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SwiftKey Flow beta debuts as worthy rival to Swype

SwiftKey Flow, a keyboard alternative for Android devices, is now available as a free beta.

Although Swype was once the champion of gesture-based typing for Android phones, it now faces some serious competition from the new SwiftKey Flow.

SwiftKey Flow just launched in beta; it was first unveiled back in October. Android users who've enabled their phones to install apps from outside Google Play can download it for free.

Just like Swype, SwiftKey Flow lets you type each word by gliding your finger across a sequence of letters. Even though your finger may pass over other letters in the process, these keyboards use word prediction to figure out what you're trying to type.

It takes some getting used to, and it tends to work better for longer words where there's less room for misinterpretation. But once you get used to typing this way, it's hard to go back to tapping out each letter.

As a fan of Swype, I've been looking forward to SwiftKey Flow. SwiftKey already has a reputation for being one of the best alternative Android keyboards due to its excellent word prediction and its customization abilities. SwiftKey Flow is essentially the same keyboard, but with gesture typing as an added option. After playing with the beta--and drafting this entire article in it--I think I'll be sticking with SwiftKey Flow, at least for a little while.

What I like most about SwiftKey Flow is the level of customization it allows. You can adjust to the millisecond how long your phone vibrates when you tap on a letter--Swype's haptic feedback always felt too long to me--and how long you must hold down a letter to access secondary characters. You can also opt to insert a period after double-tapping the space bar, and choose what happens when you finish a word and press space during regular typing. (This comes in handy because inevitably you will have to manually type some words out instead of swiping.)

SwiftKey Flow also offers a "Flow Through Space" feature, which lets you type multiple words by passing your finger over the space bar instead of lifting it off the screen. And just like the regular version of SwiftKey, Flow lets you complete words without typing the whole thing. If, in the course of swiping, you see the word you want written out above the keyboard, you can just lift your finger off the screen to complete the word.

Swype does seem superior to me in some areas. My sense is that it's better in general at detecting the right words--though that's admittedly hard to quantify--and it's definitely better at letting you go back and correct mistakes. With Swype, if you tap on a previous word, it suggests alternatives that might have been close to what you swiped. SwiftKey Flow only suggests similar words based on the letter you've tapped on, not based on the total gesture.

There's also a key difference in the way these two keyboards work: When you complete a word in Swype, a bar above the keyboard suggests other words you might have meant. SwiftKey, however, tries to compete your sentences by showing a few possible words to enter next. (For instance, if I type "grain of," it'll suggest "salt" for the next word.) One approach isn't better than the other: It's just a matter of preference.

Keep in mind that Google may render both of these keyboards less necessary in the future. Android 4.2 has gesture typing built in, reducing the need for third-party alternatives. At the moment, though, the vast majority of devices don't run this version of Android (or the last version, for that matter).

I assume that at some point, SwiftKey will charge for SwiftKey Flow, as it does for its existing SwiftKey 3 keyboard ($4 each for separate phone and tablet editions). Swype has a different business model, in that it makes deals with phone makers to include its keyboard by default, but gives its beta software away. Since both products are available now for free, it's a good time to try them both. I recommend it if you want to start typing faster--and impressing your iPhone-owning friends.


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