One of Android’s best and most oft-overlooked features is its ability to switch out the default keyboard for an alternative. These come with extra, innovative features and are a vast improvement on the stock keyboards.
There are hundreds on the Play Store, too, and you can change keyboards until you find one you like. With this in mind, we’ve selected nine of the best keyboards available on Android devices.
But before you download them, it’s a good idea to work out what sort of typer you are. Some people love swanky swipe interfaces, whereas others feel more comfortable with more tactile traditional keyboards. On top of those are some really odd keyboards which do something a little different.
Switching between the various keyboards can be a bit of a pain, but if you tap the menu key on your device, choose “Settings” and then go to “Language & keyboard” you’ll be able to choose which ones are active, and which one is currently set as the default.
Smart Keyboard doesn’t include any gimmicks such as predictive phrases or swipe-based typing, but it’s a solid and substantial offering nevertheless. There’s a free trial available on the Play Store, and the only difference between this and the full version (£1.96) is an occasional nag screen to annoy you into buying it.
A really nice feature of Smart Keyboard is the ability to adjust the height of the keys. With other keyboards this is done with some pre-defined defaults, but Smart Keyboard uses sliders for an infinitesimal degree of customisation. This means you can have nice big keys if you struggle to see or hit standard ones, or really small ones if you want to increase your screen’s real estate.
Smart Keyboard ships with an iPhone-style keyboard by default, and it works just as well as Apple’s sleek and fluid option. There are other options for specific devices such as HTC or Galaxy smartphones, as well as standard Android offerings.
If you really want to get your hands dirty it supports an open-source keyboard format which means you can create your own, and even use these with other keyboards.
Download this if… You want big or small keys
Avoid this if… You don’t like gimmicks
If there was an award for best-looking keyboard, Adaptxt would win it hands – or fingers – down. Its spacious and airy layout and translucent graphics make it look and feel like something you’d find on a premium laptop – albeit in a virtual form.
Adaptxt also includes a handful of incredibly useful features. At the time of writing the Olympics are about to begin, and typing sports-related keywords lights a lightbulb icon at the bottom of the screen which takes you straight to the relevant Wikipedia page. There’s also an incredibly handy option to post whatever you’re writing straight to Twitter or Facebook without having to launch the relevant apps, which is great if you’re midway through a witty text or email.
On top of that there’s the ability to remove accents and diacritics, which add extra characters to text messages – something we naively didn’t realise.
Adaptxt is an innovative and super-smart keyboard, and one of the best we’ve come across. There’s even a private mode so certain words and phrases won’t be stored in its dictionary, making it ideal if you share your phone or tablet with someone else.
Download this if… You want an innovative, good-looking keyboard
Avoid this if… You hate new things
SwiftKey has been our default keyboard for many years, and it’s just got better and better. Its unique selling point is its ability to predict what you’re about to type based on previous emails, texts, Facebook updates and Tweets, and it works remarkably well. In fact, it’s almost spooky in the way it works out what you’re about to type next.
The result is that you barely even have to try to type, and you soon realise that most of your communications consist of a few key words or phrases. It’s astonishingly quick for exactly this reason, although we can understand some people’s reluctance to let the software sift through all your private emails and texts.
There are a few problems, notably one with the Chrome browser which is being worked on at the time of writing. It also only comes with a handful of skins and the layout can’t be customised. There’s a dedicated tablet version of SwiftKey, but this has to be bought separately on the Android Market.
Somehow, though, Swiftkey is still out favourite keyboard, if only for the fact that it makes entering text on a wee screen so incredibly easy.
Download this if… You want fast, accurate text input
Avoid this if… You don’t like the idea of it looking through personal data
Like SlideIT and Swype, TouchPal incorporates a swipe-based interface on top of the standard keyboard. This one includes a nice sparkly trail animation when you swipe, making it look more like you’re casting a spell in Hogwarts than typing out words on your phone.
TouchPal’s big selling point is its “Curve” predictive text, which means you don’t have to swipe out long words in full for it to finish them. In theory this makes entering text faster, but in practise it led to woefully inaccurate sentences: “lets” became “let’s” (annoying for grammar fiends) and “alter” became “Adler”.
