The touchscreen keypad that comes with your iPhone or Android handset is competent, but maybe you'd like to give your fingertips a break by swiping keys rather than tapping them. Or perhaps you want a keypad that does a better job of guessing the next word you want to type. Or maybe you're just tired of the blocky keys on the standard Android keyboard, or the thin gray ones used in iOS.
Whatever the reason, switching keyboards on your phone is an easy task--and considering how much you type on your handset, a worthwhile one. Android users have the option of swapping out the "stock" Google keyboard with a third-party replacement. Apple finally added support for third-party keyboards with iOS 8.
Here's how to access your phone's keyboard settings and prepare for installing a third-party keyboard.
Android keyboard settings
Note: The description of this setting is based on a handset running on "stock" Android version 4.4.4, a.k.a. KitKat.
Tap Settings, scroll down to the Personal section, then tap Language & input.
Scroll down again to the Keyboards & Input Methods heading for a list of all the keyboards installed on your Android device, with active keyboard checked on the left.
To switch keyboards, tap Default, then pick one of your installed and active keyboards.
You can also tap the button to the right of an installed keyboard to tweak its settings. Tap the Settings button for Google Keyboard, for example, then tap Appearance & layouts > Theme to change the look and feel of the stock Android keyboard ("Material Dark" is my favorite).
Your available options are totally dependent on the keyboard you're using--meaning, for instance, the Google keyboard settings are completely different (and far less varied) than those available for Swype (which, among other things, lets you change the height of the keypad itself) and SwiftKey (which lets you add a dedicated row of number keys).
iOS keyboard settings
Tap Settings, General, Keyboard to get to the main iOS Keyboards screen, then tap Keyboards to see a list of active keyboards on your iPhone or iPad--probably just one, for the native language you chose when you first set up your device.
To add more keyboards--say, a keyboard in a different language, or a robust "emoji" keyboard--tap Add New Keyboard, then tap an option from the list.
To manage your list of keypads, go back to the Keyboards screen. Swipe a keyboard in the list from right to left, then tap Delete to nix a keypad, or tap Edit and drag a handle on the right to reorder your keyboards.
See a little arrow to the right of a given keyboard? If so, tap it to reveal some options. For the English keyboard, for example, you can chose between QWERTY, AZERTY, and QWERTZ layouts. Certain third-party keyboards (more on them in a moment) may (with your permission) have full access to your keystrokes, usually so they can better learn your typing habits.
Note: Flipping the "Allow Full Access" switch will let the keypad send data about your keystrokes--including anything sensitive you type, like account numbers or passcodes--to the makers of the keypad. Don't grant full access to a keyboard unless you're comfortable with that little security caveat.
Finally, you can cycle through your keyboards on the fly by tapping the little globe key in the bottom-left corner of the keypad itself.
Now that we know where your keyboard settings are, it's time to go snag some...
Installing a new third-party keyboard on your iPhone, iPad or Android device is a lot easier than it sounds. Once you find one you like in the Apple App Store or on the Google Play store, just install it as you would any app.
For iOS devices, you'll find your new keyboard by tapping Add New Keyboard on the Keyboards setting screen, under the Third-party Keyboards heading. Just tap the new keyboard to add it to your list of active keypads.
For Android, your new third-party keypad will appear in the Keyboards & Input Methods list. Make sure its checkbox is checked, then select it by tapping the Default keyboard setting.
Dozens of keyboard apps are available in the Apple App Store and on Google's Play store, but a handful of standouts are worth trying first.
Swype (Android and iOS, 99 cents)
One of the first custom keyboards ever for Android, Swype introduced the whole swiping-to-type idea to the smartphone world. The keypad still shines even after everyone else (including Google) copied its clever idea.
Just slide, zig and loop your finger across the keyboard to form words, pausing only long enough to enter a space by lifting your fingertip. Pretty nice, but Swype now faces plenty of competition in the swipe-to-type market, particularly among keyboards that offer more themes and customization options.
SwiftKey (Android and iOS, free with in-app purchases)
The free SwiftKey keyboard arrives on the scene with a two-pronged attack: Swype-style keypad swiping, plus three-button word prediction that learns how you type by scanning your social networking posts (assuming you give the app permission, of course).
SwiftKey can also download "trending" words and phrases from the cloud, perfect for predicting topical turns of phrase.
On the Android side, SwiftKey offers an impressive arsenal of customization options. You'll find dozens of themes (about a dozen are free, with more available for 99 cents each) plus the ability to resize the keypad or even make it float in the middle of the screen.
Fleksy (Android, free or $1.99, iOS for 99 cents)
"Less is more" seems to be the idea behind Fleksy, a minimalist keypad app that boils down your iOS or Android keyboard to three rows of keys, nixing the spacebar, comma, and other bottom-row keys.
Want to add a space or punctuation? Just swipe across the keypad. You can also swipe the other way to delete a word, or swipe down to cycle through suggested words.
Yep, there's a learning curve, not to mention many more gestures to master. But with a little practice you'll be tapping out messages while barely looking at the keyboard. Both the iOS and Android versions of Fleksy let you resize the keyboard, while a paid set of "premium" keypad themes is available (99 cents extra on iOS, or included in the $1.99 "pro" version for Android).
GO Keyboard (Android and iOS, free with paid theme packs available)
Looks are everything when it comes to GO Keyboard, a keypad app that offers a bewildering array (on the Android side) of colorful, custom themes--some free, but most going for about $1.99 or so--for your keyboard, plus optional plug-ins that add features like custom key tones (barnyard animals, anyone?) and tablet support.
Even better, you can customize the background of the GO Keyboard with your own photos, perfect for creating DIY themes.