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David Sparks writes about writing with iPad screen keyboards after years of touch typing. Much of what he says resonates:

“It started with the iPad Air. On that machine I got quite good at thumb typing in portrait mode. It’s nothing like touch typing but still pretty great to sit on an airplane and thumb my way through an outline or a pile of email.”

Like Sparks, I started with light thumb-typing on my iPad 2. Nothing more than tweets and simple return email one-liners. When the lighter, slightly smaller iPad Air arrived I graduated to thumb-typing for longer stretches.

Using a real keyboard with an iPad

For anything more than a paragraph, I needed a physical keyboard. At least I thought so. Either I’d attach one of the many sample keyboards people had sent me to the iPad Air or I’d use the MacBook keyboard.

Sparks goes on:

“Speaking of airplanes, I recently took a flight where I was seated right between the window and a big guy that made pulling down the tray and using my iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard cover impossible.

“I had four hours on that plane and was determined not to thrown in the towel. So I placed the iPad on my lap and started typing. I then went into one of those hypnotic work-states that I often feel on airplanes and before I knew it the pilot announced we were about to land.”

This echoes my first serious glass typing session. I was on a plane. While crammed in economy I tapped out an entire feature on the iPad Air screen keyboard. Like Sparks I hit the writing zone and tapped into a familiar well of productivity but in an unfamiliar setting.

Phoning it in

Something similar happened with an iPhone 6 Plus. Although it worked at a pinch, the iPad is a far better writing device, even in a cramped space.

Unlike Sparks who found himself writing on screen with the larger iPad Pro, my typing-on-glass-while-flying epiphany was thumb-typing on an iPad Air held in the portrait position.

I’ve used the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in the way Sparks describes. It works for me. At a pinch I can also do the same on the 9.7-inch iPad if I lay it flat in the landscape orientation and use the larger size keyboard.

Trains and boats and planes

Yet, I’ve become so adept at portrait orientation thumb-typing, it’s now my preferred way of working on an iPad. I find it is perfect for planes. I’ve done the same on railway journeys, the Birkenhead-to-Auckland ferry and, less successful, while riding in an airport bus.

It works for me in airport lounges, cafes and even when I’m sitting in an office reception before a meeting or in a quiet room at a conference. Sometimes I’ll write this way sitting at home on the sofa. When I was recently in bed with ’flu, I managed to type a long-form newspaper feature this way.

I wouldn’t say it trumps writing on the MacBook Air using a full typewriter keyboard, but it isn’t far behind. By the way, I’m writing this blog post using the thumb and portrait mode technique on my 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The iPad keyboards are gathering dust.

Natural born killer technique

Writing this way on the iPad or iPad Pro now feels natural. At first thumb-typing was slow. Now I’m almost as fast as on a real keyboard. I’m a long-time touch typist, so my speeds there are good. Achieving something close on a glass keyboard surprised me.

Typing on the iPad screen is more, not less, accurate. The iPad’s built-in spell checker almost never comes into play. I’ve no idea why I mistype less characters on the glass screen, but it’s real.

Another observation. As a touch typist, I don’t look at the typewriter keys when writing. My focus is on the screen. When thumb typing on glass, I do look at the keyboard. The distance from the on-screen keyboard to the text is only a few millimetres, so I can check my output as I go.

Application independent

iPad thumb-typing works well with all writing apps. I wrote this blog post using Byword, now my favourite writing tool. I could equally have chosen Microsoft Word. Pages or iA Writer. They all work just fine.

In his post, Sparks says he still has pain points:

“Text selection is still far easier for me using a keyboard. Also, typing on glass at least once a day my finger accidentally hits the keyboard switch button which brings my work to a screeching halt. On that note if I were in charge, I’d make the keyboard selection button something where you had to press and hold to switch between keyboards.”

From manual typewriter to glass keyboard

I don’t have either of Sparks’ problems. I almost never use text selection during writing. I learnt to type on manual, paper-based typewriters. That means I’m disciplined about not constantly moving blocks of text.