Better implemented is its ability to automatically detect which language you’re typing in based on the installed dictionaries: it actually worked well enough for a few bilingual messages.
Another nice feature is that numbers and punctuation marks are entered by swiping up and down on the relevant keys, rather than long-pressing them, making their input faster and slicker. Even if the swiping was a let-down, and the least accurate we’ve seen, TouchPal’s other features more than make up for this failing.
Download this if… You’re a bilingual emailer
Avoid this if… You require decent accuracy
SlideIT takes its influence from Swype, by which we mean it completely copies it. The swipe-based input is basically exactly the same, interpreting your keyboard doodles into words with a fairly decent degree of accuracy.
But SlideIt does have a trick up its sleeve to set itself apart from its progenitor and competitor. Its clever – if gimmicky – feature is the ability to “draw” numbers and characters on a virtual laptop-style touchpad. It just about works, but it would be better if it was able to capture the entire alphabet with this method. This touchpad is also relegated to a tiny corner of the screen – we’d like to see it take up the entire keyboard space.
SlideIT’s initial layout feels tacky and overdone, with hard-to-read “3D” keys. Fortunately there are many alternative skins available on the Play Store, but most are quite garish. We’d really like to see Thumb Keyboard’s extreme and intricate levels of colour customisation here.
Although we’d recommend Swype over SlideIT, SlideIT’s big advantage is that it’s available on the Play Store. If you’ve got a device with Swype pre-installed we’d recommend that you stick with what you’ve got, but if you just want to give a swipe-interface a go SlideIT’s worth trying.
Download this if… You want to swipe
Avoid this if… You like a nice interface
The original swipe-based keyboard is still the best. It comes pre-installed on some Samsung devices, but if you want to get it on other devices you’ll have to jump through a few hoops as it’s not available on the Play Store. Visit beta.swype.com on your smartphone, and follow the instructions there to sign up and download it.
Once it’s installed you’ll find a smooth and accurate swiping experience, which can even work out which words you’re trying to input if you miss the letters by miles. It’s got a host of extra features, such as handwriting recognition (which actually works) and well-hidden shortcuts. Swype will also “learn” favourite words from your emails, texts and Tweets, which means you won’t struggle with unusual friends’ names or interesting spelling variations.
Speech recognition is also included, but this is Swype’s weakest feature and we couldn’t get it to pick up our vocalisations. The caveat is that Swype’s in beta, which means it may still have a few bugs, but also makes the speech recognition failing forgivable.
Download this if… You want the best swiping experience in the world
Avoid this if… You’re uncertain about installing apps from outside the Play Store
Boot up GO keyboard and you’re presented with an interface that’s more akin to a game than something that’s used for inputting letters. It includes the “GO Market”, where users can download new themes and hundreds of smiley-style emoticons, known as “Emoji”. Users can add special characters and sounds to their messages, and even completely revamp their entire phones.
Underneath all these superfluous add-ons lies a solid keyboard, though, and one that’s capable of supporting many languages, including Chinese handwriting. It can also switch between languages at the touch of a button, making it essential for people who switch between English and their native tongue.
It followed our keystrokes accurately, but predictive text is switched off by default – perhaps to make room for the sheer amount of tie-in apps and features GO Keyboard so eagerly promotes above the keyboard.
A nice touch is a dedicated selection screen, which uses lovely big arrow keys to make highlighting and copying text a doddle. All GO Keyboard’s content seems to be completely free – for now.
Download this if… You’re a texting teen
Avoid this if… You just want a keyboard
“Ergonomics” was a big buzz word in the mid-90s, and Microsoft exploited the crippling fear of RSI by creating a keyboard that was split down the middle, making it easier to reach keys and type words. Thumb Keyboard is the Android equivalent of Microsoft’s keyboard, and it similarly splits the keyboard and spacebar in two, placing the arrow keys in the centre.
The advent of large Android tablets makes this split a useful feature; no longer will you have to awkwardly reach across the device to reach the “G” key. And although the layout looks a little befuddling at first, it’s surprising intuitive and fluid, especially if you’re used to using your phone in landscape orientation.
It’s incredibly customisable, too, boasting separate keyboard layouts for different orientations, as well as the option to switch between the two. There are also settings for specific tablets, such as 5-inch “phablets” and vast 10-inchers.
