There's a new, iPad Air keyboard in town, and its worth writing home about. If you, like me, treat your iPad like a laptop, then you are going to want to take a close look at the ZaggKeys Folio for the iPad Air.
Several months ago, I wrote a review of the very same keyboard, except for the iPad mini. It quickly became my favorite keyboard of them all. Now, the same is true for the iPad Air for all the same reasons, plus one or two more.
Build quality and design
As much as I like this keyboard, I am going to have to start with a negative. It features far too much cheap feeling plastic for my tastes. The keycaps, themselves, are the worst offenders. For most people, they will probably feel just fine. But they are a little on the smooth and clicky side for me. The rest of the interior does not fare much better. There is a matt plastic casing surrounding the keyboard. It screams "Walmart", not "Macy's". That interior plastic extends to the outside of the case. It runs around most of the edge of the case, with the exception of the hinged portion where the lid connects to the keyboard.
The remainder of the surface is a different story. It is a grippy, rubbery-type material that feels quite good to the touch. It is the first part of the case that feels like a quality product. Fortunately, it will be your first impression, as it liberally covers the vast majority of the outside of the case. The case, when populated by an iPad Air, feels very solid and protective. I suspect the iPad could survive a hard fall without harming either iPad or case. But don't expect me to try it and report on the results. Honestly, I'm just not that dedicated.
The final bit of fit and finish about which you should know is the actual fitting of the iPad into the case. This is a folio-style, full-body case. The screen, Home and side buttons, and lightning connector slot are the only bits of the iPad that are uncovered. Everything else is surrounded. I am not overly fond of the way the iPad slots into the case. Either I'm doing it wrong, or it feels just the tiniest bit insecure on the corner that houses the Home and side buttons of the iPad. There is no, satisfying click when the iPad is seated correctly, leaving you to wonder if it is secure as it should be. It is also not immediately obvious how to remove the iPad Air from the case. Working the corners is the key.
Despite my nitpicking about minor, subjective things, my overall impression of the fit and finish is quite positive. It looks smart, and feels good in the hand. The non-slip surface gives the iPad a rock-solid feeling when typing on pretty much any surface. The case practically sticks to whatever surface you put it on without actually feeling sticky. It is a neat trick, and one that I wish other products would emulate.
None of that means a thing if the case has a sub-par typing experience. I am happy to report that the typing experience is outstanding. I will go so far as to say that it provides the best typing experience of any iPad keyboard to date. Despite my complaint about cheap-feeling keycaps, I find this to be the closest typing experience to a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.
The Island-style keys have a great response and travel. There is more than enough feedback and snap to the keys that you never have to wonder if you fully depressed the key. There are no compromises in the layout of the keys. They are all exactly where a touch typist would expect them to be. This cannot be said for most iPad keyboards. They all seem to make compromises such as combining keys, and making some available only with the use of the Function key. Some keys get shrunk, or omitted, altogether. None of that takes place with this keyboard, proving that such measures are unnecessary.
Speaking of unnecessary, this keyboard offers a row of special, iPad function keys across the top. I have never used more than a handful of these keys on any keyboard. I do find these slightly more useful than most. First, because they are dedicated keys, rather than doubling as number keys. Second, there are Undo and Redo buttons. There is a dedicated, Siri button that no one need ever press. Pressing and holding the Home button on the top left of the keyboard does the same trick as pressing and holding the Home button on the iPad. It would be much more useful if the Siri button was a dictate button. Still, it is hard to object to an extra row of function keys that you don't have to use, and probably won't.
One button you are unlikely to find on any other keyboard is the backlight button. This keyboard has a backlight that can be very useful in dark situations. It has three levels of brightness, and multiple color options for the backlight. It is a very nice touch. Just know that heavy use of the backlight will deplete the battery much faster. Expect the battery to go up to three months between charges.
If you find yourself treating your iPad like a laptop, this is the case for you. I could have made this point when talking about design, but I believe it deserves its own section. This is not a traditional folio case. The part of the case that holds the iPad is hinged like a laptop. When the iPad is in this case, it is indistinguishable from a small laptop. You open it to the angle you like, and it stays there. You do not need to fit it into a special slot, or fear that it will tip over on an uneven surface such as a lap. Unlike with the Microsoft Surface, the iPad in this case is easy and natural to use on a lap. I wrote part of this article at Central Station, waiting on a city bus. This simply cannot be said for any other mainstream, iPad case.
