Best Free Onscreen Keyboard for Accessibility

 
Introduction

As the name implies, an On-Screen Keyboard (OSK) is a virtual keyboard that is displayed on the computer screen. It is used as an alternative to the physical keyboard, so people can "type" by using a mouse or other input device.

As a general rule, there are two main reasons why someone would want to use an OSK:

Assistive

As a physical keyboard replacement:

  • A user may not be able to use a physical keyboard - they may use accessibility devices such as switches and pointing devices or a touch screen
  • A user may choose to use an alternative way of entering keystrokes - they may wish to use their native language on a foreign-language machine.

Security

To enhance their security and protect against malicious software (like keyloggers):

  • Security OSKs are often used to offer the user extra protection when using public, unprotected or potentially suspect computers (eg. at libraries and internet cafès).
  • Security OSKs can help to protect against malicious software that may have a combination of the following features:
  • Keylogging - where the physical keyboard activity is logged
  • Screen logging - where screenshots are taken at regular periods or taken every time the mouse is clicked
  • Clipboard logging - where the clipboard is actively monitored
  • Mouse position logging - where the coordinates of mouse clicks may be captured; this is primarily used to defeat web-based banking OSKs
  • A technique I call 'field scraping' - where the program may 'scrape' or 'grab' the value of a text box, even if the text box has a password in it and is covered by the **** password mask.

The good news is that there are some great free programs that will assist with these needs. However, I want to stress that people should use the right tool for the job. Accessibility OSKs do not offer any real protection against malicious software, just as security-focused OSKs do not offer much functionality as keyboard replacements. In addition, security OSKs should be seen as part of your overall security regime, to assist, but not replace other security software (eg firewalls, anti-virus, anti-malware applications etc).

This review covers accessibility OSKs only. For security OSKs, click Best Free Onscreen Keyboard for Security.

 
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Discussion

Click-N-Type ScreenshotClick-N-Type is an excellent free OSK that rivals many commercial OSKs in the accessibility space. It is highly functional and very customizable, but isn't terribly pretty and the breadth of options may be a little daunting for some users.

Like all the OSKs, Click-N-Type sends its button presses to the active application (the topmost one, the one in focus), just as if keys had been typed on a physical keyboard. To eliminate any chance of misdirection, Click-N-Type thoughtfully notes the name of the currently active application in its title bar. Before beginning, the user might see fit to set the text cursor to the precise desired position within that targeted application. Or you could simply employ the OSKs arrow keys to move around within a block of text, and the Tab and Shift+Tab keys to navigate among different entry fields within Click-N-Type.

The keyboard can be resized easily, and the fonts rescale automatically when doing so. This should suit many users of assistive technologies, and those who would like a resizable keyboard for use with a touch-screen computer. There are a number of different keyboard layouts to choose from; If you need those arrow keys then be sure to select a layout, from the File menu, that includes them. When first installed, the default layout will likely be set different from those keyboards to which you're accustomed. The one shown in the image above is their selectable "QWERTY101-short" layout, the one that most resembles the norm.

There are many language and keyboard layout packs available, and you can even download a free utility from their website to customize your own. Click-N-Type shows the correct characters for each language's needs - a Japanese language pack, for example, will show Japanese characters on the keys, regardless of what language has been set in Windows. This will be of great benefit to people wanting to use a native keyboard on a foreign computer.

Click-N-Type offers a predictive text engine (as a separate free download) that works exceptionally well. Power users can add and change words in that engine by editing the language file in a word processor or notepad.

An assistive feature they call Autoclick allows users to perform hover delay entry. This mode is especially useful for persons who have difficulty operating a standard mouse and so must rely on a joystick, headpointer or eyetracker. Delay and repeat times are very configurable. A real handy macro feature is also available, allowing users to record and later playback oft-used sequences of characters.

For those who lack the ability to wield a pointing device and rely instead on a signal button or use of a single key (eg the Space Bar), Click-N-Type offers entry by scanning. Their scanning method is arguably faster than that of others, like Microsoft's built-in OSK, because it employs a three-way scan or literally, triangulation. The user signals first to select from successive blocks of keys, then signals to select a row within the block, and lastly signals to land on the target. It might be a tad less intuitive at first than row-by-row scanning but it is nonetheless, a superior design.

