Third-Party Keyboards on iOS 8

I’ve been experimenting with two third-party keyboards on iOS 8: Swiftkey and Swype. I want to share my thoughts.

If you’re an Android user, you’ve had access to third-party keyboards for years. I know this. I’m not under any illusion that alternative keyboards are a sudden revolution. I’ve wanted to try Swype for a long time, and I’m glad that Apple has finally opened up the platform to allow third-party keyboards.

Swype is a great keyboard and it works incredibly well. I have not experienced a single mistake while using it. It is actually rather astounding. I applaud the work that the developers have put into Swype. The only downside for me is that I can’t use it easily with one hand. I have to hold my phone in one hand, and swipe they keys with the other. I don’t consider that to be a limitation, but the result is that I find myself rarely using it.

Swiftkey is my favorite of the third-party keyboard offerings. The best element is the upper and lowercase display of the keyboard letters, based on what mode I am in. That alone solves one of my biggest annoyances with Apple’s keyboard. On the Apple keyboard, the letters are displayed as uppercase all the time, so I often get confused if I am typing in caps or not. Swiftkey is also highly accurate with my two-thumb style of typing. The black display is an interesting look. It would be cool if they had an option for different colors, but that isn’t important.

Both of the aforementioned keyboards are solid, and are great in their own right. However, I don’t care for the somewhat clumsy way that iOS implements them. I have to go way out of my way to access another keyboard, each time, on the fly. Apple seems to want to inconvenience you into using their keyboard.

I want to be able to set a single keyboard as the default in the operating system settings. Without being able to do that, I end up with Apple’s keyboard time and time again. The standard Apple keyboard pops up the majority of the time.

A clear example of this annoying behavior is when I write a quick reply to a text notification. In iOS 8, a reply window appears immediately in front of whatever I am doing, without having to launch the Messages app. When the keyboard appears for that reply window, it is always the Apple keyboard. At least, this has been my experience.

The OS doesn’t seem to have any logical memory retention of my last keyboard selection. Sometimes when I am texting with someone using Swiftkey, for instance, it will remember that when I return to write that person again later. However, if I begin texting someone else, it reverts back to the Apple keyboard, for seemingly no reason, despite the fact that I am using the same Messages app to compose text that I’d used with the other person.

It is my understanding that when you are entering a password, Apple forces you to use their keyboard. I don’t see that as a problem, as they are attempting to protect users from their password entry being captured by the third-party keyboard developers. Sure, that’s a little paranoid on their part, but I can understand why they designed it that way.

If you like to use Emojis in your messages, you will find the extra keyboards to be very annoying. I like to swap between text and Emojis when I message my friends. Having four keyboards on the system makes that very difficult. If I am using Swiftkey, I have to tap the keyboard globe three or four times to get to the Emojis, then tap the globe another three or four times to get back to the keyboard I was using. Even more annoying, each keyboard doesn’t have the globe key in the exact same place. All of that unnecessary tapping just to insert a smiley face in a text message gets old fast.

Having done my experiments with Swype and Swiftkey, I’ve decided to disable them for the time being and continue to use the Apple keyboard, with a side of Emojis. I don’t have problem with the Apple keyboard, beyond the uppercase letter display that I mentioned earlier. The addition of predictive text in iOS 8 is a welcomed feature that I find to be very useful.

The alternative keyboards are great, but I find it to be too much work to constantly toggle between them. If the Apple keyboard is going to appear more than 50% of the time anyway, I don’t see a compelling reason to fight against the operating system to try to use another one.

The Annoying iOS Game Center Banner

I’d like to submit a complaint about the Game Center banner in iOS. When you load a game in iOS that works with Game Center, a banner slides down from the top of the screen that says, “Welcome back, [your username].” My argument is that it is too large and hangs around a little too long. Sure, this is a rather nit-picky thing to gripe about, but if you load games often enough, trust me, it will slowly chip away at your tolerance.

A great example of how the banner is super annoying is with one of my favorite games at the moment, called Kingdom Rush. Kingdom Rush has background game music that I prefer to turn off. (I turn off all in-game background music, actually.) The problem, particularly with Kingdom Rush is that the music is re-enabled every time I launch the game. The controls for turning it off are in the upper left corner of the launch screen. When I load the game, the music cranks up and I scramble to turn it off, except I can’t turn it off quickly because of the annoying Game Center banner that is lingering at the top of the screen.

