Sunday, 9 June 2013

App Spotlight, Episode 2 - SwiftKey

Text input on mobile phones has come a long way. From the old T9 keypad to BlackBerry's world famous physical QWERTY keyboard to today's software QWERTY keyboards. While the technology has swiftly changed to fit with the current trend of capacitive touch screen smartphones, users have found the switch a little bumpy. Without a tangible typing experience, we practically need to be looking at our phones constantly as we type, as opposed to how it was back in the day. I could confidently type an SMS without looking at my phone thanks to a physical T9 keypad I could feel. I bet many long-time BB users could type just as easily as well. The removal of a tangible keypad has made blind typing (accurately) almost impossible. On small screens, typing can be a challenge due to closely spaced letters. Typing errors have become accepted as a normal occurrence when it comes to typing on a software keyboard. Embarrassing auto-corrected messages have spawned an entire genre of internet LOL moments and have found their way into the internet hall of fame. Luckily though, software keyboards are getting better and better. Predictive input and more accurate auto-corrections are making the experience much more pleasant. While some mobile OSes may not allow the user to use 3rd-party keyboards, Android users have been blessed with a number of incredible software keyboards to choose from. SwiftKey is arguably one of the most used, and best choices in the Play Store.

SwiftKey has two versions of their keyboard; a smartphone version and a tablet version. Together, they have amassed more than 5 million downloads. They each have high ratings  (4.6 and 4.4 respectively) which are indicative of just how good these keyboards are. What makes SwiftKey's keyboards so good? There are a few things actually.

Personalised dictionary
SwiftKey has a built-in dictionary which it uses for auto-corrections and prediction. But we don't always use proper language when chatting with friends and family, we sometimes use abbreviations. Some names of friends and family members are also not part of any dictionary. Names of places as well. SwiftKey learns from us the more we use it, and adds words we frequently use into its dictionary for future reference. My personal dictionary has names of my friends, places I visit frequently and even abbreviations that I use. These words are then used for predictions and corrections, which leads us to our next point.
Various sources that SwiftKey uses to
learn our personal language preferences
.

Predictive input
Speed is important for many people. Sometimes typing out a sentence just seems to take too long. SwiftKey's predictive input does an incredible job of predicting what word we are likely to use next and allows us to insert it into our sentence with just a single tap. It also learns from us the more we use it as I mentioned earlier, so more personalised suggestions and words we use often are suggested more frequently. It also predicts words as we are typing. So typing out "approx" will give us "approximate" and "approximately" as suggestions which we can tap to complete the word. Eventually, we will be able to type out full sentences without typing out individual words, but just by selecting words SwiftKey predicts.

Auto-correct and Smart Space
Yes, auto-correct can lead to some embarrassing moments, but with SwiftKey's ability to learn from our usage, the auto-correct capabilities are a bit more accurate than ordinary auto-corrections. Smart Space is an extension of the auto-correct capabilities of the software. It can insert spaces between words when we forget to. For instance, we can type out one long misspelled jumble of letters, and SwiftKey will use auto-correct and Smart Space to get the words we wanted to type. This can really help when we are typing very quickly.

Flow
Since smartphones with touch screens have become the norm, physical keyboards have gone out the window. But the smooth surface of a touch screen allows for a new method of input which was never possible on a physical keyboard; swiping. Instead of tapping on the screen to type, simply swipe over the letters and the software will determine what letters you are swiping over and put together the word it thinks you are intending to input. SwiftKey's Flow through space feature also allows you to swipe over the space bar, which means you can enter a whole sentence without ever having to lift your finger off the screen. What's cool is that you don't have to choose between typing or swiping. They both work simultaneously so you can type out one word then swipe a few before typing again. 

Multi-language support
Most people in the world speak more than one language. As a result we often use more than one language when we type as well. SwiftKey supports 60 languages, so everyone can type in their mother tongue. And rather than needing to switch between different languages as we type, SwiftKey is capable of juggling three languages simultaneously. This goes for predictions and corrections. Personally, this alone is a great reason for me to continue using SwiftKey as I regularly switch between Malay and English when communicating. 
Simultaneous multi-language support FTW!
Customisation options
While SwiftKey has a lot of very functional and useful features, it isn't without a few cosmetic features as well. Themes change the colour and design of our keyboard and can give a refreshing experience to the user. We can also adjust the height of the keys, enable/disable vibrations and key press sounds and split the keyboard in landscape mode. 

Those are a few of the main reasons why I think SwiftKey is the best keyboard in the Play Store. The stock Android keyboard as well as the stock OEM keyboards are good, but no where near SwiftKey in my opinion. You should try it out. You can install a trial version for one month before deciding whether or not to purchase it. But I'm pretty sure if you try it out, you'll never use another keyboard again.