I was embarrassingly late to discover SwiftKey, the beautiful and highly functional keyboard for Android. I swore to myself that never again would I be late to discover the vanguard of Android keyboard apps!
That's why I was interested to get my hands (or rather, fingertips) on the new Q4 keyboard app, which boldly promises that it can improve the virtual typing experience by distilling the QWERTY keyboard down to just four keys. Yes, four.
Just the basics (and perhaps a bit less)
Q4 is a QWERTY version of developer Snapkeys' Si Revolution ABC4 keyboard, which gave the alphabetic keyboard the four-key treatment. Q4 shares a lot of the same function and design with its alphabetic predecessor, but to its credit, has a slightly more polished design.
While Q4 does come with a full keyboard option, the app's raison d'etre is its unique approach to type-input. The app utilizes a beefy predictive functionality to whittle the keyboard down to only four keys—or rather, four keys plus one bonus invisible key, as we'll explain below.
So, how's it work? Q4 separates the keyboard into four quadrants that represents the letters each hand types on. So, the two buttons on the left side represent all the QWERTY letters used by the left hand: QWER is the top row, ASDF is the middle row. On the right side, the buttons are TYUILP and GHJKO (You may have noticed that L and O have traded places, I am not sure why that is).
The entire bottom row of keyboard characters is represented in a transparent key that you access by tapping in the middle. Thankfully, Q4 represents this transparent key with a little text, whereas ABC4 made its fifth button (in that app's case, the letters T through Z) completely invisible.
Numbers and special characters can be accessed by holding down any of the buttons in order to reveal a hidden pop-out palette of characters.
You'll notice in the image above, that each button reveals which special characters it has hidden. For example, the 5 below the green TYUILP button represents that holding down that button will reveal a number pad, while the period below the purple GHIJKO button signifies that that button provides basic punctuation.
Sound confusing? It certainly is at first.
But how does it work?
You type by spelling out your desired word using each chunk of letters and then allowing the keyboard to predict what words you are trying to spell. And, surprisingly, it's not bad.
For example, when trying to spell the word "hippopotamus," I tapped the GHJKO button for h, followed by three taps of the TYUILP button for i-p-p, followed by GHJKO again for o. By the time I hit TYUILP again for the third p, I was given the suggestion of "hippopotamus" which I tapped. Six taps in total to get a 12-character word.
(For the record, SwiftKey took the same amount of letters before giving me "hippopotamus.")
This app also appears to pay attention to context. For example, it is quicker to suggest the word "time" after typing "what" than it was after typing "who," as one context makes far more sense than the other.
If you want to add non-typical word (like proper names, for example) into the app's predictive database, you can add them through the full-sized keyboard. When you have spelled it out, the app will prompt you to add the new word to its prediction algorithm.
So how does it feel?
I played with Q4 for a few days and I found that the predictive function was—at times—scary accurate. However, the input mechanism is a maze of decision-making.
There is a huge learning curve to train your brain to use this system. This is readily apparent in the sheer number of instructional videos Snapkeys has made available on their website.
I did get faster with the keyboard the more I used it. For anyone who dares take the Q4 challenge, I offer this word of advice: Pay attention to the suggested words. If you don't tap on the words as suggested by the app, it disregards those words and taked you off into some other weird direction.
Additionally, Snapkeys would do users a huge favor by making the suggested words pop-out more than they do now, as they are very easy to ignore.
Also on the design front, Q4 has unfortunately perserved many of the ABC4's shortcomings. For example, the keyboard doesn't move along with your finger as you attempt to nudge the floating interface around screen, rather it jumps to its new location after you lift your finger.
It's possible that given more time, this four-key keyboard could have you typing as fast as you would on a regular keyboard. But to what end? If you're the type of mobile user who is up for a challenge, then this unique version may be worth a run. As for me, I'll stick with SwiftKey.
This story, "Fingers-on: Snapkeys Q4 is a QWERTY keyboard with only 4 buttons" was originally published by TechHive.