I think that Apple should redesign the banner to take up less space in future versions of the operating system. Moreover, it would be nice to have an option to disable it entirely. I would disable it if I could.

Having said all that, I have an even greater idea for how to handle this. Perhaps they could reprogram it to only enable a (smaller) banner when the phone is silenced. When the phone is not silenced, how about a voice that simply whispers “Game Center” when you launch a game? It would be wispy and fun. Wouldn’t that be much better than the annoying banner? I think so.

iOS Game Center Banner

iOS Push Notification Permissions Are Not Always Honored

The first time you launch an app in iOS, you are usually asked if you want to allow the app to deliver push notifications. A box pops up asking your preference, and you can either tap “Don’t Allow” or “OK.” Half the time when I select “Don’t Allow,” notifications are enabled anyway. I am not exaggerating. In my experience over the years, I would say that this happens about 50% of the time.

When I install a new app, I almost always deny push notifications for it. After using an app for the first time, I’ve been in the habit of going to the iOS settings to look at the notification settings. Sure enough, I often have to go in and manually disable Badges, Sounds, and Banners for the app I just installed. This needs to stop.

I only allow notifications on apps that I use for communication. In total, I only have notifications enabled for about five apps, most of which are instant messengers. It simply isn’t necessary for other types of apps to use them, certainly not games and other such trivial nonsense. Notifications can get annoying and I imagine that they probably tax your battery if you have too many enabled.

I don’t understand why the initial permissions preference is broken half the time. Are app developers deliberately programming so that notifications for their app are allowed no matter what the user chooses when they launch it? I suspect that they are. I don’t have any other explanation for the behavior. It can’t be an iOS glitch because half of the apps I’ve encountered honor it correctly.

If developers are in fact doing this on purpose, I’d like to see Apple crack down on the practice. Evildoers should be rejected from the App Store. There just isn’t any sense in developers getting away with this, if this is what they’re doing.

I would advise that everyone check their iOS settings from time to time to see if any apps have sneakily turned on notifications without their knowledge. I think we should all collectively begin giving poor ratings to apps that don’t honor the preferences of the user.

iOS push notifications permission

Siri Has Become Unreliable

Has anyone had problems with Siri lately? I’ve used it occasionally for the past year, but lately it has been very hit and miss. Mostly miss. I don’t know if it is iOS 7 related, network congestion, or what. Siri has become completely unreliable, whether I am accessing it on LTE data or my home WiFi.

For the past month or so, when I voice dictate text, it takes an unacceptable amount of time to complete. It regularly takes 20 seconds or more, much longer than it would take to type out the text by hand. And when I ask Siri a direct question, at least half the time she says she can’t take any requests at the moment. And when it does work, it regularly takes up to 30 seconds to respond. Unacceptable.

When I need directions on the go, I’ll ask Siri to navigate to a location or to a contact in my address book. That has always worked well for me in the past, but lately it just spins its wheels, often not responding at all. A few nights ago, I had to pull over and type in where I was trying to go.

I can’t be alone in this problem. It’s getting on my nerves. This has not been an issue for me until about a month ago. Siri has become nearly unusable. It’s a possibility that the millions of new iPhones sold since the release of the 5S are clogging up the pipes. Apple needs to address this immediately or risk alienating their users.

Wanted: iOS Music Skipping

Apple developed an iOS app for podcast lovers, simply called Podcasts. One handy feature of the app is the ability to skip 15 seconds ahead or 15 seconds behind with the tap of an icon. This has become indispensable for me, as I often like to skip back to hear something I either missed or want to hear again. These skip icons are essential for navigating close to the part of the recording your are listening to. It would be too difficult to use the scrub slider to back up a few seconds in what could be and hour or two of content.

