Over the past few months, Nuance has released a steady stream of updates to the Swype keyboard beta build, and today the company is making the new version officially available to phone manufacturers. The two million individuals registered to the company's beta program have had access to many of the new features, including Dragon voice recognition, over-the-air updates, and a new dynamic language engine. With Swype's installed base dramatically larger, however — the company told us that some 200 million devices in the market have Swype, courtesy of over 20 hardware partners — there's a much bigger possible audience for the new keyboard.
We've had a few minutes to play with the latest release, and it's looking like this might be the single most versatile soft keyboard released for Android yet. The basic Swype mode feels about the same as it always has: just drag your fingertip around the screen to touch letters (with very little accuracy needed) in your word and be amazed at how well the system guesses what you're trying to write. It's fast and easy to get accustomed to, though not everyone likes it — and for the naysayers, the keyboard seems to work better than ever in basic touch-type mode. Testing on an AT&T-branded HTC One X, I was pleasantly surprised at how fast, responsive, and accurate it was as I switched between tapping and drawing my words, and I'd go so far to say that it's just as good for touch typing as Android 4.0's stock keyboard is.
Nuance bills this version as a "four-in-one" keyboard, the other two modes being natural handwriting and Dragon voice dictation. The handwriting system was essentially useless for me; it's possible that stylus users could get some use out of this, but I can't imagine many scenarios where it would be faster than using any of the other modes. I was hoping Swype was using Graffiti (or some similar unistroke gesture set) for this, but it doesn't seem to be. For what it's worth, the company says that this mode is intended primarily for the Chinese market, which might explain why it comes disabled by default.
Dragon, meanwhile, was a mixed bag: it often had a hard time detecting when I was done talking and should start processing what I'd said, which led me to repeat myself, which would ultimately lead to duplicate sentences being transcribed. Testing in an environment with moderate background noise seemed to exacerbate the problem, which is unfortunate — users are rarely in a whisper-quiet location, and when they are, that often means they shouldn't be speaking into their phones anyway. When I was able to get it working smoothly, though, it was practically error-free. One neat trick is that the keyboard's user dictionary applies to both text and Dragon, which means that if you add a word while typing, you can speak it in Dragon mode without any additional legwork on your part. I tested it with several nonsense words that I added to my dictionary and found that it worked very well.
All of Swype's text modes benefit from the aforementioned dynamic language engine that attempts to guess your next word, akin to the extremely popular SwiftKey keyboard. My early impressions are that Swype isn't able to guess what I want to write with quite the same level of uncanny accuracy that SwiftKey can (which I've used extensively), but it could just be a matter of training — Nuance says that the system learns automatically over time, and it can be set up to automatically process your email and social network streams to expand its brain. I'm not sure what kind of intellectual property SwiftKey is working with, but it'll be interesting to see if any legal challenges develop here — Swype's system is awfully similar, right down to the word picker that appears above the keys.
Of course, no matter how good Swype may be, it still has one big flaw: its distribution model. Unlike many of its competitors, Swype has remained an OEM exclusive, meaning you can't download it (even for a fee) from the Google Play store — you simply have to hope that your phone's manufacturer or carrier have elected to bundle it in ROM. Alternatively, you can sign up for Swype's beta program and sideload the app yourself, although it expires every few months and only OEMs end up getting the gold code. If Nuance shelved these exclusive OEM deals down the road and priced it in Google Play for anywhere from $3 to $5, it would be an easy recommendation.
Bryan Bishop contributed to this report.