The next iteration of Apple’s mobile operating system is upon us, and it brings all kinds of improvements. Since iOS 7 was a mostly cosmetic upgrade, iOS 8 focuses on new features. Highlights include handy additions like interactive notifications, Siri’s well-deserved Shazam support for identifying music and better integration with the upcoming OS X Yosemite.
But one of the most freeing features found in the upgrade is the ability to (finally!) change the default keyboard. No longer are you bound to Apple’s stock keyboard, but can instead pursue alternative methods of entering text.
We’ve taken a good look at what’s available at this early stage, and how to get them set up.
Installing The Keyboards
Before you can replace Apple’s stock keyboard, you’ll have to choose a new keyboard to try. Today we’ll be looking at SwiftKey (free), Swype ($1), Fleksy ($1), and Minuum ($4), all of which were available from the App Store soon after iOS 8 landed.
Once you’ve chosen and installed an app, you’ll need to enable it in your device’s settings. SwiftKey has a handy guide on how to do this, as well as a video.
Head to your Settings app, then go to General > Keyboard > Keyboards. Choose to add a new keyboard, and pick it from the list of third-party keyboards. Finally, tap the new keyboard’s name and choose to Allow Full Access (not required for Swype).
You’ll get a warning message about this, but it’s required by the operating system. Obviously, a keyboard can theoretically collect everything you type into it; rest assured that well-known developers are keeping your info safe.
Now, simply head into an app that requires you to enter some text, like Messages. When you tap a text box, your new keyboard should be waiting for you. If it isn’t, hold the globe icon on the bottom-left to switch between installed keyboards.
When first using alternate keys in my testing, the stock keyboard kept popping up instead, so it’s probably a good idea to disable it. To do this, head back to the Keyboards section of Settings; tap Edit and you can use the red icon to send options away or the bars icons to rearrange them. I recommend that once you find one you like, keep only that one enabled, because switching with the globe is annoying and doesn’t always do what you want.
After this, your keyboard is all set up! We’ll dive into the specifics of each in the following sections.
SwiftKey is a much-loved app on Android, where it has come out on top in tests due to its magically accurate text correction and customization options. We advised that it was worth paying for, but recently SwiftKey has gone to a freemium model; the core functionality remains free while in-app purchases provide additional themes.
SwiftKey’s only previous presence on iOS was its note-taking app, SwiftKey Note, which used the predictive technology but was limited to being used inside the app. Now that SwiftKey has broken out of its cell it’s far more useful.
It’s a pleasure to report that SwiftKey’s iOS version is great, just like its Android cousin. Predictions are fantastic, even when you make a complete mess of your words, and the bottom-right key allows you to quickly type a period, comma, question mark, and other common punctuation, something that I always hated having to open the second page of the Apple keyboard to do. Also, you can long-press on a key to get its accented version quickly.
SwiftKey comes with two themes to start: dark and light. You’ll also find a few self-explanatory options. Unfortunately, you can’t customize it as much as the Android version yet, as it lacks features like resizing and adding a number row. Hopefully these choices will be added in the future.
SwiftKey also includes Flow, its Swype-like typing system that lets you glide over the keys. I’ve never been a huge fan of this typing method, and prefer SwiftKey’s regular auto-correcting powers. But if you’re a fan, the option is there.
SwiftKey also includes the ability to use more than one language at once. Head to the app’s Languages setting to add any others you converse in, and you’ll be able to switch between them at will. Finally, setting up SwiftKey Cloud is recommended, as it allows you to personalize the service by letting it learn from your accounts and back your settings up for other devices you use. If you already use SwiftKey on Android, using your Google account to sign in means your iOS experience will be fine-tuned to you!
Overall, SwiftKey for iOS is a fine offering. As a primary Android user, the only key feature I found lacking was the ability to backspace by swiping from right-to-left. It’s not a dealbreaker, but I still wish it was there.
Swype is another popular keyboard alternative that’s had a following on Android for some time. Before SwiftKey had Flow, Swype was the main contender in the finger-dragging method of typing. Let’s see how it stacks up on iOS.
Swyping works quite well, and the keyboard actually has a few advantages over SwiftKey. While the latter lets you long-press a key to use its accented variant, Swype assigns numbers and special characters (like the dollar sign) to a long-press, as well as the accented letters. This is another gripe many have had with the iOS keyboard, as switching to the second page to type a special character is tedious. Swype also supports multiple languages; though it won’t let you type in both at once like SwiftKey, you can simply hold the spacebar to switch between dialects at will.
Since you’ll be Swyping instead of typing (which you can still do for uncommon words), they’ve built some shortcuts into the app. To quickly type a period or comma, you can slide your finger from the appropriate key to the spacebar. The same can be done for exclamation points and question marks, using the X and M keys respectively. You can also slide in from the numbers and specials key to quickly insert one of those.
