Review: Kensington KeyFolio Keyboard + Case for iPad / iPad 2
After testing everything from Apple's official iPad Keyboard Dock and Wireless Keyboard to third-party solutions small and large, we can honestly say that we've been starving for a viable portable iPad keyboard alternative to travel with. Though we've had better experiences typing on the iPad's virtual keyboard than on the ones Apple created for the iPhone and iPod touch, working professionals know that none of these on-screen keyboards is a practical tool for creating long documents, and the workaround accessories Apple and others have offered aren't complete solutions. Assuming you buy the typical wireless keyboard, you will still need to find a way to hold the iPad upright while you're typing, and even then, finding the right angles to make everything work from situation to situation can be a challenge. Laptops are a lot bigger than iPads, but thus far, the clamshell-style notebook computer design with a real keyboard built in has been superior for typing. Updated May 27, 2011: We've updated our September 20, 2010 review to include new paragraphs on the new version of KeyFolio that adds support for the iPad 2.
Last month, several companies announced their own versions of an OEM-developed physical keyboard and case solution that we were anxious to test and even more hopeful that we’d be able to recommend to our readers. The OEM developed a slim keyboard that matches the iPad’s width and can be built to fit directly within a variety of different flip-style cases while holding Bluetooth 2.0 and battery components inside. With modest additional iPad battery drain as a consequence, the keyboard wirelessly pairs with the iPad so that you needn’t attach anything to its Dock Connector port, and the keyboard’s battery is capable of lasting for roughly 45 hours of continuous use between charges; a USB-to-Micro-USB cable is in the package for easy recharging using any computer or the iPad’s own included wall charger. Kensington has just incorporated this keyboard into a flip-style case called KeyFolio ($100), which we’re reviewing today after several days of testing. In short, the results are only semi-satisfying, and leave enough room for improvement that we would only recommend KeyFolio and like-keyboarded rivals to users who are willing to put up with some idiosyncrasies. We typed most of this review on it, but used a full-sized computer to finish and edit it before publication, something that wouldn’t have been necessary with a better keyboard.
The core components of KeyFolio sound great on paper. Kensington uses a leather folio-style case design that is simpler than some of its rivals, holding the iPad on the inner right while the keyboard sits on the inner left, so that you can rotate the frame to place the screen immediately above the keyboard like a laptop. There aren’t extra flaps on the outside; it’s mostly a straightforward folding case. Though the case exposes quite a bit of the iPad’s side metal to the elements—too much in our view—it also provides port, speaker, microphone and button access so that use of the iPad’s features isn’t encumbered, while the keyboard’s own controls are easy to find in one place.
An on-off switch does what you’d expect, while a super-simply pairing button is easy to find above lights indicating Bluetooth pairing, charging, and power on status. The micro-USB port is in the same area for simple access, and these components aren’t easy to accidentally mess up or activate while you’re using the iPad, which we liked. Apart from needing to remember to turn the keyboard off after use, it’s all very easy to like.
Kensington’s problem—and one that all companies using this keyboard will face—is that the key buttons are really not very good. A rubber membrane is used for the entire surface, which makes the keyboard easy to fold up, clean, and handle in the event that it’s flipped backwards, as discussed below. But the keyboard is so easy to make mistakes on that it’s only marginally better than using the virtual keyboard on the iPad screen. Accidental double-keystrokes are common enough that we had to correct five of them in this sentence alone—sticky T and space keys were to blame—and not fixable in the iOS with key repeat settings.
There’s only one shift key, and it’s on the left side of the keyboard, which many users will find problematic for capitalizing proper nouns, while the right side of the keyboard contains a crowded mishmash of arrow and symbol keys that have been relocated to fit on the small surface. If you think you’ll be able to transition from a standard keyboard to this one and achieve similar results, make no mistake, you’ll be disappointed.
There are some nice features in the keyboard, though. There are dedicated iPad function keys up top that mimic some of the ones on Apple’s official iPad Keyboard Dock, notably missing the brightness, lock, and picture frame buttons for some reason while keeping the rest and adding a Print Screen button that doesn’t work for anything at the moment. Whether it actually prints in iOS 4.2 is a question mark at this stage, but we’re guessing the answer will be “no.”
It would have been nice if the developer had properly purposed all of the buttons using Apple’s Keyboard Dock as a guideline, but having one-touch access to volume, Home, Spotlight and iPod track controls is welcome. Soft and less than ideally clicky or tactile though it may be, the keyboard does have enough keys to serve as a decent alternative to the virtual one for many typists, assuming that they’re willing to accept the sloppy results and make corrections thereafter. We spent half an hour fixing the issues in this review caused by the sticky keys, missing second shift key, and the like.
Where Kensington and other companies have challenges is in finding the right balance between iPad tablet functionality and versatility in the wake of adding a laptop-like keyboard and frame to the structure. Surely there will be improvements on this form factor in the future, but KeyFolio does a good job straddling the fence at this point in time. Should you want to position the screen directly on top of the keyboard, or angle it for video viewing without using the keyboard, those are both options; the rubber keyboard design also enables you to flip that whole surface backwards without really fearing that you’re going to scrape up the keys or scratch your iPad’s screen when the case is closed.
There may be times when you wish that you were just using the iPad without the case on, and that’s an option, but considering what KeyFolio is designed to do, it doesn’t feel overengineered or difficult to bend to most purposes. Kensington’s choice of leather, which will differ quite a bit from company to company offering this keyboard with their cases, is a professional-looking, nicely-stitched version that raises no objections on look or feel; it lacks only for more side protection and a system for holding everything closed when not in use.
Ideally, the keyboard and case hybrid accessory would have many of KeyFolio’s characteristics—the flip-style design, the ability to be used as everything from an active keyboard to a passive stand for video, the longevity of the battery, the simplicity of pairing, and the quality of the case materials all strike us as right on. But the core reason people will want accessories like this, namely the keyboard, is so unreliable in KeyFolio as a typing tool that we found ourselves jettisoning the iPad two-thirds of the way through this review so that we could finish our work more efficiently on a computer. That’s not acceptable for a $70 keyboard accessory, say nothing of one that sells for $100. When the performance improves enough that the physical keyboard and case combination can be a viable or very close substitute for a laptop or other “real” keyboard, there will be a real winner of an option out there. But for the time being, KeyFolio and anything using the same keyboard will only be good options for those who hate the iPad’s on-screen keyboard so much that they are willing to suffer a bit with something else instead.
May 27, 2011: KeyFolio Version 2 (Update by Nick Guy)
Kensington has quietly updated the KeyFolio Bluetooth Keyboard Case, which we originally reviewed last year. It is now branded to work with the original iPad and the iPad 2, and both do indeed fit. The only real cosmetic differences are an opening for the rear camera on the back of the case, and a scoop in the frame for the front camera.
Otherwise, the keyboard case looks and exactly the same as the prior version—except for one thing. The rubber-topped keyboard inside has been improved so that the keys don’t stick accidentally when you type, improving the overall typing experience considerably. As a result, KeyFolio for iPad and iPad 2 rates slightly higher than its predecessor; look for the version with the rear camera opening if you want to be sure you’re getting the updated accessory.