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Use Etch Keyboard for fast search, sharing and shortcuts

This clever iOS keyboard lets you hit up Yelp, add an animated GIF, share your location and more, all without ever leaving the Messages app.

etch-keyboard.jpg
For fast and easy animated GIFs in your text messages, just trace a G in Etch Keyboard. Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

In the nearly one year since Apple released iOS 8, many a third-party keyboard has stepped up to offer features like language translation, handwriting recognition and GIF stickers. But most of these are one-trick ponies.

Etch Keyboard (iOS) pulls off a trick of its own, but you can use it to perform a variety of functions. Just by drawing a simple gesture, Etch lets you invoke Yelp, share your location, embed an animated GIF, insert a message and more -- all within the comfy confines of the Messages app (or whatever else you use to type).

If this is your first time installing a third-party keyboard, check out CNET's handy iOS keyboard how-to. The procedure here is no different: Install the app, head to Settings to enable it, then head to Messages and invoke the new keyboard.

From there, however, things aren't so obvious. At first blush, Etch appears to be a standard keyboard with a weird-looking row of letters across the top:

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Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

These are actually gestures meant to be drawn within the nine-dot grid shoehorned into the center of the keyboard. Etch comes with a handful of gestures ready to go, but you can create your own as well (more on that in a bit).

To invoke Yelp, for example, you type a keyword like "lunch" or "ice cream," then draw something approximating a "Y" in the grid. Presto: a Yelp search based on that keyword. Tap any listing and its Yelp URL is instantly inserted into the text field, ready for sending to your chat-mate.

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Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

If you draw a check mark in the grid, that brings up a list of canned responses for quick and easy sending: "Yes," "Sure, sounds good," and "Ok." A question mark works the same way, but for canned questions (like "What's up?"). An upside-down triangle lets you share your current location, while a right-facing arrow inserts "On my way!"

To create a new gesture-powered shortcut (an "Etch," in this keyboard's parlance), you simply type the word or phrase you want ("Oh, no, zombies!", for example), tap the plus sign that appears in the Etch toolbar and then tap Create a New Etch. Now you can draw the gesture you want to be associated with that item.

For even more options, open the Etch Keyboard app and tap Store. Here you'll find prefab gestures for Giphy, Google search, Spotify search and various others.

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Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

It's pretty cool stuff, but with a few caveats. First, the more gestures you add, the more you have to remember. Second, and much worse, Etch Keyboard doesn't incorporate auto-correct, which is virtually impossible to live without.

I'm not saying you shouldn't check out the keyboard anyway, just that it'll be a lot more practical to keep around once the developer adds that feature.

What's your favorite third-party iOS keyboard?