Greetings, dear reader! Tell me, how happy are you with your current keyboard? Autocorrect got you down? Looking for something a little different? Well, AP is here to help. Crack those knuckles and wipe down that screen, 'cause we're doing a keyboard shootout.
I'll bet you the keyboard is your most used app, and you don't even realize it. Just think of all the searches, texts, and notes you poke out on a daily basis. Any improvement would be a big time saver. Luckily, everyone seems to think the keyboard is broken, and that they can improve on it. There's an almost endless line of companies claiming to reinvent the keyboard, with a newcomer every few months. The innovation and choice in this space can make it pretty confusing. So, what's good and what isn't?
We're swinging for the fences in the first edition of the Keyboard Shootout . It's time take a look at the biggest name in Android keyboards: Swype.
How It Works
Swype wants to replace individual key presses with one continuous finger motion across the keyboard. You put your finger on the screen, and, without taking it off, draw a line from one letter to another to spell your word. So for "wet," draw a straight line from "w" to "t" on your keyboard. While you are "swyping" a blue line shows where your finger has traveled, and lifting up from the keyboard denotes a finished word. Swype is one of the only "Word based" keyboards out there. Most other keyboards type letter by letter, but you don't get to see anything until you lift your finger and Swype presents you with it's autocorrected word. This has some advantages, like automatic spacing between words, and some disadvantages, in the form of less control for the user.
Who cares, right? Well, Swype warrants a special installation section because of how strange it is. Installing Swype is going to be either really easy or really hard. On many phones it comes preinstalled. If this is you, you're done! Everyone else, get ready to jump through some hoops. It's not available in the Android Market, so you can stop searching. You have to go to beta.swype.com, and register for the beta. Then you'll get an email. Click on the email link (on your phone only) and download, not Swype, but the Swype Installer. After installing the installer, login to the installer, then you can download and install Swype. It's the most convoluted installation process I've ever come across. This is a horrible way to introduce yourself to new users, Swype. Why not have a running beta in the Market?
High Highs And Low Lows
Swype has what I like to call a "high assumption" style of input. Your blue spaghetti isn't exactly definitive; there's lots of room for interpretation when turning it into a word. So Swype will mostly live or die on the strength of it's spaghetti interpretation engine. This is the exact opposite of a desktop keyboard, which is dumb as rocks and makes no assumption about what you’re typing. For instance, If you want to type “kwyjibo” on a desktop keyboard, it will let you. Swype on the other hand, will say “Oh no, that’s not in the dictionary, what you really meant was ‘Lenovo’.” This can be frustrating.
So how is Swype's interpretation engine? Well, it depends on what you're doing. Swype is rock solid when it comes to longer words. Actually, I would say, the longer the word, the better Swype does. And it should, as a word gets longer there are fewer possible words to choose from. Small words, on the other hand are really a toss up. “All” frequently becomes “ask” or “AOL” or “ASL”. Sometimes Swype just isn't sure what I want.
When Swype does work, it's a blast. It's impressive and even a little fun to see the pace of word output when you have a string of correct assumptions. Swype at it's peak is better than any other keyboard at it's peak. In a perfect world, Swype would be the best keyboard on the market. But we don't live in a perfect world. The speed of a keyboard is an average of it's high points and low points, and while Swype's high points are very high, it's low points are also very low; and frequent.
Adding Words To The Dictionary
Swype did a decent job of adding some of those words you think are words but really aren’t. It had no problem swyping Reddit, Atrix, YouTube, WordPress, it even picks up names from your contact list.
The reason for the heavy dictionary work is simple, if a word isn't in Swype's dictionary, there's no way you can Swype it. Swyping can only output a dictionary word, it's the only way it can make sense of your spaghetti style input. The problem comes in not knowing what is and isn't in the dictionary. That brings me to one of Swype's deep low points.
