One long standing criticism of iOS has been its lack of support for third party keyboards, but with the introduction of iOS 8, developers are now allowed to build custom keyboards that can be used on both iPhone and iPad.
Once Apple announced support for third-party keyboards, popular plug-ins from Google's Android platform were quickly developed for iOS, such as Swype and Swiftkey. Initial offerings have seen their fair share of bugs, however.
Adding and managing keyboards is simply not user friendly in iOS. Many times the downloaded app does nothing and in all cases the user must go to their phone's Settings > General > Keyboard > Keyboards > Add New Keyboard then "Allow Full Access" before they can use the newly downloaded app.
Managing multiple keyboards while typing is also cumbersome and in most cases the user loses voice-to-text capabilities found in the stock iOS version.
Still, custom keyboards offer creative ways to input text on iOS and when properly executed extend the power of existing applications.
First released on Android, Swype by Nuance allows users to input text by simply swiping their finger across the keyboard. The app intelligently determines user intention, allowing continuous swiping without having to lift a finger off the screen while entering a word.
On iOS, the Swype gesture typing works just as well. Swype makes typing with one hand easier (especially on the new, larger iPhones) and its predictive text allows you to select the next word just like the stock keyboard.
Holding a finger on the Swype gesture symbol in the bottom left corner brings up a mini-menu. From there users can select the globe to switch keyboards, bring up a convenient number pad for numerical entries, or select the gear icon to switch themes and toggle autocorrect features.
Like many other third party keyboards, users lose the ability to transcribe their voice with Siri. The microphone button is simply absent.
Swype is available for free from the iOS App Store.
With quite the dramatic trailer video, Swiftkey promises to learn how a user types in order to better predict and correct text input. On the surface, Swiftkey has decent autocorrect and prediction built in, but users can also sign up for "Swiftkey Cloud" and even give Swiftkey access to a Gmail account for enhanced machine learning.
If users don't feel comfortable giving Swiftkey access to the cloud, it still offers some unique features. The keyboard can recognize multiple languages without having to switch modes, meaning users can type one sentence in English, the next in Spanish, and the app will correct both natively. Supported languages are English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and German.
Swiftkey has one other feature that steals some thunder from Swype: it includes the same gesture based input. Gesture typing is not on by default, but can be enabled in the Swiftkey app settings. Once enabled, users can swipe out words just like the Swype app.
A free 28.2MB download from the iOS App Store, Swiftkey is worth a try.
Text Expander 3 + Keyboard
For those not familiar with Text Expander, it is an application available on both iOS and OS X that allows you to create text shortcuts for larger strings of text. The built in keyboards of iOS and OS X offer text shortcuts as well, but Text Expander is more powerful. For example, a web developer might want to create a shortcut to expand into the
a href link in HTML. Creating a Text Expander snippet such as: "hr" will instantly become
This powerful tool is now available as an iOS keyboard. Any snippets that a user has programmed on OS X or iOS will sync via Dropbox. Then the Text Expander keyboard can be accessed in any app and typing the programmed snippets will expand text instantly. Even text repeatedly entered on a daily basis, such as email addresses or phone numbers, can be made into snippets that save time.
Text Expander 3 with iOS keyboard is available in the App Store for $4.99
One Handed Keyboard
Users who have purchased an iPhone 6 Plus may realize the difficulty of typing one-handed. One Handed Keyboard attempts to solve this problem. Once installed, switching to this app displays a two-thirds size keyboard on either the left or right side of the screen. The size closely matches the keyboard on the iPhone 5/5s and most users will be able to reach all the keys with one thumb.
Holding down the spacebar expands the keyboard to full screen width if the user chooses to type two-handed.
Using the keyboard in the smaller size makes tapping numeral and punctuation keys difficult, however, and the auto-correct is not as good as the stock iOS keyboard.
For those truly missing one-handed texting, One Handed Keyboard costs $1.99 in the App Store.
Any significant amount of time browsing the internet will uncover an animated GIF. These usually comedic, animated images have long been used in internet "memes" but can also be fun to share with friends when an emoji just won't cut it.
With the free GIF Keyboard on iOS, users can browse various emotions or characters in the form of GIFs. Tap on a GIF to copy it, and then paste anywhere. Users can also save their favorite GIFs or view a recently used selection for quick access.
It should be noted that GIFs may not work in all apps, such as social media feeds and forum threads.
GIF Keyboard is a free download from the App Store.