With iOS 8, Apple opened its mobile operating system up a bit. It’s still not the free-for-all that you get on Android, but we ended up with third-party keyboards, Today view widgets, and a slew of extensions for the Photos app and Share sheets.
The only thing is, now there are loads of extensions littering the App Store, so how are you supposed to know what to install? By reading this feature, that’s how!
So join us as we delve into the sometimes murky world of powering up an iPhone and iPad, picking the very best extensions the App Store has to offer.
The best third-party iOS keyboards
We were surprised Apple allowed third-party keyboards in iOS; even as the system became more extensible, the potential for daft, hideous keyboards didn’t seem very Apple. And as it turns out, iOS keyboards aren’t without limitations.
Apple’s default must be used for password fields, and the ‘globe’ key that displays a full list of active keyboards is only available to Apple’s own keyboards. Others usually (but not always) have a globe key, but it merely moves you to the next keyboard in the list. This means there’s no point in having loads of keyboards installed - and especially novelty ones - because it takes an age to cycle through them.
There are also questions regarding data policies with some developers who require ‘full access’ for their keyboards. This doesn’t always seem essential for functionality, so you should remain vigilant.
US$free • iPad/iPhone
Hunting and pecking tiny keys on a virtual keyboard isn’t much fun. SwiftKey does away with such nonsense, instead enabling you to swipe in the vague areas the keys should be and let the app figure out what you meant. It’s surprisingly accurate and learns from you over time.
SwypeUS$0.99 • iPad/iPhone
Swype is very similar in concept to SwiftKey, except you have to pay for it, and you get themes (most of which you have to pay for as well). However, for your initial US$0.99, you do get better access to a range of accented letters, an optional number pad, and a keyboard that’ll work without full access being activated.
NintypeUS$4.99 • iPad/iPhone
Nintype is totally mad. On the initial install, it’s a bewildering journey into a trippy undulating keyboard with pretty out-there ideas about digital typing. But force your way through the tutorial, stick with it (and dial down the animation) and you end up with a clever, customisable typing experience with all kinds of neat tricks (quickpaste, Spacebar cursor, layout adjustment, flick autocomplete, and more).
TextExpander 3US$4.99 • iPad/iPhone
On the Mac, TextExpander is a useful time-saver. You define abbreviations (such as addr1), which then expand in any app to become frequently used blocks of text (such as an address), optionally including dynamic variables such as the time and date. But on iOS, this always felt pointless, because few apps added direct support; for the most part, you had to write within the TextExpander app itself to expand snippets.
The iOS keyboard offers a cunning workaround, bringing snippets to any app, hugely increasing TextExpander’s scope. The keyboard is a touch basic, with autocorrect in part relying on a list of autocorrect snippets; additionally, the parent app appears unstable on trying to format snippets beyond bold/italic type or text size. Still, it beats shoe-horning text-expansion into Settings > Keyboard > Shortcuts, and is a decent alternative keyboard to have ready if you regularly need access to boilerplate copy.
US$0.99 • iPad/iPhone
For the emoji-obsessed, Emoji++ is a perfect replacement for Apple’s equivalent keyboard. Instead of pages of icons, you get a big scrollable list with a speed-search bar, and can tap-hold any character to add it to your favourites. It doesn’t need ‘full access’ either.
MinuumUS$3.99 • iPhone only
Although it offers themes (its reason for ‘full access’), Minuum’s big feature is markedly shrinking the keyboard’s height. It looks squashed, but remains surprisingly usable due to strong autocorrect (in use, it’s somehow reminiscent of a great dumbphone keyboard), and leaves more screen space for content.
For anyone sick of being unable to find extended characters on iOS, two options: unicodr has a handy and effective search but otherwise a slightly awkward page-based nav; Symbols is like Emoji++ but for Unicode - very elegant, but lacking search. Maybe someone should mash them both together.