Sep 23, 2013

    Typing on touchscreen phones made easy

    TOUCHSCREEN phones have become so good at some tasks that they have all but replaced landline phones, pocket cameras and printed maps. But there is one feature that they still struggle to get right - the keyboard.

    The flexibility of the full touchscreen has won out over tactile, physical buttons, leaving users with a keyboard that is just an image on glass and small keys that get cranky around big thumbs.

    Still, users don't have to settle for their smartphone's default keyboard. It can be swopped or altered easily. All it takes is a change in the settings, or buying an app.

    Here's a sampling of tips and apps to help improve your typing experience on iOS and Android.


    Many smartphone users make the mistake of tapping out whole words one letter at a time. A quick way to speed up typing is through predictive text.

    Once the feature is turned on, the device will predict what word you are typing after filling in only a letter or two. Choosing the full word takes just a single tap.

    To turn on predictive text, go to Settings. Look for the keyboard options and select "auto correction". Then, start typing, and when the complete word appears - usually in a list just above the keyboard - tap it. The predictions usually improve over time, as the device learns which words you prefer. So, the more you use it, the more time it will save you.

    Another option is using a nonstandard keyboard layout, like the one provided by Fast Keyboard, a free Apple app.

    With the app, you won't need to keep switching the keyboard from letters to numbers - they all appear on the same screen. Symbols like hashtags appear on the screen, too, and cut, copy and other functions are also within reach.

    The downside of the app is that it doesn't completely replace the default keyboard. It can be used for certain apps, like e-mail or text messaging and social media. Android replacement keyboards can work with all of its functions and apps.


    If you find yourself repeatedly using the same phrases over and over, so-called typing-expansion programs are for you.

    When using these programs, you assign an abbreviation like "omw" to automatically turn into "I'm on my way home, honey, need anything?"

    Typing expansion is built into Apple products and the free Android app Google Keyboard. For Apple products, go to Settings, then select General and then Keyboard. Click "Add a new shortcut", then enter the abbreviation and phrase you want it to become.

    In Google Keyboard, open the app and go to Personal Dictionary. Touch the plus sign and add your abbreviation and phrase. Press done and the back button.


    Gesture keyboards figure out what you mean to type as you trace your finger loosely over the keys. It is faster than single-letter typing, but before it becomes accurate, it has to learn your patterns.

    Sometimes, the process can be exasperating. One keyboard developer said it takes at least 50 messages for these programs to learn your patterns.

    Swiftkey, a US$4 (S$5) app for Android, has an additional way to increase accuracy right off the bat. Give the app access to your Facebook, Twitter and Gmail accounts and it will observe your vocabulary to better anticipate words you are likely to use.

    It has a cloud backup service that saves your personal dictionary of often-used phrases in case your device is lost or dies. It also searches the Web for phrases coming into heavy use to better guess what you are typing.

    Swype, a US$1 gesture-based keyboard app for Android, can check your Facebook, Twitter and Gmail accounts to improve accuracy, but it has long had a feature called "living language". Activate it to anonymously collect new and unfamiliar words from across the Web and add them to the dictionary.

    Many phones already have gesture typing if you look in Settings. Usually, it is under a heading like "Language and Keyboard" or "Language and Input".


    There's a potentially alarming side to predictive technology. It is possible for an app to collect data that you would not want it to.

    While reputable developers will tell you in their privacy policies that they don't collect passwords and credit-card details, you can take steps to prevent it. Turning off the option that shares to the cloud will increase your security by keeping your personal dictionary on only your phone. Then be sure to lock your phone.