If you are anything like me, you occasionally get bored with the stock iOS keyboard, in all fairness, it is a great keyboard and with the addition of swipe capability in iOS 13 it is a great fit for users, but change is never a bad thing.
There are dozens of alternatives in the App Store, from Gboard to SwiftKey, each offering users unique features, but has nothing that makes them significantly different. For me, a good keyboard is one that is fast to use, easy, and offers me the features I need at my fingertips.
I often get annoyed by keyboard apps that overload features, confusing the experience, and cluttering the UI, a keyboard is meant to be simple, not a rocket science equation.
That is where today’s review comes in, Feature Phone definitely lands on the unique category of iOS and watchOS keyboard apps, developed by Adam Foot, it features a T9 style keyboard for iPhone and Apple Watch.
The Apple Watch Story
Wait, what? Typing on an Apple Watch, give me a break. That was my reaction, skeptical of how you would be able to possibly type on such a small screen. Feature Phone is not the case, the initial T9 design of the keyboard means you have access to all the letters, and symbols under 10 keys.
watchOS doesn’t come with an on-screen keyboard. Apple opts for a scribble or pre-set reply options for text-based interactions. With Feature Phone, it has its own app that pairs with your iPhone.
When you open the app on the Watch, you are presented with nothing but the keys, and two buttons in the bottom corners, SEND and CALL.
Pressing SEND will open the Messages app, allowing you to directly send your inputted text to a chat, the CALL button will, well, make a phone call to the phone number you have inputted.
Apple’s limitation on watchOS API’s means, currently, the buttons are only mapped to the stock Phone and Messages app instead of being able to get mapped to a 3rd party.
But it is a keyboard at the end of the day, so how is it typing on the Apple Watch? As I said, the app follows a T9 style which means ultimately there is a learning curve. Once you get the hang of the T9 layout, it is a pleasure to use.
If you aren’t familiar with the T9 style keyboard, you are probably wondering how you change the letters. One tap on any key will input the first letter of that key, two taps input the 2nd, and so on. Tapping past the letters implemented for each number will give the number corresponding with the button.
When you press the number 1, you get your symbols, scrolling down allows you to use “Other Input” which includes dictation, scribble, and emojis.
It may seem confusing to read and indeed is when you first start off, but at one point it becomes natural and you find yourself using it without even thinking.
When you Force Touch the display, you get 4 options, Clear, Get Last, Settings and About. From my experience, I would find myself using the Clear function a lot, the main app screen and the back-space button isn’t practical for long messages, so just opting for the Clear button was always the easier case.
The Settings page only includes two options, an Auto-Clear toggle to automatically clear the space after sending a message, and a Haptics toggle to using haptic feedback for key presses.
Both are purely based on your preference, but from using the app for around a week, enabling Haptics was definitely a good decision, being able to get feedback for key presses on an already small screen where your finger might get in the way was a welcomed discovery.
The experience on the Watch is a polished one, its easy to use and works, unlike some other Watch alternatives which offer a half baked experience. However, if you were planning to write an essay using it, think again.
One bug I did notice immediately after using it was that when you typed a longer message, there is not a way to skim to look at the rest of the message. You have to simply keep back-spacing to get to a previous word or screen.
The iPhone Story
The iPhone story follows a similar path, when you open the app you are presented with a simple UI, which was within itself appreciated. Not getting thrown at with lists of toggles and settings, and just having it work out of the box.
The iOS app has three main elements. The main page includes snippets of how to install the app and any promotional updates from the developer. The about page features what you would expect including the version, website, support, and other apps by the developer.
There is no settings page in the iPhone app. The keyboard doesn’t even request full access to your iPhone, because it has no information to transmit to the application’s server unlike other applications. (Note: Full access usually is used for the keyboard’s server to learn habits, so it can provide typing suggestions.)
Similar to the watchOS app, pressing any key will take you to the first letter. Each tap moves up a letter tapping ‘1’ brings up your Feature Phone symbols. To access emojis, you would use the iOS globe icon just like you would use another language.
The iOS app is missing a few symbols you may need like the percent and dollar sign.
Like the watchOS version, it does come with a learning curve, learning the T9 layout vs. the traditional QWERTY keyboard is an obstacle to overcome. Even with using it for a week, I am still getting around to it.
It is worth noting that the iOS app and keyboard does support iOS 13 Dark Mode.
There are a few things that would make the user experience better, like incorporating haptic feedback for keypresses. This may be a battery drainer, so perhaps simply for the symbols or maybe when a user reaches the number when pressing each key.
Feature Phone is an out of the box concept. It has adapted for day to day modern use. There is a learning curve and room for improvement, but it definitely offers something many apps don’t.
Out of 10, this app gets a 7. While it is a great keyboard app, there are some improvements to the iPhone experience the would bring it up to the Apple standard.
You can purchase the app from the App Store for $1.99 USD here.
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