Review: Apple iPad Keyboard Dock
If there's any company in the world that we'd trust to make a great keyboard for a computer, it's Apple -- we've been using and loving its Mac keyboards for years, following their evolution from chunky beige telephone-cabled boxes to clear and white trays and eventually ultra-thin aluminum plates with just enough plastic for keys on the top and elevation on the bottom. We use one every day, and wouldn't replace it with anything else. So the iPad Keyboard Dock ($69) arrived at our door with a certain level of immediate confidence and trust: we know this aluminum-bodied, matte plastic-keyed thing already, understand that the iPad dock behind it is almost exactly the same as the standalone iPad Dock Apple previously released, and like the way it feels almost instantly.
But is it really the same as a Mac keyboard—say, an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard? The short answer: there are differences, some non-trivial, but they’re far more alike than not. The iPad Keyboard Dock is just as wide as the Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, with only one less key—function (fn) is gone—and the previously function (f1, f2, f3…) keys are labelled differently. At furthest left is a Home button, which works just like hitting the iPad’s own Home button, the first time any accessory has been able to mimic this feature, while automatically enabling the Keyboard Dock to wake the iPad from its locked mode without any swipes. Then there’s a Spotlight search button that interrupts whatever you’re doing to bring the iPad back into Spotlight mode, brightness down and up buttons, a button to activate Picture Frame mode, and a button to call up the virtual on-screen keyboard should you need it for something you can’t easily do with the Keyboard Dock.
Next is an empty button, the subject of some pre-release speculation, which appears at this point to have no assigned function, followed by track backwards, play/pause, and track forwards controls for iPod music playback, volume mute, down, and up buttons, and finally a lock key. Pressing that merely turns the iPad’s screen on and off. The rest of the iPad Keyboard Dock’s keys are just like a standard Apple keyboard’s, again missing only “function,” with widened “control,” “option,” and “command” keys to fill the same space. Some of the keyboard shortcuts Mac users are accustomed to finding—“command-C” to initiate copy, for instance—are included in the iPhone OS, and more will likely come with time and additional applications. Arrow keys work perfectly to move upwards and downwards within word processing (Notes, Pages) documents, and can highlight text in conjunction with the shift key, but do not appear to have any ability to interact with the Home screen or the iPod application to highlight items or make selections.
Otherwise, using the keyboard after becoming accustomed to Apple’s Mac keyboards is completely intuitive. This entire review was typed on the iPad Keyboard Dock with instant familiarity, and just as much speed and accuracy as using either a wired or wireless Apple keyboard. The feel of the Keyboard Dock’s keys is identical to the Mac accessories, and very similar to using the keyboard on a MacBook computer, for that matter. From these standpoints, it’s a winner. On the back of the Keyboard Dock, just as with the standard iPad Dock, there are both Dock Connector and 3.5mm audio ports, which can connect to Apple’s Dock Connector to USB cable for charging and syncing, and an audio cable for audio-out, neither cable included.
The “normal” way to use the iPad Keyboard Dock, of course, would be either without a wall charger connected, or with the Dock connected to the 10W USB Power Adapter, rather than to a computer. Connecting this keyboard dock to a computer with a keyboard for charging and synchronization wouldn’t make a lot of sense—the reason our rating of the Keyboard Dock isn’t being markedly reduced based on some weirdness we saw when trying to sync the docked iPad with an iMac, something that the Keyboard Dock’s instruction manual claims is one of its capabilities. Several times when we tried to sync the iPad using this Dock, iTunes went through a bizarre, extended process of attempting to re-authorize all of the device’s applications, at two points threatening to delete them. The problems disappeared when we disconnected the iPad from the dock for a sync, and reappeared when we reconnected the iPad to the dock. After switching USB ports on the iMac, we couldn’t replicate the problem again. It’s hard to know what caused the issue, but we hadn’t experienced anything similar with the iPad and a standard Dock Connector connection during prior synchronizations to the same computer.
Sonically, the iPad Keyboard Dock seems to be trouble-free. As with all Apple docks we’ve tested over the past seven years, the Keyboard Dock’s line-level audio is powerful, and appears to have been properly engineered to match the slightly different Dock Connector audio characteristics of the iPad. Unlike Apple’s remote controllable Universal Docks for iPods and iPhones, the volume buttons on the keyboard do not attenuate the line-level audio output; this is left for the connected speakers. Mute, however, does work to cut off the audio output to the line-out port altogether.
The single biggest problem with the Keyboard Dock is one that’s unavoidable based on its all-in-one design: it doesn’t work on a standard slide-out desk keyboard tray unless you’re willing to make some awkward accommodations for the iPad, which leans back on the dock, shadowing the unusually deep plastic accessory as it reclines. Consequently, we found ourselves using it on top of a desk with our palms hanging off the desk’s edge, a less than totally comfortable position for typing. Another compromise is the screen’s orientation, which is forced by the Keyboard Dock into tall vertical mode rather than widescreen; some users may prefer one to the other. A final issue: the iPad Keyboard Dock only accommodates an unencased or super-thin-covered iPad, so if you’re keeping your device protected, you might have some inconveniences to contend with here.
These issues might well push people to prefer Apple’s standard iPad Dock or a third-party stand to hold the iPad, while a separate Bluetooth keyboard goes on a lower desk tray or in the lap. If you’re buying all-Apple items, the cost of either alternative solution will be even higher than the iPad Keyboard Dock’s already iffy $69 asking price, but third-party options may cost less.
One thing that third-party solutions will struggle to beat Apple on is build quality. Though it mightn’t be the most practical or versatile design for traditional desktop use, the iPad Keyboard Dock is every bit as excellent as Apple’s desktop and laptop keyboards for actual typing, assuming that you can get the positioning right. Palm-cramping aside, we churned out this review at a brisk pace with relatively few typographical errors, and felt confident about the stability of the attached device at all times while we were typing. That’s a lot more than we can say for any of the virtual keyboards Apple has produced over the past three years, including the ones on the iPad, and though the Keyboard Dock’s not the perfect implementation of its concept, it’s a good enough start to merit our general recommendation.