Long ago, Android could thumb its nose at the iPhone for a very basic reason: the default, on-screen keyboard for iOS sucked and could not be changed while Android users were replete with customizable keys that could do much more than get tapped—users could swipe from letter to letter!
That all changed in 2014 with iOS 8, which finally introduced third-party keyboards. As they trickled into the App Store, some big names made the leap from Android to iOS. Getting new keyboards on your iPhone (or iPod touch or iPad) became as simple as downloading an app—sort of.
Having the app on the iPhone isn't enough. Apple makes you go through a few steps. Go into Settings > General > Keyboard > Keyboards. That page shows you all the keyboards installed on your phone, plus the "Add new keyboard" option at the bottom. Click that to look at available keyboard options you've installed via the App Store. Go to the "third-party keyboards" list at the center; click one to add its full functionality.
You're not done yet: on the previous screen, click the name of the keyboard to "Allow full access." Why require that extra step? Because, in theory, you might not get full keyboard functionality without it. Consider a keyboard that pulls in animated GIF files; it needs internet access, which requires "full access." Full access also lets a keyboard tap into things like the speaker, so you can hear keys click as you type. Some keyboards don't work at all without full access. Some barely need it.
Keep in mind, if you allow full access, the developer of the third-party keyboard could, in theory, capture your keystrokes and send out what you type, maybe to a web server, or another app. Apple throws up a warning to that effect whenever full access is granted. If security is your bugaboo, you probably don't want a third-party keyboard. Thankfully, when you enter passwords or credit card info, the iPhone knows to switch back to the standard iOS keyboard, even if you delete it from the rotation of keyboards available. While in Settings, click the Edit button on the keyboards page, then swipe left to delete any of the keyboards in rotation—including Apple's.
Using Your New Keyboard
So, imagine you've got one or more new third-party keyboards installed on an iPhone: how do you access them? When typing with the standard keyboard, click the globe icon in the lower left. Hold a finger on it; a menu pops up showing all installed third-party keyboards, so jump to the one you want. Keep clicking globes to cycle through them all in order. Some keyboards won't bring up the menu; others will only switch when held down for the menu. It's an annoying lack of uniformity.
Another thing to note: if you're a fan of the Apple keyboard's dictation option (the microphone key by the space bar), don't give up on that keyboard. Third-party keyboards aren't allowed to use the microphone, per Apple's rules, so none of them—not even the one from the makers of Dragon Dictation (Swype)—can support that excellent option.
So now you know how to get install and access keyboards, as well as their limitations. But which keyboards are worth getting? Here are our favorites.
The grand-daddy of swiping keyboards, Swype got its start on a Windows Mobile device from Samsung before making the leap to Android and becoming a staple. Naturally, it was among the first to hit iOS. It should work fine without full access, though you'll need that to get other languages—Swype only stores what you type locally, and you can delete it in the Swype settings on your iOS device. You can also change the five included themes (make in-app purchases to get more), access a number-only keypad and other layouts, and find emoji without installing the iOS-provided emoji keyboard.
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Another staple of the swipe-to-type with predictive text options, SwiftKey was there with the iOS launch of third-party keyboards. It offers a slew of options (via the app, you can change them from the keyboard), everything from turning off key-click sounds to getting a Quick Emoji access key. New layout options are an in-app purchase, typically $0.99 but sometimes $1.99.
The app also makes it easy to remove your collected data, though SwiftKey says the more it sees you type, the better it gets at text prediction. It even shows you stats to prove it; I was 12 percent more productive using SwiftKey, supposedly. For that to happen, SwiftKey requires full access for almost everything except basic typing. It anonymizes any captured keystroke data it would share.
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This adaptive keyboard is small; just a row of letters at the bottom. Minuum uses full access for getting new themes and languages, but otherwise pledges to protect your privacy. There is also smart emoji—Minuum predicts what little emoticon you want to use.
Do you like to type with just one thumb? Thumbly is designed for you. Type one-fingered on the fan-shaped keyboard, easily switch hands, disable autocorrect as needed, and even swipe between letters. This design features special swipe gestures for deleting things, hitting return, even activating shift and caps lock. It might take some practice, but could be worth it if you repudiate two-handed typing (or, seriously, have one hand).
Microsoft Word Flow
It's weird enough that Microsoft got into the world of iOS keyboards; and it's weirder still that it used "Word" in the name even though this keyboard has nothing to do with its word processor. Instead, Word Flow is about making the words flow—in particular when you type one thumbed, and it doesn't matter if it's left or right.
Sporting a fan-keyboard like Thumbly (which you can switch back to a two-thumber with a couple of taps), Word Flow also offers swipe typing and good text prediction. Change the background image under the keyboard as desired—even using your own images. Microsoft's FAQ implies that development on Word Flow is done. It remains in the App Store, but won't be getting updates.
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Kwilt is a service that allows you to access your photos online at every possible service you'd store them on—Instagram, Google Photos, Dropbox, Twitter, Facebook, etc. All of them. It built a mobile app with a "photo keyboard" to put that access at your thumb-tips for sharing in tons of iOS messaging and note-taking apps. Kwilt won't mind if you also use the keyboard/app to order some physical prints, mugs, photobooks, and more through them.
Inkboard lets you draw what you want to say. It's great for quick handwritten notes with a personalized touch. You can also go into the Inkboard app itself and use it as a whiteboard, or pull in images and scribble all over them to your heart's desire, and save them to send later. (You can't pull in the image to mark up when using it as a keyboard.)
