The iPad does a lot of things right. Text entry is not one of them. In fact, most Android tablets have better text entry than the iPad, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, most tablet Android versions support USB keyboards. In addition, if you don’t like the stock Android on-screen keyboard, there are dozens of alternatives in the Google Play Store and third-party Android app markets.
Apple iPad owners can tweak the iPad keyboard, split it, and undock it, but short of shelling out cash for an overpriced Bluetooth keyboard, they are stuck with the stock iPad QWERTY, where the most effective means of typing consists of hunting and pecking with an index finger.
Touchfire aims to change that by, in the creators’ words, putting the “Touch back into typing on an iPad.” How so? With a clear plastic screen overlay that enables users to identify keys by touch and provides a small bit of resistance/cushion, just like a real keyboard.
The Touchfire screen-top keyboard secures to the iPad through the same magnets that make the Smart Cover do its thing, and only works in landscape orientation (the long one). Since the iPad keyboard and screen size have been consistent across all three generations of tablet, the Touchfire works with any iPad, though I’m not sure how will it will secure to the original iPad, as that device lacks the internal magnets.
I tested this Touchfire out on an iPad 2. Let’s see how well it emulates the full QWERTY typing experience.
Build & Design
The Touchfire is a clear and flexible rubber overlay with a three stiff plastic components, one running the its entire length and two smaller portions on the corners, all three with magnets designed to secure the Touchfire to the iPad. The clear rubber portion is about as long as the actual iPad screen and about 2/5 as tall, while the stiff plastic portions fit easily on the iPad’s relatively thick display border. The magnets secure the Touchfire, but aren’t strong enough to keep it from slipping.
The Touchfire also ships with small square stickies, that when applied to the backside of an iPad case or Smart Cover, lift and hold the Touchfire away from the display, giving users the option of opening the iPad cover with or without the Touchfire. I like having that option, but I’m no fan of putting stickies on my Smart Cover. Also, because the magnets aren’t that powerful, the Touchfire often becomes misaligned and slightly off when applied from the Smart Cover. On the plus side, the Touchfire can be easily removed and cleaned in the sink should it get dirty.
Set up is easy, but not so simple at first blush given the odd pieces, but Touchfire is kind enough to include a small instruction sheet that clears things up nicely, along with an oblong case that reminds me of an old school ruler and pencil holder.
To date, no keyboard has replicated the traditional QWERTY experience on the iPad. It’s impossible, considering the iPad does not support cursor keys and has a different take on Shift+ functions. That aside, the Touchfire actually rivals some rubber-keyed Bluetooth units I’ve tested in terms of typing speed and efficiency.
Most punctuation and symbols are a pain to insert, as are numbers and capital letters, again thanks to the iPad keyboard. Also, it’s easy to miss a letter during a speedy bout of typing. But the much-maligned auto-correct works great for filling in apostrophes, though often swaps in the wrong word over a typo. I grew very reliant on the shortcut that inserts a period after two quick taps of the space bar.
Call it a case of low expectations considering how unimpressive the Touchfire looks, but I’m kind of impressed with it. There are superior keyboards available, including Apple’s own Bluetooth unit and some of the ZAGG offerings; and those also have the benefits of not taking up iPad screen space, working with the iPad in portrait mode, and not requiring stickies. But for a simple piece of rubber and plastic, it works surprisingly well and improves text entry on the iPad.
At $50, it’s expensive (but made in the USA!). Perhaps too expensive for a simple piece of rubber and plastic, especially considering I’ve seen ZAGG keyboards on sale for less. And since the Touchfire works best with an iPad case, that $50 is better spent on an iPad Smart Cover should you be lacking.