Friday, 27 January 2012

Text entry

I don't know about you, but for me an Android smartphone is first and foremost a productivity tool. That means I have to be able to write on it - comfortably, accurately and fast. Amazingly, it turns out that I can write almost as quickly on the phone as on a PC. I no longer need a laptop.

When I bought my HTC Desire two years ago, I never thought I would be able to use it for serious writing. Mostly, what I had in mind was content consumption - reading blogs and listening to podcasts. I would write SMS messages, of course. Perhaps the occasional tweet and a brief email message from time to time, but nothing more than that.

My initial experience confirmed this. I found it even harder to type on the standard Android keyboard than I had done on the physical keys of my Nokia feature phone. Landscape orientation made the keyboard bigger, but it was awkward to hold the phone that way, and I still seemed to hit the wrong keys too often. The standard keyboard's auto-correction was fairly good, but not good enough.

The standard Android 2.2 (Froyo) keyboard in landscape orientation. Big, but awkward.
Then I heard Gina Trapani talking about Swype on the podcast This Week in Google. She said that it had doubled her text entry speed. Even watching a video on the Swype website didn't fully convey how natural the Swype keyboard feels in use. But they were offering free registration to the beta programme, and as I've already admitted I'm the penny-pinching type. So I went ahead and installed Swype on my Android phone.

Using the standard Android keyboard (left) and Swype to compose an SMS message to my friend William.
It would be too much to say that I have never looked back. A non-standard and frequently malfunctioning installation process and a number of 'one step forward, two steps back' updates have severely tried my patience with Swype during the past two years. And it still takes up at least 12MB of internal memory, and cannot be moved to the SD card. But overall, the app that I first tried in early 2010 is now even better. What's more, its performance actually improves with use, as it learns from experience how to interpret your gestures and predict your words correctly according to context. As I said above, using Swype I can now write nearly as fast on my phone as I can type on my PC's physical keyboard. That's worth a big chunk of memory and quite a lot of 'early adopter' grief.

Swype offers two secondary keyboards for lesser-used characters, one of which is shown in the left-hand screenshot below. Secondary and accented characters can also be entered or selected by long-pressing or press-holding keys on the main keyboard. In addition, there is a numeric keyboard and an Edit menu (below right). Simple edit functions (Cut, Copy, Paste, Select all) can be performed directly from the main keyboard using simple gestures.

One of Swype's secondary keyboards (left). On the right, the Edit mode.
There's more! Starting from a core package of US English and Spanish, Swype offers a wide selection of downloadable language modules. I have installed UK English and French, and can cycle between these by tapping the language key (circled in red in the screenshot above).

Swype was recently bought by Nuance Communications, whose Dragon Dictation speech recognition software is now built into the app, providing voice-to-text as an alternative method for text input. Voice input is initiated using a special key, circled in green in the screenshot above. I am not sure that I will ever make regular use of this feature, but I have tested it and can report that for me it works significantly better than the standard Google Voice Actions input software that comes as a standard part of Android 2.2. (I have not installed the updated Google Search, which includes an improved version of Voice Actions.) Like Google Voice Actions, Dragon Dictation uses a dedicated central server and therefore requires an open internet connection - no connection, no voice recognition. I have not been able to find any help for Dragon Dictation on the Swype website or forum, but I have tracked down a User Guide for Dragon Naturally Speaking 11 on Nuance's site. This does not seem to be adapted for the version of Dragon in Swype, but gives a good indication of how voice input is supposed to work. (I have asked Swype customer service for documentation, and will pass this on when I hear from them.) In the meantime, I've found that 'Comma', 'Full stop', 'Dash', and 'New line' are correctly interpreted as punctuation and formatting commands.

Of course, Swype is not the only alternative Android keyboard app. I have also heard good things about SwiftKey (€2.99) and SlideIT (€4.50), but have not tried either of them. I'd love to hear how you get text into your phone. What have you tried? What have you hated? And what have you stuck with?

Meanwhile, Swype is still in beta, and you can still register as a beta user for free. Sign up here!

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