There are dozens, if not hundreds of replacement virtual keyboards available for download on the Android Market. With so many choices, it seems almost silly for a developer to allocate resources to coding an app that could easily be overshadowed by the multitude of other available options. Does Thumb Keyboard have what it takes to stand out in this saturated market? Hit the break to find out!
Standing out in such a packed marketplace is no easy task. And while Google has made substantial progress in terms of end user app discovery through its market redesign and web store, this is still a difficult task. Luckily, new features attract attention, as shown by innovative keyboards such as Swype and SwiftKey. Swype (now available as part of a free, open beta), for example, gave us an entirely new paradigm for text entry, which has already proven its utility. In fact, I am beginning this very review using the Swype keyboard with my Nexus S. Others haven’t changed the fundamental entry system, but have added substantial utility by means of adaptive, predictive text entry. Of course, I am referring to the highly-regarded SwiftKey Keyboard. On the other side of the spectrum, and I am sure to take heat for this, but I feel certain other replacement keyboards just hinder text entry speed.
Enter Thumb Keyboard. Thumb keyboard is a relatively new keyboard put out by XDA Developer appelflap, aka Beansoft Software. This keyboard gave its hello world on the XDA-Developers forums, but has grown both in scope and popularity at an incredible pace. Lets go ahead and put it through its paces to see how it fares:
Setup and Customization
As its name suggests, the main draw of this keyboard is that it is particularly apt for use with your thumbs on large-screened devices such as tablets and very large phones. While this keyboard functions well as a standard replacement keyboard out of the gate, its true beauty is in its ability to adapt to your particular tastes. To this end, there are several layout options available to tailor the keyboard for your particular screen size, ranging from 5″ to 10″. A particularly nice feature related to the different layout options is the ability to set layouts on a per-orientation basis. Personally, I enjoy one of the archetypal “thumb keyboard” layouts for portrait mode on my Nook Color. I also find that landscape mode works best for me with the keyboard set to standard mode and my tablet rested on a horizontal surface. However, if I’m holding the tablet in my hands while in landscape mode, then the 7″ tablet layout seems to work best for me. Obviously your mileage may vary here, but that’s the beauty of this keyboard–for whichever style you prefer, you are covered. The keyboard also includes a myriad of options ranging from themes to suppressing the full screen text entry dialog box in landscape orientation, a feature particularly important when making use of the native Google Chat program. It even includes an option to highlight which keys should be pressed by which hand.
The looks of Thumb Keyboard do not disappoint. As mentioned earlier, this keyboard comes with several themes, including a Honeycomb Keyboard lookalike. You will find no complaints from us here.
What good is a customizable keyboard if it doesn’t translate into real-world speed gains? No good at all. Luckily, I can report that Thumb Keyboard does not disappoint here either. Even on my relatively-underpowered Nook Color running CyanogenMod 7, there was almost never even a hint of input lag. Because of this, touch typing in landscape mode was a breeze. I generally consider the iPad’s virtual keyboard to be the gold standard for tablet keyboards, as it allows very rapid keystrokes with no noticeable lag whatsoever. This replacement keyboard gets me to a level of efficiency nearly on par with the iPad. Additionally, I found the thumb-friendly layouts to be significantly easier to hit than a standard keyboard layout when holding the device in both hands. This definitely cannot be said regarding the iPad’s keyboard (or really any other traditional keyboard on a tablet) in landscape mode. There’s just one little issue holding it back…
Cons / What’s Missing?
Unfortunately, all is not perfect in Beansoft’s creation. Despite the multitude of features available, there is one glaring feature omission: multi-touch chording. Commonly misstated as simply multi-touch, chording allows users to hold down a modifier key (such as shift), press a letter, and have the letter respond to the modifier key. A very limited degree of chording is already present in the keyboard, but the gesture has to be executed in a very specific manner in order for it to work properly. Currently, this can be achieved if you first press shift, then the key, then let go of shift, and finally let go of the key. Needless to say that this is inefficient and somewhat detracts from the speed advantages this keyboard offers. I actually find it faster to simply press the shift key first and let go of it before pressing the other key. I have reached out to the developer regarding this issue, and luckily he has stated that he has full intention of bringing chording to this keyboard soon.
Ever heard the expression “the beauty its on the details?” This keyboard seems to be a great example of that. While it doesn’t exactly offer any breathtaking features such as letter swiping, and it doesn’t predict your thoughts with accuracy that would make Skynet quiver, it provides an incredibly solid traditional typing experience for your tablet or other large-screened device. I highly recommend this keyboard, despite the present lack of multi-touch chording. The landscape mode full-screen dialog box suppression alone is worth the purchase if you’re a heavy Google Chat user. When chording is ultimately added, assuming its implementation is as flawless as the rest the application, this keyboard will likely be unbeatable in the tablet realm.