Sunday, February 6, 2011

Android - Alternative Keyboards Shootout

The Motorola Milestone picture, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Most of the time, I stick to the hardware slide-out keyboard of the Motorola Milestone. Indeed, the presence of the hardware keyboard was one of the main reasons I chose this device over the other in the first place. However, there are occasions, when I just need to quickly reply to a text message or an email, often while on the go having only one hand available to operate the device. I use the stock Android soft-keyboard in these cases, but I remain unhappy with the perceived high number of typos and errors. Many times I start typing on the soft-keyboard and eventually frustrated with the typos I slide out the hardware keyboard, rotate the device to the landscape mode and finish the text on the hardware keyboard. The problem with this solution is, that switching takes time: applications need to react to the screen orientation change and redraw the user interface. Some apps are fast, but for some of them, this change takes one or two seconds and the user experience suffers.

As Swype keyboard was not available for the first generation Droid / Milestone I tried SlideIT which is based on a similar concept, but after a short trial I turned back to the stock: I need to frequently switch back and forth between Czech and English, sometimes even using words from both languages in one message which makes all keyboards relying on a dictionary unsuitable for my use case.

Note: The keyboard pictures above were taken from the Android Market

In the fall 2010, I registered an interesting newcomer to the alternative Android keyboards race the 8pen keyboard (Android Market). I decided to give it spin. During the approximately two week test drive, MessagEase, a soft keyboard which has its roots on the Palm OS platform, was released to the Android Market so I included it in the competition. I installed myTextSpeed, available on the Market to establish a leveled playing field and tried to compare both newcomers 8pen and MessagEase with the incumbents - the hardware keyboard and the stock Android keyboard. You can see the best scores I recorded in myTextSpeed for all the four keyboards in two different races, typing two classic books texts.

  Moby Dick The Odyssey Note
Droid HW keyboard 166 CPM / 30 WPM / 100% accuracy 166 CPM / 34 WPM / 100% accuracy landscape mode, thumb-typing, both hands
Stock Android 2.1 115 CPM / 19 WPM / 100% accuracy 112 CPM / 24 WPM / 100% accuracy portrait mode, thumb-typing, one hand
MessagEase 87 CPM / 15 WPM / 100% accuracy 91 CPM / 19 WPM / 100% accuracy portrait mode, thumb-typing, one hand
8pen 62 CPM / 12 WPM / 100% accuracy 54 CPM / 11 WPM / 100% accuracy portrait mode, thumb-typing, one hand

Note: The 100% accuracy means, that any time I made a typo, I corrected the typo before proceeding further.

The fact that the hardware keyboard comes out as a winner is not a big surprise to me. This confirms the tests I did on the HP OmniGo palmtop many years ago. I was about 2x as fast thumb-typing on its calculator-like qwerty keyboard than using the Graffiti handwriting recognition. What comes as a surprise, is the fact that the stock Android soft-keyboard fared better the alternatives, even though the perception during the regular usage tells otherwise. Between 8pen and MessagEase, the later one fared batter. MessagEase is also faster to learn: after just one day trial, I could already type faster on it than after one week on 8pen. The bad thing about MessagEase though is that it does not work well with the hardware keyboard in the landscape mode. Ideally, I would like to use the built-in keyboard driver in the landscape mode and restrict MessagEase to portrait mode only, which is not currently possible.