My technique is to write, almost as a stream of consciousness. Years of experience mean I can structure a story in my head before starting. I write, then walk away for a breather before returning to edit the words. This, by the way, is a good technique. Unless you are pressed for time, do something else before self-editing.

I’ve not had Sparks’ problems hitting the wrong keys on the iPad screen keyboard. This surprises me, the individual keys on a 9.7-inch iPad screen in portrait mode are tiny, just a few millimeters square. And yet I rarely mistype.

There are no pain points for me. I’m more than ready to give up attaching a keyboard to the smaller iPad Pro. It’s reached the point where I can now attend a press conference or interview armed with nothing but an iPad and come away with clean copy.

For me, the iPad screen keyboard is a productivity boost. The story you’re reading now is around a thousand words long. I wrote the first draft on my iPad in relative comfort in about 45 minutes. I doubt I could do better on the MacBook with a full keyboard.

Smart Keyboard Cover iPad Pro

Apple’s NZ$280 9.7-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover doesn’t turn the Pro into a laptop. It’s more useful than that.

At the launch Apple said its 9.7-inch iPad Pro is a PC replacement.. That’s debatable. People spend a lot of time typing on PCs so that claim doesn’t start to stack up until you add a keyboard.

There are good third-party keyboards. Yet most iPad Pro users expect to be able to buy an Apple-branded keyboard to go with their tablet. Apple’s official iPad Pro keyboard has a few benefits not found elsewhere.

Smart Connector

Apple’s keyboard uses the iPad Pro’s Smart Connector. This is a row of three metal dots along the side of the tablet.

When you attach the Smart Keyboard Cover to an iPad Pro the connectors snap into place along the dots. A magnet pulls the two parts together and keeps them connected.

The dots carry power and data between the keyboard and the tablet. This means there’s no need for Bluetooth pairing which can sometimes be tricky with other keyboards. It means you are up and running straight away.

Because the Smart Connector also acts as a power link, there is no need for a power cable or charger.

Not so smart orientation

On a down note, the keyboard only allows one screen viewing position. If you don’t like it, too bad. Microsoft nails this with the Surface Pro kickstand. It gives near infinite screen tilt options.

The good news is the stand arrangement is solid and stable. An iPad Pro and keyboard won’t collapse.

Size gives and takes

Apple’s Smart Keyboard Cover for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is a scaled-down version of the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro keyboard.

And that’s something of a problem.

At 308 mm, the larger Smart Keyboard Cover is as wide as a conventional laptop keyboard. It is even a fraction wider than the 280mm built-in keyboard on the Apple Macbook.

With bigger keyboards you get a full-size layout, full-size keys and room to breathe with space between the keys.

Squeezing a similar design into something that is 240mm wide means compromises. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover also lacks depth. It is about 95mm from front to back compared with 110mm on the 12.9-inch version. [1]

Cramped typing

Apple squashed the keys and reduced the space between them to make everything fit.

This may not matter to you if you’re a part-time typist who hunts and pecks around the keyboard. For a long-time touch-typist whose fingers have a keyboard memory, it’s a struggle.

Let’s put it this way. Where possible and appropriate I use the tools in questions to write a product review. That wasn’t easy in this case.

It’s not that the 9.7-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover doesn’t work; it does. But it doesn’t work well with my finger memory. I can rattle through words at a fast rate on a normal keyboard at 190 characters per minute.

Fast enough

At first my score on with the smaller Smart Keyboard Cover was less half that speed. Worse, the error rate was horrific.

Let’s not get too hung up on speed [2]. The effect is fleeting. After a two of days I had adjusted and my speed improved almost to normal.

During that time I used the keyboard with the iPad at home and away from home. The advantage is portability. It travels easier than the larger iPad Pro or a MacBook. Although none of these three is a burden.

Unlike normal laptop keyboards, Apple made the Smart Keyboard Cover from nylon fabric. This makes it lightweight. It also means it needs less finger pressure than other keyboards.

