Saturday, 16 March 2013

Android Jellybean's gesture keyboard

I am now the proud owner of a Nexus 4 smartphone. I'll save the upgrade story for another post and focus here on a comparison between Swype and the built-in gesture-based keyboard of Android 4.2 Jellybean.

No more upgrade blues

Before I got the Nexus 4, I had used Swype for all mobile text input for nearly three years. The most obvious difference - and perhaps the most important - has already been mentioned. Not only was Swype not built-in. It was a memory-hungry add-on which was not even available in the Google Play store, and I always had problems installing upgrades. Having my preferred keyboard as an integrated component of the mobile operating system is a huge step forward.

Word recognition is excellent

The Android 4.2 gesture-typing keyboard doesn't have Swype's extended gestures, such as swiping above the keyboard to capitalise a letter. (Instead, you have to tap the Caps key.) Nor does it have Swype's very useful secondary Select-Copy-Paste keyboard. But it is blazingly fast and seems to do a pretty good job of picking the right word from my approximate gestures.

The Android gesture keyboard - better than Swype in some respects

Handles mulitiple languages better than Swype

All in all, as an experienced Swype user I have found it fairly easy to make the switch to Android Jellybean's built-in gesture keyboard. Some functions - notably, switching between different languages - are handled significantly better than in Swype. There are one or two rough edges, and I expect the keyboard to improve in subsequent versions of the operating system, as Google responds to user feedback. But it is already extremely good. Most important of all, my gesture typing speed is already back up to my previous Swype level... or maybe a little bit faster.

Pro tips

I have not managed to find a complete guide to the Jellybean gesture keyboard's functions anywhere on the web, and I have the feeling that there is more to be discovered, but here is what I have worked out so far:
  • As in Swype, to write a double letter make a little squiggle gesture on the relevant key.
  • To engage Caps Lock, double-tap rapidly on the Caps key.
  • If the keyboard consistently fails to recognise a particular word, let your finger linger on the missed letter. For example, I found that the keyboard regularly interprets 'app' as 'asp'. To correct this, I just have to slow down the gesture as I pass over the letter 'p'.
  • For an extended selection of matching words, swipe up from the suggestions bar and then release the gesture on the correct match.
  • You can add new words to your personal dictionary. The first time you use a word that is not in the built-in dictionary, you'll have to tap out the letters one by one. The word will appear on the left of the suggestion bar. Tap to accept the word and then tap a second time to save it to the personal dictionary.
  • Words can also be added to (or deleted from) the personal dictionary directly. Go to Settings > Language & input > Personal dictionaries and tap the + sign top-right to add the new word. You can even add a shortcut, which is especially useful for words that include non-alphabetic characters such as email addresses and Twitter hashtags. It can also be used for commonly typed phrases such as "Thanks for your message". It seems strange that you cannot access your personal dictionary straight from keyboard setting (see below), but perhaps this will be added in a future upgrade.
  • In normal use, there's no need to enter spaces after each word. They are inserted automatically. But for full predictive text input, add a space and the keyboard will suggest the next word. I am not certain whether this is just a gimmick or whether it could actually be useful. That depends, I suppose, on the extent to which the system is able to learn the user's style from his actual word choices.
  • To correct a mistyped word earlier in your text, double-tap the word to select it and then choose Replace... This brings up a short list of alternative matches or allows you to delete the word altogether if the word you want is not included in the list. (To delete the selected word directly, just hit the Delete key.)
  • A tap-hold on some keys brings up a list of secondary characters - numbers, accented versions of the letter (but annoyingly not the corresponding capital letter). Tap-hold the 'new line' key to jump to the end of the previous or next paragraph.
  • Tap-hold the mic key to access keyboard settings. I regularly write in French as well as in English, and it was easy to add the second dictionary and keyboard layout from the impressive list of input languages. With more than one input language activated, a language selector key appears on the left of the space bar. Tapping this key cycles through the active languages. Multilingualism is something the Jellybean keyboard handles very much better than Swype.
  • By default, the Android gesture keyboard offers a 'Dynamic floating preview' of the suggested word over your gesture. I can see that this might be useful (or reassuring) to someone completely new to gesture-based text entry, but I found it distracting and keep it turned off.
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