Most keyboards have a fast and simple way of entering a new word in the dictionary. Let's take a look at how the (mostly) stock Gingerbread keyboard handles the addition of a new word. In this case, "Picasa." The name of Google's photo brand.
In the left picture, "Picasa" is white, meaning it isn't in our dictionary. The bold, orange word, "Picasso", is what autocorrect will change our word to once we hit space. We don't want that, but luckily, we are have some options. Pressing on "Picasa" in the word bar will leave our typing as is, and pressing it a second time will add it to the dictionary. So you are given control in the form of two choices: "Do you want to keep this non-dictionary word?" and "Do you want to add this to the dictionary?". All this only added two extra presses to our typing. The traditional keyboard has handled this situation beautifully.
Here's the same situation with Swype:
Swype basically has no solution for non-dictionary words. You are never given a choice to add "Picasa." You can scroll the word bar as far right as you want, it won't be there. You have to delete the whole word and type it out regularly, like a traditional keyboard. Having to switch typing styles in the middle of a sentence is incredibly jarring. Adding to this frustration is the fact that Swype is terrible at touch typing. If you type too quickly Swype will connect your last two finger points. If you touch the word to reposition the cursor because of a typo, Swype will take the word away and replace it with an autocorrected version, and since we're typing a word is doesn't know about, that autocorrection is way off. Other keyboards will let you reposition the cursor because they autocorrect on a spacebar press. Autocorrecting on a cursor reposition is just wrong.
Corrections is where Swype's speed promise goes out the window. 2 extra presses on the traditional keyboard becomes 9 on Swype (Swype key to select the previous word, backspace, "picasa", double tap to add in the wordbar). Not to mention there is always uncertainty when this happens: Did you spell the word wrong? Was your swiping a little too messy? Is it just not in the dictionary? There's no way to know, so you'll usually end up swyping a non-dictionary word twice, then resigning to poke it in and add it to the dictionary. The worst part is, this interrupts your train of thought. You were thinking about what you were typing, now you have to think about Swype, and what went wrong.
Ok Swype, this is cool. Can we get this as a standard feature on every keyboard? Editing on a phone is usually terrible, but this helps out a lot. It's got arrow keys, easy to use select text and copy and paste, it's very nice. I didn't originally include it because it's so hidden. I had no idea it existed. How do you think you bring this up? Another panel button under "123"? Nope. To access it you swype from the Swype key to SYM. Who's idea was it to make this so hidden? Especially on a keyboard that rarely uses the space key, just make it a slot smaller! Or replace the language key, make that a hidden gesture. And speaking of hidden panels, there's also a second number panel:
Thanks to polo79 for pointing this out. You can get to it by swyping from the SYM key to the F/5 key. I actually like this quite a bit more than the regular number pad.
A typo on your end is similarly disruptive. On a normal keyboard a typo or misspelling means one or two letters to fix, but on Swype it means an entirely different word. Which means deleting an entire word instead of getting on with your message. Corrections on Swype are just so devastating to your WPM and train of thought. I'll be cruising along, getting a very nice word per minute count, when suddenly, I screw up, or Swype screws up, and everything comes to a halt. It's like driving a really fast car that crashes easily.
If you aren't the greatest speller, Swype is not the keyboard for you. Even the crappiest spell check could correct "beleave" to "believe," but Swype is more likely to give you "Beltane." The person on the other end of the line could easily understand "I beleave you," but "I Beltane you" is much less clear. Personally, as a pretty bad speller myself, I had a feeling Swype was actively trolling me at times.
There are also times when Swype just feels... broken.
What is this I don't even.
I can understand confusing "ask" and "all" but how did Swype get "Atoll" from the above drawing? I'm no where near the "T" or "O". Problems like this make me think I'll never get as good with Swype as I am with a regular virtual keyboard. How many errors like this are there?