The keyboard cover does a fine job of protecting the iPad Pro when you’re on the move. As an added bonus, it clears smudge marks off the screen as you open and close. Like other Apple iPad covers, it turns the iPad on and off.

Pricey alternative

At NZ$280 the 9.7-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover is expensive. You can buy a cheap tablet for the same money. Add the price to the cost of an 9.7-inch iPad Pro — prices start at NZ$1050 — and you could buy a decent laptop.

But that’s missing the point here. So is Apple’s claim that the iPad Pro is a PC replacement. If you use an iPad, any iPad as a PC replacement you’re not getting all the benefit of the device.

Tablets like the iPad can go places laptops can’t. They excel at tasks that aren’t practical with conventional laptops. It isn’t easy to pull out a laptop while waiting in a queue and deal with work documents. That is a breeze on an iPad.

Add a keyboard to the iPad Pro and you have portability, mobility and laptop-like features when you need them. It’s a powerful combination.

Pluses:
Slim, light, fits the 9.7-inch iPad Pro like a glove. Doesn’t need cable, charger or Bluetooth. Easy to attach or detatch.

Negatives:
Expensive by any standard. Cramped keyboard may be difficult for touch typists. No backlighting. Only one tilt orientation.

Conclusion
Stylish, reliable, well-made keyboard for a 9.7-inch iPad Pro. You may find third-parties offer better alternatives.


  1. My apologies for switching between metric and imperial measurements. Go and complain to the Americans about imposing archaic nonsense on us.  ↩
  2. Compared with most people I’m fussy about keyboards. Remember this is how I spend my working day. I type for many hours every day.  ↩

iPad Pro Writing

Apple says the iPad Pro is more powerful than most laptops. It is more portable. That should make it ideal for journalists and others who need to write while on the move.

How does the writing experience compare with PCs and is the software up to the job?

The sensible way to answer those questions is to give the device an extensive road test. Earlier this year I took the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and a Smart Keyboard on an overseas work trip[1].

iPad Pro on the road

On paper the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is everything a traveling journalist wants or needs. It is about the size and weight of a thick magazine. I had the cellular version which is 725 g. Apple’s Smart Keyboard adds little bulk or weight. Together they weight a fraction over a kilo.

Apple’s A9 processor packs a punch. This means software runs smooth, there’s never any waiting. No hiccups. Word processing and writing are never processor-intensive. Yet on cheaper underpowered tablets there can be an annoying, productivity-killing lag. I’ve used Android tablets where the lag means hardware and software can’t keep up with my typing.

Battery

The iPad Pro’s battery lasts all day. It has more than enough juice to get from, say, a ten-hour flight from Auckland to Singapore.

It lasts about ten hours use before the low-power alarm kicks in. Perhaps more. Writing isn’t as demanding as say, watching video. It isn’t something you do for hours at a stretch. The iPad sleeps when you pause. It does a wonderful job of managing the power on your behalf.

Being cautious, I packed the USB-to-lightning connector in my carry-on bag. This was useful later in the journey. When charging the iPad Pro drains a lot of power. Airline seat USB power sockets often don’t deliver much current. I found it was enough keep the device running, not enough to recharge the battery.

Despite the bigger screen, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro fits well on an airline tray table. Best of all, you don’t usually have to get it out of your traveling bag when going through airport security. On my journey I only had to unpack it once.

The screen is a joy

Apple gave the 12.9-inch iPad Pro a glorious big, bright and clear screen. It’s great for viewing video or looking at photographs. It comes into its own when writing. The display has 2732 x 2048 pixels, that makes for 264 pixels per inch.

Which means text is crisp and sharp even when small or if, for some reason, there’s a spindly typeface. If you’re so inclined you can use smaller text and fit more words on a screen. The screen is brighter and clearer than on most MacBooks. It’s also higher resolution.

This makes it easier on the eyes. I need to use reading glasses when typing on a laptop, but not on the iPad Pro. While that’s personal, it underlines the difference between the iPad Pro and alternatives.

