8pen: Android keyboard app tries something new

8pen: Android keyboard app tries something new

App offers a great concept that completely misses the mark.

There are apps that I don't want to like, but do. Then there are apps I do want to like, but don't. The 8pen keyboard, unfortunately, belongs in this latter category. I'm a big fan of innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, but the developer needs to go back to the drawing board with this one.

8pen is a replacement keyboard unlike any other. It completely does away with the standard QWERTY keyboard and replaces it with a circle surrounded by four quadrants. Each quadrant has eight letters or symbols, each one selected by starting in the center circle, going in a certain direction, looping your finger either clockwise or counterclockwise for a certain number of degrees, and then returning to the center circle. Sound complicated? It is. In fact, trying to explain how it works exactly would take up the entirety of this review, so I'll just say watch 8pen's promo video, if you're really interested.

In the video a speaker says, "If the keyboard were invented today for mobile devices, would it look the same [as a QWERTY keyboard]? Probably not." I actually think the logic behind that statement is pretty sound. However, 8pen fails to come up with a better alternative. Here are just a few reasons why:

1. The layout of the letters will be completely foreign to you. 8pen says it puts the most commonly used letters closest to the center of the circle to make them easier to access, but that doesn't make it any more intuitive. In addition, during typing your thumb will cover up a good portion of the screen, making it hard to tell what you've selected. The speed of your typing will be crawlingly slow until you memorize exactly where each letter is, and what gesture creates it.

2. It takes a rather long gesture to make most letters. It's hard to argue that this makes any sense when sliding keyboards like Swype and SlideIT allow you to create an entire word with a much shorter, more intuitive gesture.

3. It will take you a really long time to learn how to use it. Days later, after hours of practice, I was still typing at a snail's pace.

The 8pen keyboard does have a few things going for it. You can create a gesture to input oft-used phrases (such as your e-mail address, or "Where should I meet you?"), but you can do that in SlideIT, too. It has a speech input key for Froyo and higher (but so do pretty much all keyboards now). If you really memorized where everything is and how to do it, you could, theoretically, type without looking (if you could always find the home circle), but even then, if you were to tell me that it would be faster, I'd tell you you were dreaming. The predictive text is decent, but certainly not as good as SwiftKey's.

I applaud 8pen for trying something completely different. Unfortunately, this one is a nonstarter in my book. That said, it's free now, so if you're curious, you've got nothing to lose.

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