Google Gboard (for iPhone)

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Third-party keyboards have landed with a thud on iOS. Lackluster and sluggish, they're the opposite of their Android counterparts, which are sleek, fast, and customizable. While they do bring gesture typing to the iPhone, I find them to be more trouble than they're worth. That changes with the Gboard, a keyboard for iPhone made, ironically enough, by Google. With the Gboard, you get gesture typing and the power of Google search. Oh, and did I mention the emojis and GIFs? Gboard is a real game changer, the long-awaited Editors' Choice winner for this category, and one of the best iPhone apps you can get.

Go, Go, Gadget GGboard
Available for free from the iPhone app store, I installed on my iPhone 6 in seconds. But like all iPhone keyboards, you can't just start using it right away. The Gboard will guide you through the somewhat sticky process of enabling it on your phone.

Google Gboard (for iPhone)Note that your iPhone can support several keyboards simultaneously. You designate the keyboards you'd like to use from the Settings app, and then tap the globe icon on the keyboard to move between all your options. I recommend against this, since a stray thumb can send you into a wildly different typing environment. Instead, enable only one keyboard at a time. It's especially easy with the Gboard since it has Emojis baked right in.

Once the keyboard is set up, the Gboard app becomes a settings hub for configuring your keyboard. I turned off the Block Offensive Words option, since I need access to all my cusses while typing, and briefly flirted with turning off caps lock since I frequently engage it by accident.

Interestingly, location access and contacts search are switched off by default. I was also never prompted to switch them on. That's a good thing, and a surprising one, since most apps are so keen to get your location data and your contacts list.

What you won't find in the Gboard Settings are visual customization options, which can be found in rival virtual keyboards. For example, Microsoft Word Flow lets you change your keyboard's background, the color of the keys, the keyboard font, and so on. Frankly, I don't miss those features, but you might.

Gliding Between Letters
Swype was among the first keyboard apps to introduce gesture typing, where you simply drag a finger between letters to spell words. It's since been refined and reiterated by competitors. SwiftKey, for example, introduced predictive text that places algorithmically selected words at the top of the keyboard, turning a sentence into just a few taps. Even Apple introduced a similar feature to its stock keyboard, with quite impressive results.

Google Gboard (for iPhone)Gesture typing on Gboard is called gliding, and it's a dream. Other iPhone keyboards feel a bit slow and clunky, but I had no trouble skating between keys to craft a message. The Gboard retains a similar look to the stock iPhone keyboard, but the keys feel a little further apart and the font slightly tweaked. Predictive text sits just above keys, making for fast messaging or quickly correcting the occasional word. One remarkable feature: Predictive text also includes relevant emojis in the results. I typed the word "butt" and the peach emoji appeared as an option. Excellent.

I'm impressed at how quickly Gboard picks up my turns of phrase. In testing, I typed out a nonsense phrase "I am enjoying the hams of my ancestors," and by the third iteration I only had to type one word in the sentence. Predictive text handled the rest. If you find a word has crept into your Gboard dictionary that you'd rather not have, you can clear it from the Settings.

Glide is snappy and responsive, and susses out my meaning when I think I've messed up. It even correctly tracked my thumb whenever it accidentally left the keyboard, and found the correct word most of the time. That said, I'm not totally blown away by Glide. The little tail that trails after your thumb is strangely thin; very different from the bold blue comet in Google's Android keyboard.

I also find it a bit difficult to use gesture typing on the relatively narrow iPhone 6. Gesture typing makes sense on Android since many such phones are roughly the same size and shape as a canned ham. When gesture typing with Gboard, I feel like I have to scrunch my thumb uncomfortably to reach some keys. Maybe it's time for a full-scale redesign of mobile keyboards, perhaps taking a cue from Microsoft Word Flow Keyboard's crescent shape. That actually makes the keys smaller but more accessible to one-handed thumb texting.

