A tablet can become dramatically more useful with the addition of an external keyboard. Typing on screen is fine for short pieces, but a physical keyboard is far better for extended writing, whether it be documents for work, school papers, or the next great American novel.
The ZAGG Messenger Universal has been designed to bring a large keyboard to tablets with displays up to 12-inches in size, but it goes well with smaller models and the 12.9-inch Apple iPad Pro too.
Build and Design
This keyboard comes in a folio case which wraps around it and protects it from bumps and blows. Although the exterior of this case is all black plastic, ZAGG has given it a textured finish that makes it look reasonably professional.
So many similar add-on keyboards also function as a case for the tablet they are used with that it’s important to realize that the Messenger Universal’s folio case for is only for the keyboard, and there’s no room in it for a tablet; that must be transported separately.
It’s hard to get a large keyboard into a small package, and ZAGG’s offering is 12.2 by 7.4 by 0.6 inches and 1.5 pounds. It’s about the size of an iPad Pro, and fits well in a carry pouch with Apple’s new tablet.
This isn’t priced as a high-end keyboard, and the design reflects that. The products is well built, but it’s made of cheaper materials.
When opened, the front flap of this case folded into a triangle-shaped stand. It assumes this configuration easily, and magnets hold it that way with surprising strength: the Messenger Universal was able to prop up a 2-pound Microsoft Surface Pro 2. This means this keyboard can be used with an device from a phone to a full-size tablet.
Unfortunately, the stand offers only one angle, and there’s no way to adjust it to others. This angle is a good compromise, but this is still a significant limitation.
On the other hand, unlike many single-device keyboards like the Apple Smart Keyboard, the tablet can be used in either landscape or portrait orientation.
Lapability (the ability to use this keyboard and tablet in the lap) is OK but not outstanding. The tablet is held up well enough that it’s not going to fall over, but there’s a tendency for the computer to wiggle a bit when typing.
Many add-on keyboards are small to make them more portable, but that can also make them feel a bit cramped, especially to people who are accustomed to a keyboard intended for a desktop. For example, the keys on the Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard are in an area just a bit over 9 inches wide. The keys on the Messenger Universal by contrast stretch across almost 11 inches, nearly the size of a typical desktop keyboard.
These are “island” keys so there’s space around each of them, like the new Surface Pro Type Cover, leading a unusually good key separation for a mobile keyboard. This ZAGG offering still needs to be thin, though, so key travel is minimal, which is typical for a mobile keyboard.
The action is somewhat noisy. It’s not as clacky as some mobile keyboards we’ve used, but not as quiet as others. It wouldn’t be a problem to use in a coffeeshop, but the sound would probably draw the occasional glance in a quiet library.
There are standard five rows of keys in the traditional QWERTY layout, plus a set of arrow keys on the lower right. Above these is a row of function keys that perform similar but slightly different tasks depending on which operating system the tablet or phone is running. On every device we tried, the buttons to adjust the volume of audio playback and move forward or backward a track worked perfectly. On iOS and Android, the button that takes the user to the home screen works fine. On Windows 10, however, this button opens the Microsoft Edge web browser, and the button labeled “start” doesn’t open the Start Menu — the button next to it does this job.
The keys are not backlit, which increases the battery life but makes this accessory harder to use in dimly-lit lecture halls and airplanes.
Apple, Google, and Microsoft built support for Bluetooth keyboards like this one directly into their operating systems, so no drivers or third-party software is required to use the Messenger Universal. We tried it with an iPad Pro, an HTC Nexus 9, and a Microsoft Surface Pro 2 without issue.
There’s no delay in typing no matter which OS we tried, as the accessory can transmit keystrokes as fast as they can be made. The device never lost its wireless connection no matter the OS.
Windows tablets have always had the strong support external keyboards they inherited from PCs, and Android’s support for keyboards emulates Windows in many ways.
Changes made in iOS 9 make using an external keyboard with an iPad a better experience. For example, cmd-tab now switches between running applications. And there are many more; holding down the cmd key in any application for a few seconds brings up a windows displaying all the key commands offered by that app.
For the most part, battery life isn’t an issue with Bluetooth keyboards, as this type of accessory uses very little power and can go for months on a single charge, and the Messenger Universal doesn’t appear to be any exception from this rule. ZAGG promises three months of battery life, and we think that’s reasonable.
The power button is located on the right edge, but this keyboard will shut itself down after a few minutes of not being used. This increases the battery life but it means that this device has to be reactivated, creating a small delay before one can start typing again. This is an issue with all Bluetooth keyboards, which is why Apple and Microsoft use a different system for the ones they make for their own tablets.
This is an accessory for people who aren’t comfortable typing on small mobile keyboards. The ZAGG Messenger Universal is large enough that people who prefer a desktop keyboard shouldn’t have any problems. It’s also less expensive than most of its rivals.
The downside is that it’s a lot of keyboard to carry around, but it’s no larger than some of today’s big tablets.
We found it to be an ideal fit for Apple devices, and went very well with the new iPad Pro. It also performed well with Android, but wasn’t quite as good a match when paired with a Windows 10 tablet because some of the control keys weren’t logically arranged.
ZAGG’s suggested price for the Messenger Universal is $69.99, which puts it near the low end for keyboard add-ons.
For example, the excellent Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard is $79.95. On the other end of the scale, the Apple Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro is $169. The Microsoft Type Cover with Fingerprint ID is a keyboard folio designed for the Surface Pro 4 and it runs $160.
Those looking to go in a different direction and get a very, very portable universal keyboard for phones and small tablets should read our ZAGG Pocket Review.