One of the coolest things about Android is how flexible and customizable the platform is. You can replace practically any part of the system with a third-party alternative; you're never stuck using something just because that's the way it ships.
There are few better places to flex that power than with the on-screen keyboard. While the stock Android keyboard is certainly not bad -- and has actually gotten quite good, with the changes introduced in Android 4.0 and more recently 4.2 -- there are plenty of interesting alternatives available. And one of them just got very interesting.
I'm talking about SwiftKey Flow, the new beta version of the popular SwiftKey keyboard released this morning. SwiftKey Flow adds support for gesture-based typing, which means you can type by sliding your finger from one key to another without lifting it off the screen.
The app is currently available as a free beta download from SwiftKey's website. SwiftKey has yet to announce whether the final version of the keyboard will be integrated into its existing apps or sold as a separate application.
[UPDATE: The feature is now out of beta and integrated into the main SwiftKey applications. You can get it by downloading either SwiftKey's phone app or tablet app from the Google Play Store.]
SwiftKey Flow: A powerful typing package
The concept of gesture-based typing isn't new to Android, of course, but the combination of that functionality with SwiftKey's already-excellent interface and word-prediction technology packs a powerful punch.
SwiftKey Flow's slide-to-type feature is incredibly accurate, rivaling the likes of veteran Android gesture-typing app Swype and the native gesture-typing functionality in Android 4.2. In my early tests of the app, I've struggled to produce many errors at all; even with sloppy swiping, SwiftKey Flow does a tremendous job of figuring out what you're trying to say.
While the basic slide-to-type method is the same as what you see in other applications, SwiftKey Flow does add in a significant new twist: When inputting with gestures, you don't even have to lift your finger between words. You can simply swipe down to the spacebar, then swipe back up and move into your next word -- allowing you to type entire sentences without ever stopping.
I've found the continuous-typing feature to work impressively well, though it does take a little practice to get used to the motion. The good news is that you don't have to use it; you can just as easily lift your fingers between words and do a more traditional slide-to-type movement if you'd prefer.
SwiftKey's word-prediction system is fully integrated with the new Flow setup: With longer words in particular, the app will often figure out what word you're going for before you finish inputting it. When the word you want appears above the keyboard, you can simply stop swiping and the app will fill in the rest.
SwiftKey Flow uses its standard intelligent-prediction technology to guess your next word, too, with three choices appearing in boxes above the keyboard every time you stop inputting text. Its best guess sits in the middle, and like with the regular SwiftKey app, you can tap the word or just press the spacebar to have it instantly inserted into your sentence.
SwiftKey Flow: More than gestures
So that's the new slide-to-type element of SwiftKey Flow. As I said earlier, though, what really makes this app stand out is the combination of the gesture-typing feature with all the stuff that made SwiftKey so good in the first place. SwiftKey has always been one of the best options for regular tap-based Android typing, and the new Flow version is no different in that regard; you can switch between swiping and tapping seamlessly, and both experiences are top-notch.
SwiftKey's user interface is also a strong point, both from a visual and a functional perspective. On phones and tablets alike, the keyboard is clean and easy on the eyes (and themeable, too), with large, easy-to-press keys and plenty of on-screen functions.
Those on-screen functions make a huge difference. While I've enjoyed using Google's own gesture-enabled stock Android 4.2 keyboard, its setup is a bit sparse in on-screen functionality. Almost all of its special characters are hidden and require multiple key presses to access; on tablets, you have to toggle over to a separate panel of keys just to get to numbers.
On SwiftKey, in contrast, most common characters -- including punctuation marks, numbers, and things like the plus symbol and asterisk -- are accessible by long-pressing regular on-screen letter keys. This makes for a much faster and more intuitive typing experience.
SwiftKey's UI is also ahead of Swype's, if you ask me. Beyond that, it features native one-touch access to Google's excellent voice input technology instead of forcing you to use its own voice input system, as Swype now does. And once it's out of beta, SwiftKey Flow will be offered as a regular Play Store app with automatic updates, which is far more convenient for most users than Swype's independent-download-and-update approach.
SwiftKey Flow: Getting nitpicky
I do have a few minor gripes with the new SwiftKey Flow setup. First, while there is a tablet-specific version of SwiftKey Flow available, the slide-to-type functionality doesn't appear to work when used on a tablet in landscape mode. I found this to be the case when testing the app on both a Nexus 7 and a Nexus 10. (The app does, however, offer a split-screen keyboard option in this orientation, which is a nice touch.) I'm not sure if the disabling of slide-to-type functionality is intentional or not -- this is still beta software, after all -- but either way, it struck me as a bit odd to have the feature randomly unavailable in that one particular scenario.
Next, because of the added slide-to-type functionality, SwiftKey's handy swipe-left-to-delete-the-last-word shortcut is no longer present. If you haven't used SwiftKey before, you probably won't notice -- but if you're a SwiftKey veteran, the shortcut's absence may be a sore point. Thankfully, there's a relatively painless workaround: You can just long-press the backspace key to delete your last word instead. It's not quite as convenient, but you get used to it (and if you go into SwiftKey's settings, you can lower the required time for a long-press, which helps).
Finally, the initial setup of SwiftKey Flow was slightly difficult for me: I got numerous errors while following the prompts to download the U.S. English language pack and had to try a solid dozen times before I could get it to work. This is almost certainly an issue related to the beta nature of the software and the fact that SwiftKey's servers are likely getting hit hard with people trying out the new release today.
SwiftKey Flow: The bottom line
All considered, SwiftKey Flow is one impressive package. It combines the best of both worlds -- gesture-based text input and regular tap-style typing -- with an outstanding UI that looks great and is a pleasure to use.
SwiftKey has long been a compelling choice in the Android keyboard market, and with this latest release, the company has solidified its place at the top of the pack. Whether you like to swipe, tap, or speak to input, typing on Android doesn't get much better than this.