The one missing feature that would be an absolute revolution for Swype is a grammar check. Swype doesn't do anything with the surrounding context, and when you are deciding between "Ask" and "AOL" that is exactly the information you need. The technology is out there. Microsoft Word has a pretty amazing grammar check. I understand it's unfair to ask Swype to be as good as a desktop program, but I would like to see some progress in this area. It should be able to figure out "Can I AOL you a question?" is wrong.
Inconsistencies And A Lack Of Trust
As I said before, Swype automatically adds spaces for you. In fact, you almost never use the space bar, It's almost unnecessary. Since this section is titled "Inconsistencies," you can probably tell what I'm going to say next, Swype automatically adds spaces for you... sometimes.
The Google Search app can take URLs or search terms. Here, Swype automatically adds spaces. In the browser bar, which also takes URLs or search terms, Swype does not automatically add spaces. So it is very difficult to type URLs in the Google app, and difficult to type searches in the browser. The two bars function exactly the same way, but they are in different places, so Swype acts differently.
Trying to type a web address when Swype wants to auto space is much harder than you imagine. Just hit backspace after every word you say? Nope. That would work if Swype added spaces to the end of a word, but it doesn't. It adds spaces to the front of a word. So for "Androidpolice.com" You can swype "Android", but you won't have a space to delete. Next, enter "police" which inserts "_police". Then ".com". Now you have to click in front of the "P" (you will probably miss the first time) and hit backspace. Congratulations, you have now entered your URL. Why doesn't Swype delete the space after ".com" is typed? That makes it pretty clear we are entering a URL, and URLs never have spaces. You can turn off auto spacing everywhere, but that takes away most of Swype's value in the speed department.
Ok! Pop quiz! In which of the following fields does Swype not automatically add spaces? A. The search bar, or B. The browser bar? Oh you don't remember? You need to remember. You need to commit all of Swype's little quirks to memory if you want to be fast or efficient. And this is my major complaint with Swype. It's all very inconsistent. Between the space or no space nonsense and the all too frequent damn-you-autocorrect moments, there is no trust. I never know what it going to happen when I Swype a word. I find myself double and triple checking my sentences, worried that Swype will be putting words in my mouth. You end up swyping one word, then stopping and waiting to see what Swype will do to it.
The Bottom Line
Typing with Swype is much less a flow of words and more a correction fest. If you bang out a whole paragraph and try to go back to correct, it's hard to remember what you meant, because, again, one typo becomes an entirely different word. I feel almost disconnected from the typing. Like I tell Swype what I want and Swype outputs a sort-of close approximation of what I wanted. When it does well, it's super fast, but when it does poorly, it's super slow. Other keyboards are much less of a words per minute roller coaster.
A good keyboard should fade into the background and be a silent conduit between your thoughts and your phone. But Swype feels front and center all the time. Autocorrect is supposed to help out, but Swype's only seems to make things worse. Correcting whole word typos takes much more brain and finger power than a single letter typo. That not only slows down my typing, but interrupts my train of thought.
The potential for crazy fast typing is there, though. Swype probably gives me the most words per minute of any keyboard, but often those words are not the ones I wanted. Some of this is my fault, and some of it is Swype's. My earlier analogy was very apt: Swype is a very fast, very unforgiving sports car. With lots of dictionary entry, a killer sense of spelling and a steady, smooth hand, Swype could be pretty good. The error prone need to stay far away. So I guess the question is, if Swype is a car, how good of a driver are you?
- It's Free.
- It's different. A whole new way to type.
- Very fast words per minute, when it works.
- Close words are a tossup.
- Any mistake is harshly punished. A one letter typo becomes a whole word typo.
- Spell check, compared to traditional keyboards, is almost non-existent.
- You can only Swype dictionary words. Non-dictionary words have to be entered with traditional typing. Changing typing styles mid sentence is very jarring.
- All these problems take you out of "the zone" and interrupt your train of thought.
If you're still interested in riding the WPM roller coaster, the line for Swype starts here.