I want the same skip feature to be built in to the iOS Music app as well. When I’m out walking and listening to music, I often find myself wanting to back up a few seconds to hear a particular part of a song again. I admit that the scrub slider is of more use for a single song in comparison to podcasts because the width of the slider represents only 3 or 4 minutes of audio. However, I keep around an old iPhone and use it as a mere iPod when I’m exercising. It’s old and the screen is cracked at the top, right along the area where the time and audio scrubber are displayed. It’s hard for me to be able to glance at the screen and find the head of the slider to navigate within a song. It would be far easier if there were skip icons that I could tap and go forward or back with ease. I don’t understand why they haven’t thought to add them. Make it so.

iOS skip buttons in Podcasts app

Half-Baked iOS 6 Reminders

I began writing about the lackluster Reminders app in iOS 6 more than a week ago, but I thought I’d wait until after the announcement of iOS 7 to see if improvements were on the way. Since iOS 7 won’t be released for a few more months, I’ve decided to proceed with my issues about Reminders.

Reminders feels a little half-baked. Its primary purpose is to remind me about something, but that function is its biggest weakness. Hear me out.

When I get a text message in the Messages app, it will alert me twice if I don’t acknowledge it the first time. If my phone is sitting on the desk in front of me and it lights up with a text message, I can lean over and look at the lock screen and read it. If I don’t need to reply right away, I’ll just let it be. When I do this, the phone doesn’t know that I read the message because I didn’t physically interact with it. A couple of minutes later, it will chime again with the same message to make certain that I saw it. This behavior used to be optional, and I would usually leave that option turned off because I found it slightly bothersome. At some point in the updates to iOS, Apple, in its infinite wisdom, decided to remove the ability to disable the second reminder. I find that rather annoying because when I’m driving and the phone is in my pocket, I can’t tell if a second chime is a new message or just the same old one popping back up.

Contrast that behavior with the Reminders app. In Reminders, there is no option whatsoever for a second notification. None! You can’t get a second notification even if you wanted one. I find that to be ridiculous to say the least. Apple is so hell bent on making sure I don’t miss a text message that I can no longer disable second notices on them. But in Reminders, an app whose sole purpose is to remind me about things, I can’t choose to receive multiple notices. That single issue makes me not want to use Reminders at all.

When you go into the system settings and look at the available options for the Reminders app, you’ll notice that there basically are none. The only setting I see is being able to change the default list that future reminders will be added to. That is all. Below that is an empty screen.

I put Reminders on my home screen so that if I do miss an alert about a reminder, I’ll at least notice a red badge on the icon. The problem is that it doesn’t always work. I have missed reminders and later unlocked my phone to find no badge icon at all. Granted, it doesn’t fail every time. It usually works, but I have seen it not work a couple of times, and I have read complaints on online forums from other users registering the same complaint. This degree of unreliability is unacceptable.

Let me give you two examples of how I’ve used Reminders in different situations.

In one instance, I checked out a book from my local library. While I was leaving the library, I set my phone to remind me weeks later on the morning that it was due. I set it to remind me early so that I’d make sure to bring the book with me when I left the house in the morning. In that instance, I didn’t require multiple notifications. At some point during that day I’d notice the reminder and have time to return the book.

In another instance, I was at a party. I set Reminders to remind me to send an important text message to a friend at a specific time during the night. I made sure that my phone was not on vibrate and that Reminders was using the loudest possible sound effect in my library. An hour after I was supposed to send the text message, I happened to pull my phone from my pocket to see a message from the friend I was supposed to have written. I’d completely missed the reminder. I couldn’t hear the notification because it was too noisy at the party, and I somehow didn’t feel my phone vibrate in my pocket either. The popup alert was also obscured by the more recent text message I’d received. This also happened to be an instance where a badge icon did not show a missed notification. The only way I knew I’d missed it (besides my friend writing me) was pulling down the Notification Center and seeing an entry for Reminders that I was supposed to have written them. It was that night that I knew that Reminders wasn’t up to snuff. In hindsight, I suppose I could have gone to the extreme length of setting an alarm in the Clock app, but I never dreamed that such a drastic measure would have been necessary.

Reminders does have a few cool features such as location-based reminders, although I’ve never used that and do not intend to. There is an option to set the priority level of individual reminders, but I can’t tell that the priority level does anything but change the appearance of the reminder in the app itself. I hope that in iOS 7 the Reminders app gets some needed new features and customizations. In its current state, it generally works, but I don’t find it to be entirely useful.