Better displays pay off for writers more than you might imagine. Over the years I’ve learnt that it’s much harder to proofread on a display than on paper.

I noticed I do a better job finding errors in text on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro than on my MacBook Air. This is a huge productivity plus.

It’s not just a matter of screen resolution. The iPhone 6S Plus has a Retina display, yet it is the worst of the three for proof-reading.

Minor keyboard shortcomings

In practice the iPad Pro performs well. There are minor shortcomings, most are down to the keyboard. If the MacBook Air writing experience is ten out of ten, the iPad Pro would score a nine. This is still far better than most alternatives.

Apple’s Smart Keyboard is the same size as a normal computer keyboard and works in much the same way. At NZ$320 it’s expensive, but for serious writing work it’s essential.

The Smart Keyboard attaches to the iPad using something Apple calls a Smart Connector. This means, unlike Bluetooth keyboards you get a definite reliable connection. The keyboard draws power from the iPad, it doesn’t need it’s own power supply. There’s nothing extra to charge. And there are no extra cables to worry about. On a plus note, it is easy to detach when you finish writing.

Flowing words

While touch typIng is easy enough on the Smart Keyboard, the words don’t flow as well as on my MacBook Air. The keys are shallow. They’re easier to miss-hit, but that doesn’t happen so often that it becomes a problem. Most of the time, when the words are flowing there’s no need to reach up and touch the screen to scroll or do other things.

I ran in to a problem when for some reason, the keyboard would type a capital at the start of a word. I’m not sure if it happens with every app, but it does happen with more than one. The caps appear almost at random, I couldn’t find any pattern to it.

At times, maybe while editing, there’s a lot of moving the hand from the keyboard to the touch screen. This can stress the wrist more than using the touchpad on laptop. Chances are, like me, you’ll adapt and find ways to stay comfortable.

Touch typing

Touch typists usually don’t need to find keys in the dark. If you do, you’ll miss the MacBook Air’s keyboard backlighting.

You can’t adjust the screen angle which using the Smart Keyboard.  Laptops and the Microsoft Surface have an edge there. This can be a problem with some airline tray tables.

Keyboard aside, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro beats laptops for writing productivity. Unless you are using the split-screen feature, each app appears full-screen.

The other advantage of the iPad Pro is that it is less distracting. You can set up a laptop to keep interruptions and other distractions out of the way. Apple baked this into the iPad Pro by design. The advantages of the iPad Pro offset the disadvantage of the less than perfect keyboard. Of course, if you don’t like the Apple Smart Keyboard there are third-party alternatives.

Writing on glass

If you wish, you can ditch the attached keyboard and use the onscreen keyboard to type. This works well with the 12.9-inch model. Here the virtual keyboard is the same size as an everyday physical keyboard.

Lying the 12.9-inch iPad Pro flat and typing on the screen is easy enough. Because it is glass you get no feedback in your fingers. This makes touch typing tricky. Not impossible, but harder work than on a real keyboard. In practice typing is slower, but not much slower.

I tried this while on a flight. At first I laid the iPad Pro flat on the tray table in the landscape position to type on glass. Soon I found myself picking it up in the portrait position and using my thumbs to type. The bigger iPad is a little heavy to hold in your hands for extended periods. Typing with thumbs on while the screen is in the portrait position is comfortable for a short time. It might get tedious after an hour or so. Thumb typing works a lot better on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

The 9.7-inch version

It shares most of its technology with the larger version. Yet Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro[3] is a distinct writing experience. It is more portable again, which can be an advantage some of the time. On the other hand, the smaller size means the screen isn’t as good for longer writing projects.

You lose some, not all, of the proof-reading advantages you get from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro screen. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro fine for writing emails and short pieces of text. Anything long gets tiresome. Having said that, I typed 1000-word stories holding in my hands and using my thumbs. It’s less productive than using a separate keyboard. But the added mobility and freedom can sometimes be a bigger benefit.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro can take photos without drawing too much attention. This is useful at, say, a press conference. Trying to take a picture with a 12.9-inch iPad Pro at a press event looks weird.

