Review: BoxWave Keyboard Buddy Case for iPhone 4
Years have passed since we've seen anything interesting from BoxWave, but the company's back in action with the Keyboard Buddy Case for iPhone 4 ($80), another variation on the case-slash-Bluetooth keyboard accessory we've been seeing recently in increasing numbers. Like ThinkGeek's TK-421 and NUU's MiniKey, the Keyboard Buddy Case combines a black hard plastic shell with a rechargeable battery-powered, landscape-orientation keyboard, here sliding upwards and downwards for storage and use. But the operative question here is whether this keyboard actually offers a superior solution to just typing on the virtual ones built into the iPhone 4, and to the extent that it fails rather spectacularly at that task, it's not even close to worthy of the high asking price. Updated August 30, 2011: We've added a new photo, rating, and details for Keyboard Buddy Version 2 to the bottom of our January 28, 2011 original review.
On the surface, Keyboard Buddy Case seems like a pretty cool accessory. Its keyboard has a full slide-out QWERTY keyboard with a complete top row of numbers—something that can no longer be taken for granted in iPhone keyboard cases—plus arrows, shift, and function keys, and dedicated Home and Spotlight search buttons. While it’s missing the rest of the iOS dedicated function keys, a control key for cutting and pasting, and a full-sized space key, every little keyboard has to make compromises somewhere, so we were willing to give it a shot to see if it was usable. Additionally, there’s a mini-USB to USB charging cable in the box to refuel the integrated rechargeable battery, which is listed only as having 45 days worth of power without additional details. Small red and blue lights flash briefly to let you know when the power’s turned on and Bluetooth pairing is taking place, but mostly remain off otherwise.
While the iPhone 4 case is merely a thin plastic shell that covers most of the iPhone’s back and sides while leaving holes elsewhere, it looks nice. By combining soft touch rubber coating with a matte silver ring around the edge, and glossy black edging around matte-finished keys, the Keyboard Buddy Case manages to evoke the look of the iPhone 4 without directly mimicking it. BoxWave’s slide-out keyboard mechanism feels stable in either closed or open positions, and though the case is really just a thin and only modestly protective shell with no coverage for the device’s face, top, bottom, or side buttons, it’s not particularly different from other keyboard cases we’ve seen for the iPhone 4 in those regards. In other words, while it could be better, it’s roughly par for the course as it exists today… except for one thing. We noticed that our review sample’s rear casing had already separated a little from the silver ring and needed to be pushed back together, not a great sign for something that just came fresh out of the package. As was the case years ago, BoxWave could still benefit from greater quality control checks before shipping its accessories.
Keyboard Buddy Case’s list of problems continued to grow when we actually tried to use it. Rather than including a normally-sized pairing button, or marking the side-mounted power switch in any way, BoxWave uses a tiny pentip-sized button for pairing and a two-position fingernail-ready switch that are explained using markings hidden inside the iPhone 4 shell—inconvenient and initially a little confusing. Even though they’re not ideal in these regards, both the TK-421 and MiniKey handle power and pairing with easier controls.
But most of the aforementioned issues could have been forgiven if the Keyboard Buddy Case had passed our primary benchmark, the document test: could we actually type this review using the keyboard itself? By this measure, the Keyboard Buddy Case failed miserably. For all of their other compromises, ThinkGeek and NUU had enough common sense not to relocate the space bars on their keyboards, one of the most critical elements in typing as it’s used literally every five or six characters on average. BoxWave’s movement of the key to an off-center position combines with its small size to make typing extremely frustrating, reminding you of the mistake multiple times during every attempt at composition.
Between the awkward space bar placement, the tendency of keystrokes to either not register at all or register twice, and the fact that our fingers sometimes hit two of the tiny keys at once, we found this design to be amongst the very worst we’ve tested—many steps backwards from the keyboards of pocket devices released years ago. We could barely make it through a word on the Keyboard Buddy Case without mistakes, so the idea of trying to compose complete sentences became daunting, and writing even a single paragraph efficiently was all but impossible. While we thought of reproducing the sample text we typed using the keyboard, it was so indecipherable that there would be no point; the iPhone’s integrated autocorrection system was all that saved the input from being completely unusable.
Ultimately, the value of a physical keyboard accessory for a pocket device is very straightforward: if it improves your ability to type relative to a virtual keyboard, you could see dramatic productivity gains that enable you to e-mail, instant message, and even compose documents on the iPhone—all things users have had to compromise on since Apple released the first device in 2007, and only modestly improved with virtual keyboards since then. BoxWave’s Keyboard Buddy Case doesn’t make any of these things better; in our experience, it actually reduced the accuracy of typing to the point where we wouldn’t want to use it. An $80 keyboard accessory needs to be a lot better than this, and from where we stand, BoxWave has a lot of work ahead of it to make a sequel to Keyboard Buddy Case worth buying. Looks and sliding keyboard mechanism aside, it doesn’t have much to offer.
Updated August 30, 2011: Keyboard Buddy Version 2
Following our review, Boxwave undertook a relatively major redesign of the Keyboard Buddy’s keyboard, resulting in the new and improved version you see above. On a positive note, the new keyboard features a more conventional QWERTY design, complete with a space bar below the rest of the keys, plus better locations for delete and function keys, while moving number keys and other functionality into fn-button-triggered commands. By contrast with the first version, we were able to achieve improved typing speeds and accuracy, and came nearly to the same level as with the virtual keyboard built into the iPhone 4 in landscape mode, albeit a little slower. Though the physical keys are roughly the same size as Apple’s virtual ones, Keyboard Buddy’s wider typing surface provides room for more of them. Only the bottom row of letters, most notably the N and M keys, felt really off due to left-justification of the row rather than centering.
While Keyboard Buddy Version 2 has improved, the question still remains: is it worth paying $80 for an accessory that results in slower typing speed and accuracy than what the iPhone 4 can muster on its own? If you can trust the iPhone 4 to auto-correct your typing mistakes—a skill most virtual keyboard users learn while using the device—you can achieve significantly faster and at least comparably accurate typing to even the new version of Keyboard Buddy. There are only two real benefits the accessory offers: key tactility, and the ability to have extra space on the iPhone 4’s screen for whatever application you’re using, since there’s no need for the virtual keyboard to occupy the screen. If one of these things is a really major selling point for you, the new version of Keyboard Buddy is improved enough to be worthy of your consideration, but from our perspective, the performance still doesn’t justify the price tag. The new version rates C+, a letter grade higher than its D+-rated predecessor; we’d call it better, but not yet worthy of being called “good.”