Update

The Android L keyboard briefly appeared on the Google Play Store, here's how it looks

An enterprising developer ripped the keyboard out of the Android L Developer Preview and tossed it up in the Play Store, since removed by Google.

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The Android L keyboard, right in the Play Store

The Android L preview represents a significant design shift for Google, with the company pushing a new aesthetic it calls Material Design.

Those eager to try the newest version of the operating system can do so. However, installing Android L is for a select few: you must have a Nexus 5 or Nexus 7 and be willing to wipe your phone.

Update 07/09/14: The app was removed from the Google Play store for violating the developer distribution agreement. Frankly, we're surprised it took so long. With a little searching you can find sites hosting the APK for you to sideload at your own risk.

The app is very stable and usable for anyone that wants to get a taste of Android L before it hits devices this fall. It also reveals much about Google’s take on design and utility with the newest update to its operating system.

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Material Design at work

Google’s new keyboard serves as a benchmark for its new Material Design. It demonstrates one of its key principles: “bold color statements juxtaposed with muted environments.” The stark white keys and blue accents are clearly visible when contrasted against the the dark gray background.

Additionally, flat and modern elements are evident from the lack of mock keys between the characters. In all it is a great look, and will give you a sense of where Android is headed.

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Color options

If the Material Design look isn’t your thing, the developer has included the original blue and white themes from the current version, which presumably will also be available when Android L hits. While they look fine for now, they would probably be out of place when Android and third-party apps are updated to meet the Android L aesthetic.

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Gesture typing

Google’s take on a Swype-style keyboard gets even better, including some inspiration from SwiftKey. Like the former’s “flow through space” feature, you can now drag your finger across the keyboard without lifting it—just drag it over the spacebar to insert a space between words.

Gesture typing is definitely a personal preference. Some swear by it and others would rather not. For those in the former group, Google has improved this capability.

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Autocorrect

Without running a specific comparison test it is difficult to determine how well autocorrect compares to the other Android keyboards.

My anecdotal experience is that the autocorrect was good, though not as accurate as SwiftKey, which is my typical go-to keyboard. However, it would not be surprising if the final version includes deeper ties into your apps and Google services for the keyboard to learn more of your typing habits.

Of course, if you find it does more harm than good, you can always disable autocorrect.

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Numbers and alternate characters

The Android L keyboard puts numbers and alternate characters within easy reach. Hold down a button on the top row for numbers. Some will display international characters. If there is one you use frequently you will need to memorize where it is placed, as there are no visual indicators of which symbols, besides numbers, lie hidden under the long-press of each letter.

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Emoji

It’s time for one of the most important components of any keyboard: access to Emoji. No matter which app you are typing in, a long-press of the Enter key presents the Emoji menu.

The Emoji are grouped into categories, with the most recently used icons appearing in the leftmost section. After adding in the necessary icon, hold down the enter button again to get back to the regular characters.

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Keyboard settings

Just as the current Google Keyboard does, the Android L version will ask for permission to use your data from Google services. It also offers the standard suite of settings, including a personal dictionary and tweaks for gesture typing. The settings appear to be the same as the current Google Keyboard, though of course more changes could come as Google builds up Android L.

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Voice input

Google’s voice-to-text input is built in to the keyboard and easy to access. To launch it, just tap the microphone icon located at the right side of the word suggestion bar. If you hit it by accident, just tap again to get back to the keyboard.

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How it compares

The Android L keyboard is a good upgrade over the current stock Google keyboard, and serves as a model for how applications built for the newest version of Google’s operating system should look. I have used it as my primary keyboard for about a week, and found it very fast to type with, accurate, and aesthetically pleasing. Gesture typing has even merited a trial, though don’t expect too much of it if you use lots of names or a sophisticated vocabulary.

If you are a diehard user of a specific third-party keyboard, the Android L keyboard is unlikely to make you switch right away. Also, switching is much easier now—just hold down the spacebar to select a different keyboard. This makes it easy to try this out while still keeping your preferred keyboard at the ready.