When using it as a keyboard, tap the paper airplane icon to copy it to the clipboard, then paste into any message, or send your masterwork directly to your photos to save. Tapping the circle at lower right brings up an array of media you can replicate: crayons, pencils, markers, ball-point pens, and highlighters. It's also available for Android and Amazon Fire devices.
Billing itself as "officially the fastest keyboard in the world," the massively multi-lingual Fleksy gets high marks for its looks, natural gesture typing, GIF search, and high customization—most of the in-app theme "purchases" are also free. It supports extensions from other apps to extend its capabilities.
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This multi-lingual keyboard is specific to iPad users. It places a row of numbers and cursor keys on the screen, making it much more like a standard keyboard than the on-screen version from Apple. The developers say the only reason it uses full access is to play key clicks. Version 2 added colored themes and small labels on shifted keys.
If you're not sick of having personalized avatars everywhere, Bitmoji provides personalized emoji with your cartoon-y rendered face. Create your avatar in the app, then install the keyboard to get quick access to pre-made emoji galore, including a few Theme Packs from big name brands like Star Wars and Game of Thrones. Themes and new bitmoji designs rotate in constantly so the keyboard always feels new. Tap the one you like and it's automatically copied to the clipboard, so you can paste it into a message. Go into the Bitmoji app to change settings, adjust your likeness, or buy more theme packs. It's also available for Android and even on the Chrome browser. It's owned by Snap, Inc., so Bitmoji are already fully integrated into Snapchat.
Stop typing the same things over and over when messaging. Phraseboard let you create a board of frequently used phrases (hence the name). You need to grant the keyboard full access for it to be able to save the phrases, naturally.
A lot gets written about instant translation when a company like Skype does it via real-time video chats. Don't forget it's there for chatting on the iPhone as well in several apps, like this one. Type what you want to say, switch to the PolySpeak keyboard, tap a button, and the keyboard provides a translation for you to send to a foreign friend. The "to" and "from" languages get saved but are easily switched between 85+ language options. It'll even translate English into the universal language: Emoji.
Slash stuck a search engine into a keyboard. Type the slash key and pick a service to search, then a term. The results show up above the keys, and you can insert it. Some of the services it can search: Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Giphy, Twitter, YouTube, Foursquare (for location coordinates), Spotify, SoundCloud, Google Maps, Google search, Amazon, Apple Music, iTunes App Store, NYTimes, Wikipedia, and on the iPhone itself for your photos and contacts and favorite emoji. Plus it now does swiping.
Customize slashes to create typing shortcuts (turn /omw to "on my way, shut up, I said I'm coming!"). Slash says it won't save any personal info, but obviously full access is a must to get internet access to many of the services. You can also get it for Android; keyboard developers can get the TapSlash SDK to integrate the services into their own.
Never one to let someone play in a sandbox alone, Google entered the virtual keyboard space via Gboard (naturally also on Android). Unheard of in the world of Google-dom, the company says it's only collecting the info you use for searching via the keyboard, nothing else. On top of that, the app provides glide/swipe typing, a space-bar that doubles as a trackpad on devices that support 3D Touch, quick access to Google search (including images and even animated GIFs in the results), the option for a permanent row of numbers, and a one-handed (thumb) typing mode. It's also one of the few outside of the Apple default virtual keyboard to provide voice dictation (hold down the space bar)—albeit by using Google's own services to do so, not Apple/Siri services. We gave Gboard for iPhone an Editors' Choice award. You can get a lot of the same functions by using the keyboard that's part of the Google app for iOS —but not all.
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PopKey + GIF Keyboard
If Slash seems like a bit much, with way too many features, consider the animated GIF feature you get with PopKey. It works with just about any messaging app on iOS, and makes it easy to find the perfect motion-filled reaction shot to send back to friends and family. The GIFs are curated by PopKey and other users. There's a desktop version for Windows, too.
American treasure and Oscar-winner Tom Hanks likes typewriters. That is as close to automatically making typewriters cool as we can get today. He teamed up with Hitcents.com to create an app that mimic typing as much as possible, right down to the sounds and hitting the return lever—but all on iOS devices. (It's especially fun on an iPad). When you run the free app, you get all the bells and clacks you seen in this video.
What you also get is an installable software keyboard for iOS you use with any app. Here's the thing: it's just like typing. You can't hold down the backspace to get rid of a bunch of stuff, you have to hit it repeatedly. It's little things like that which might have you enjoying a modern keyboard. Plus, Hanx Writer doesn't make the cool typing noises when used in other apps. Hanx Writer has several in-app purchases available to change up the look a little, if you want a keyboard that resembles an old IBM Selectric rather than an Underwood.
This app lets you turn your existing Mac keyboard into a Bluetooth keyboard for an iOS device. It will even work on Apple TV, so you can control any of them from your MacBook, or even the desktop. Hell, it even works with Android phones and tablets, and even for Windows—any OS that supports Bluetooth keyboards.
iClever 3 Color Backlight Bluetooth Keyboard
There's no lack of physical, real-world Bluetooth keyboards out there that work with iOS devices, including Apple's own Magic Keyboard. Our Editors' Choice keyboard for mobile is this affordable fold-up that is sturdy and lightweight, with excellent battery life and fun color backlighting. It works with any Android, iOS, or Windows devices with Bluetooth (but doesn't work for Macs).
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If you love typewriters of old, but don't think the Hanx Writer goes far enough, you should invest the big bucks into Qwerkywriter. A full Bluetooth keyboard with big mechanical keys on a sturdy aluminum body, it's got the charm your writing nook needs even if you prefer to write on a modern device like an iPhone or iPad. You can even program macros into the return bar.