In anticipation of the keyboard-free Android devices sure to ship this year, I thought I should cover the current Market offerings designed to hold us over until we get the "Cupcake QWERTY." I should preface this by saying that I appreciate the work of coders who dedicate their time and energy to the cause.
There are some great programs here. But, as an end user, I haven't seen anything that's good enough to replace my hardware keyboard. And I really hope Google has something special waiting. I am excluding apps that provide a kb solely for foreign character functionality - that's a different post. There are also a few that just didn't make the cut for quality reasons.
ChompSMS is, as far as I can tell, and exact copy of iPhone's SMS app. I don't know if you folks have stock auto-rotate with a portrait QWERTY yet, but Chomp does. This is my default SMS app, and one of the best soft keyboards for Android. There is a gentle buzz for physical feedback, and the software keyboard disappears when the hardware kb is out. Chomp uses space wisely, is logically arranged, and feels elegant.
I'd like to see adjustable haptic feedback, kb support outside of SMS, and a unique, Android-based identity.
This one was a big surprise for me. I grew cynical of all of these attempts at a soft QWERTY (I hadn't experienced the most recent Chomp until writing this), and I stopped bothering to try them out. a12keys has a killer interface and supports multiple languages. It auto-rotates from portrait to landscape, and sliding out the hardware kb causes the on-screen keys to disappear.
Here's the key (pun intended) feature for me: when you hold a key, a preview image if the key you are pressing *and the surrounding keys* appear above your kb. So if you meant to hit J, but pressed K, you'd quickly see the error, and could simply slide your finger over a bit to self-correct. BRILLIANT. Has someone else already done this? Maybe I'm in the dark here, but I'd say the creator(s) of a12Keys is/are on to something great. I also like that the previews appear in the exact same spot, no matter what key I'm pressing.
My complaints are that it doesn't have haptic feedback (required, in my book), and that it can't be launched just anywhere. It does run in the bar for easy copy/paste though - so that's good. I actually like the Pac-Man-esque sound effect. It's also the best-looking soft kb for Android, in my opinion - in that it's lovely and not just an iClone. It looks better than the Cupcake board, I think. I've always liked glossy apps though, and I suppose it gets old for some.
People love this replacement interface for the Android browser. I think mostly because it represents choice and competition, but also because it supports zoom gestures and accelerometer auto-rotate. The kb is launched whenever you tap a text field, and rotates based on orientation - it doesn't matter if the hard-QWERTY is out. This one also features very gentle haptic feedback. You can choose a light or dark theme, which is cool. It's not too cluttered. But the keyboard only works for web browsing, and it can be laggy at times.
DroidSans Virtual Keyboard
DroidSans is the Thai outfit that brought us Tweak Tools. That app is good in the cool-if-you-have-some-power-to-spare kind of way. But their kb is more useful. I'm not sure I like the fact that the kb stays on screen even when the hardware kb is drawn, or that it's always running - from the time you boot. The haptic feedback may be too light without sound effects, but the two together are tasteful and appropriate. I'd like to see further development on this one - and for the top row of number keys to be dispatched. They are wasting space. Maybe people who type a lot of numbers prefer this.
Open Home - with (some) Cupcake features
Open Home is a theme-able homescreen replacement with widgets and live folders. However, the software keyboard - which is hopefully not indicative of the final product we'll see on Magic - is non-responsive, cramped, difficult to be accurate with, has too-faint haptic feedback, and only works in portrait mode. Please let this be an imitation and not the actual Cupcake code. Maybe it's just scraps from the very early stages of development. Oh, man.
I hate to give a scathing review for free software, but I find Paw Paw useless. It is cramped, only rotates when the hardware kb is out (?), has keys almost too small for a stylus, is unstable, and is without haptic feedback. It has ten number keys above the letter keys, which is already a waste of space. But on top of that, landscape mode brings a 10-key block to the right of the letter keys - like you'd see on a computer keyboard. What's the point of going landscape when the keys don't get any bigger? Thumbs down. I only mention this one because Paw Paw is far better than the apps that didn't make this list. Changes are absolutely necessary, but there is some potential.
So, there you go - the best soft keyboard options for your G1. And, if Google fails to deliver, alternatives for Magic and beyond. If I had to chose one for a phone-wide solution, it would be a12Keys. The preview image is perfect. I'd like to throw something out there after testing all of these - devs, a slider for adjusting the intensity of haptic feedback would eliminate the taste factor in that department.
If you feel I've left out an important app, or am terribly unfair/inaccurate/ill-informed, please leave a comment. Also tell me how many fingers I am holding up. \\//