I’m perhaps more inclined than most to be first in line when the future arrives, and you never know when you get to the head of the line whether you’ll be handed a plate of bacon or a punch in the gut. With the iPad it was definitely the former.
But the future isn’t entirely without flaw. While I believe firmly that the iPad is a new kind of general computing device, I don’t believe it’s completely there yet. Perhaps in a future column I’ll talk about the flaws in the software that (despite having the best tablet software available anywhere) leave much to be desired.
But today I want to talk about text entry. It’s table stakes on any kind of computing device, and one that we as consumers tend to ignore when it comes to the iPad.
Put simply: a computer that makes it harder to get text into it is not an improvement over what we currently enjoy.
This is the fuel behind the “consumption vs. creation” argument. I understand that there are uses for the iPad that go beyond text entry, which make it an outstanding creation device. But writing volumes of text, and programming (my god! Programming!) are not among them. These happen to be my top two computer-based activities.
Maybe there are ways that incredibly innovative, touch-based interfaces can make text entry better than with a keyboard. But it hasn’t happened yet. Typing is important, even in 2012.
Since I type a lot, I’m pretty damn fast with a standard keyboard. And it turns out that, with enough practice, I’m not too shabby with the iPad’s on-screen keyboard, either. But the difference in speed was enough that I was left wanting for more.
Unfortunately, “more” in this case means blemishing the gorgeous, sleek, light-weight iPad with some kind of add-on. Either a Bluethooth keyboard that you carry around with it, or one of those cases that include a keyboard.
So I was curious when Logitech launched their compromise product: a Smart Cover-like keyboard called the Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, which promises to:
• add as little bulk as possible,
• act like a Smart Cover (flipping the iPad on and off when it opens and closes), and
• get out of the way when you don’t want it.
The only problem with the idea of the product was its lack of availability: even today, months after its launch, Logitech’s Canadian product page (linked above) has a “Notify” button where the “Buy Now” button should be.
So I bought it in Chicago a few weeks back. $99 at a Best Buy. Boom.
Now that I’ve had a few weeks with this thing, let’s talk about it.
Because it’s a cover, the keyboard is bound by the dimensions of the iPad — it fits either the iPad 2 or The New iPad. That means it’s smaller than a standard-sized keyboard. I couldn’t find any direct numbers on this, but I would guess it’s about 70% the size of a normal keyboard. If you’ve ever used a netbook keyboard before, this size will be pretty familiar. Here it is next to my Apple keyboard (with number pad off-screen):
However, unlike many netbooks, Logitech arranged the keys in a familiar fashion. The Delete, Tab, Shift and arrow keys are all in their proper places, where netbook makers famously screw around with their size and position to save space. The smaller keys are not a terrible problem, though the number keys are shorter than the rest, and I did find myself mis-striking them more often than I normally would.
The key travel is good, and the feel is decent, if not at the standard of the Apple keyboard (which I find to be the best keyboard I’ve ever owned). Overall, you can definitely feel the difference between this keyboard and a normal desktop (or MacBook) keyboard, but as my typing speed tests show (see later), there doesn’t appear to be an impact on speed.
The keyboard connects to your iPad via Bluetooth: pairing happened without a hitch. There is no battery indicator, but with an advertised 6-month battery life, I suppose I could live without it. When powered off and on again, it connects immediately — a pleasant surprise in my experience with Bluetooth devices. There’s also no evidence of lag between key press and result. This thing just works.
Held alone, the keyboard is surprisingly light, and it doesn’t add a lot to the weight of an iPad. However, put them together and you are effectively doubling the thickness of the iPad. It’s not terrible, but you immediately feel like you’re making a big compromise. And the appearance of the thing together… I hesitate to use the word “cheap”, but Logitech’s build quality doesn’t come anywhere near Apple’s, and the difference is stark. Where the iPad is a tightly-packaged slab of metal and glass, Logitech’s cover is a union of sub-par aluminum snapped onto a mostly-plastic body. The plastic is high-gloss, and would compare well with an HP notebook with Beats™ audio. But beside my iPad it comes off as tawdry.
The hinge that connects the cover to the iPad doesn’t come close to the quality of Apple’s Smart Cover. Again, it’s plastic instead of metal, and the magnets are either weaker, misplaced, or it’s just carrying more weight. The result is that you need to be more careful with the positioning of the cover than you would for the Smart Cover.
When you want to type on the keyboard, you have to detach the iPad, and slide it into a groove cut in the surface of the cover. A magnet in there makes a satisfying click sound to ensure the correct positioning. This does, however, reduce your ability to enter small amounts of text in a less formal setting.
Sometimes, I find myself holding the iPad and case open like a book, in portrait orientation, and then stare dumbfounded at a text field looking for a password, wondering why the on-screen keyboard isn’t coming up. Oh, right. In those cases, I usually peck out the characters with my head cocked 90 degrees.
Speed is Key
The big question is, can I actually type faster with this thing? And the answer appears to be a resounding yes.
For science, I decided to test my typing speed. First on my iPad, and then on my Mac to compare. On the iPad, I used TapTyping, while on the Mac I used the website Learning Games for Kids. Both tools were similar in that they had text that you “typed over”, rather than forcing me to read from one spot while typing in another. I feel that the website on the Mac hurt me because it wouldn’t let me backspace to correct, counting those attempts as errors. So I am pretty sure my Mac numbers are faster than what I’ll be showing here, maybe by as much as 5-10 words per minute (wpm).
Alright, time for some numbers! I record both worst and best scores for each:
Ultrathin Keyboard Cover: 85wpm 90wpm
Apple Keyboard: 83wpm 85wpm
iPad on-screen keyboard: 39wpm 63wpm
iPhone on-screen keyboard: 23wpm 26wpm
I was really surprised to see such terrific speed results for the keyboard cover. Again, in my defence, the Mac browser test penalized me heavily for errors, but the words were more difficult as well — the test subject appeared to be 19th century English prose, as opposed to basic Grade Two reading level stuff in the iOS app.
These are pretty encouraging results, but they match up pretty well with my experience: I felt that I was as efficient on the Ultrathin Keyboard Cover as I am on my normal Mac keyboard.
This thing isn’t perfect by a long shot. The appearance of my beautiful iPad is marred by this keyboard, yet it is so easily detachable and set aside, that I actually do find I’m keeping it connected to my iPad all the time now. And it comes with another benefit that I hadn’t thought of before: it makes reading on the iPad really comfortable while I’m laying in bed. The sharp bottom edge doesn’t dig into my gut, because now I have it sitting in the cover’s groove.
And if I want to bang out an email or some notes for a blog post, that moment of consideration — should I do this now, or wait till I’m at my computer? — is gone. That seems like a win right there.
It was funny that Microsoft demonstrated their Surface keyboard around the same time as my purchase. If they perform anywhere near as good as they look, I’ll be first in line for the iPad version (especially one without a trackpad — what are they thinking?). It seems proof that the concept works; it just needs to get implemented in a more beautiful package.
So if you’re in the market for an iPad keyboard, I think this one is your best bet. At least until we get truly killer speech recognition, or direct neural input.