New keyboards just might be the best part of iOS 8

Amid all of the ballyhooed new features introduced in Apple's new iOS 8, a health app, Apple Pay, improved Spotlight search -- support for third-party keyboards is shaping up to be perhaps the most compelling new feature the mobile platform has to offer.

It was this feature that drew snickers from Android users when iOS 8 was first announced a couple of months ago; since Google's OS has offered extensible keyboards for a long time, this was one of a number of features that sounded like Apple playing "catch up." And there's some truth to that. That aside, being able to replace the Apple keyboard with alternatives that might better suit your typing style and preferences is a good thing. And when you spend a little time with iOS 8, it doesn't take long to wonder how you ever got along without the option to change keyboards.

To install a third-party keyboard, first install it from the App Store. Then you need to enable it; go to the iPhone's Settings and choose General, Keyboard, Keyboard, Add New Keyboard, and choose the keyboard you just installed from the list.

After that, when you go to an app that displays the keyboard, tap and hold the globe icon in the lower left corner of the keyboard. You'll see a list of installed keyboards, and can choose among them at any time. You can switch the Apple keyboard and third-party alternatives at will.

That's good, because there's one thing Apple hasn't talked about much: They held back the microphone key, which you use to dictate voice-to-text messages. If you often speak to your keyboard and rely on that being converted to text for you automatically, you'll need to switch back to the default Apple keyboard frequently. Third-party keyboards aren't allowed to convert speech to text.

But aside from that inconvenience, the new input capability is a revelation. There are a number of keyboards already available, each offering some nuance that makes text entry less onerous on a phone. Some are free; others cost a few dollars.

One keyboard Android owners rave about is the Swype, which lets you enter text without lifting your finger off the screen until the end of the word. Just trace the path from letter to letter, and the word appears when you're done, seemingly as if by magic. That might sound confusing or difficult, but Swype is excellent at knowing what word you meant, even if your finger motions aren't extremely accurate. It speeds up text entry and can make tapping out individual characters on a different keyboard seem downright primitive.

Swype costs a buck, but you can get essentially the same finger-glide typing from other iOS 8 keyboards for free -- Adaptxt and SwiftKey are two other excellent choices. And that's just for starters. Other keyboards contending for your attention include Flesky and Minuum. And since most are free, you can easily try them out and see which works best for you. And you can always go back to Apple's keyboard if you like the defaults.

Photo courtesy SwiftKey