Tap, slide, tap: Using alternative Android onscreen keyboards

I’ve got a problem with using anything smaller than a netbook. The keyboard and I just don’t get along.

In fact it’s a little dicey with the small built-in netbook computer. I use all my fingers (10 at last count) to type, and it becomes a crowd awfully quickly.

So how did I get along with writing stuff on the Android phone?

The short answer is, I don’t. Not well, anyway. If I didn’t insist on a slide-out keyboard with buttons I could feel, I’d be in trouble. Even so, thumb typing doesn’t come naturally to me but this is a fair compromise.

As far as the built-in onscreen keyboard, forget it. Can’t get it to do what I want. And this keyboard modification called Swype, where you drag your finger from key to key, I can’t make a lick of sense out of that. What I think I’m typing and what actually goes on the screen are two completely different things.

For a solution I went back to my Palm Pilot days.

While I had a plugin foldout keyboard for my old Palm, it wasn’t always convenient. Or accurate. But I had an onscreen keyboard called MessagEase that I liked. Nothing more than nine blocks on a grid, MessagEase allowed me to punch out al the letters fairly quickly with a stylus. I remembered this piece of software and, while looking for an alternative keyboard I wondered if it was still around. It was, and it’s well maintanned and ported to the ‘droid.

And still free.

Sold.

I’ll grant you, there’s a lot of work on the front end. MessagEase isn’t QWERTY, or even dvorak. The layout is really strange, and on a small screen the keys are hard to see. It’ll take a lot of patience and many typos. But it does make sense, and if you have the patience it will pay off for you.

I don't think everything's to scale here. Most Android keyboards are smaller and most fingers bigger but you get the idea.

With nine keys you can hit only nine of the letters by just tapping, so those letters should be the most frequently used. The letters E, T. A. O, and N are the five most-used letters, and those are among the accessible nine. The ohers are R, I, S, and H. Take a look at the graphic; you’ll see.

As far as the other letters, you hunt for the one you want. Hit that key and slide your finger towards it. For example, F is in the upper left corner of the S key, so hit S and slide toward that corner where the F is. C is on the left side of O, so hit that and slide to the left. You can adjust how far you need to slide; I feel I only need to slide a little bit myself.

The biggest drawback I saw on the old Palm version — besides the learning curve — was that all that stylus dragging was rough on the screen and eventually left some real trenches in the coating. I imagine it would be the same on the ‘droid except it works better with just a finger. As long as I keep my index finger clean and dry, I’m OK.

So how fast is MessagEase?

I can’t really answer. I’m used to it, so I’m fairly quick on it. I find it lots faster than typing on the onboard default screen keyboard, and I’ve been using QWERTY for about 45 years.

I’m still faster when I use the slide-out keyboard, but for the ability to dash off a quick note without having to flip the phone over and slide the keyboard out, I’ll take that trade-off. When I type on a regular-sized keyboard even MessagEase can’t touch it, though.

BIG7KEY has the same idea, but ...

I’ve tried another alternative keyboard for the Android, BIG7KEY, and while the principle is the same (different layout, though) there’s that same learning curve. I can’t adjust BIG7KEY like I can MessagEase, and it’s not as compact on the screen. I have to slide a whole lot more to hit keys than MessagEase, and after a paragraph or two I’m plimb wore out. Worse BIG7KEY vibrates a lot and totally annoys me. I’ll go with what I’ve got, thank you.

By the way, I wrote this blog post on the Android — like I do many of them — and did most of this one with MessagEase. I probably wouldn’t recommend it for long stretches — the screen’s getting a little grimy and my left index fingertip is buzzing like mad right now. But for short notes, calendar entries and the occasional 140-character screed on Twitter, this may be the onscreen keyboard for you.

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