When it launched the iPhone in 2007, Apple essentially created the touchscreen keyboard as we all now know it. But until 2014, Apple’s own built-in keyboard was the only game in town for iPhone. Then, with iOS 8, the company enabled third-party developers to create alternative keyboards (which, it must be admitted, had by then been available on the Android operating system for years).
Since then, all kinds of alternative iOS keyboards have appeared in the App Store. We’ve rounded up five of our favorites, which each do something useful that the iOS default can’t.
One word of caution before you download any of them: Most of the third-party keyboards we’ve tested require you to enable the Allow Full Access option (in Settings > Keyboards); as iOS will warn you, making that change means those keyboards could in theory snoop on any text you enter. Because of those security worries, third-party keyboards are restricted in what they can do: For example, whenever you select a password field in Safari, you’ll be automatically switched back to the standard iOS keyboard.
While you can simply type in SwiftKey as you would on iOS’s own keyboard, the real fun comes when you start swiping. That means you don’t have to lift your finger or thumb from the screen as you type; you can instead just slide it from one letter to the next. SwiftKey will use the pattern to determine what word you’re trying to type; its accuracy is surprisingly good. Even if it guesses wrong, it will offer predictive suggestions above the keyboard that you can tap to select. SwiftKey’s layout is otherwise identical to the built-in keyboard, which makes it easy to adjust to. In my experience, it’s not quite as good as iOS’s keyboard for standard typing, but the swipe input method can often be much faster — especially if you need to type with one hand. SwiftKey is free, with additional cosmetic themes available for in-app purchase.
Apple’s built-in emoji keyboard is pretty solid, but if you’re looking to up your emoji game, the $0.99 Emoji++ has a few niceties to offer. For one, it uses a vertical scrolling interface rather than Apple’s horizontal one, which makes it easier to operate one-handed, especially on larger iPhones. (Likewise with the scroller on the right side, which lets you quickly skim through different categories of emoji.) And it has both a section of recently used emoji as well as the ability to set certain emoji as favorites: Just tap and hold on an icon that you use frequently, and it’ll be added to the quick-access panel, marked with a heart.
Rather than just making a single alternative way to enter text, Fleksy has turned the keyboard into a platform. By default, it offers a strikingly different-looking keyboard. But if you dive into the Fleksy app, you’ll find you can not only change the color and styling of the keyboard, but you can also enable a number of extensions to add new functionality. For example, one extension lets you press and hold on the spacebar, then swipe back and forth to move the cursor. Another lets you quickly shrink the keyboard’s width and put it on the right or left for easier one-handed typing. Others let you add a row of hot keys or numerals at the top of the keyboard. There’s also a built-in GIF and sticker search for when words just aren’t enough. Fleksy is free, but you can unlock additional themes and extension slots via in-app purchase.
Speaking of pictures, if you’re a frequent poster of animated images, then maybe you could use a keyboard dedicated to the task. The free GIF Keyboard allows you to browse and search an extensive and frequently updated catalog of images and videos. You can search by keyword, look at trending and popular images, or (my personal favorite) search via emoji to find an animated way to capture exactly the mood you’re in. There’s also a list of your recent GIFs, as well as favorites that you’ve saved. GIF Keyboard’s usefulness is a bit limited, though, since you have to then use iOS to paste in your selected images — and not all apps support animated GIFs.
When there isn’t an existing image that conveys exactly how you’re feeling, it’s handy to be able to sketch your own. You could open up a drawing app and create one in there, but wouldn’t a keyboard be even more useful? That’s where the $0.99 DrawType comes in: You can choose from a relatively limited handful of colors and line thicknesses, and create your own work of art to send. As with GIF Keyboard, you’ll have to paste the result, and not every app supports it.