 

Microsoft On-Screen Keyboard ThumbnailMicrosoft On-Screen Keyboard (MSOSK) is installed in Windows by default. It can be found in: Start/All Programs/Accessories/Accessibility/On-Screen Keyboard or alternatively from Windows key + U. It has a very clean interface and allows for switching between extended keyboard layout and the standard layout, in which the numeric pad and cursor-control keys are omitted to save space.

Operation is by clicking on the display or by two alternate entry methods, hover and scanning, to accommodate those with physical difficulties. When set to entry by hovering, a cleverly implemented progress bar is drawn on the targeted key to apprise the user of the trigger timing, which is configurable to any of six discrete choices, ranging from 0.5 to 3.0 seconds. Entry by scanning requires only a single button or key. The software highlights each row of the keyboard in succession and stops when the user signals. Then, each character within the chosen row is highlighted successively, until the user signals again. 

It should be noted that except for the Windows 7 version, MSOSK cannot be resized, which presents a serious limiting factor for some users without fine motor control or users who want to use an OSK with touch- screens. For XP users who are desperate and struggling with the older unresizable MSOSK, they might derive a measure of relief with a little amateur utility contributed by Charlie Danger of Better Living Through Technology. Visit his page here where you will find the workaround that Charlie calls DOSK, short for Docking the On-Screen Keyboard. Be advised that DOSK is in beta (testing) phase, is not highly refined and that you'll be using it at your own risk. It provides no system tray icon so has to be relaunched in order to change or revert the arrangement. DOSK is of course completely free. At the time of writing this article, it doesn't work in Windows Vista.

Different languages are catered for in the MSOSK, when the operating system has that language selected. But here again, the Windows 7 version of the accessory excels. It automatically adapts the keyboard to the language selected in the application (the one in which the typed characters will be entered).

Microsoft Windows 7 On-Screen Keyboard ThumbnailThe redesigned Windows 7 version of MSOSK is stylish and improved. It now has a useful word prediction feature, with the ability to learn and anticipate your most commonly used verbiage. When this option is switched on, an extra row of eight dynamic buttons appears that offer suggested word completions as you type. This can make the composition of text go quite a lot faster. But alas, the word prediction feature is absent from Windows 7 Home Basic.

 

Free Virtual Keyboard ScreenshotFree Virtual Keyboard (FVK) is an OSK that seems to have been designed with pen computing in mind, and should be of good value to people using touch/pen-screens and assistive pointing devices.

From this perspective, FVK is well designed. The OSK presents the standard keyboard layout (minus the arrow keys and number pad) and the keyboard itself resizes really well, with good font resizing.  

FVK has a slider control that allows users to alter the OSK transparency from almost 100% opaque to almost 100% transparent. This is a great feature addition - particularly when there is a lack of screen space. One minor point on this; FVK can go very transparent - perhaps too transparent. On occasion it was a little hard to see the almost-invisible slider to make the OSK opaque again. 

In comparison with other assistive OSKs, FVK does have some limitations; it doesn't support all languages (in my testing, English and French were auto detected, Japanese was not), and it doesn't offer any hover delay entry or scanning features.  Still, when viewed from a pen computing perspective, FVK is worth considering.

 

Dasher Screenshot (thumbnail)I love how innovative Dasher is - it's an OSK, minus the keyboard.  Let me explain. The team at the Inference Group at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, have developed a way for people to enter text by using alternative methods. From the Dasher website:  

"[Dasher can be used] when operating a computer one-handed, by joystick, touchscreen, trackball, or mouse; when operating a computer with zero hands (i.e., by head-mouse or by eyetracker); on a palmtop computer; on a wearable computer.

The eyetracking version of Dasher allows an experienced user to write text as fast as normal handwriting - 29 words per minute; using a mouse, experienced users can write at 39 words per minute."

It takes a little getting used to, but I found that I improved quite quickly with a bit of practice. You 'steer' your mouse toward the next letter you need, and the letters 'fly' towards the cursor from the right of the screen. Don't click, don't drag, just steer or 'drive' to the next letter. And don't be afraid to cut corners or go back (you'll see what I mean when you use it).

