It is true that having an external keyboard for iPad is a good idea when you're going to be typing a lot, but it is far from true that you really need one. We've typed thousands upon thousands of words directly onto the glass of our iPad screen, and along the way we have learned some things. One is that invariably, you're slower typing on the screen -- but the other things we've learned are ways to speed up and to cut down how much you need to do.
This Pointers was tested on an iPad Air running iOS 8.4, but we've been doing most of this on iPads right back to the original one. Much of it also applies to iPhones, especially the iPhone 6 Plus -- but as it is still the case that you're more likely to type mostly on an iPad, let's deal with that.
Losing suggested words
We do like the three predictive words that iOS pops up above your keyboard, but we're substantially less keen on the way we seem to be forever switching the feature off by accident. Stroke the wrong key, swipe at the wrong part of what you're writing, or letting go at the wrong point when you're moving the loupe cursor, they all seem to dismiss the suggestions. One misplaced finger movement and the list of three words slides away, leaving just a tiny line -- and an even tinier grab handle to bring them back.
Somehow it's far harder to bring them back, and even when you've realized that it's a case of swiping back up, finding the spot to swipe is a pain. The most consistent way we've found is to aim our finger around the Y key, and quickly swipe up from there. You do end up getting some unusual letters and symbols from pressing around the Y key, but you can just delete those.
If you really dislike the suggestions and you wish they'd go away forever, you can indeed send them away forever. Go into Settings/General/Keyboards and there is an option called Predictive. Flick it to off, and you'll never see them again. We suggest you go into this section anyway, because there are many keyboard options there, but in general we just leave them all on.
You can switch off these suggested words without going all the way to the settings, though. If you occasionally want to get rid of them or just occasionally want them back, press and hold on the World symbol in the keyboard -- if you have one. This key only appears when you've installed extra keyboards, ones provided by other companies than Apple. It's the key you use to switch between, for example, the regular Apple keyboard and the nearly-brilliant TextExpander one. Or it's the key you keep catching when you just wanted to press Shift, and now have to schlep through each keyboard to get back to where you were.
When you have this key, though, you can press and hold on it to get a shortcut listing all the keyboards you have installed, and at the top of the list there is an on/off toggle for Predictive, the suggested words feature. If you're looking at your keyboard right now and that option is grayed out, it's because your cursor is in somewhere like the address bar of Safari, where suggested words don't apply. Tap into a Pages, Drafts or Word document, open up an email, just pop your cursor into anywhere you can type proper sentences instead of addresses or usernames, and you'll get that option un-grayed.
When you try that swiping up to restore the suggested words, you are pretty much guaranteed to type characters such as ¥ or maybe ü if you miss a bit. These are hidden characters that you get from pressing and holding on a key. They're most often used to get you accented foreign characters, and let us take a moment to relish how much easier that is than on a Windows PC.
However, as well as accented characters, there are other things hidden behind the keys, and some of them are particularly useful. We'd say they're so useful that they shouldn't be hidden, they should be right there in front of you, but Apple only had so much room, something had to give. On your iPad on-screen keyboard, press and hold on the key with an exclamation mark and a comma: you'll get the option to enter an apostrophe. Similarly, the question mark and period key hides a quotation mark.
Once you know this, you will never again tap that ABC key to change the entire keyboard and find these characters. If you do change to that punctuation and number keyboard, though, you get more hidden characters. The currency key probably shows you a dollar symbol, but a quick press-and-hold shows you the UK's pound sterling symbol, the Euro symbol and other ones we're not terribly sure about.
While you're on this punctuation and number keyboard, press and hold the question mark: you'll get a Spanish ¿ symbol. We use this constantly in our calendars: whenever we have to keep a date or range of dates clear, and they aren't confirmed yet, we put that ¿ at the start of the event title. You'd be surprised how a line with that in leaps out of your calendar at you. It's far more noticeable, somehow, than ? or TBC.
Split and polish
We touch-type, and we like to have the keyboard at the bottom of the screen while we read what we're writing on the top half. We're traditional like that. If you're more of a hunter-and-pecker, though, and especially if you tend to type with your thumbs while carrying the iPad around, you may like to try this. Split your on-screen keyboard into two. If you're all fingers and thumbs, then the way to do it is to press and hold on the keyboard icon at bottom right and choose Split.
If you can, though, it's handier and also more fun to just press and hold your thumbs onto the keyboard, keeping each about a third of the way in from the left and right. Then just move the keyboard. It will spring apart under your thumbs. To get it back to our normal, sane, single keyboard at the foot of the screen, do that thing with your thumbs again but in reverse: push the keyboard together.
That image is from halfway through the splitting: you end up with quite a bit smaller halves of the keyboard on either side. Having said that we'll never write anything long on a split keyboard, we can see the benefit of that one. We can't see the benefit of this: you can move the keyboard up the center of the screen. Truly not one single clue why you would do this, but give it a go just to see it. Press and hold that key at bottom right with the keyboard icon and slide your finger up to Undock. You know you're going to try it. So also know that pressing the same button again will now say Dock, and you can put this madness behind you.
Entering website addresses
This isn't as useful a feature as it used to be: today you can type, say, 'macnn' into Safari and if it doesn't automatically pretend you said www.macnn.com, at the very least it will take you to a Google search page with MacNN at the top. Still, when you are typing out an address into that bar in Safari, you can quickly enter '.com' or common alternatives such as '.co.uk' by pressing and holding on the question mark/full stop key.
That seems to be the answer to everything: press and hold. That can sound like it will delay your typing speed, and this would be because it will. Yet pressing and holding on a key, then swiping over to select something, is dramatically faster than having to change keyboards.
-- William Gallagher (@WGallagher