APP OF THE DAY: Swype 3.0 Beta review (Honeycomb)

The Swype promo video was dramatic to say the least, if you haven’t yet watched it, head over here and take a peak, and remember it isn’t the trailer for the Hollywood blockbuster.

The Honeycomb keyboard is reasonable, but offers you limited options when it comes to entering text other than straight tapping. Third-party keyboards bring something else to the table(t). Today we look at how Swype wants to stir things up on your Honeycomb tablet.

Swype 3.0 Beta

Format
Android
Price
Free
Where
beta.swype.com

For those that don’t know about Swype, the clue is in the name. The keyboard has been available on Android phones for a couple of years, notably coming preinstalled on some Motorola and Samsung models. Here we are looking at it from a Honeycomb perspective rather than Gingerbread, so on a tablet, rather than phone.

The keyboard uses the trace of your finger, combined with some other gestures, to predict the words you want, rather than requiring you to press each individual key. It has a predictive element in that accuracy isn’t too important: it can guess you’re trying to say “fishing” rather than “findohf”, which might actually be what your finger passes over.

In addition, Swype offers up suggestions in a bar across the top of the keyboard so that if the suggested word isn’t right, you can press the word on the bar that is. This element is useful, because if you are racing through text entry, you don’t want to stop and check each individual word. No matter, highlighting the word will give you a run of suggestions and let you pick the right word (assuming it has it).

Keyboard installation on Android does tend to mean jumping through a few hoops, making sure you’ve selected the right boxes so that your new keyboard appears. The Swype installer makes that pretty easy, giving you clear instructions as you go along. It isn’t available in Android Market, but you have to sign up to the beta on their website (link above), then you’ll get an authorisation code for the download.

It’s free (at the moment) and we signed up on the Motorola Xoom and completed the process. Fortunately it is one of those convenient processes where you can do everything on the tablet itself and don’t need to sideload the apk or anything else.

Obviously, the most immediate thought is that on a mobile phone, in portrait, tracing words with your thumb is easy enough. Doing the same over a 10.1-inch screen means you have to move your finger much further.

That’s true, you do, but it opens the door for one of the features of Swype. In addition to a keyboard the stretches right across the screen, you can opt for a compact version. This cuts it down to half-size meaning you can not only see more of the page in the background, but you don’t have to move your finger as far, making it better for occasions when you are holding the tablet, rather than with it lying on a table.

The compact keyboard can also be repositioned so you can have it on the left or the right, or central. Being left-handed we found it comfortable on the left and once using the compact keyboard we have rarely wanted to use the large one.

The compact keyboard isn't perfect however, as in some applications it leaves grey banner over the part of the page you should be able to see. Perhaps this will be ironed out before final release. 

Using Swype does take some practise and we’ve used it on phones quite. It is fast for text entry, for example throwing in the words for an email. Long presses offer punctuation, but getting reliable CAPS wasn’t as straight forward as we like. It’s not hard, but the “hover above the keyboard then swipe into the word” method doesn’t seem to work in Honeycomb.

When it comes to the predictive elements, it isn’t the sort of prediction you get from SwiftKey, which will actually offer you the next word in your sentence. Swype will suggest the word you are writing and will add words you use that it doesn’t recognise.

There are some other smart little things that Swype offers, like a longer press on the delete/backspace key will delete the word, and a brief wiggle on a letter will offer you a double letter, for example as in “wiggle” or “offer”.

The main keyboard gives you a run of conventional letters, numbers and punctuation, but there is an additional numeric keyboard, with common symbols on, as well as the alt character view. Finally there is an EDIT view, which offer up cursor control, so you can skip up and down text and highlight, copy and paste sections, but it didn't seem quite as straightforward as it could be.

Editing existing text can be something of a problem - adding a "s" to the end of a word will often try to enter it as a separate word, so you'll be deleting spaces. Caps wasn't as seamless as we'd like either.

The Swype experience currently differs from app to app. In Gmail we found it to be nice and fast for entering text, but in Google Docs (not the best application on Honeycomb) it struggled with the cursor position quite a bit.

Overall Swype is an interesting alternative to the stock Honeycomb keyboard. We’ve found that entry process is addictive and the compact keyboard works really well. It is still in beta and we’ve had a few frustrating moments with Swype, but overall it’s worth having a play with whilst it is free.