Full colour customisation, predictive text and the ability to create a custom toolbar round off a substantial and useful offering, and it’s nigh-on essential if you’re using a tablet device. It costs 99p whereas other keyboards are free, but that’s the price you pay for “ergonomics”.
Download this if… You’re all thumbs
Avoid this if… You’ve got a tiny phone
A complete oddball amongst the standard QWERTY keyboards, 8pen has reinvented the wheel by literally inventing a wheel. It works more like an old school rotary telephone than a tappy or swipey keyboard, and you must place your finger in the centre of the dial and move it outwards to select letters and words, then back to the centre to input them. It’s completely different to any keyboard we’ve used before, and rather befuddling to begin with.
Fortunately 8pen includes a simple game – called “8pen Worldcup” – to help you get used to it. There are also a number of tutorials to aid you in retraining your brain to use it, and after a while we just about got the hang of it. The upshot of this is that 8pen reckons you’ll be able to type far more quickly, but Swype still stands as the official fastest input method according to the Guinness World Records.
8pen will divide users between those who regard it as a mere novelty and those who actually find it useful, and the only way of finding out which category you’re in is to download and use it.
Download this if… You want to try something fresh and unique
Avoid this if… You’re happy with QWERTY
Get Android’s latest keyboard on your device today
Android’s latest update, known as 4.1 or Jelly Bean, includes a vastly upgraded keyboard. It’s one of the best we’ve ever used, supporting predictive text and other high-end features while remaining nicely uncluttered and simple to use. It’s fast and accurate, and it includes -esque word prediction.
It’s not available on all devices, but if you’re running Android 4.0 – Ice Cream Sandwich – it will work with it. You can find out which version of Android you’re running by tapping the menu key from the homescreen, then going to “About phone” and tapping “Software information”. Your version will be listed under “Android version”.
Jelly Bean keyboard is a completely free download, too, but you purchase a donate version if you enjoy it.
1. Play the keyboard
Jelly Bean Keyboard is available for free on Android’s Play Store. Search for “Jelly Bean Keyboard” and tap on the entry made by Johntanmi. Tap “Install” and it will download and install on your device. You won’t get the usual “Open” option as it installs directly into the keyboard options of your device.
2. Ready for this Jelly
Press the home key on your Android device, then tap the menu key and choose “Settings”. Scroll down to “Language & Keyboard” and check the tick box next to “Android keyboard (AOSP)”. It will warn you about collecting data, but this isn’t an issue as Jelly Bean Keyboard doesn’t communicate with the internet.
3. Aisha… I’m vibrating
We need to set Jelly Bean Keyboard as our default keyboard, so tap “Default” and choose “English (UK)”. Next, tap on the slider settings to the right of “Android keyboard (AOSP). Here you can set vibrations, sounds and other preferences. Once you’ve set it up as you want it tap the back key.
4. As easy as ABC
Now compose a new text or email to get the hang of Jelly Bean Keyboard – it’ll pop up as soon as you start entering text. Tap some random words into the keyboard and it will automatically predict the word you’re typing, with three options displayed above the keyboard.
5. So predictable
Tap one of these options to enter it. If you’re typing a word that isn’t in the dictionary it will be displayed in the centre box. There may be multiple suggestions so just tap the correct word to enter it into your message and then tap the word once more to save it to your dictionary, so it will be recognised next time.
6. As easy as 123
At the top of the keyboard you’ll see numbers to the upper right of the letter keys. Long-hold on these keys to enter the numbers. Press and hold the “.” key to see commonly-used punctuation marks and symbols. You can also tap “?123″ to see more symbols and numbers. Tap “ABC” to return to the main QWERTY keyboard.
7. The great dictator
A handy feature included in Android is voice recognition, so you can dictate your texts and emails. Tap the microphone icon to the lower left of the keyboard and speak into your phone. When you’ve finished tap “Done”. It’s not perfect so it may take a couple of attempts to get it right!
8. Enter The Dragon
You’ve just got one of the best features on Ice Cream Sandwich on your device – well done! The more frequently you use Jelly Bean Keyboard, the better it gets at remembering words and predicting them, so try not to be lazy about saving words to the dictionary, and you will quickly have a more intuitive and natural keyboard.