Anyone interested in Gboard should know that traditional thumb-typing and gliding are the only ways to enter text. Well, you can still peck one letter at a time if you want. Without the stock Apple keyboard, however, you can't use the iPhone's dictation feature. That might be a long-term deal breaker for me, but I can always toggle back to the built-in keyboard.

Speaking of the built-in keyboard, it occasionally pops up at inopportune times. This has been a problem since Apple first allowed third-party keyboards on iOS, and it continues today. But these crashes and return to default happen far less frequently than before.

Search Close at Hand
The big difference in Gboard is the colorful G logo in the upper left hand corner of the keyboard. Tap it, and a search window will expand above the keyboard. You can use this just like Google search on the Web, and tap your query. The results are displayed on cards, very similar to Google Now on Android.

Tap the share link to copy it to your clipboard and paste the search results into the text field you're typing in. You can also tap the icon in the upper right of each card to open the results in Safari. Some cards, like results for the weather or locations, have special iconography. Copying these to the text field will add an emoji and customized text, as well as a link. You can also see Google Image Search results. Note that both search and locations will push you toward Google products. If you're a serious Bing apologist, or an Open Street Maps evangelist you won't want Gboard.

This is a simple addition to a keyboard, but it makes a lot of sense. If I know exactly what I am looking for, I can just search instead of jumping to Safari to cut and paste. The approach seems very similar to Google's stated goals with its new Spaces platform.

Unfortunately, search is only as good as your Internet connection. Try searching without data, and you'll only see an error message. While in airplane mode, I tried searching the names of my friends, since I had allowed Gboard access to my contacts list. No dice. This is particularly surprising, since I assumed my contact information would be searched locally, but that appears to not be the case.

Worth a Thousand Words
But that's text, and text is worthless. The hip young kids don't want your words, grandpa. They want emojis and GIFs. Well turn your cap backward and do a kick-flip because Gboard has both.

Google Gboard (for iPhone)Tap the smiley face next to the space bar and the familiar batch of iOS emojis appears. As in iOS, you scroll through the sections to find the little Unicode image that perfectly suits your text. But Google has a trick up its sleeve and, unsurprisingly, it's search. Instead of scrolling until you (finally) locate the perfect emoji, you can just do a text search instead. Slack has a similar feature, and I love it. But Slack relies on you knowing the actual name of each image, which isn't as useful. Gboard's emoji search is far more forgiving and quickly becomes a must-have feature. You can, for example, find a flexing forearm by searching either "muscle" or "bicep."

Emojis are cool, but they just sit immobile on the screen. GIFs have been around for decades, but tiny, short, animated images have become a phenomenon all their own. The whole concept of "reaction GIFs" is subtly reshaping how some people communicate, allowing for the silent but dynamic injection of mood or humor into a conversation.

But there are far, far more GIFs on this earth than there are emojis. Or, for that matter, stars in the sky. This is why Gboard's GIF search is so critical. Sure, Google provides some canned search options like "applause," but when I need a dancing lunar crooner, I know just what to search. I much prefer this to the stodgy GIF library of Fleksy Keyboard. Google's GIF search is also fairly forgiving, pulling down useful results for most searches. Note that you'll still have to cut and paste the GIFs, but it's easily done.

Get On Board
I was so excited when Apple opened the gates for third-party keyboards on iOS, but have been consistently disappointed with the results. The keyboards have been either ugly, sluggish, or both. The problem, as I understand it, has been the way Apple limits the access of keyboards. Yet, Gboard overcomes this problem to deliver the best virtual keyboard experience in the category.

Throw in Google's excellent search technology, smart sharing tools, emoji search, and GIFs, and you have a keyboard with the right mix of utility and novelty. I don't know how long I'll keep using Gboard—I'm sure I'll feel the irritation of the online requirements and the loss of dictation the sooner or later—but I'm not rushing to uninstall this one, unlike the others I've tried. The only things holding Gboard back seem to come from Apple, which makes it our Editors' Choice for third-party iPhone keyboards.

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