Google Keyboard (for Android) review

Google Keyboard is a completely adequate alternative text input, but if you're looking for more features consider shelling out for a competitor.
Photo of Google Keyboard (for Android)

Perhaps taking a page from Apple’s playbook, Google has incorporated the ideas pioneered first by Swype and then SwiftKey and rolled outtheir own keyboard app. The app includes Swype-sorry, “gesture typing,” predictive text, multiple language and keyboard support, and a unique feature: Floating Preview. While Google’s low-cost (free) alternative keyboard is perfectly serviceable, it left me wanting more.

Starting Up
Unless it was shipped standard on your Android device (as is the case for several Samsung phones), you’ll have to configure any keyboard app once you download it from Google Play. Google Keyboard walks you through the process, and the typically clean Google-esque screens make short work of it.

Google deserve some credit for making a single app that works on both tablets and phones—SwiftKey has separate apps for phones and tablets.

During set up, activating multiple languages in Google Keyboard confused me. First, I had to uncheck “use device language,” and then select others from a list of 56 languages which was otherwise greyed out. These appear to be non-Latin text keyboards, though it was unclear to me.

Further customization is found in the Settings, which you access by tapping the app’s desktop shortcut. Settings covers the normal gamut of options, though was notably missing multiple keyboard skins and had no alternative keyboard layouts like SwiftKey’s split keyboard.

Also missing was a social integration component. With SwiftKey or Swype, you can let the app scan your Twitter, email, or Facebook to pick out words and patterns of speech unique to you.

I did like that Google Keyboard not only builds a custom dictionary of words, but allows you to add words from within the app. Other keyboard apps don’t allow you to directly interact with your dictionary, except through the keyboard itself. Google makes this process much easier.

Perhaps in a swipe (pun?) at Apple, Google Keyboard does the double-space-bar-as-a-period trick.

You can also add alternate dictionaries from a list of 25 languages and formats. Again, I was confused about the dictionary/non-Latin keyboard dichotomy, which the other keyboard apps handle better. Also, both Swype and SwiftKey support over 60 languages, and SwiftKey was particularly well set up for switching seamlessly between languages.

Writing With Google Keyboard
There’s little aesthetically different between Google’s keyboard and the stock Android keyboard you see on most phones, with thick white letters on generously spaced chiclet keys. SwiftKey’s default keyboard uses longer, distinctively shaped keys that stand out among other drab keyboards.

Taking a page from SwiftKey, Google Keyboard shows three suggested words above the keyboard as you type. Also like SwiftKey, Google Keyboard shows three next word suggestions, intended to save you the trouble of typing. This can speed up your typing quite a bit, but it didn’t feel as smart as SwiftKey. Google Keyboard didn’t appear to adapt to my writing, and the company does not list it as a feature of the app. That’s disappointing, since I was really impressed with SwiftKey’s adaptive language learning.

Google Keyboard cleverly includes a much larger list of possible words, which you access by tapping and holding an ellipses symbol below the center word suggestion. I liked this much better than Swype’s ribbon of possible words.

Google Keyboard also supports “gesture typing,” more commonly known as Swyping, where you drag your finger between letters to spell out words. SwiftKey called this feature Flow, and included it in their last major update. I actually thought Google’s gestures felt tighter, and more responsive than other keyboard apps. 

As you move your thumb between letters, a thick Google-blue trail follows in your digit’s wake. Once you release your thumb, the center word is placed in the text. To start over without adding text, simply drag your thumb off the keyboard. While Swyping, Google Keyboard displays its top three suggestions, though you can only select them as corrections after the fact.

Floating Preview is Google’s main innovation with Swype-style input. While moving across the keyboard, a grey window hovers near your thumb showing the word Google thinks you want. Since my eye generally follows my thumb, I always knew what to expect and this was a big improvement over Swype and SwiftKey which often felt like blind luck typing.

Swype came pre-bundled with their Dragon dictation software as well as a handwriting recognition option. Google ignores handwriting, and its presence is not missed, though it does include a button to activate its built-in dictation software.

Google Does Good, Not Great
I think that Google sees Swype-style input as a major differentiator between Android and a radically changing iOS. If this is a flag-ship feature, Google probably wants to make sure every single Android user can get a hold of it. That’s why they’ve brought this free, good-not-great app to market in the first place. Expect it to be standard in future versions of the OS.

And frankly, that’s a good thing. Though it seems strange at first, Swyping (or whatever you want to call it) is a great way to interact with your phone and feels like the first major innovation in smartphone user design since pinch and zoom.

Android users should absolutely down some kind of keyboard app. Google’s free offering is perfectly fine if you don’t need extra features. Swype is feature laden, and even includes a mobile version of Dragon Dictate and cloud syncing for your dictionaries. SwiftKey puts big emphasis on adaptive learning, and felt better suited for users who frequently use multiple languages. Choose your weapon.

Specifications
Type Business, Personal
Free Yes

Verdict
Google Keyboard is a completely adequate alternative text input, but if you're looking for more features consider shelling out for a competitor.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc