Swipe typing isn’t new, but it’s the best addition to iOS since Siri

ios 13 swipe keyboard wwdc 2019 presentation header

Dismissed in a short sentence during the WWDC 2019 keynote presentation was one of the more interesting new features in iOS 13 — the introduction of swipe-typing on the standard iOS keyboard. If you’re faithful to Apple, then the whole concept of swiping-to-type may have passed you by, but it’s standard on Google’s Gboard app and various other Android keyboards, such as the one installed on Samsung devices.

Even then, you may not have given it a try, as most are so used to typing with their two thumbs, or prodding each key individually with a single finger, that alternative ways to type only slow us down. That said, I appreciate many will have already been converted over to the joy of being a swipist, so if you’re one of them, please enjoy making your smug face.

For everyone else, it’s the time to try something new out. Swipe typing is like having Sherlock Holmes inside your smartphone, because it often displays an almost unfathomably accurate level of deduction.

Swipe or glide, don’t tap

If you’ve never tried swiping, the concept is simple: just slide your finger across the screen to each letter of the word you want to type. On Google’s Gboard, your finger is followed on screen by a light trail, helping you keep track of your progress. The keyboard predicts the word being typed, and presents various options in the predictive area above the keyboard. You can continue typing and let it auto select, or tap the right word ahead of time.

At first, it’s not very intuitive. Going from the pointedly precise action of prodding the letter you want to select, to zigzagging across the screen like you’re finger painting, means it takes a short while to get used to, and to build up some speed. If you’ve tried typing on a modern BlackBerry phone’s physical keyboard, without the benefit of muscle memory from using one a decade ago, you’ll know exactly how difficult this can be. All we can say at this point is stick with it. Speed will come. Lots and lots of speed.

All we can say at this point is stick with it. Speed will come. Lots and lots of speed.

For the speed and the Holmesian predictions to emerge, you have to let the keyboard learn your typing habits, and your word preferences. Like a new friend, the swipe keyboard on Android requires a short “getting to know you,” period before you’re both finishing each other’s sentences — almost literally in this case. During this time, words you use often that aren’t common will have to be selected from the predictive list — names, slang, and technical terms in particular — rather than the keyboard automatically making them top choice.

After a while, it knows what word you regularly use when selecting keys, and picks it for you. It’s no different to predictive systems on other keyboards in this respect, but it does monitor your typing method differently. On Gboard, the sharp predictive algorithms are immensely forgiving, and it’s soon second guessing what you’re trying to type, even when you’re not being that careful with your swipes. It’s great.

How fast?

For mortals, it’s as fast and accurate as typing with two thumbs. But for some people, it’s faster. Digital Trends Mobile Editor Julian Chokkattu swipe-types at a speed where his fingers are barely visible to the human eye. His messages may be gibberish, of course, but there’s no denying he’s damn fast at swiping them. Practice makes perfect.

However, there is one thing to bear in mind. Typing with two thumbs looks normal. We see it everyday, and it’s the mark of an experienced, mature smartphone owner. It’s not possible to swipe-type with two fingers or thumbs at the same time. It’s a one-finger job, and depending on how you “hold” your hand, it can make you feel self-conscious. Well, if you’re like me, it will.

gboard swipe

Why? It’s what to do with the redundant fingers when you’re typing with one hand. My problem is I find I splay my other fingers out, with my pinky extended more than the rest, like I’m holding a tea cup whilst in the company of the Queen. It happens naturally, and when I catch myself during a message, I fold my fingers in so I don’t look like an overly posh and/or clueless typist. If you’ve got long and dextrous enough thumbs, then you can avoid this. I don’t, and I can’t.

Better for bezel-less phones

There’s a side benefit to swiping that’s more applicable to those who don’t own an iPhone that may be reading this. Swipe typing is a great solution to the horror of trying to double-thumb type on a bezel-less smartphone. This is usually a terrible experience, as our hands and thumbs are forced into unnatural contortions just to type a few words, as there is no chin to naturally grip or rest the phone. Swiping avoids this, as you can hold the phone with one hand and swipe away with the other. Less fatigue, and fewer chances to drop the phone.

Why wait?

The swipe-type feature is part of iOS 13 and therefore will not be available to all iPhone owners until its official release sometime in the fall. Those who install the beta version of iOS 13 may not find it at first either, as it will depend on its availability to test. What can you do if you want to try swipe-typing on the iPhone now?

everything apple announced at wwdc 2019 ios 13
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

There is a solution — install Google’s Gboard keyboard app for the iPhone, which has the swipe typing feature enable already, as does the SwiftKey keyboard, but I’d recommend the Google option over it. If you’re new to third party keyboards — introduced with iOS 11 — search for Gboard in the App Store, tap Get, and open when it completes. Follow the instructions, and use the globe icon in the bottom left of the keyboard screen to swap between other keyboards and Gboard.

At the very least this will help you get a feel for swipe typing on an iPhone, see if it’s something you want to continue, and to eventually compare experiences when iOS 13 is released. It’s time for you to graduate from a typist, to a swipist.


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