One of the best things about using an Android based mobile phone is that, unlike the iPhone, you can install your own keyboards. Recently, I came across the TouchPal keyboard, which is not only an amazing ‘swipe’ style keyboard, but also includes some great Chinese keyboards.
Up until recently I was addicted to the stock HTC keyboard, simply because the Zhuyin input was so good. But after recently installing a new ROM on my phone (check out our post on Chinese ROM flashing vocabulary if you’re geeky enough) that didn’t include a Chinese handwriting input method (IME) I was forced to look for some third party keyboards. That’s when I found the TouchPal keyboard, a ‘swipe’ style keyboard with great Pinyin, Zhuyin and Chinese handwriting keyboards (among other languages).
As I mentioned above, the reason I installed this keyboard was to use the Chinese input methods, so the English keyboard being any good would have just been a bonus, but as it turned out it was so good that I now use it as my primary English keyboard.
The English keyboard uses swipe input, which as the name implies, involves swiping around the keyboard to input words, as opposed to tapping the keys. I’m still getting used to using the swipe input, but even after only a week or so I am already typing faster than I was before, and using the phone for instant messaging isn’t the headache it used to be. To enter a word you move your finger around the keyboard touching the letters that make up up that word, as seen in the screenshot below.
Here’s a Youtube video (apologies to readers in China) of the TouchPal Keyboard in action:
As demonstrated in the video, the swipe input also has prediction, so if you keep an eye on the suggestion bar you can save yourself a lot of time. Though, if you’d rather not use the swipe then Touchpad also works fine as a standard keyboard. Plus, if you’re used to T9 or similar keyboards then you can use the 12-Key phone keypad or CooTek+ keyboards, I only played around with these briefly but the prediction seemed good.
The only issue I have with the English input is that some very basic words are not included in the dictionary – one that particularly stood out was ‘bye’. However, if you find a word is not working when using swipe style input, just input it by standard typing then you’ll be able to tap the word in the suggestion bar to save it to the dictionary for future use.
Note: During the few weeks I used TouchPal for this review a dictionary update was pushed out, so it’s good to know the keyboard is being actively improved.
One of the main attractions of TouchPal is the sheer number of languages and input methods supported. For Chinese I counted 5 input methods, though the three I’ll be looking at here are Pinyin, Zhuyin and Handwriting.
Firstly, a disclaimer – I don’t use Pinyin as my main input method on my computer or on the phone, I very rarely even write using Pinyin and almost exclusively use Zhuyin. So my opinion of the Pinyin keyboard is based on my limited use of it, and the things that I understand are important to Pinyin users from my discussions with them.
The first thing that stands out of with the Pinyin keyboard (and the Zhuyin for that matter) is that the swipe input doesn’t work, you have to tap out the words. At first this didn’t seem weird, but when you switch from English to Pinyin and are presented with essentially the same keyboard, it seems weird that swipe input would work on the Pinyin keyboard.
Like most Pinyin inputs, from what I understand, you don’t have to enter the tone of character you are entering the Pinyin for, and TouchPal is no different. So typing ‘zhong’ brings up a list of characters that use this pronunciation regardless of the tone （中，种，众，重… being the first of the list in TouchPal）, likewise, if you enter the Pinyin for the full word you are presented with suggestions – ‘women’ shows ‘我们’, ‘zhongwen’ shows ‘中文’ and so on.
The interesting thing about the Pinyin keyboard, and something that almost makes up for the lack of swipe, is the error correction. For instance, if you were to type ‘chimen’ instead of ‘chumen’, then ‘出们’ would still be shown in the suggestion bar. Obviously this doesn’t work for all the time since there might actually exist a word with the same ‘incorrect’ pronunciation that you have typed.
The major downside for the Pinyin keyboard is the lack of abbreviated entry, this is the feature that is often touted to me as the primary reason why Pinyin input is superior to Zhuyin. I’ve heard that in some Pinyin IMEs, you can literally type something like “wm” for an abbreviated entry for “women” (我们), though that doesn’t work here. There is, however, a ‘fuzzy Pinyin’ mode which allows some form of abbreviated entry, such as “zh” becoming just “z”, and “sh” becoming “s”, so if enabled you would need only type ‘zli’ to enter ‘这里’.
The Zhuyin input, much like the Pinyin, offers smaller keypad style keyboards, though for this review I’ll be looking exclusively at the full sized Zhuyin keyboard.
Zhuyin keyboards are very straightforward, just like using Zhuyin on an actual computer keyboard, you are usually required to type the exact pronunciation followed by a tone to view a list of possible characters. This is always the main argument used against Zhuyin by Pinyin users – that it’s too slow to input words. Though as is my counter-argument, this is the exact reason that Zhuyin is better for Chinese learners than Pinyin – you are forced to know the tones of the words. Anyway, TouchPal actually goes someway to reducing the ‘inefficiency’ of Zhuyin input by not requiring the tones to be input. For 中文 you need only type ‘㞢ㄨㄥㄨㄣ’ and not ‘㞢ㄨㄥㄨㄣˊ’, though this is actually the same as HTC’s Zhuyin keyboard offering.
An area where the Zhuyin keyboard really let’s itself down is the suggestions. Compared to HTC’s suggestions TouchPal just isn’t up to scratch. Take the word 網（网 wǎng） for example, have a think about what related words you might want to see, then read on.
The related characters list from TouchPal:
Now compare that to the suggested words from HTC:
The TouchPal suggestions don’t even come close, having 兒 be the most important next character after 網 seems crazy. Even more strange, is that the same word “网”, when entered via Pinyin, yields the following suggestions:
Much more acceptable! I can only imagine that the Zhuyin suggestions were an afterthought since TouchPal is developed by Chinese developers (as opposed to Taiwanese, which is obviously where the HTC keyboard would have been developed).
The handwriting IME in TouchPal is done very well. The handwriting panel fills the screen allowing you to write the characters very big, which is important when you’re learning Chinese
The one gripe I have with the TouchPal handwriting IME, and most handwriting IMEs I have tried, is that they don’t let you pause and think about the next stroke – before you know it, all of your hard work writing a character is gone and you’re presented with a suggestion list of characters based on the half a character you entered. I have only uses one Chinese handwriting IME that allows you to pause during input, and that’s the iPhone IME. On the iPhone, suggestions are presented to you as your write, you can pause and think for a while before continuing, and the suggestions will be updated in real-time. As opposed to having you completely write out a character and then presenting the suggestions.
Where the TouchPal IME really excels is in selecting the character you were writing. After finishing writing your character, you are presented with two rows of characters – the bottom row is a list of suggestions of the word you wrote, and the top row is a list of related characters for each of the suggestions. This makes handwriting a lot quicker and is a great feature.
It’s difficult not to recommend at least trying out TouchPal since it’s completely free (on their Android Marketplace page they say they will be monetising by charging for add-ons in the future), but I’ve enjoyed using it so much that I’d probably recommend buying it if they were charging a few dollars for it.
The TouchPal keyboards are polished and great to use, but that’s not to say they are perfect. The suggestions list and dictionary could use some work but these are things that can be easily updated.
All in all, the TouchPal keyboard provides a solid and consistent experience and worthy of being the primary keyboard of any Android owning Chinese learner.