We begin the day with an exciting tale of two products: one of the best third-party iPad keyboards yet released, and one of the least useful iPad cases yet devised. The twist is that they’re both components of Zagg’s new Zaggmate with Keyboard ($100), the latest accessory from the company best known for InvisibleShield film protectors. While we really liked the keyboard half of this accessory, the compromises introduced by its unusual case design really limit the appeal of what otherwise would have been a great product, such that most users will be better off spending the same dollars on Apple’s official Wireless Keyboard and a case of their choice.
The idea behind Zaggmate with Keyboard is one we’ve now seen many times before: combine an iPad case with a Bluetooth wireless keyboard, leveraging a stand inside the case to prop the iPad up as needed for typing purposes. Zagg went in a substantially different direction from the numerous folio keyboard solutions we’ve seen from companies such as Kensington, Accessory Workshop, and Sena Cases, using an iPad-sized metal shell to house its keyboard, and a pop-up plastic stand to keep the iPad upright in either portrait or landscape orientation. There are no flaps, latches, or extra layers of material to thicken the iPad here, so the shell adds only a quarter inch of thickness to the device when they’re put together. A foam and plastic lining keeps the iPad from getting scratched while it’s inside the metal shell, regardless of whether it’s laying flat or in a recliner groove designed for iPad typing.
To be clear, it’s easy to be drawn to certain elements of this case design. Zagg picked an iPad-matching anodized aluminum for the shell, which looks pretty nice and feels pretty strong, and the idea that you’ll just pop your iPad into and out of it is an interesting one. Moreover, it actually works for what it’s supposed to do: we had no problem removing the iPad from it, opening up the plastic stand for iPad typing, or recharging the iPad without removing the case. A Dock Connector port opening is found on one side of the shell for that purpose.
Having said that, we would never actually want to use Zaggmate with Keyboard as an iPad case. Rather than protecting the back of your iPad—the way that almost every case works—this design instead only covers the iPad’s screen and three of its sides. The iPad’s curved back won’t fit into Zaggmate with Keyboard even if you try. As a result, this accessory barely even qualifies as a “case” in the sense that most people use the word; you’ll still have to figure out some way to protect the iPad’s entire back, one of its sides, and what Zagg describes as the Zaggmate’s “high-grade finish.” Since Zagg built an entire business on protecting the metal bodies of Apple’s devices from scratches, it’s surprising that it would not only design a case made from the same scratchable material, but then not bother to protect that metal on either the case or the iPad.
Zagg tosses four install-them-yourself rubber dots as feet for Zaggmate, and its instruction manual less than helpfully suggests that you go out and buy some of its film if you want better protection. Having used its yellowing-prone film, we’d pass; similar dollars can buy an iPad case that provides back, front, and side protection, while offering the speaker, headphone port, and button access that Zaggmate with Keyboard lacks.
On the other hand, the “with Keyboard” half of Zaggmate comes as close to getting typing right as any third-party accessory—underscore “third-party”—that we’ve yet tested for the iPad. Bundled with a micro-USB cable for charging its 510mAh internal battery, the Blueooth keyboard has a large power switch, red power and pairing light indicators, and a pairing button that can be activated easily with the tip of a pen. Its micro-USB charging port is immediately off to the side of these elements, and right next to the iPad’s Dock Connector port, which is convenient if you have a USB charger capable of simultaneous two-device refueling. We weren’t impressed by the Chinese-style English fonts used for the power, Bluetooth, and status indicators, or the cheap feel of the power switch and the iPad-supporting stand, but they’re easy to look past when you’re typing.
That’s because Zagg has done a good job of replicating most of the iPad’s special function keys, including Home, Search, Picture Frame, Virtual Keyboard, Lock, track controls, and volume controls. Only screen brightness buttons are missing, but then, Apple’s own Wireless Keyboard doesn’t have some of the iPad-specific keys, either. So while Zaggmate’s keyboard is not perfect in that regard, it’s very comparable to the best of the Bluetooth keyboards we’ve seen from other companies.
Equally impressive was the actual keyboard hardware Zagg chose to include, which we used to type part of this review. Because Zagg—like third-party rivals—wanted to match the iPad’s footprint, it chose a keyboard that shrinks the keys to perhaps 90% of their normal size. Though the keys are perceptibly smaller than on a full-sized keyboard, which initially leads to some accidental keystrokes and missed inputs, we really liked their responsiveness and overall feel. Because they’re made from hard plastic and have the clickability one would expect from, say, a netbook keyboard, there’s a greater sense of satisfaction typing on Zaggmate than on any of the third-party options we’ve tried. However, our output with the tyPad Gen II and Sena Keyboard Folio keyboards was similarly accurate, despite the fact that their keys felt rubbery and less pleasing to the touch. Once a user adjusts to the shrunken keys, accuracy will improve to a very satisfactory level.
We also really liked the fact that Zagg actually replicates an entire standard Apple keyboard’s shift, command, option, function, and arrow keys—including separate left and right shifts, functions, commands, and options, plus two dedicated function keys to let some of the keys double as a numeric keypad. Only the Zaggmate’s arrow keys are noticeably compromised, and then just because they’ve been moved to non-standard locations. Apart from adjusting to the keyboard’s smaller size, the only major issue we encountered here was that a couple of keys got slightly stuck at times, such that the keyboard as shipped always spit out double Z’s and sometimes created double I’s. Inaccuracy of some sort is unfortunately par for the course with the current crop of third-party iPad keyboards; it’s really just a matter of where the issues are manifested.
As much as we genuinely liked the keyboard, we couldn’t avoid one practical reality: unless you seriously see yourself using the iPad with Zaggmate as its not-really-case, there’s not much point in spending the $100 on this accessory. Apple’s own Wireless Keyboard sells for $69, and provides a comparatively excellent typing experience—one that’s literally equivalent to a full-sized computer, without finger cramping or accuracy compromises of any sort. It’s small enough to carry in many iPad bags, consuming comparable overall volume to the Zaggmate with Keyboard, which is only around 1/8” shorter and 1.3” narrower, but 2.3” deeper. Given the choice between tossing either one of these things in a bag, we’d pick Apple’s Keyboard any day of the week, and we’d still have $30 left to purchase a really good case with much better protection than Zagg offers.
So who should consider Zaggmate with Keyboard? Users who aren’t looking for substantial iPad body protection, but want a relatively low-profile Bluetooth keyboard that does a very good job of approximating a netbook-quality typing experience. While the accessory’s overall level of performance as a case precludes it from meriting our general level recommendation, it’s worthy of a limited recommendation for users who intend to toss their iPads and keyboards into a more protective bag of some sort, and value the modest space savings they’ll achieve by squeezing everything into the iPad’s only slightly fatter footprint. Thanks to the less curved rear casing that’s expected to debut with the second-generation iPad, we’re confident that Zagg or one of its competitors will come up with something similar but even better than this by year’s end. Each new keyboard case is making some sort of tangible progress towards offering iPad users the right combination of improved typing and protection; if nothing else, this one demonstrates just how thin and responsive Bluetooth keyboards will become in the near future.
Company and Price
Model: Zaggmate with Keyboard
Compatible: iPad (2010)