The openness of Android has created whole avenues of development that would simply not be possible on other platforms. Take keyboards, for instance. Plucky developers have raised the bar, imagining new ways to enter text and introducing predictive language features that can guess your next word. Forget custom colors and shapes; this is the future of writing on smartphones. TouchPal X (free download, Google Play) packs a slew of high-end features for a bargain basement price, but then missteps with odd optional add-ons and a yearly subscription model starting at $2.99. But what it does for free it does pretty well.
If you’re familiar with Editors’ Choices Swype and SwiftKey, you already know the central features of TouchPal X. As with Swype, you can drag your thumb over letters to create whole words—it’s so shockingly intuitive that Google made its own version called Google Keyboard, which is now stock on many Android devices. On TouchPal X, this drag-to-type feature is called “Curve.”
Like SwiftKey, TouchPal X tries to guess your next word, to make tapping out a quick message even faster. The difference is that TouchPal peppers the keyboard with whole words instead of displaying the best option across the top. To select one, you have to tap and drag it to the spacebar. TouchPal calls this feature “Wave.” I quite like this approach and feel it makes for a better typing experience—though it does look rather ugly and cluttered in action.
The TouchPal X keyboard also has secondary characters overlaying the primary ones. The whole top row, for instance, doubles as a 0-9 numpad, and the bottom row has useful shortcuts to symbols like “@” and “?”. Simply drag your finger up or down over these keys to type the secondary characters. I was impressed with how easy it was to use, but I ran into some trouble when trying to use it with Wave enabled. For example, when I went to drag the “e” to a “3″ it autocompleted to “Tim.”
Learning Your Words
Learning from what you text has been part and parcel of the smartphone experience since the day the first smartphone user muttered, “Damn you, autocorrect.” Early on, SwiftKey introduced the idea of augmenting personal language models with data scraped from other sources, such as users’ Twitter accounts; TouchPal X also includes this feature.
When I test Android keyboards, I always type the phrase, “I am enjoying the hams of my ancestors,” and see how long it takes to have those words appear sequentially in the app’s suggestions. I was very impressed with TouchPal, which only needed to see the sentence once before it parroted it back to me. Of course, depending on how complex the language model is, this could get a bit annoying if the app just absorbs rote phrases without taking context or frequency of use into account.
I also use a negative test with predictive keyboards, running nonsensical phrases through the keyboard to see what it predicts. In the past I’ve used the @horse_ebooks Twitter account, but have switched to the truly robotic @sort_of_face after the former broke my heart by being merely human. As I expected, TouchPal didn’t predict a single word. However, there was one thrilling moment where after typing “Archie Comics” and “Betty,” I thought TouchPal suggested the quite contextually accurate “Veronica,” but sadly I was mistaken. It had suggested “Verruca.”
TouchPal X also scrapes the net for “trending words,” which it displays in the settings as series of news articles. Presumably, these are the “trending” sources. In action, this means that when I typed “Betty,” it suggested I follow it with “White.”
One of the most remarkable things about TouchPal X is the sheer number of features it jams into a single app. A top bar gives you fast access to useful extras, including a shortcut for composing tweets from the keyboard. There’s also a handy alternate editing keyboard with buttons for highlighting, arrow keys, and shortcuts like copy and paste. I found this last feature extremely useful since I never seem to get Android’s built-in text selection to work the way I’d like.
TouchPal also includes multiple keyboard formats that group more characters onto single keys. I’m not sure about the utility here, but someone must like it. You can also change the look of your keyboard by accessing the TouchPal settings, which are just a tap away from the keyboard itself. Most keyboard themes are free, but some cost 99 cents.
Keyboard themes, additional language profiles (up to 60, though only a few support Wave), and “sub-dicts” are available in the TouchPal store. Sub-dicts are sub-dictionaries, which contain specialized words. Most of the free sub-dicts are regional, like [EN] New York, and contain place names. Other professional sub-dicts, like [EN] Computer, cost 99 cents. Though impressive, I think the sub-dicts are a bit of a waste, since TouchPal X will learn the words relevant to you the more you use it.
As with Swype and Google Keyboard, you can also use voice dictation to enter text. With all three apps, I continue to be amazed with the progress of voice-to-text technology. However, TouchPal does not have one of Swype’s truly unique features: handwriting recognition.
A featured called Feel the Speed shows folks who have a competitive streak how fast they type with TouchPal X. According to the app, I topped out at 324 characters per minute and am ranked 2,349,446th.
Finally, sliding up from the spacebar reveals an emoji keyboard containing smileys alongside a range of other stranger characters like snakes and Easter Island heads. Weirdly, the emojis buttons in TouchPal appear to be the Apple iOS emojis. But, when tapped, the Android emojis appear in the text. That’s a bit deceptive.
Problems in the Pricing
Although Wave is its signature feature, TouchPal differentiates itself with a unique but lamentable pricing scheme, too. The app itself is free, but several key features—like backing up your dictionary to the cloud, syncing said dictionary between devices, and “Cloud Prediction” will cost you $2.99 to $3.99 a year depending on the sale season. TouchPal also has a large array of add-ons that cost 99 cents a pop—the most notable of which is an additional 800-odd emojis.
The important thing here is that most if not all of the free features of TouchPal X are what you pay to get in Swiftkey and Swype. But then again, Swiftkey and Swype are one-time payments. Though I attempted to purchase TouchPal X’s premium features, doing so only returned an error, so I did not consider them in the review.
Your Typing Pal?
I consider the Google Keyboard to be the baseline for quality and features for keyboards on Android devices. This assessment might be unfair because Google’s a tough act to follow, but both Swype and SwiftKey have included thoughtful features and polished designs that make them Editors’ Choices. While TouchPal X certainly exceeds Google Keyboard in terms of features, its pricing and execution fall below my top choices. It feels too much like a kitchen sink, and not enough like a well-designed tool.
In the end, TouchPal X’s features are quite a bargain for free but not worth a yearly subscription. Play for free, but pay (just once) for something better.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc