Apple makes great smartphones. It does not always make great software. That applies to its keyboard, too.
Thankfully, now that we’re a couple of years removed from Apple opening the keyboard market to third-party developers, anyone in search of something new has a few worthy alternatives to choose from.
As someone who recently switched from Android to iOS, I’m one of them. So, for everyone’s benefit, I went on a search for the best of the bunch.
A few caveats before we settle in: First, I stuck to the free stuff; Minuum and Swype are ok, but as we’ll see, you can get something very good without dropping a dime. Second, I only considered boards that are actually made for typing. (Sorry, Kim.) Finally, WWDC is just around the corner. If Apple refreshes things, I’ll update.
With that said, here’s how the iOS keyboard landscape breaks down today.
CoolApp's Blink Keyboard has good things going for it. It's spaced out well, in a manner very similar to Apple's default keyboard. It's got a one-handed mode that lets you quickly crunch the board over to one side of the screen. There's a nifty 'fast delete' button that erases whole words at a time, and you can create shortcuts for phrases you type frequently. That's all great.
Actually typing with it is not. Its word prediction and overall accuracy can be rough; motions I'd use reliably with my top picks would too often result in gibberish here. There's also no trace typing support -- that is, when you slide your finger across the keyboard to form words, rather than tapping each key individually -- which handicaps one-handed use from the jump. All of that is a non-starter.
It's a similar deal with the Go Keyboard. Here you can adjust the height and spacing of the whole board on the fly, download a bunch of cutesy themes and stickers, and switch between several languages. There is trace typing, thankfully, and it's fairly quick.
But again, it can get a bit too sloppy for comfort. I had multiple instances where 'be' came out as 'bbs,' to give you an idea. It's fine, but when the options below exist, there isn't much incentive to go out of your way for it.
TouchPal is the most fun keyboard on the list. It's got a metric ton of themes, many of which are goofy -- the one above makes a Super Mario jump sound with every key press -- but altogether cute. If you're a total narcissist, you can even upload your own photos and set those as backgrounds. There are lots of languages, and TouchPal says it doesn't keep any info on what you type, which should sate the privacy conscious.
The board itself is good. It supports trace typing, has a mostly useful autocorrect, and is generally more forgiving than the two boards above. It's just not as natural feeling as what's below. If you're a faster typer (like me), you'll have to go back to fix a wrong prediction or weird spacing a little more often. Unless customisation is a big deal, you can do better.
The default iOS keyboard is good for what it is -- but what it is is boring. If you can get by with touch typing, it's still smooth and accurate, as you'd expect from native software. You won't have any crashes or lagging here. Its autocorrect and predictions are good, and the fact that it gives different word suggestions based on what app you're using is cool.
Not having trace typing just kills it for me, though. That makes it slower and more difficult to use with one hand than it needs to be. Themes would be nice, too. Everything here is reliable, but this list exists for a reason.
Fleksy is like a leveled-up version of Apple's keyboard. It's not quite as smooth, and it still lacks trace typing, but it performs close enough, and it tacks on a bunch of useful extras. There's a built-in GIF search, a one-handed mode (which, again, is inherently limited without tracing), hotkeys, wide language support, different fonts, and so on. You have to pay a few bucks to use everything, but the four 'extension slots' you get for free are fine.
Beyond that, you can adjust the size and spacing of the keys, and use a few gesture controls to speed things up. I particularly like the ability to delete whole words by swiping left anywhere on the board. There's a bit of a learning curve to all this, but once you get the hang of it, it's as efficient as any non-tracing keyboard gets.
Microsoft's Word Flow is a one-trick pony, but it does that trick well. The big hook is that you can round out the keyboard on either side, contorting it to a shape that might look too crunched for comfort, but is surprisingly effective in practice, especially since you can use trace typing. While it's not totally above mishaps, it was fluid enough to be my go-to anytime I was on the subway.
In a more normal shape, Word Flow is solid, if not super appealing. It's a clear step behind the top two picks, but it's painless enough with tracing or touch typing. It looks clean on top of that, and it doesn't force you to give Microsoft all your data. Still, you'd only really get this if typing with one hand is a regular issue. For that, it's ideal.
From a pure typing perspective, SwiftKey is tops. It's faster, more precise, and more effortless than any other keyboard I tested. Its predictions are routinely excellent, and it lets you switch from tracing to typing with ease.
That's because it adapts to your habits, internalizing your usual movements and silently adjusting the size and orientation of its keys accordingly. You can sync it with apps like Facebook, and Gmail to personalise it even further. It's like pressing your fingers into a virtual mould of clay.
I had moments where it'd take an extra second to load, and getting this level of accuracy means letting SwiftKey remember what you type, but if you don't care about anything beyond putting words onscreen -- or you live outside the US -- you can stop here.
If you want a keyboard that does a little bit of everything, though...
...You should download Google's Gboard. Apart from being a shrewd business move, it's just thoughtfully designed. Even if it's not as hyper-personalised as SwiftKey can be, it's still very quick, very smart, and very clean.
Everything about it feels like it's in the right place, from its sharp predictions and gesture typing, to the way it suggests relevant emojis based on what you're writing in real time. I didn't have any issues with crashing or slow loading, either. Even without its bonus features, it'd be one of the two best keyboards available.
As we've noted before, though, Gboard also lets you Google search right from the board, tapping into the search giant's vast array of links, images, GIFs, and emojis. This is what puts it over the top. All of those are laid out on neat little cards, and can be quickly pasted wherever they're relevant. You have to submit to Google's mother brain (and be online) for it to work, but it's the kind of thing that's hard to give up once you dig in.
Some iPhone owners might be very familiar with the idea of using Google's software to get things done on Apple's hardware, but if you're looking to shake up how you type, go with Gboard first.