Imagine a smartphone keyboard that was intelligent enough to predict what you were going to type next. One that could save you from pecking letter after letter, and instead, lets you simply select and insert entire words into a message. You’d be stoked, right?
Well, the good news is that such a thing exists. Android users have long enjoyed these types of intelligent keyboards. And now, iPhone and iPad users will finally get the chance to experience them, too.
With the release of Apple’s latest mobile operating system on Sept. 17, the company is opening all iOS 8-supported devices, including the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, to third-party keyboard apps. I’ve been testing two options — SwiftKey and Swype — over the past few days, in addition to Apple’s newly revamped QuickType keyboard.
All three apps make typing on the iPhone smarter and easier because of their predictive technology. This is different from the previous iOS keyboard, which simply auto-completes or auto-corrects a word (sometimes with hilarious results). That’s still there, but each keyboard also uses a predictive-language algorithm to guess what you’re going to say next, based on context. They even learn your typing habits and vocabulary to provide a more personalized experience.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind about these keyboards. First, SwiftKey and Swype are both in beta, meaning that the apps aren’t final. The companies are still testing and adding features, and you may experience some bugs or limitations. Second, these keyboards learn as you use them, so you may not get the best results at first. But they should get smarter over time.
Left to right: Predictive text on QuickType, Swype and SwiftKey
That said, SwiftKey was my favorite of the three. Its predictions were the most accurate, and it features a swipe-based input method that’s a real time-saver.
But before I get into my experiences with SwiftKey and Swype, I want to talk about QuickType, since it’s the default keyboard on iOS 8 devices.
Though Apple has been tweaking its virtual keyboard over the years, QuickType marks the first significant update to the iOS keyboard since the iPhone premiered in 2007. And it’s a vast improvement.
There are a couple of things in particular that I thought made QuickType smarter than the other keyboards. First, it can tailor contextual suggestions based on what app you’re using, or who you’re communicating with. You might be more formal in emails to your boss, but use a lot of abbreviations and slang when texting with friends. QuickType will know this, and will adjust its predictive language accordingly. SwiftKey and Swype do not do this.
Also, QuickType can save you some time by providing short responses based on the context of a message. So, for example, when I received a text from a friend asking if I wanted Chinese or Italian for dinner, QuickType automatically populated the prediction area above the keyboard with “Chinese” and “Italian,” so I could quickly select a response.
By the way, for privacy and security purposes, Apple says that your typing patterns are only stored locally on your device, and not shared with anyone. That means that if you have multiple iOS devices, you’ll have to train the keyboard on each device.
Despite some of these thoughtful touches, I kept gravitating back to Swype and SwiftKey, largely due to their gesture-based typing feature. The latter allows you to type words by sliding your finger from letter to letter, rather than pecking at individual keys. It takes a little getting used to, but works surprisingly well. And when coupled with the predictive capabilities, it can really speed up the typing process.
Swype, by Nuance, which also makes an Android keyboard, was one of the first companies to use the swipe method. Its iOS 8 app will launch in the App Store on Wednesday, for a promotional price of 99 cents. It works with the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.
I used Swype to compose texts, emails and take notes on the iPhone 6, often repeating the same messages with QuickType and SwiftKey to see how they compared.
In general, Swype performed well. When spelling out words using the swipe method, the keyboard often got the word right on the first try. I liked that you could long-press the top row of letters to enter numbers, instead of having to switch to number view. Also, its predictive capabilities continued to improve as I used the app. That said, Swype seems to require a little more training than the other keyboards.
Swype in action
Our staff photographer is from Croatia, and has an uncommon name (Vjeran). After sending a couple of messages to him, QuickType and SwiftKey automatically populated his name after I typed in “Vj”. Meanwhile, Swype required a couple more tries.
The keyboard does have an “Add to dictionary” feature, where you can tap a button to immediately add words to your personal dictionary. Call it nitpicking if you want, but I felt this interrupted the flow when composing messages, especially when compared to SwiftKey. But if you want more control over Swype’s learning habits, this would be a good option.
Though Swype’s Android app has a cloud service that can back up your dictionary and sync it across multiple devices, it’s not enabled on the iOS app. Instead, it stores all that data locally on your iPhone or iPad like QuickType.
SwiftKey will also be available starting Wednesday, and it supports the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. It’s free, and the company plans to offer in-app purchases like different keyboard themes (similar to its Android version). The company did not have a time frame of when they might add that feature.
You can give SwiftKey a jump-start to learning your vocabulary and how you type by connecting your Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Contacts and/or Evernote accounts to the app.
The company’s free SwiftKey Cloud service is available on the iOS app for backup and syncing. It can also update the keyboard’s predictive-word database on a daily basis with names and terms that are currently trending on Twitter and other news sources. If you’re concerned about security, SwiftKey says all your data is encrypted, and it doesn’t sell your information to third parties. Plus, this is all optional.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code SwiftKey
SwiftKey’s swipe gestures worked well, and its word prediction was more spot-on than the others. It’s also super-fast at learning your vocabulary.
At the risk of sounding like a big nerd, my brother and I are currently playing a Simpsons videogame where you have to procure 20-sided die and blow up each other’s castles. Over the weekend, I sent him a text saying, “I got more 20-sided die to blow up your castle!” Out of the three keyboards, only SwiftKey was able to provide correct predictions when I taunted him a second time. After typing in “20-,” SwiftKey offered “sided” and then “die” as a suggestion.
SwiftKey isn’t perfect, though. The keyboard doesn’t automatically add spaces after punctuation (the company says it made this decision after user testing). I also experienced an error when trying to send a message within Words With Friends. My entire message thread disappeared, and I wasn’t able to type anything. I had to exit and restart the app.
Still, SwiftKey would be my iOS 8 keyboard of choice. But if you have a preference for a more traditional keyboard, or want more control over what’s added to your vocabulary list, QuickType and Swype are certainly solid apps. It’s just great that Apple now gives you the option to choose.