For a device marketed as an enterprise tablet built for productivity, it’s amazing it has taken RIM a year from the PlayBook release to unveil an official tablet and Bluetooth keyboard combo in the BlackBerry Mini Keyboard. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing, though. Maybe it’s a sign RIM still stands behind its underrated tablet, which I’ve always found to feature some excellent hardware, and with the recent addition of PlayBook OS 2.0, a very good operating system.
That doesn’t mean the PlayBook has been without physical QWERTY support this whole time. We’ve found that most Bluetooth keyboards, be they for the iPad or Android tablets, work with the PlayBook. Also, third-party keyboards abound, and BlackBerry Bridge enables text input direct from BlackBerry handsets.
But RIM built the BlackBerry Mini Keyboard with the tablet’s unique market position in mind, and as such it sports some decidedly PC-like features.
The BlackBerry Mini Keyboard consists of two parts: the folio and the detachable keyboard. The folio is made of of a black pleather exterior with black stitching. The front features the BlackBerry logo, and the back exterior has an elastic strap for securing the folio when it’s folded open, a kickstand with teal blue color accents (same color as seen on the neoprene sleeve that ships with the PlayBook) for keeping the folio upright in landscape mode, and a camera lens hole.
The interior is lined with a pleasant microfiber material and the keyboard is secured with four elastic straps. The PlayBook snaps into a tough but pliable plastic frame with holes for the microphones and headphone jack on the top, and the miniUSB, miniHDMI, and pin charging input on the bottom.
All in all, it’s very well built, but there are design flaws. For starters, the kickstand is short and doesn’t extend long enough to consistently support the BlackBerry PlayBook. Too often in our tests, the tablet fell open on itself. Also, it’s easy to snap the PlayBook in the frame, but not so easy to get it out, and that takes way too much prying and pushing. The frame too, has no holes for the PlayBook power and volume buttons, and instead has protrusions that mimic the buttons. We’ve already complained the PlayBook power button is too small and too hard to press, and the frame protrusion makes it double tough. Finally, and this not a case design flaw but rather a PlayBook design issue, all the tablet inputs are on the bottom, meaning you can’t plug in a miniUSB cord to charge it, or a miniHDMI cord, without opening the case up completely and folding it over itself.
The QWERTY keyboard features 56 keys and is about the same size as the PlayBook but half as thick. It has a trackpad, that measures approximately 1.5 inches by 2 inches. The power button and the microUSB charge input are on the lower-left side, and in another confounding design flaw, are obscured by the elastic straps when secured in the folio.
It’s very small for a full QWERTY, but the Chiclet-style keys are well made and rival any other tablet Bluetooth keyboard in terms of quality and overall performance. Still, it takes a lot of getting used to, and even after hours of typing away, errant presses are still likely.
The keyboard has some nice business-friendly features, including support for standard Office-style CTRL+ shortcuts, and a neat key combo for selecting text. The trackpad is also very useful as it eliminates the counter-intuitive task of reaching up to the tablet to navigate the device. Also, and this is what makes the keyboard worthy of enterprise consideration, it makes working in a virtualized desktop environment so much easier. To that end, the trackpad supports right and left clicks through double taps when using the Citrix desktop virtualization app.
RIM claims the keyboard lasts up to 30 days on the single charge. I believe it, since I’ve yet to recharge the device after weeks of testing. Also, setting up the keyboard with my PlayBook was a simple and one-time process.
Priced $120 at launch, the BlackBerry Mini Keyboard is an extremely expensive accessory. The folio is definitely attractive and well built, and the keyboard works well considering its size constraints. But its quirks combined with the fact that you have to spend a lot of time in a virtualized Windows desktop to get the most out of the keyboard features, limit its appeal to casual PlayBook users.
Business users, particularly those that can get their company to foot the bill, will find a lot to like, however.