Someday, the brains that power the apps we use on a daily basis will be able to develop a speech-to-text technology that consistently works well. In that hopefully not-too-distant future, we won’t need things like Google’s new Handwriting Input tool. Instead, we’ll just tap a button, rattle out what we want to say, and have our words perfectly understood, all the time, under any circumstance. Until then, the state of alternative text entry continues its slow but necessary march toward improvement.
Google Handwriting Input demonstrates one of those forward steps: an app for your Android smartphone or tablet that replaces traditional QWERTY typing, speech to text, and Swype with the tip of your finger–or a stylus, if you’ve got one. However you use it, Handwriting Input is a welcome change of pace for those who find using a standard mobile keyboard to be a maddening challenge, or for those who think their usual input method is just getting boring.
The app is surprisingly adept at deciphering both printed words and cursive handwriting, even if said handwriting looks more like chicken scratch than any actual language. Once it’s downloaded, you have the option of selecting it as the default writing tool within your Android’s “Language and input” settings, alongside typical input methods like Google voice typing or your device’s downloaded keyboards.
Once selected, you can use Handwriting Input to write texts, compose emails, take notes, create Word documents, or perform just about any other application into which you insert text. Instead of the standard Google Keyboard, you’re given a blank space that’s just big enough to drag the tip of your finger or stylus across and scrawl out the words you want.The whole thing uses the same light grey and teal aesthetic as the regular keyboard by default, so the visual shift isn’t too jarring within the context of Lollipop.
You can have Handwriting Input translate your text in two ways. With its “auto selection” option turned on, the app will automatically jot down its best guess at whatever word you’ve written. With it off, the app presents you with a few scarily accurate suggestions, then lets you quickly convert them to typed text with a single tap. The tool supports 82 different languages at the moment, and, at least for English, we found it to be supremely capable in translating whatever scribbles we threw at it.
Google touts the app’s ability to recognize hand-drawn faces and convert them to emojis as well, but in our testing we had difficulty making that particular feature fly. That’s ultimately not a huge deal, but it does point to some potential bugs that have yet to be worked out.
Popping open Google Handwriting Input’s Settings menu gives you just a handful of options, the most useful of which are picking a different language and switching the writing pad between light and dark themes. There’s also the aforementioned auto selection control–which includes a slider for fine-tuning how quickly it translates your words to text–in addition to an option for sending your scribbled data to Google to help hone their algorithms.
Handwriting Input isn’t the kind of productivity app that’ll turn the professional world on its ear or cut your work time in half, but it’s a sign that language recognition continues to remain something of a priority for Google. This isn’t the first time the company pushed handwriting recognition, but it’s the most dedicated attempt it’s taken on Android. That can only be a good thing for this kind of tech. If nothing else, it’s all one more way to goof around with your phone. The app works on Android devices running version 4.0.3 and up, and is available now as a free download from Google Play.