All letters are in alphabetical order, top to bottom, lower case to upper case, but Dasher presents the next letter with a size that is proportional to the probability of your needing it. The software continually strives to anticipate and accommodate. You can see this concept at work in the screenshot above (click it for a larger image). Four or five of the most likely continuations of the prefix "pro", pertinent to the sentence being entered, are popping out at you.  But if you want instead to compose the word "prolific", you would steer your mouse between "-ject" and "-mise", and the needed letters are guaranteed to arise out of the ever-changing flux. By the way, those little square shapes represent the space character.

Continuing the use of the driving analogy, when the letters are 'run over', they are registered at the top of the screen to build the words, sentences and paragraphs. This may be saved later as text files or cut and pasted into other applications.

Dasher supports many languages, and can also improve its predictive capabilities by learning the words you use often.

 
Related Products and Links

Related to Security and On-Screen Keyboards:

Other free programs worth looking at:

  • Tapir  is an assistive on-screen keyboard with an entry method similar to mobile phones. It has very good predictive text capabilities and was created by the same team as Dasher (Open Source).
 
Quick Selection Guide

Click-N-Type
4.5
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Multiple keyboard layouts, predictive text, can be resized, different languages and key layout is highly customizable.
Not particularly stylish in appearance.
http://www.lakefolks.org/cnt/
3.03.414
1.35 MB
Free for private use only
A portable version of this product is available from the developer.
Windows 95 and above

v3.03.414 released 14 April, 2013
View version/features here

Microsoft On-Screen Keyboard
3.5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Hover delay entry and scanning features
The keyboard does not resize ...fixed under Windows 7
2.0
211KB
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Bundled with Windows

This program is installed in Windows by default. A free portable version is available that remembers your preferences. Go to On-Screen Keyboard Portable.

Free Virtual Keyboard
3.5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Good looking, resizes well, easy transparency. Great for touch computing.
No assistive functions (scanning etc). Only Western languages available.
2.7
204 KB
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Win 2000, XP and above

v2.7 released 3 March, 2011

Dasher
3.5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Highly innovative. Many languages. A good variety of control styles: click, eyetracker, stylus etc.
Designed for accessibility; takes time to learn interface to get up to speed.
4.11
8 MB
Open source freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Wins 2000 and above, Mac OS X, Android

Can be integrated with speech engines. Versions available for Windows Mobile and Pocket PC devices.

 
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Tags

On-Screen Keyboard, Assistive Technologies, Predictive Text , Security, Keylogger, Screenlogger, Clipboard Logger, Password Logger, Anti-malware

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Comments

by crombierob on 2. August 2013 - 6:37  (109864)

My question relates to 'focus' returning to the 'active window/Form/Dialog'
I have written a lot of VB6 programs on my XP PC.
Some of my programs are required to be polite, and not steal 'focus' That is, they appear and then disappear when clicked (or mouse'd). For example my ClipBuddy displays a list of pre-stored clips, and I click one, and ClipBuddy minimizes to the Sys Tray, and sends the clicked clip to the previously active window. My code relies on the previously active window being active again, as soon as my ClipBuddy hides itself.
I don't like Windows 7, but I have had occasion to use it.
I notice it is less co-operative in returning focus to the previously active window.

In the opening of your reviews you say -
"Like all the OSKs, Click-N-Type sends its button presses to the active application (the topmost one, the one in focus)"
Does that mean they are all polite, and all manage to return focus to the previously active Window.
Even in Windows 7 ?
I am in the process of repairing one of my old PCs, so it may be a wee while, before I get Win 7 available to test what I have been mumbling/grumbling about, above.

Thanks,
Rob

by gerble1000 (not verified) on 10. December 2011 - 18:50  (84772)

i am a bit disheartened of the lack of actual onscreen keyboards out there.
so i payed a developer some money to make me a stylish one.
that was simple and unique.
you can visit my site to download it for free.

http://www.touchscreenkeyboard.co.uk

my website is a little rubbish but its to the point.
if the admin of this webpage would like to add my keyboard to the list i would be grateful.

by crombierob on 2. August 2013 - 7:08  (109865)

The rar download appears to be corrupt.
Perhaps that is why no one has provided any feedback on your generous offer ?

by sonjibdas2005 (not verified) on 12. September 2011 - 14:02  (79478)

thanks for gizmo's.

by MAKcontrols (not verified) on 9. September 2011 - 18:27  (79320)

I am looking for a keypad only OSK, for use with a touchscreen (XP). I've looked, but all I've been able to find are full keyboards.

