Choosing a Keyboard for the iPad

With the arrival of the third generation iPad and its enhanced retina display, I started seriously looking at external keyboards to use along with the device. I’ve been thinking about the option of adding a physical keyboard to my iPad for a while and was even more tempted after hearing Harry McCracken sing the praises of his ZAGGFolio on the recent Mac Power Users workflow episode I’ve got a few intense writing projects coming up later this year and I’m really looking forward to getting out and writing more with my iPad rather than always carrying around my MacBook Air (like that’s such a burden). This past year at Macworld|iWorld I took a close look at the various keyboard options and I also spent a good amount of time reading reviews. I found it basically boiled down to three categories: 1. Keyboard cases 2. Full size keyboards that are compatible with the iPad 3. iPad specific travel (smaller) keyboards

Looking at how I planned to use a keyboard with my iPad I knew I could eliminate the entire category of keyboard cases all together. I think these are excellent options for people who plan to use their keyboard with the iPad on a very regular basis, people who just can’t get comfortable with the iPad on-screen keyboard or people who truly want a more “netbook” experience. But that isn’t me. I primarily see this as a device that I’ll take with me to coffee shops and on day trips and travel where I don’t want to take my laptop. I still see about 90%+ of my iPad use being without the dedicated keyboard and for that I don’t want to add the extra bulk of a keyboard case. I’m very happy with my current minimalist case solution of an Invisible Shield and a Smart Cover.

That left me to decide between the full size keyboard options and the smaller dedicated keyboards that are designed for the iPad. This now becomes a debate between comfort vs. convenience.

In the full size keyboard camp the obvious contenders are the Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, the iPad keyboard dock or the Amazonbasics iPad Keyboard. In my mind the only one of these options that made sense was the Apple Bluetooth Keyboard. It is the exact same keyboard I’m accustomed to typing on my MacBook Air and without the bulky dock component it has greater portability and flexibility. By comparison, the AmazonBasics keyboard for iPad is a bit less expensive at only $45, but not quite the same keyboard layout and a little more compressed. If I was going to go with a full sized keyboard, I figured having a keyboard that was just slightly different than what I was familiar with would create confusion.

Obvious benefits to a full size keyboard include comfort and familiarity. I have a history of RSI (repetitive stress injury) and I’ve found that ergonomics is key to keeping my hands and wrists happy. The downsides to the Apple wireless keyboard include the lack of portability compared to other keyboards, difficulty charging the battery on the road and problems accidentally activating the keyboard and running down the keyboard battery and/or iPad battery.

On more than one occasion when traveling with the Apple wireless keyboard I’ve accidentally turned it on in my bag and caused it either to completely discharge by the time I needed to use it, or worse, if bluetooth was on, sent signals to my iPad and drained both batteries. I’ve also broken keys as the keyboard was tossed in my travel bag. Of course, with a little pre-planning this can be avoided. I’ve heard of tips such as inserting one of the batteries backwards until the keyboard is ready for use or purchase a case for the keyboard to prevent accidentally turning on the keyboard as well as preventing damage to the keys. I wish the Apple Keyboard had a physical on/off switch rather than the button that’s so easy to activate.

Having tried the Apple wireless keyboard with lackluster results, I decided to try another option this time. At the recommendation of Ed Dale, I decided to try the ZAGGkeys Flex. It’s a simple stand alone keyboard that will work with iOS or Android and pairs via Bluetooth. The keyboard includes a basic case that will protect the keys when in travel and convert into a stand for the iPad or iPhone, though I typically just use my Smart Cover as a stand. I’m also very pleased that the keyboard has a dedicated on and off switch that can be toggled when not in use to prevent the battery from needlessly draining down and charges via micro USB. When I travel I always have my Callpod travel accessory or a micro USB adapter that can charge the keyboard with no problem. No need to carry extra batteries or a custom charger. I also appreciate that it has a row of custom function keys unique to the iPad including a dedicated home, spotlight, show/hide keyboard, cut, copy, paste, lock, and media keys.

Now for the negatives. First and foremost, you do sacrifice some comfort. I am a touch-typist and can easily type over 100wpm on a standard keyboard. I do well enough on the ZAGGkeys Flex, certainly nothing to complain about and much better than my on-screen keyboard. But, it is a non-standard size keyboard means the keys are cramped. Even for someone who has small hands, I do not find typing on it as comfortable as on a full size extended keyboard or even the keyboard on my MacBook Air. I would be fine typing for a few hours off and on, but I’m not going to sit at this keyboard and write a novel. For a blog post or a few hours in a hotel room or a coffee shop, it’s perfect, which is about the usage I’m looking to get out of it. Additionally, while the keyboard has an attractive appearance that complements the iPad, the build quality does not seem up to par with Apple products. It is constructed of cheap plastic and has a somewhat flimsy feel to it. It is lightweight, which travelers will appreciate, but it also doesn’t feel as though it has a quality build. I think people who use this keyboard regularly will find the need to replace it every few years, perhaps more often.

All in all, I’m happy with my purchase and I think it will suit my needs well. It’s small, I’m able to type quickly and efficiently and it can be picked up for around $60 or less on online so it wasn’t overly expensive. In fact I typed this entire blog post using the ZAGGkeys flex on the iPad using Byword for iOS After doing my own research, testing various products and reading reviews from others, I found that choosing an appropriate physical keyboard for the iPad is all about compromise. You have to analyze your needs, determine what factors are most important and go from there. For the causal keyboard user who places high value on portability and convenience I think the ZAGGkeys Flex will fit the bill.