Picking the right keyboard for writing on the iPad
By ANDY IHNATKO twitter.com/ihnatko March 12, 2012 10:52PM
Updated: March 13, 2012 1:08PM
The iPad has almost all of the components and resources it needs to serve as an all-around computer. The hardware is more than powerful enough and the apps have never been more sophisticated. Developers have freed themselves from the notion that an iPad app should be a simple, single-function tchotchke. Many of the apps released in the past year are the equal of any desktop app targeted towards the same type of user. We’re seeing plenty of the kind of software that can be used to conceive, create, refine, finalize, and then distribute content without any need to move the project to a desktop OS at any point.
(And! Many of those apps aren’t even made by Apple!)
Sure, you can use an iPad as your sole computer. But whether it’s for the weekend or forever, it’s incomplete without one more purchase. The iPad is indeed a real computer, but by no means could you ever call that onscreen doohickey a real keyboard.
Just last year, there was practically no point in even discussing the topic: every iPad keyboard (save one) was cheap, flimsy, and an ungrateful insult to the fingers that have served you faithfully and without complaint for so many years. Fortunately, iPad accessory keyboards have entered a fab new era of sophistication themselves. There’s a Bluetooth keyboard out there for almost every different kind of user.
For the power writer
User One: Me. You do lots and lots of writing and you’re willing to sacrifice convenience for the same kind of comfort you experience on your notebook.
Easy. Use the exact same keyboard that Apple ships with all of their desktops. The Apple Wireless Keyboard is fairly affordable ($69) and you’ll have absolutely no trouble touch-typing at 100+ words per minute on it.
This is the Sole Decent iPad Keyboard I referred to a moment ago. Naturally, it’s a full-sized keyboard with premium-grade keyswitches. It’s also angled slightly for comfort. It’s built on an aluminum slab, which makes it both strong and lightweight. It’s rock-solid between your fingers and any stable surface without any flexing or slipping.
It does come with a couple of drawbacks. Its function keys aren’t iPad-specific. Screen brightness and audio controls work fine, but to bring up your iPad’s app launcher or Spotlight search panel, you’ll have to lay your mitts on the iPad directly.
That’s worth a shrug at best. The only annoying bit is its power button. It’s a feather-touch pushbutton placed on the side of the thing which easily gets pushed when the keyboard is jostling around inside your bag. One bump wakes the keyboard, and then the presses on the keyboard wake your iPad, and you wind up needlessly draining your battery.
The simple workaround is to turn off your iPad’s Bluetooth radio when you pack up your things and leave the coffeeshop. It’s a bit of a hassle, but if you do as much writing as I do, it’s worth it.
Amazon sells something similar under their house “Amazon Basics” line. It’s just $37 and it features a full row of iOS keys. I still recommend the Apple Wireless because InCase has created an ingenious case for it.
The Origami Workstation ($29) looks like a simple wraparound case that protects your Apple Wireless Keyboard from dust and dings. Aha: but when you fold the top of it around and back and Velcro the two corners together, it turns into a slick easel stand that keeps your iPad at an ideal viewing angle for typing. And it’s stable enough for laptop use, even.
For the casual writer
User Two: You write a lot, but you’re not, like, a madman about it. You want something that’s very comfortable to type on, but which is still compact and portable.
Go for the ZAGGfolio Zagg ($99 at zagg.com). I found Zagg’s first-generation keyboard case to be wretchedly untypeable. In fact, I could type much more quickly and accurately with the iPad’s built-in virtual keyboard. I reckoned that it was because of the downsized keys. This put me off of keyboard cases as a basic category.
Well, I reckoned wrong. The Folio is a breeze. It turns out that the one non-negotiable element of a keyboard is the quality of the keyswitches. The Folio is no wider than the iPad, but they keys are premium-grade and there’s ample space between them. The keys feel wonderful. They provide that same confident mechanical snap as the switches on the Apple Wireless.
You can’t get around the fact that it’s a smaller keyboard. But you can get over it.
The Folio has a full bank of iPad-specific keys, and the keyboard itself can be removed from the case entirely. Embedded magnets will automatically put the iPad to sleep when you close the case, just as with a Smart Cover.
It isn’t without downsides. When closed, the Folio has the profile of a thick-ish netbook. It’s for your own good: there’s a gap there to prevent those thick, comfy keys from touching the screen and scratching it.
