Hands on with an Android app that crushes your keyboard into a single row

If you have a love-hate relationship with your phone’s touch keyboard, you’re not alone. Tons of Android and iPhone owners alike enjoy touchscreen keyboards to send emails, answer text messages, and more. But, as versatile as these keyboards are, we lose a third to half of our screen real estate to them, often messing up the viewing experience for Web browsers, social media apps, and more. Seeing what you’re typing is often a problem on a smartphone. For years this issue has gone unanswered by developers of OSes and apps alike. Enter Minuum, or as its creators call it, “The little keyboard for big fingers.”

Minuum is entirely different kind of keyboard from the one you’re used to with most smartphones. It looks less like a keyboard and more like a thin strip at the bottom of the screen with cramped letters filling it. The keyboard doesn’t give much room for even relatively thin fingers to press letters, but by typing in the general area that keys appear, it uses an algorithm to predict what your’e trying to say and offers an autocorrect option. Minuum wants you type terribly and let its auto-correct to all the legwork. This style, known as sloppy-typing, is how Minuum thinks it can free up the majority of your screen’s real estate while still offering equally-fast typing speeds with your current keyboard.

Minuum is now an app for Android, but it got its start as a research project at the University of Toronto, where much of the team met as graduate students. The team was working on “radical new ways of typing,” according to Will Walmsley, CEO and founder of Whirlscape, the company they founded to make Minuum.

The keyboard was really founded when Walmsley and his team were looking for ways to get rid of keyboards entirely. They tried everything from motion-based typing to using a game controller to input text.

According to Walmsley, the research they conducted showed the ability to input content with just “one dimension of input,” opening up the opportunity for hundreds of new ways to enter text onto a screen. Minuum is not just designed for Android. They’re hoping it will be used in many different kinds of interfaces.

The platform Walmsley and his team created at Whirlscape was unique, but strapped for cash and relatively unknown outside of the University of Toronto area. To help raise funds for Minuum and give it some exposure, they decided to feature it on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, offering beta access in return for contributions. As a result of the Indiegogo, Minuum raised more than $87,000 and earned nearly 10,000 backers over the course of its fundraiser.

minuum-single-rowA little more than a month ago we received access to the Minuum beta as thousands of backers did. The new keyboard is certainly a step in the right direction, but it’s a smartphone keyboard like many others that depends on your ability to effectively use it, and its ability to learn how you like to type. The keyboard really does type as sloppy as you think it would, but it’s intelligent enough to offer the correct words through its predictive text functionality – most of the time. But when you’re working with a username, password, or email address, you simply have to hold down your finger to individually hunt and peck letters. It’s a little slower, but the keyboard’s also learning (except with the passwords, we hope) to know your email address and usernames. This will allow it to quickly predict even new words, like usernames, over time.

Minuum claims that it will offer similar speeds to your regular keyboard, but take up only a fraction of the space. This is mostly true. Minuum is absolutely tiny compared to other keyboards, and is a relatively fast keyboard to use, once you get the hang of it. Once you figure out its crammed style for letting you enter text, you’re in business. The app also lets you customize the keyboard’s height and width in certain aspects. You can also add a spacebar to suit your preferences. This lets you tailor it to your device’s screen real estate and how you prefer to use the keyboard.

I ran Minuum as my default keyboard for about two weeks before returning to Swype on my Galaxy S4. Minuum is a fantastic little app, but it really is meant for devices that have small screens. After two weeks, the app still hadn’t learned to regularly interpret what I write, and was still a little bothersome to use when spelling out proper nouns that it doesn’t yet know. I am a bigger fan of Swype or the Google Keyboard’s ability to write words without ever lifting my finger.

Minuum may eventually work very well for me, but for now I’ve had to type sloppily. I write faster with Swype, though Minuum is still a usable keyboard. The problem with is that it’s not really needed on larger devices like the Galaxy S4 or Galaxy Note. Once your device exceeds 4.3-inches or so in size, you mostly have enough real estate for your keyboard, making Minuum more of a hassle than a benefit when compared to other keyboards like SwifKey or Swype. While Minuum will add screen real estate to any device, it’s miniature size comes with trade-offs. When you want to type in proper nouns or passwords, a larger keyboard pops up with a different arrangement for punctuation. This helps out usability, but shows that there are limitations to how minimalist Minuum can be.

I ran Minuum as my default keyboard for about two weeks before returning to Swype on my Galaxy S4.

This is all just the start for Minuum. According to Walmsley, the team is already hard at work on new features such as support for international languages. This is a challenge because each language works with predictive text differently, but the team is working with its beta testers to provide international support sometime later this year. Minuum’s predictive text engine is also the next big step for the company, as they hope to release it for other amateur developers to test with for free, as well as to license it with big companies interested in its innovative means of predicting text.

“We believe the most important thing to take away from Minuum is the fact of what this means for the future of communication,” Wamsley noted, hoping to help influence people to make new innovative keyboards building off the efforts of Minuum.

Minuum is a sort of two-fold product. On one hand, you have a fairly decent keyboard that caters to those who have limited real-estate on their gadget’s screens. On the other hand, Minuum’s developers are hard at work building an entirely new way of entering information on just about anything. We think Minuum is a good Android keyboard if you have a small smartphone screen, but needs more fine tuning. We’re excited to see the full potential of Minuum across the many platforms Whirlscape has in store for it, but can’t recommend it over Swype and SwiftKey right now. If you’re looking to give it a try in its Android form, then check out Minuum’s website for full details.

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