Any help would be appreciated.

Thanks,

by Century22 on 10. January 2011 - 17:02  (64221)

I thought I would try Trend Micro's version just to test it. TrendSecure Transaction Guard
As expected I received an error message:
"Only Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows Vista can currently support TrendSecure applications."

Running Windows 7 64-bit.

by TazzieDave (not verified) on 31. December 2010 - 22:06  (63635)

I've just Alpha released a new Assistive On-screen Keyboard "KeyOSK" at

https://sourceforge.net/projects/keyosk/

I'd appreciate your feedback.

Thanks for this article which has made me think that I may as well make it a security one as well!

by TazzieDave (not verified) on 27. March 2011 - 2:33  (68627)

Hi, just to let you know this has been significantly reworked and is now up to Beta standard. Would appreciate feedback from any potential users. Dave

by savvy-k on 27. March 2011 - 14:31  (68656)

I'll consider linking to your software when it's finished, but note that the nearly identical functionality can be achieved by using Click-N-Type's custom layout designer module. We do thank you very much for your comment and contribution.

by Simon Judge (not verified) on 23. December 2010 - 12:01  (63127)

Useful list thanks. Don't forget disambiguation keyboards though (i.e. like mobile phones):

http://www.oatsoft.org/Software/dkey/?searchterm=dkey
&
http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/tapir/

Cheers

Simon

by savvy-k on 23. December 2010 - 14:35  (63136)

It's tiny and hard to spot but Tapir is touched on in the article, at the very bottom, under a heading, "Other free programs worth looking at". Dkey is the engine for Tapir, methinks. Or, the other way around.

by zen (not verified) on 11. July 2010 - 3:09  (54070)

Neo's SafeKeys always opens windows installer when I try to run it on my xp sp3 machine. I think it interferes with the windows installer somehow. I've never seen a portable app evoking the installer

by savvy-k on 20. December 2010 - 14:56  (62997)

Yes, it happened to me as well with v3: the software required reference to the installer. SafeKeys developer, Aplin Software, has now corrected that and new download files were posted on 12/18/2010. Download anew from their site and I think you will find it okay.

Your comments always welcomed!

by Anonymous on 15. October 2009 - 11:19  (34692)

As a short information for everyone who search this type of software in reason to avoid threats like keyloggers brought by trojans etc.

It is one of Internets many myths!

Keyloggers recording HOOK'S inside the operating system and NOT what you're doing with your fingers at your keyboard.
(Hooks are used by almost anything which is in use in the PC).

Accordingly to this it is'nt possible protect yourself by replace the keyboard and instead useing an on screen keyboard.
To stay safe and prevent keyloggers from being installed it is much better useing good Antivirus and AntiTrojan software.

by Bing0 (not verified) on 3. May 2011 - 4:42  (71323)

To Anonymous and all:
This statement that an OSK will NOT protect an end-user from malicious keyloggers and to then call this belief categorically a myth is not true.

There are certain hardware based keyloggers that physically connect between the keyboard and the target pc. These must be physically installed and removed.
A person should be completely protected from this type of infiltration. However, when a person is a target of this type of attack and the enemy has this kind of access to your pc. There is not much that you can do to protect yourself from intrusion. Your best bet in this case is to buy a laptop that only you have physical and logical access to.
Just a few thoughts...

Peace,

Bing0

by savvy-k on 20. December 2010 - 16:56  (63000)

Hooks inside the OS usually intercept/hijack the kernel's keystroke handling subroutines. We've written up three products in the article above that bypass those routines, so they should be effective against keyloggers. Study Section II above and take special note of the security rating tables below the write-ups for each. Proviso: no anti-malware product purports to be 100% effective against all current and conceivable future devises of the malicious mind.

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