The understated greatness of Swype's Android keyboard upgrade

Whether you're using your thumbs or your voice, Swype does text entry better than Google

If I had to name the best selling point, the greatest unique virtue of Android over, say, iOS, it would be choice. Leaving aside arguments about “open,” open-source, and carrier quirks, Android phones do allow you to replace many parts of the system with your own personal favorites. And the greatest replacement you can make, to my mind, is ditching the standard Android keyboard and swapping in Swype.

On typing alone, Swype provides an alternative to hunt-and-peck finger typing and two-thumb acrobatics. You slide your finger across the letters that form the word you’re looking for. For “sushi,” you tap down on “s,” keep your finger on the glass, glide over to “u,” back to “s,” then run over to “h” and up to “i.” Around 90 percent of the time, “sushi” shows up in the field you were writing in. In 8 percent of the other cases, “sushi” will, at least, show up in a short list of words Swype guessed you were going for, and you can tap it to fill it in.

Swype in action

There remains the occasional “No, that wasn’t it at all” moment, but keep in mind that this happens quite often with standard letter-by-letter keyboards, too. You get better with Swype as you become more comfortable with it, and start to trust it more--much as you you do with Apple’s keyboard, which incorporates some guesswork in its letter and word picks. Over time, your thumb or finger gets some memory of how to gesture out common words, and you save a few seconds on every other word, and you feel less awkward telling your phone what you mean. If you have an Android tablet, Swype is just as much of a text entry transformation, if not more so.

I started off with Swype’s value “on typing alone,” because Nuance, maker of the leading Dragon series of voice recognition software and apps, acquired Swype for $100 million in October 2011. As a result, a little flame-style Nuance logo appears near the bottom-right of the Swype keyboard, replacing the standard microphone logo for Android’s own voice-to-text function. Press that little flame, and you can say anything you would normally type out, in nearly any text box on your phone. For my money, the Dragon/Swype voice input is notably more reliable than Google’s speech translation, especially when you’re saying entire sentences. The improved, as-you-speak voice recognition in Android 4.0 is quite good, but it’s still slowly rolling out.

What’s more, with the latest release of Swype’s beta series, that Nuance/Dragon button can also activate Dragon Go!. Dragon Go is akin to the “virtual assistant” Siri offered on the iPhone 4S, answering data-based queries (“What day of the week is April 14?”), finding local things (“Find a barbecue restaurant near me”), and more. Yeah, I know, I know--you’ve seen a lot of pretty bad Siri knock-offs for Android. All I can say is that Nuance’s technology is what Apple actually uses to power Siri’s recognition and understanding, and that Go working with Swype is the best counterpart for Android, at least the areas of speech it covers.

The hitch is that Swype’s primary business is in getting phone manufacturers and carriers to pre-install Swype on the phones they sell. They have an active beta program, but if Swype isn’t available for your particular Android phone, you’re mostly out of luck, unless you want to do some deep-down, warranty-voiding hacking on your phone. But if can install Swype for Android, especially on a phone that doesn’t look like it’s due for an Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade, I have to wonder why you haven’t given it a try.

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