Also, I’m slightly wary of Bluetooth keyboards with rechargeable batteries. What can I do when I unpack my iPad for a few hours of work and discover that the keyboard’s dead? The battery lasts for ages and recharges off of any USB port but that won’t help me when a deadline is closing in. I can be back up and running with the Apple Wireless after a quick trip to a convenience store for a pack of AAs and maybe a Dr. Pepper so long as I’m there in the store.
For the typist by necessity
User Three: You’re more of a note taker than a writer.
It’s the Adonit Writer Plus ($109 at adonit.net). Conceptually, it’s quite similar to the Zagg: it’s a downsized rechargeable aluminum keyboard with premium switches and iPad-specific function keys, inside a case that automatically sleeps the iPad when it’s closed.
The key difference between the two is that the Zagg is a great keyboard in a good case and the Adonit is a good keyboard in a great case.
I’m not 100% sure I’d find any fault whatsoever with the Adonit’s keyboard if I didn’t have the Zagg to compare it with. But the Zagg’s keys feel thicker and snappier, and the base is slightly more stable. With both keyboards in the office, I consistently gravitate towards the Zagg.
But when you close these cases up, the Adonit is a much tighter and nicer package. There’s nothing clunky or netbookish about the Writer Plus: it becomes a solid, trim slab that’s thinner even than many iPad cases I’ve tried. That’s mostly because It also uses a clever magnetic trapper system. And you can pop your iPad out of the Adonit easily when it’s time to read a book.
More interested in case than keyboard?
User Four: Undersized keyboards drive you batty, but you still want a small, integrated keyboard case.
Against my expectations, Logitech’s $129 rechargeable Fold-Up Keyboard works swell. When it’s packed up, the Fold-Up is a chunky black plastic plinth underneath your iPad, which sits on it face-up. So you can easily flip up your Smart Cover and read a book on your iPad without having to pop it out of your keyboard case, as is necessary with the Zagg and the Adonit.
When it’s time to rock and write, you set it on the table, release a catch, and swing the two halves of a full-sized keyboard out from underneath the iPad like the wings of a butterly. The halves click together into a stable and comfortable surface.
The Fold-Up is actually kind of fun to show it off. Alas, in pursuit of the goal of making a functional Transformers-style folding keyboard, sacrifices had to be made. The keys are somewhat flat, resulting in a slightly mushy feel.
The desktop experience
User Five: You need a full, desktop-style keyboard.
Apparently you’re an elite number-cruncher. If you must have the full aircraft carrier of keys, Matias has a 101-style Bluetooth keyboard that folds in half.
It’s not an exceptionally good partner for the iPad. It lacks iPad-specific function keys and I wish it had some kind of integrated pull-out easel.
The keys feel fine (they’re full-sized keys, with full desktop-style travel). But the switches have a slightly cheap feel to them.
The New iPad?
The Zagg, Adonit, and Logitech keyboard cases are designed specifically for the iPad 2. But you can bet that new editions for the new iPad will be released soon . . . or at least we’ll see a badge on the manufacturers’ site that certifies that you can squeeze a third-generation iPad in there and it’ll probably work out OK.
There’s one more keyboard solution I wanted to try, but it wasn’t released in time for this roundup. The TouchFire ($49 from TouchFire.com) is a different take on the concept of iPad keyboards: it’s a clear silicone rubber overlay that magnetically sticks to the iPad and automatically aligns itself over the virtual onscreen keyboard.
It almost certainly won’t offer what you’d call a luxurious typing experience. But it adds tactile feedback and it lets you rest your fingertips on the keys without making any accidental presses. It folds out of the way when you don’t need it and it’s so thin that you can close your Smart Cover right over the TouchFire when you’re ready to leave.
We all have to wait and see how well all of this works in practice. The TouchFire ought to start shipping later this month.
We’re still a few revolutions away from an era where touch and voice kick mechanical keyboards to the curb. The technology isn’t nearly there yet. More importantly, do users really want to spend so much time talking?
No. Your kids will learn to type and their kids will, too. The keyboard defines the device. My iPad is a fantastic tool all by itself. But when you add a nice keyboard, it redefines my laptop as a power tool that stays on my office desk, tethered to an external screen and keyboard.