ZaggKeys Folio vs. the rest
The ZaggKeys Folio is not the only iPad Air keyboard I looked at. In fact, it wasn't even the first. There is a bumper crop of keyboard covers and cases for your consideration. My preference does not constitute the only good choice. I highly recommend you take a look at the offerings from Logitech, as well. There are three that are worth checking out. Each, with its own quirks and benefits.
I have read a few reviews that lump all of the keyboards together, and conclude that they are the same product with only minor differences. I respectfully disagree. All products can be identified by their compromises. The keyboards in question, make different compromises, all are significant.
Logitech's lineup includes the Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, the Ultrathin Folio, and the Fabraskin Folio. The cover is just that: a cover for the front-face of the iPad that happens to be a keyboard. It makes no attempt to protect the back of the iPad. Traditionally, that has been my favorite keyboard for full-sized iPads. Almost every reviewer has been on-board with that opinion. The key layout is traditional, and there is no learning curve. You just set it up and type. The drawback is that the keys are a tad smaller than full-sized. Ultimately, slightly smaller keys with a standard layout, is a better choice for speedy, touch-typists than lightly larger keys with layout compromises.
The downside to this keyboard is the same as it has been in previous versions. The magnet that keeps it closed is too weak for the job. If your iPad is set for auto-on and auto-off with the Smart Cover, your iPad might come on in your bag and drain the battery. This problem is eliminated by turning off the setting. Besides the excellent, typing experience, the upside is that the Ultrathin Cover provides the thinnest and lightest keyboard solution. I have no problem recommending it if thinness and lightness are your priorities.
The Ultrathin Folio is not at all similar to the Cover, as the name may imply. It takes on a completely different layout. In addition to being a full case as oppose to a cover, the look and materials are completely different. The keys are laid out in the fashion of those made for the iPad mini. It omits keys such as the Caps Lock and Tab key, to make way for slightly larger keys. In all fairness, the Caps Lock and Tab keys are seldom used on any keyboard. The functionality can still be accessed with the Function key. The compromise is a non-standard layout for the sake of slightly larger keys. I have used the layout before, and it is easy to get used to. Still, it is an important factor to consider.
The last keyboard I considered was the Fabraskin Folio. Though made by the same company as the previous two, it has nothing in common with either. While it is a folio case with similar styling to the Ultrathin Folio on the outside, the inside, including the keyboard, is completely different. Again, it employs a nonstandard layout, but that is not the biggest issue with this keyboard. It is the fact that the keys are covered with a rubberized sheet that acts as a protective layer against spills. It does not employ laptop-style keys as do the other units. It has a minimum travel, mushy feeling to the key action. There are few things I hate more in a keyboard than mushy keys that feel like they are set in a layer of syrup.
It took mere seconds of typing on it for me to realize that this was never going to be the keyboard for me. And that's really too bad, because the keyboard has a lot to offer. It does not have an on/off switch. Instead, on and off are handled by sensors that detect when the case is open, and the iPad is in position. The look and feel of the device is quite sporty. The technology in the keyboard is above reproach. I look forward to the time when it trickles down to the rest of the product line. For those who are not fast typists, and don't mind spending a little more for other conveniences, this is a nice option. Speedy touch-typists will want to look elsewhere.
As much as I like the ZaggKeys Folio, there is a good chance that you don't really need it. If your iPad writing is limited to short emails and text messages, you probably don't need an external keyboard. The on-screen keyboard works terrifically well on the iPad Air. There is a lot of smart software driving it, so you end up typing what you intended, even if you get just about every keystroke wrong. Without an external keyboard, you can type quickly and confidently.
However, keyboard jockeys like myself can be even more confident with a hardware keyboard. But, just keep in mind that, in iOS, there is no automatic error correction when using a hardware keyboard. It will still flag your errors, but correcting them is entirely up to you. The two, big benefits to using an external keyboard are viewing angle, and information density. With the ZaggKeys Folio, you can adjust the viewing angle to your preference. An upright monitor is ergonomically better than one on which you have to look straight down. If you type a lot, your neck will thank you for buying a keyboard. Second, the iPad screen is completely available for your data. Otherwise, the onscreen keyboard takes up more than half of your iPad, making it difficult for you to scan multiple sentences and paragraphs at a glance. This is a big deal with long-form writing.
Don't fall into the trap of thinking that you can't be productive without a keyboard. You may not be pumping out 5,000 words a day. But you can get an awful lot done carrying nothing more than your iPad, and maybe a Smart Cover. If you do a lot of typing, and want to use your iPad as a substitute for a laptop, which is a reasonable thing to do, then consider the ZaggKeys Folio to be one of the best accessories you can get for your iPad Air