At the time of writing I haven’t been able to get an Apple Smart Keyboard for the smaller iPad Pro[4]. Instead I’ve been using the 9.7-inch iPad Pro with a Logitech Ultra-thin Keyboard Cover. This is a great keyboard for a smaller iPad, but the keys are cramped compared with the 12.9-inch model.

You can use the smaller iPad with a full-size keyboard, but you lose the portability benefits. One is to use the 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s screen keyboard or a keyboard cover while on the move. Then, plug the device into a bigger keyboard at home or in the office.

Writing on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro: Verdict

Many aspects of writing are software dependent. I haven’t mentioned them because I plan to write a separate post looking at the best iPad Pro writing apps.

Putting that to one side, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro writing experience is solid. The tablet has clear benefits over writing on a laptop like, say, the MacBook Air. The screen is better and there is less distraction.

The keyboard is worse than you’ll find on a decent laptop. This comes close to cancelling out the productivity benefits. Close, but not all the way to cancelling them. If you’re a busy keyboarder, you may feel otherwise. It is a matter of taste.

I rank the writing experience on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro at a nose ahead of working on my MacBook Air. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro comes in as runner-up, a short distance behind the MacBook Air.

Since returning from my trip I’ve taken to using the iPad Pro as my main writing tool. This speaks volumes. I find it faster and more efficient than the laptop. There are a few tasks that need, or that work better on my MacBook Air. Yet for my writing the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a better, more productive option.


  1. The Apple Pencil came for the ride, it didn’t get used for anything serious. I found handwriting recognition software. I’m keen to road test it, but I’m nervous about testing it on an important job without some form of back-up.  ↩
  2. One is coming. Look out for the review.  ↩

Brydge has a keyboard for anyone who bought an iPad Air or Air 2 but meant to buy a MacBook Air. The BrydgeAir keyboard is a sturdy aluminium frame that clips to the iPad Air. When closed it forms a tough laptop-like shell. When open you can use the hinge at any angle, like a laptop. Folding it flat puts your iPad to sleep.

At around NZ$230, it isn’t cheap. Decent iPad keyboards start at less than half the price.

Tablet or faux laptop?

Yet BrydgeAir isn’t like any other third-party iPad keyboard I’ve seen. While popular iPad keyboards like Logitech’s excellent Ultrathin Keyboard Cover are all about adding the convenience of keyboard typing to the iPad, BrydgeAir is more about turning the iPad into an iOS touch-screen laptop.

If that’s what you want to do.

Brydge’s design and choice of materials reinforces this idea. The case is aluminium, you can choose colours to match your iPad Air. The keyboard is exactly the same dimensions as the iPad Air. When closed, an iPad with the BridgeAir looks a lot like an Apple laptop.

It uses hinges engineered to fit an iPad Air 2. The same unit works with the older iPad Air thanks to rubber shims that you can add to the hinges.

Heavy

The downside of this approach is the BrydgeAir adds more weight than, say, the Logitech Ultrathin keyboard. The keyboard is heavier than the iPad Air 2 and getting on for twice the weight of the Logitech keyboard. That extra weight may be a Brydge too far for some people.

On a positive note, the BrydgeAir keyboard is a lot like a MacBook keyboard. It’s solid and doesn’t flex like some cheaper laptop keyboards. It can take my touch typist hammering, there’s a little more travel than in most attachable keyboards. It has back-lighting, that’s important for us journalists who find ourselves typing in darkened rooms.

I found typing cramped compared with my laptop – that’s unavoidable given the keyboard size matches the 10-inch iPad Air 2.

It’s fine to use, but I’d prefer a little more room. I find I can work with it for a while. It’s good enough for temporary typing on the move. It may even do if I am out-of-town on a reporting assignment.

In the long-term I wouldn’t want to drop my laptop for this arrangement and that’s before discussing the merits of iOS versus OS X.

