As a long time Android user one feature I couldn't wait to try on my new Apple iPhone 6 Plus (check out my review) was the support for third-party keyboards. Unfortunately, I should have known better than to think Apple would allow these developers to bring the full Android experience to iOS 8.
Available alternative keyboards
CNET has a video walkthrough of some alternative keyboards and a short list to consider. There are quite a few options, but here are the primary ones available today and brief notes on them:
SwiftKey: Free — There is a lot of advertising for this popular keyboard and it seems to be doing well. You can tap each letter or swipe your finger around to enter words. There is no number row and no press-and-hold for alternative characters so it isn't my personal favorite.
Swype: $0.99 — Swype was a standard for me on Android, especially with their Sounders FC theme. Unfortunately, on iOS 8 there is no support for these themes yet and the press-and-hold for alternative characters doesn't work. You also do not get the Dragon integration found on Android.
TouchPal Keyboard: Free — I thought it was an iOS 8 limitation, but it turns out that TouchPal has figured out how to make the press-and-hold function work so you can easily enter numbers and popular punctuation without having to jump to another keyboard view. They also have fun emoji support and colorful themes. It can be a bit slow and you do have to move to the next word or press the space bar to have the typed word entered into the text field. UPDATE: TouchPal was updated the day after I posted this article and now puts the word into the text area as you type. It has also been sped up and is my new favorite alternative keyboard with performance nearly matching that found on Android.
Minuum: $1.99 — Minuum has a mini mode that offers an interesting take on text entry, but there is a learning curve associated with it. The full keyboard doesn't have numbers or alternative characters. Swiping is not part of this keyboard, but there are gesture shortcuts.
Fleksy: $0.99 — This keyboard has the Guinness title as world's fastest keyboard and has been featured by Apple. The keyboard is resizable and supports gestures, but doesn't use swipe entry or have number or characters available from the main keyboard screen. There are different color themes and emoji support.
The installation process for these keyboards is different than what you are used to for apps and games. Many of the keyboards have a short tutorial to help you out, but for most you download and install the app and then take a visit to the Settings area on your iPhone.
Follow this path in Settings: General > Keyboard > Keyboards > Add New Keyboard > and then select the keyboard you want installed.
You will be asked to provide full access in order to enjoy the full functionality of the keyboard. I didn't enable this at first because the agreement seemed a bit daunting with talk about how they could track my bank account number and other private data as I used their keyboard to enter text. If you don't allow full access then the experience is pretty terrible as the default Apple keyboard keeps popping up interchangeably with your selected alternative.
While the full access agreement has some scary terms, many of the developers specifically state that they are not storing and sharing this data and it is just used to improve your text entry experience. It's up to you to decide how much information you are willing to share with third-parties.
Key setting to make the experience better
After installing SwiftKey and choosing it as my preferred keyboard in several apps, I continued to see the default Apple keyboard appear. This forced me to constantly toggle between my preferred keyboard and drove me so crazy that I just removed all third-party keyboards and stuck with the improved Apple version.
I then discovered that you can click Edit where your list of keyboards appears in Settings and then move your preferred keyboard to the top of the list. By doing this, I found SwiftKey to then appear where I expected 95 percent of the time. The default Apple keyboard still appears for password entry, but I'm fine with that since I am not looking for any kind of prediction with my passwords.
What are the major problems with keyboards in iOS 8?
I seem to constantly bump into limitations with these alternative keyboards that then have me jumping back into the default Apple keyboard. In SwiftKey, I enter a search term, but then there is no option to hit enter and initiate the search. Tapping the magnifying glass icon just enters a space after my search term.
The dictation in iOS 8 is quite good, but you will find that the microphone is removed from these third-party keyboards since Apple apparently isn't allowing them access to this functionality.
Suggestions for the default Apple keyboard
While I enjoy the swiping method of entering text on my smartphones, I am fine tapping away on letters if the prediction is good and accurate. The Apple keyboard has gotten much better in iOS 8 and unless you really like the swiping capability you may want to just stick with the default keyboard.
There are a couple of things I would like to see Apple implement on future iOS keyboards. I hate that the Apple keyboard mimics a desktop QWERTY keyboard with every character appearing in all-caps. Android switches between upper case and lower case depending on the context and I wish Apple would implement this usability feature as I hate looking to see if the Shift button is toggled.
I would love to see either a number row or the ability to press-and-hold on letters to enter numbers or alternative characters.
With these two improvements, I would likely never have the need to use a third-party keyboard.
Which keyboard do I prefer?
I currently prefer the SwiftKey keyboard with the Apple keyboard as the backup. I was excited about finding TouchPal and its press-and-hold capability, but it is too slow for me and I hate the way the words sit in the queue above the keyboard. UPDATE: As I noted above, TouchPal was updated the day after this article and is now clearly my preferred iPhone keyboard.
It is great to see alternative keyboard options, but a couple of improvements by Apple would be even better.