28 February 2017

The Keyword: “Gboard for iPhone gets an upgrade”

In May 2016, you first met Gboard, our app that let you search and send information, GIFs, emoji and more, right from your keyboard. In July, Gboard went global. And today we’re upgrading your Gboard experience on iPhone by adding access to 15 additional languages, Google Doodles, new emoji, and—by popular demand—voice typing.

Alan Ni

When Gboard first launched, I tried it for a couple of hours but quickly abandoned it. There didn’t seem to be any advantage in using it over the system keyboard without predictive typing in Romanian – and switching between multiple keyboards can get annoying quickly. Would it be different this time around, after having my native language as an option?

iPhone default English keyboard iPhone Gboard Romanian keyboard iPhone default emoji keyboard iPhone Gboard emoji keyboard
From left to right, top to bottom: iOS default English keyboard; Romanian Gboard; iOS emoji keyboard; Gboard emoji

It turns out it does make a significant difference! Compared to Apple’s poor attempts at correcting my typing in Romanian – which, I might add, haven’t improved in the slightest in the two years since iOS 8 – Google’s keyboard is a notable improvement. Some of it comes from the simple fact that there are three suggestions to choose from in the bar above the keyboard, instead of one from the default autocorrect. Romanian is tricky to get right because of its use of enclitic definite articles and larger variety of letters (including commas, breve or circumflex), so that many words change meaning when changing a single letter – subtleties lost on Apple’s autocorrect feature. But overall Gboard seems to be anticipating words and corrections better and in most cases it feels faster to type on.

There are some minor issues and inconsistencies though. First of all I like the font a lot less, the iOS keyboard looks a lot sharper than Gboard, its letters larger, better defined. I still can’t wrap my mind around glide-typing, if feels so complicated compared to simply taping the letters directly. Gboard also seems to be conspicuously unaware of some common words like Instagram and Facebook – oh, I wonder why?

The autocorrect behavior is a little strange as well: let’s say I tap space, Gboard auto-replaces my word with a correction and I tap backspace to add a comma or dot; now Gboard switches back to the word I originally typed, making me spend another tap to correct it again (the correction is placed in the predictions bar). I guess it’s meant to make it easier for people to undo auto-corrections, but for me it’s more a hindrance than helping. It’s also a bit confusing how, after you select a suggested word, Gboard doesn’t add a space after it, even though if I start typing right away a space magically pops up in between. It will probably take some time to adjust to these changes, but I don’t think I’m going back to the iOS keyboard.

A quick final remark about emoji: I don’t like the design in Gboard with emoji on three rows, it looks very cramped and it’s more difficult to find them quickly, because there are fewer emoji in the immediate visual field. You also lose the history of frequently used emoji from the system keyboard – unsurprisingly Apple doesn’t let others access this data. The search feature works great though – at least it does now that I figured out I need to search in the language of the main keyboard. I had assumed I need to use English and wasn’t getting results for simple queries like ‘sleep’; searching in Romanian for ‘somn’ does the trick.

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