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5 best alternative keyboard apps for Android

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With Android, you've got wealth of ways to type at your fingertips

If you've just ditched physical keyboards and purchased your first full touchscreen smartphone, it can be hard to imagine your fingers flying over the keys with the alacrity of a seasoned touch typist. Happily, Android is all about options — and one big option is the ability to modify the on-screen keyboard that comes installed on your device.

To enable any of these alternative keyboards, you just need to download them from the Android Market and follow the on-screen installation instructions. Once your app is fully installed, long press in any text entry field (like a new text or an email) to pull up the Input Method menu, where you'll be able to select your new keyboard of choice. Having trouble? Follow our step-by-step installation instructions.

Read on to learn how to start typing in ways you (and your not-so-nimble fingers) might have never imagined possible.

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Swype

1. Swype
This is widely considered the granddaddy of all alternative Android keyboards, and it's certainly the best known. Swype popularized a method of mobile text entry that is truly music to the fingers of any notoriously slow phone typist. Rather than using your thumbs or the index finger hunt-and-peck method (a personal favorite), this app reinvents text entry altogether, letting you drag your fingers through the letters that spell a word.

Your Android phone may have come pre-loaded with Swype, but if not, you'll need to sign up for the beta version on the official website since the app is no longer available through the Android Market. There's even a special version of Swype to fit the bigger screen of Android tablets like the Motorola Xoom and Galaxy Tab 10.1.

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SwiftKey

2. SwiftKey
Rather than reinventing the wheel like Swype, SwiftKey opts to improve the existing formula. SwiftKey relies on predictive text, the suggestions that pop up above your keyboard as you type in a word.

Android's built-in keyboard is decent, but SwiftKey whisks predictive text to an uncanny level of accuracy by taking conversational patterns into account, not just the other letters you've typed.

This Android keyboard app can even learn more about your typing habits through Gmail, Twitter, and Facebook, if you're comfortable with that. Even if you don't enable that feature, typing with SwiftKey often feels like someone is plucking the next word right out of your brain. It's a great feeling to hop from one chunk of your sentence to the next with only a few keystrokes.

3. SlideIT
If you're down and out that you can't seem to get your anxious fingertips on Swype, SlideIT is a worthwhile compromise. It doesn't boast the ultra-polished appearance of the other app, but don't start thinking it's a slouch. In fact, swiping around on SlideIT often feels swifter and more responsive than its more well-known counterpart.

SlideIT is available as a 15-day free trial, so check it out and upgrade to the full version for around $6 if you're charmed (you very well might be). If you're no fan of traditional texting, these slide-to-type apps can be a true communication revelation.

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Better Keyboard

4. Better Keyboard
If you're happy with Android's existing keyboard and aren't interested in some of the more experimental apps listed here, Better Keyboard could be a perfect fit. This app may be the best-looking of the bunch and does exactly what it purports to: makes your familiar typing experience better. This keyboard is one of the most responsive of the bunch, so you'll be able to type just as you already have been — only faster.

And if you've got strong feelings about color schemes, you'll be pleased with Better Keyboard's visual skinning customization options, which are downloadable through the settings menu. If you want to try out another customizable keyboard in the same vein, check out Smart Keyboard.

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Voice Actions

5. Voice Actions
This one is isn't exactly a keyboard, but it's well worth a mention. If you're fed up with the fact that you can't type as fast as you can think, Android's voice options might supercharge your mobile experience. Built by Google, the robust set of voice commands can both execute actions and record your written speech — just be sure you've installed the app.

In any text entry field, hold down the button on the bottom of your phone that looks like a magnifying glass. This should prompt a Voice Search menu to pop up. Then speak clearly, and watch your words appear, often with startling accuracy. This feature is woefully underutilized by Android users, so be sure to give it a try — even if you cozy up with a different keyboard.

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