How to Choose an iPad Keyboard

by Reads (15,355)

Getting a keyboard for your iPad sounds a lot like getting a bicycle for a fish: it may work, but that doesn’t mean it’s a useful combination.

Most iOS applications are meant for simple taps and swipes, with only occasional keyboard-type entry, like search terms or texting. But some apps are typing-intensive, like non-brief email, creating documents, or remote desktop sessions through LogMeIn or GoToMyPC.

The iPad’s larger display area makes it easier to type on than an iPhone. But even so, for much more than a few words, it’s still not so great compared to a real — that is, physical — keyboard.

iPadThanks to having taken typing back in high school, I’m a touch-typist, meaning I can type without looking down at a decent computer keyboard give or take a few glances, at up to 70 to 90 words per minute (WPM). But on the iPad’s virtual keyboard, I can only do about forty WPM — and that number really should be reported as less, factoring in typos. If I typed more carefully and corrected errors as I went, I’d be lucky to hit thirty WPM.

The problems with using a smaller-than-desktop-size keyboard are that without glancing between the keyboard and display after every keystroke or two (or memorizing the next handful of words to type) I can’t tell if I’m “hitting” the correct keys, nor can I tell whether Apple’s auto-correct is helping or hindering. Plus, the various punctuation marks and other characters aren’t where us touch-typists’ fingers expect them. It’s slow.

For activities that don’t involve a lot of text input, like today’s “3rr0r-tolerant” text-message and email, this may be good enough. But for many activities, in particular, writing documents (like, for example, this article) and also keyboard-control-oriented applications (like remote desktop apps), it may make sense to use an external keyboard.

Bluetooth (wireless) keyboards have been around for a while, like the old iGo/ThinkOutside fold-in-half Stowaway keyboard intended for use with PDAs. Now there are external Bluetooth keyboards for use with tablets, dozens of models, including several that are specifically intended for use with iOS devices, ranging in price from $59 to $129.

Bluetooth

While most Bluetooth keyboards should work with an iPad (or other iOS device), iOS-oriented ones include iOS function keys, notably HOME and SEARCH, reducing your need to take your hand off the keyboard to tap the display, letting you work a little more easily. They also include iTunes media control keys — volume mute/up/down, play/pause, and previous/next track — and may include “Play Slideshow,” and even some copy/paste keys.

For this two-part series, I took a look at half a dozen or so Bluetooth keyboards from leading vendors, all but two iOS-oriented. All but one of the keyboards that I tried act as or include a stand for the iPad; all but two also act as a protective carry case. Some of the keyboards have what I consider to be moderate-to-fatal usability flaws.

But there isn’t necessarily a single “best” keyboard; it also depends on how you use your iPad in tablet and keyboard modes. Carrying, setting up, and switching will drive your decision, which may only become clear once you’ve used it in a variety of situations for a week.

And you may discover that having a keyboard for your iPad isn’t as useful as you’d hoped. Adding a keyboard to an iPad won’t turn it into a notebook. For example, you can’t (as of the current state of iOS) use a mouse on an unjailbroken iPad (versus Android, for which there are mice, like the Logitech Tablet Mouse for Android 3.1+).

But having a keyboard may be better than not having one…or you can still bring your notebook along.

Features and Use Cases
Before the reviews of the specific keyboards, let’s talk about features to be aware of, and “use cases” — the different ways you will be using your iPad or iPad 2, in tablet and with-keyboard.

First, here are the features to consider:

  • How well does the keyboard work as a keyboard? (Remember, you’re buying this because you expect to use it frequently, often, a lot.)
  • Keyboard size, compared to a standard desktop keyboard. (As a reference point: a standard keyboard’s main block of keys — i.e., not counting any number pad or block of Home/End/Up/Down or arrow keys — spans eleven inches across, from left edge of TAB/CAPSLOCK/SHIFT to the right edge of ENTER.
  • Key design (flat or slightly concave/convex)? Are keys adjacent or slightly separated? Individual keys or a “key membrane”? Key “travel” (how far they press in)? Click or other feedback? Overall?
  • Where are the non-alphanumeric characters (`~@#$%^&*()_-+=[]\{}|;:'”,<.>/?) compared to a standard keyboard? If frequently-used ones (notably ,.?'”) are in a non-standard place, that’s going to inevitably slow you down.
  • Does it have iOS-specific or general function keys?

There are non-keyboard aspects to consider as well, including:

  • Does it provide a “stand” (hold the iPad up at an angle)?
  • Does it let you work with the iPad in both landscape and portrait mode positions?
  • How “convertible” is it? Does it let you (easily) use the iPad as a tablet? (Does it open up and fold in a non-cumbersome way?) How easy is it to switch between tablet and keyboard modes?
  • Can you use an Apple iPad SmartCover with it?
  • Does it put the iPad into “Sleep” mode when you close/cover the iPad with it?
  • Does it also act as a case for the iPad (when not in use)? Does it provide protection (display-side or both sides) in “carry” mode?
  • How convenient is it for carrying around and travelling with? How fast does it “deploy” (going from “take iPad out of your bag” to “ready to type”)?

And of course, there are the basic tech specs and details, like:

  • How much does it weigh? How thick is it (with iPad), in carry/tablet mode?
  • Price
  • Rechargeable or AA/AAA batteries? How long will a charge last in use? How long will the batteries retain a charge? If rechargeable, is a USB cable included?
  • How easy or difficult are the power on/off and the pair/connect switch to use?

Equally important: how do you plan to use your iPad, with and without the keyboard? With the keyboard:

  • In your lap?
  • On flat surface, but not much edge? (Resting on a trade show exhibitor’s table, for example.)
  • On a flat surface big enough for a support flap? (e.g., on a desk or table.)
  • For longish typing sessions, like working on a document, or just brief ones, such as going from exhibitor table to exhibitor table?
  • Do you plan to shift between keyboard and tablet mode a lot?
  • Do you want to be able to easily have “just the iPad” — not in a case, not docked to a keyboard (even if the keyboard is tucked under the iPad back)?
  • Do you want to use an Apple iPad SmartCover?
  • Do you want your iPad to stay in/on the keyboard (so you don’t have to remember/decide to bring the keyboard)?

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider — some determined only by trying to carry and use the keyboard in typical situations.

On the next page, we will look at some leading choices, including Apple’s own bluetooth keyboard.



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