Text Entry Apps (Part 1) : GKOS, MessagEase, Fast Keyboard, FlickKey

2/6/2013 6:06:10 PM

One of the iPhone’s greatest strengths is its size. Small and narrow enough to be always easily pocket able, it’s portable enough to go everywhere. But when it comes to writing, that’s also its greatest weakness: if you can type at length with any accuracy on the screen, you’re probably a lemur.

Whether you stab with your fingers or palpate with your thumbs, the process can be fiddly, inaccurate, and downright frustrating when you need to enter more than a few lines of copy without errors. And we’ve all seen the autocorrect disasters that can result from haste.

Apple has tried to remedy this with Siri, which allows you to dictate to your iPhone (or the latest iPads and iPod touch). But Siri often mishears you, especially if you have a non-standard accent} and there are many situations in which you may not want to be speaking into your phone, or the background noise is just too great for Siri to hear you.

Unfortunately, iOS doesn’t allow third-party software to replace its default on-screen keyboard. That’s why the makers of Swype, a popular text entry system on other mobile platforms, haven’t released a version for Apple. Several other developers, however, have come up with ingenious new ways of getting words into your iPhone. Here we test nine.


Description: GKOS Free

This experimental app uses a type of text entry system known as ‘chording’. It divides the screen into three: on the left and right are five buttons each side, and the area between them is where your typing appears.

The letters A to F appear on alternate buttons down both sides; to type one of these characters, just tap it. Between them are the letters O, S, G and K, with W and a lone TH hanging in the middle. These behave differently: tap a letter to enter it, or hold one - such as G - and the subsequent three letters (in this case, H, I and J) appear on the opposite side, where they can be tapped to enter that letter.

Punctuation appears when you tap and hold a regular letter: A, for example, pops up a hyphen and a question mark. Holding the TH symbol pops up a selection of ‘that’, ‘to’, ‘the,’ ‘and’ and ‘of’. It takes a while to get used to what pops up when, even if you know your alphabet pretty well, since you’re just not used to thinking about it like this. There’s no way to access numbers yet.

GKOS isn’t ready for serious use, but it’s an interesting concept, and we found our speed did improve with practice.

MessagEase free

Description: MessagEase free

The nine most-used characters in English - a, n, i, h, o, r, t, e and s - appear in a 3 x 3 grid. The rest of the alphabet is superimposed, clustered around a central square containing the letter o. These letters are accessed by swiping on the square in which they appear, in the appropriate direction: so to type m, for instance, you swipe right on the letter r.

Around this grid are keys for numbers, Return, Delete and Space. Swiping up on the Space key populates the character squares with punctuation and symbols.

Like all alternative keyboard layouts, MessagEase gets easier the more you use it. But we’d question whether this one is really worth the effort, because the app’s lack of autocorrect means all errors have to be fixed manually as you go along.

Fast Keyboard Free

Description: MessagEase free

A regular keyboard is complemented here by two extra rows of keys above. By default, these show numbers and basic punctuation; you can scroll the rows up to reveal nine further rows of currency, mathematical and other symbols. Tapping an arrow brings up a strip down the right that contains icons for selecting, cutting, navigating and exporting text - by email or SMS, to Twitter and Facebook, and so on.

When the keyboard is hidden, there are further export buttons and settings for disabling autocorrect, as well as word and line counts - and advertising spots from Apple’s ¡Ads, the price you pay for the free app. Files can be stored locally or shared using Dropbox.

Fast Keyboard is a useful system if you regularly need access to numbers or symbols, making the process much slicker than using the build-in key board.

FlickKey Free

Description: MessagEase free

This app shoehorns the entire alphabet onto three large buttons, nine characters apiece, arranged in a grid. Tap anywhere on a button to use its centre letter, or swipe on it in any direction to get the letter located there; so swiping north-west on the e button gives you a q. Three buttons beneath hold punctuation, numbers, and additional keys such as Delete and Shift.

This sounds reminiscent of Swype, a text entry system that’s popular on other touchscreen platforms. Swype’s makers have said they aren’t releasing an iOS version because it ‘does not fit into Apple’s vision for its products’, meaning they don’t see the point until third-party keyboards are allowed to replace the default one.

FlickKey doesn’t work the same way as Swype, though, and its autocorrect function, though welcome, is a little over-enthusiastic: how often, on tapping A, do you really want to type ‘A-bomb’?

The makers have also created a demonstration version, FlickKey Mini, which shows how the system could be used on smaller devices like the previous-generation iPod Nano and touchscreen watches. It can’t actually run on a Nano (since it requires iOS), but when run on your iPhone or iPod touch it shows how the system could make more sense on tiny screens.

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