Two months ago, we published an early preview of NUU’s MiniKey ($70), a new iPhone 4-specific keyboard case that was not yet 100% finished but pretty close. Last week, NUU provided us with a finished unit that has made only minor changes from the pre-production model, improving more in fit and finish than functionality. The result is the first iPhone keyboard to merit our general-level recommendation, though the specific reasons for its appeal — and its limitations — deserve additional discussion.
Like all of the keyboard add-ons released so far for iPhones, MiniKey pairs a hard plastic, pocket-sized Bluetooth wireless typing surface with a matching black plastic shell, collectively protecting most of the iPhone’s sides while exposing its face, ports, speakers, microphones, camera, top, and bottom. The keyboard slides out on rails, adding 1.75” to the iPhone 4’s width, and retracts to approximately double its thickness and weight, connecting to an included Micro-USB charging cable. A rechargeable battery inside lasts for “a few days to a week” of active use, or over 30 days of standby time, which is lower than some rivals.
But there’s a good reason. A tiny power switch above the left side of the keyboard has three positions: “off,” “on,” and “on with backlighting.” MiniKey is the only iPhone keyboard we’ve seen with the ability to illuminate its keys in dark lighting conditions, and NUU’s lighting system works well to render the white and green markings on the chiclet-sized black keys visible in utter darkness. On the far right side of the keyboard is a Bluetooth pairing button, which works fairly quickly to get the iPhone and MiniKey talking the first time, then immediately to resume connections thereafter. NUU includes a cool trick that automatically wakes the keyboard up from its self-imposed power-saving sleep mode as soon as you slide the keyboard open; alternatively, you can press any button on the keyboard to do the same thing, unless the power switch is in the “off” position.
If there’s any major hitch in MiniKey’s design, it’s the compromise NUU went with in order to conserve space. Like the widescreen virtual keyboard built into the iPhone 4, the accessory dispenses with dedicated number keys in order to focus on making the rest of the QWERTY keyboard’s keys as large as possible. Consequently, you need to rely on shift and Fn/function keys to provide access to numbers and symbols, plus a command key for cut, copy, and paste features—dedicated F-keys and related features are given up entirely. International typists will appreciate that NUU includes Dollar, Euro, Yen, and Pound keys amongst the Fn-accessed options, but having to hit the Fn button and then hunt around the QWERTY keys for secondary options initially has a learning curve. Pinhole-sized light indicators off to the sides of the keyboard let you know when the shift or Fn buttons have been depressed, but may well be hard to see depending on how you’re holding the iPhone 4 in your hands.
The critical test of any new keyboard accessory is one we have conducted time and time again on iPhone keyboards without success: we need to be able to actually type an entire paragraph, preferably more, using the keypad. If we can’t do this, or make so many mistakes that we’d be better off typing using the on-screen virtual keyboard, the accessory’s not going to be worth the added expense, weight, or inconvenience.
So it’s with some pleasure that we tell you that MiniKey came as close to passing this test as any iPhone keyboard yet. It’s not perfect, and frankly not close given how much it forces you to relearn typing for the small form factor, but it’s highly usable as an imperfect alternative to typing imperfectly on the 3.5” screen. The keys click satisfyingly as you type, provide enough typing area to work with big thumb tips, and preserve enough of the standard QWERTY layout to be instantly familiar. Space bar, enter, left shift, delete, and arrow keys were all in the right places and useful, and we didn’t ever experience accidental double keypresses or missed inputs. By pocket keyboard standards, this has some deluxe-feeling elements, particularly the optional backlighting, and if we’d never used a Danger Sidekick, we’d have called the compromises highly satisfactory. We typed the last two paragraphs of this review on MiniKey and made fewer mistakes than with either of the iPhone’s virtual keyboards.
That having been said, the full story is more complex. MiniKey offers bigger and frankly better keys than the iPhone’s portrait (tall) orientation keyboard, but the virtual and NUU keys are roughly tied when the iPhone’s in landscape orientation, where Apple increases the size of the keys and further cramps the usable space in whatever app you’re using. MiniKey’s major advantage here isn’t in accuracy, but rather in freeing up the other half of the iPhone’s screen so that you can actually see the full paragraph that you’re typing rather than just a sentence or two. Both keyboards still force you to compromise somewhat, with the virtual one requiring a full toggle to use numbers and punctuation, versus the NUU version’s move of most of those keys into the “fn” category. You’ll get used to either system over time, but will likely make more mistakes on each one than you would on a larger and better keyboard.
One small issue with MiniKey is the body design. On one hand, the build quality is at least as high as on any of this accessory’s current rivals; we’d actually call it superior in this regard to any iPhone-sized keyboard accessory we’ve yet tested, since everything looks and feels solid. It’s not as flashy as the BoxWave Keyboard Buddy Case, but it wasn’t coming apart at the seams, either. On the other hand, it’s not as soft on the edges as the soft-touch rubber finish is on the sides, and could stand to have some curves and padding where your hands touch the exposed rear surface. The bare iPhone 4 and most cases are easier on palms than the all but sharp inner edges of this case. We call this issue “small” only because it isn’t awful; rather, it’s just in need of extra polish.
Thus, while NUU’s MiniKey isn’t a slam dunk of an accessory—and certainly not a mandatory purchase for every iPhone 4 user in need of a better typing option than the device provides on its own—it offers a superior experience to the pricier but crappy BoxWave Keyboard Buddy Case, same-priced but larger and caseless Pyramid ProMini, and the less expensive but flimsy ThinkGeek TK-421. Ideally, NUU would have included a bit more space for a larger keyboard, a full line of number keys, and softer hand grips, but as compromise pocket keyboards go, this one’s worth considering. Some road warrior typists will find that it offers enough of an improvement over the standard iPhone typing experience to merit the asking price, and we certainly wouldn’t discourage them from giving it a try. It’s worthy of our general recommendation, and the best iPhone keyboard case we’ve yet tested.
Company and Price
Compatible: iPhone 4