As daily iPhone users for the past four years, we’ve had very few complaints about the functionality of Apple’s touchscreen devices — apart from their reliance on virtual keyboards that are less accurate than physical ones. Last year’s release of iOS 4 enabled iPhones to use Bluetooth wireless keyboards, and since then, accessory makers have been trying to come up with hybrid keyboard cases to sell as alternatives. Boxwave, ThinkGeek have all released good to not-so-good options ranging from $50 to $80; now Hong Kong-based iNature has debuted a rival called Kiano 4 ($99) — the most expensive iPhone 4 keyboard case yet.
We’ll tell you up front that although we really wanted to like Kiano 4, the high price tag and some serious idiosyncrasies in its performance torpedoed it as a viable accessory relatively quickly. To start with the positives, iNature was relatively ambitious with the design, using an attractive glossy-backed and matte-sided frame to hold the iPhone 4, leaving huge gaps in the top, bottom, side, and front but using a mostly glassy back that looks relatively Apple-like. In addition to a hole for the iPhone 4’s rear camera, Kiano 4 has a glossy-finished typing surface that slides out of the case’s back, using magnets and a spring to create a satisfying pop-out effect.
The keyboard is illuminated, with five rows of keys including half-height number buttons, a full QWERTY typing surface with a centered space bar, and only slightly inconvenient delete and return key locations. It’s certainly one of the very nicest-looking keyboards we’ve seen for any iOS device, and though the white version’s lighting can wash out the letters under some circumstances, iNature warns about that in an included instruction manual, and provides a way to toggle the lighting off with a double-key combination.
Another positive to the design is iNature’s thoughtful approach to charging.
In addition to including a micro USB to USB cable, which plugs into Kiano 4 right alongside where a Dock Connector cable will connect to the iPhone 4’s bottom, the company packs in a unique Y-shaped USB splitter so that your iPhone and the keyboard can easily recharge together. The battery inside Kiano 4 lasts for 5 hours of active typing or 30 hours of standby, supposedly going into an auto-off mode after 10 minutes of inactivity.
Unfortunately, this battery life turns out to be the first of Kiano 4’s several significant disadvantages relative to its rivals, which typically get 30 to 45 days of standby time—Kiano 4 was just not designed to properly manage power. And it was an actual issue in practice: we came back to the case after two days and found the battery dead, auto-off feature be damned. If you’re still seriously considering Kiano 4 at this point, you’d be advised to turn off the keyboard illumination early on.
Soon after using it, though, we started to wonder why iNature didn’t just do what most of its rivals have done, and include an obvious power button somewhere on the keyboard. Instead, the company hides what it calls a “Bluetooth Toggle Switch” underneath the rear keyboard housing, and includes a plastic pick-like tool to switch it on and off, or to remove your iPhone during its first, second, and third initially difficult extrications.
It also maps quite a few functions, unusually including even Bluetooth pairing, search, and the like to double-button combinations on the keyboard. Clearly, the company had to make some serious compromises in order to squeeze five rows of keys into such a small, narrow space—surface area only a hint bigger than what’s available on the iPhone 4’s screen, and only then by enough to accommodate the half-height number keys. Other keyboards go much wider, with superior results.
The critical problem Kiano 4 has is that the keyboard is really not very good. Its physical keys are all noticeably smaller than the virtual ones on the iPhone 4—the number keys are almost ridiculously so—and they feel far less responsive, using membrane-based buttons that feel sort of like pressing down on tiny glossy plastic dots. We found typing to be far less accurate on Kiano 4 than on just using the iPhone 4’s virtual keyboard, and slower besides, deriving even less satisfaction from the feel of these physical keys than from the lack of response from Apple’s virtual ones. iNature has come up with a good-looking solution, but not one we’d actually ever want to use.
It’s also worth briefly mentioning that iNature disclaims a couple of things in Kiano 4 that can be taken for granted in other iPhone 4 keyboard cases. Unusually, the company includes warnings in the package regarding risks of damage to the keys and back, noting that the sliding mechanism can peel off the keys if forced, and that the back of the case can be scratched.