Keyboards -> Add New Keyboard and select the new app. This is kind of annoying, since it forces every app to instruct you how to install their keyboard in case you are new to the concept.
With that out of the way, what are the best keyboards available for iOS 8 to download today? Read on for 9to5Mac’s comprehensive roundup.
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Swype is the iconic custom keyboard. With incredible popularity on Android, as well being featured on stage at WWDC in June, Swype is looking to replicate its success on iPhone and iPad. In Swype, you drag your phone between letters of the keyboard to spell words and then release. Swype uses refined language models to determine what the user wanted to type. It also inserts a space after every word, to dramatically speed up typing. There’s some clever tricks too, like punctuation prediction: typing ‘How’s it going’ will suggest ‘?’ in the suggestion bar.
The team’s first version for iOS features the core app functionality; updates will include connectivity features, more themes and more languages. I actually found Swype particularly helpful on iPad, when using one-handed in portrait. Swiping is much more efficient than hunting-and-pecking on a large touchscreen.
On Android, SwiftKey and Swype battle for top spot. I believe the same battle will happen on iOS. SwiftKey and Swype have some overlap, with SwiftKey offering a ‘Flow’ mode for swipe-based text input which works well. SwiftKey focus on their “incredibly accurate” next word prediction, a better version of Apple’s QuickType. Unlike Swype, SwiftKey has cloud connectivity to allow the app to offer better predictions by analyzing information from your Twitter account, Facebook or Gmail inbox. The network access also allows SwiftKey to sync your personalizations across devices on both iOS and Android.
The standout feature of SwiftKey is that it supports writing in two languages at once. For example, the prediction engine is good enough that you can setup English and Spanish support simultaneously and just type normally. The keyboard will suggest words for both languages seamlessly.
Minuum’s headline feature is that it can shrink to a collapsed view, which saves screen space by grouping keys into separate buttons. There is also some swipe gestures to speedup basic operations. You can swipe left to delete words or swipe right to insert a space. Although sort of redundant on the large 4.7 inch and 5.5 inch screens of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Minuum’s compactness will appeal to iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 users. Although it supports iPad, I see no reason to choose Minuum over a more-standard layout on such a canvas. Customization options are limited right now, but the company is teasing more languages and new themes for future updates.
Fleksy has existed on iOS for a while, but up to now it has been the responsibility of individual developers to add Fleksy as an option in their apps. With iOS 8, Fleksy can become a first class citizen. Fleksy relaxes the need to be accurate with button taps. The software is designed to account for a lot of inaccuracy. This is shown best by the fact Fleksy does not draw separators between keys in the interface — they don’t think they are necessary. I found the accuracy to be impressive.
Fleksy integrates emojis directly, which is a big bonus. Like Minuum, it can also be shrunk down to a smaller size. You can also hide the spacebar for a ‘minimal’ appearance. Swipe gestures enable quick punctuation and word deletes. Fleksy supports over 40 languages and also comes with a selection of free and premium themes for some added flair. You can also switch between alternative character layouts like DVORAK and AZERTY if you are more accustomed to those orders.
TouchPal uses an aesthetic that closely mirrors the default keyboard. I think the idea is to offer some additional features without forcing users to relearn habits they have built up with the stock keyboard. It works to some extent, but breaks down when the more subtle behaviors are not implemented accurately. TouchPal does offer some neat enhancements though, such as shortcuts for number and punctuation entry, an integrated view for entering emojis and more. Superscript inscriptions expose what long-press shortcuts are available.
KuaiBoard is interesting. It has a massive selection of preset text snippets to quickly insert into your document. This spans email signatures, canned email responses and more. Another tab crawls your Address Book for contact information to insert, like names, addresses and phone numbers. You can also quickly attach a Maps link of your current location, if friends want to know where you are.
What’s nice about KuaiBoard is that isn’t meant to replace your default keyboard. It is meant to be used in conjunction with a normal QWERTY keyboard. This means its more of a shortcut screen than a full replacement. I like it. It means dedicated keyboard makers can focus on making keyboards, and the developer behind KuaiBoard can focus on adding the supplementary features.
The TextExpander keyboard is unique. On the Mac, TextExpander allows users to type keywords and have them automatically transformed into longer phrases, useful for when users have to write the same thing many times over. On iOS, the sandbox model means TextExpander can’t really exist. With iOS 8, the keyboards system means the TextExpander service can be transient across all apps, as long as you are using TextExpander’s keyboard. That’s the tradeoff. If you aren’t already invested in the TextExpander ecosystem on the Mac, there is no reason for you to want to use this keyboard. However, having a syncing text-shortcut system is very powerful. Whether this is something that is worth sacrificing for better overall text input (keyboard development is not Smile Software’s focus) is a tough call.
After a few weeks of extensive testing with these keyboards, I am still unsure whether I will use these personally. The stock keyboard is very good (even better in iOS 8) and although swipe typing is useful, I’m not sure I’ll ever really miss it. The lack of inline autocorrect across all of these keyboards is a big sacrifice.
That being said, custom keyboards are huge business on Android. I’m sure the big players will be popular on the iPhone too, like Swype, Fleksy and SwiftKey, but it’s just not for me. A lot of this stems from the fact I am already ingrained into the behavior of the stock keyboard. I think custom keyboards will especially appeal to those switching from Android, who have already been using these alternatives for a while elsewhere. Let us know your thoughts in the comments!