Finally, to type a capital letter, Swype the letter then move your finger above the keyboard without releasing. For example, to capitalize YouTube in the middle of a sentence, start at Y, then slide above the whole board, then back down to finish the word.
Swype will auto-correct and predict your words; if you need to add a word to your dictionary tap it out and hold on its prediction above the keyboard. You can also remove words this way that the app may have added for you.
Tapping the Swype logo in the bottom-left corner will allow you to pull up a number pad, switch keyboards, or access the settings, where you’ll be able to choose between five themes, delete entries from your dictionary, and tweak your languages.
Overall, Swype is another solid choice. If you hate swiping to type then you’ll obviously want to stay away, but it’s a fine keyboard whose major advantage over SwiftKey is the included numbers and symbols on the main screen. SwiftKey has it beaten on price, but it’s worth a dollar to try out – and it doesn’t require full access like the others. You use your keyboard all the time; it’s worth finding a good one!
Fleksy is yet another alternative keyboard that has migrated to iOS. It claims to be the fastest keyboard in the world, and even holds the Guinness World Record for the feat. Let’s see if its claims are truthful.
When you open the app, you’ll be able to toggle between three different sizes and choose whether to show or hide the keyboard. This goes a long way into making Fleksy a visually attractive option, as it doesn’t have symbols everywhere and looks clean. There’s also a nice range of themes, but half of them cost extra on top of the $1 for the app, which is lame.
Fleksy is all about minimalism, so you’ll have to learn some gestures. Among them:
- Swiping left will delete the prior word, and you can hold the swipe to continue deleting.
- Swiping right inserts a space and accepts the predicted word.
- Swiping down changes the suggestion, while double-tapping the spacebar can quickly insert punctuation when combined with swiping down.
- Swiping up twice will add or remove new words in your dictionary.
- Swipe down with two fingers to switch to minimal mode and back up with two to show the spacebar again.
After some testing, Fleksy is the most customizable and attractive offering of the four, but its corrections leave something to be desired. One of the biggest ways this manifests itself is in multi-word correction. If you type a few words without a space, SwiftKey is great at picking up what you meant and separates them when you finally enter a space. But Flesky failed at this even with easy phrases like “My Name Is Ben,” including when I typed it without errors.
While SwiftKey feels like it “just works,” I felt like I was constantly fighting with Fleksy; Mihir wasn’t a huge fan of its Android offering for the same reasons. The gestures are nice, but they start to get a little overwhelming and definitely won’t find an audience with those who like to keep it simple.
It’s not awful, but SwiftKey is better in almost every facet other than lacking the swiping-left gesture. Plus, it’s free. Save your dollar and see if you like SwiftKey first. If you like Flow and want to try something else like it, spend that dollar on Swype.
Minuum prides itself on being tiny to save precious screen space on mobile devices. However, Erez stated that this minimal keyboard is becoming less necessary with today’s giant screens and powerful processors when he reviewed it on Android. Let’s see if it has a home on iPhone, especially with its pricey $4 tag.
Minuum doesn’t have any options to tweak at all, and its gestures are kept to a minimum. Like Fleksy, swiping left deletes and swiping right inserts a space. To collapse the keys into a single row, you swipe down, while swiping up expands it back up. The autocorrect is decent, and the gestures are helpful without being overbearing.
The single-row works surprisingly well, though it would likely become frustrating when trying to tap out a message quickly. With the screens of both new iPhones, especially the iPhone 6 Plus, increasing in size, the need for this type of app diminishes. Users of budget Android phones, especially older ones with tiny screens, would have welcomed the app.
There’s not much else to say about Minuum. It doesn’t do anything better than the other offerings, you aren’t able to customize the app at all, and its key feature isn’t even that useful. And with a big $4 ticket price, it’s best to stay away from this one for now.
At present, there aren’t a whole lot of keyboards out there – and those that are have mostly come from Android, where they’ve had years to mature. The best overall package you can get at this point is SwiftKey. It has a competent Swype-like Flow mode, effective autocorrect, two themes and syncs between devices – all for free. Swype is runner-up, as it performs its advertised feature well and only charges a dollar, without requiring full access to everything you type in order to work. Due to the competition, Fleksy and Minuum simply aren’t worth bothering with at this point, in my opinion.
This is just the beginning of replaceable keyboards on iOS. New contenders will be popping up all the time, and the existing apps will get even better. It’s an exciting time to be an iOS user; take advantage of it by trying out a new keyboard or two! If you’re really into keyboards, check out some ways that Android users can find their best keyboard.
Which keyboard are you using with iOS 8?