5 outstanding Android keyboard apps

Make your Android device better than ever with a custom onscreen keyboard that suits your style. These five options represent the best the platform has to offer.

Improve your input

Android is all about choice and customization -- and that extends to the way you type on your device.

You can just use whatever keyboard came preloaded on your phone or tablet (it often varies by manufacturer). Or you can use Google's own Android keyboard, which was released last week as a standalone app.

But beyond those native options lies a sea of possibilities -- feature-laden keyboards that offer advanced functionality and customizable interfaces. Installing a new keyboard can be one of the most meaningful upgrades you'll ever make to your device.

These are what I've found to be the best Android keyboard apps around.

SwiftKey Keyboard

When it comes to great all-around keyboard experiences, SwiftKey sits firmly at the top of the pack. The app provides an attractive and easy-to-use layout with stellar next-word prediction and the option to type by sliding your finger from letter to letter without lifting between words. You can even type sloppily -- SwiftKey will almost always figure out what you're trying to say.

On the tablet front, SwiftKey offers the option of a standard keyboard or -- when used in landscape orientation -- a split keyboard that allows you to type with your thumbs while holding the device with two hands.

SwiftKey costs $3.99 for the smartphone app or for the separate tablet app.

TouchPal Keyboard

TouchPal is an excellent keyboard that offers both tap- and slide-to-type functionality in an elegant design. It has some unusual touches, like the option to switch to a condensed "T12" keyboard mode in which multiple letters appear on the same key -- similar to a phone dial pad. The system then uses contextual clues to figure out what words you're trying to type.

TouchPal also offers integration with Twitter; once configured, you can send a tweet directly from the keyboard simply by tapping an icon on the top row. And TouchPal has a large range of downloadable skins that can change its look.

The best feature of TouchPal, however, may be its price: The app is free.

Swype Keyboard

Swype (99 cents) popularized the slide-to-type craze and remains a solid Android keyboard contender. The app offers a smooth swipe-based typing experience with impressive accuracy and a respectable tap-to-type interface with next-word prediction.

Swype has a unique series of gesture-based commands and an interesting (though often inconsistent) system for entering text via handwriting. On tablets, you can choose from a standard keyboard, a split-screen keyboard or a small keyboard that can be shifted from side to side on your screen.

My biggest gripe with Swype is that it requires you to use the Dragon Dictation system for voice recognition (which, like Swype, is owned by Nuance Communications) instead of the outstanding Google-made system that's built into Android.

Thumb Keyboard

Thumb Keyboard ($2.35) is an exceptional option for anyone who loves to tinker and customize. The app lets you pick from a wide variety of themes, select your own background image for the keyboard, change the colors of keyboard elements, set up your own custom gestures and even change which secondary symbols are attached to what keys.

Thumb Keyboard works as a standard keyboard or -- as its name suggests -- can appear in a split format for thumb-based typing on tablets. In the split configuration, Thumb Keyboard makes the most of the screen space by putting a full number pad along with arrow keys and special character keys in the center area.

A.I.type Keyboard Plus

A.I.type Keyboard does a lot of stuff, but its most eye-catching feature is its "Float-N-Split" mode: On large-screened devices, the keyboard can be split into two separate halves, each of which can be resized and moved around independently.

A.I.type also includes some useful secondary key functions (activated by a long press) like copy/paste and undo. And it boasts an impressive array of visual options, including themes, custom background images, and custom key selection.

The full versions of the smartphone and tablet apps cost $3.99 each. Free versions are available; after 14 days, they lose basic text prediction and word correction features.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.