Beyond keyboard

There’s more than just a keyboard. Bridge has added Bluetooth stereo speakers. You can crank them up higher than the normal iPad Air speaker. While the BrydgeAir speakers are useful for FaceTime conversations, music sounds cheap and tinny.

One other thing to watch for is that the BridgeAir takes a toll on your iPad batteries. I can go all day and then some on my iPad without the BrydgeAir, with it attached I’d lose about a third of that battery life.

I’ve always thought there’s something curious about iPad keyboards. When the iPad first appeared it was a break with personal computing’s recent past. Apple stripped down the laptop to the bare essentials needed for browsing and reading. That meant getting rid of the keyboard. We seem to have spent the last five years putting them back.

This trend reached its apex when Apple added its own keyboard cover to the iPad Pro. I prefer the BrydgeAir to Apple’s keyboard and would love to see what Brydge can do for the iPad Pro. Adding a keyboard of this quality could elevate the Pro.

BrydgeAir – verdict

Brydge has chosen to target a tight niche with a well-engineered, high-quality alternative. The BrydgeAir is an expensive, heavy, well-made  keyboard for a device that was designed as only an occasional typing tool. It changes the nature of that tool. In a sense it’s a good fix for a problem you don’t need to have.

If you are a heavy-duty typist a lot you would be better off with a MacBook, MacBook Air or just about any other laptop. A device made for typing is always better than an iPad and a keyboard.

If you love the iPad, need to type a bit and like the idea of an iOS laptop, this is the answer. If you bust your budget buying an iPad and wished you got a laptop instead, you’ll love this. It’s also a good alternative for people who find plastic type covers too flimsy.

There’s a lot to like about the Logitech K480 Bluetooth keyboard. It switches quickly and smoothly between computer, tablet and phone. You can use it to jump from one operating system to another without your hands ever leaving the keyboard. It does all this at the twist of a dial.

If you own a mix of hardware from different brands and running different operating systems, it makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, you can do better than if every digital device in your home is just Android or Apple.

In testing I found the keyboard works well with almost everything. I tried it with an iPad, iPhone, Android phone, Android tablet, Macintosh and a Windows PC.

Almost everything…

It didn’t work out of the box with my Windows Phone or Blackberry and I didn’t spend long trying to force the issue.

The K480 looks like a keyboard. Not a regular keyboard: It’s smaller and squarer than most. The design has a faint whiff of Fisher-Price about it. By that, I mean it fat and chunky with rounded corners and rounded typewriter keys.

There’s a groove set above the keys which acts as a stand for tablets and phones.

A dial set in the right of the case just above the escape key has three settings, marked 1, 2 and 3. You use this switch the keyboard control between devices. You have to remember which number is which, but that’s no big deal. Flicking the dial moves keyboard control seamlessly between the three pre-set options.

This isn’t the greatest-ever keyboard. Logitech makes a number of better ones. If you type all day it’s not for you. There isn’t even a full set of PC keys. But you wouldn’t buy this as a typist’s keyboard, it’s all about the device switching.

I can touch type on almost anything, including the sometimes maligned 2015 Apple MacBook keyboard. Although I could, at a pinch, touch type on the K480, it’s action didn’t feel as good or flow as well as, say, the excellent Logitech Ultra-thin Keyboard Cover for iPad Air.

Practical, not portable

The other downside is the keyboard barely scrapes a pass mark for portability. At about 800g it weighs more than my iPad. It’s a little too thick and long to slip in a bag with a tablet. Again, you’d choose this if you think device switching trumps mobility.

One odd feature is the K480 needs two AAA batteries. Logitech says the batteries will last for two years. I’ve no idea how true that is, but after two months the batteries in my keyboard are going strong. On the whole I prefer rechargeable devices, but buying two AAA batteries every couple of years is no hardship.

Conclusion: The Logitech K480 Bluetooth keyboard is a smart answer to a specific problem. It does what it sets out to do with style and it’s affordable. You can buy it for less than NZ$100.