I’m currently experimenting with a third party app called Alarmed. It has a lot more features than Reminders, and allows for endless nagging at intervals as often as every minute! Alarmed lets you set quick reminders or “super reminders,” and has a large library of alert sounds to choose from. I find that it works well and it has positive reviews in the App Store. I’ll continue to use both apps, depending on my individual circumstances, and cross my fingers that Reminders gets an update in iOS 7 later this year that makes it useful for all of my needs.

Two Years on the iPhone 3GS

Two years ago today on February 13, 2010 I bought my iPhone 3GS. I had already been using an iPod Touch, but the 3GS was my first smartphone. The exact date had slipped my mind until I happened to check in on Foursquare today. The Foursquare app told me it was my second anniversary on the service, and amusingly added that I look as good as the day we met. Ha! I distinctly remember downloading the Foursquare app not long after I powered on my new phone.

I’ve been a very satisfied iPhone user. I am still using the same 3GS that I purchased two years ago. My phone looks a bit more war-torn that it did on the day that I unboxed it. I’ve dropped it on cement, into a mud puddle, watched it tumble end over end down a sidewalk, found a nick in the glass screen after it smashed onto a concrete balcony without its case, and more. As a result, the exterior has a few dings. Its worst blemish is a few damaged pixels near the top portion of my screen. The damaged pixels cropped up a few days after it took a nasty face-down fall just a few months ago. That said, it has held up remarkably well.

Most importantly, the battery is still solid. If you are an iPhone user, you know that the battery cannot be removed or replaced. It is permanently built into the phone. That was of some concern to me when I bought it, but two years on, the battery life has never been an issue.

When I bought the 3GS it came with iOS 3.0. Today it is running the latest iOS 5.0.1. The OS upgrades have breathed new life and features into my aging hardware. Still, it is beginning to show its age. Two newer iPhones have come to market since I purchased mine. I nearly purchased the 4S this past Christmas, but figured I’d hold out to see what comes out this summer. My old phone will keep rocking until then, provided I keep it off the ground!

My First Day Using iOS5

Yesterday, the servers at Apple were taxed with millions of mobile users downloading the new iOS5. My slow 7-hour download of the OS last night was well worth it. I woke up at 5:30 this morning and ran to my computer to find my phone upgrade had completed. It felt like Christmas Day! I ran back to bed with my phone and went about toying with iOS5 for well over an hour. Apple claims that it would make all phones faster, even my old 3GS. I had my doubts, but that indeed seems to be true. My phone feels quite snappy; not bogged down in any way. I really like the new OS. As far as iOS limitations on my hardware, I think my 3GS has every new feature except for Siri and AirPlay abilities.

The new notification system is my overall favorite feature. I was getting a little jealous of friends with Android phones that were able to see all of their notifications and local weather conditions on their lock screen. Now I can enjoy the same, without a jailbreak.

iMessage is a killer feature for me, as I don’t pay for unlimited texting from AT&T. It is really awesome! My dad, brother, and I had a 3-way iMessage chat going this morning for an hour. It was great and only added to my excitement. The camera app loads faster now, which is a welcomed enhancement for everyone. The new Mail app is great. I’d recently been using the Gmail mobile webpage in Safari, but now Mail supports flagging of important messages in the app and it has worked really well so far.

Some new iOS features are more hidden and subtle, but certainly a step forward. I’m also happy that iOS5 will now offer small over-the-air updates instead of one hulking download; something that Android users have had enjoyed for a long time.

I don’t really care about WiFi syncing or iCloud at this juncture. I chose to not enable any iCloud or WiFi sync features in my phone setup today. Some day in the future, I may flip that switch. For now, I mainly charge my phone on my computer, and I don’t need wireless syncing or cloud storage since I’m plugging it in already. My computer will continue to handle updates and backups for now.

The new iOS, combined with overhauled versions of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Google Voice this week have made my phone feel like a brand new toy. I use Google Voice a lot, and the new version that Google finally released this week, while no more attractive, is noticeably more responsive now, and integrates fully with the new iOS5 notification system.

I’m happy with all the upgrades. So much so that I don’t feel in a hurry to upgrade my phone hardware. I am eligible for an upgrade to the iPhone 4S per my mobile contract, but I am rather content with the phone I already have. I may get a wild hair one day and buy a new phone at some point, but I am happy with what I have for now. All of the new goodies have made it feel brand new again.