I feel silly. I'm typing this article on my iPhone. Actually, it's not directly on the phone. I am using a portable keyboard from Logitech called Keys-to-Go. I picked this up for my iPad mini 4 on Amazon for $40. It is normally $69. I will talk about that experience. But I am also trying to answer a bigger question: What is the real utility of portable keyboards?
First, a brief description of the product. This particular portable keyboard was specifically designed for the iPad. It works with all iPads. That is because it is completely unattached and stand alone.
There is a small stand to accommodate the iPad or, in this case, iPhone. It can be attached or detached from the keyboard as well. The item of choice does not fit snugly. But on a table, it is also in no danger of falling out. For a proper tilt, the iPhone should be placed in the stand without a case.
The connection is standard Bluetooth. There is no case, no smart connector, no magnet, no attachment of any kind. Again, that is why it can accommodate any iOS device. There are now special variants of the keyboard for Windows and Android.
My guess is that this keyboard was originally designed for the iPad mini rather than the full sized iPad. The reason is that the iPad mini seems like the perfect fit for this product. It is easy to find perfectly suitable keyboard cases for full sized iPads. Good luck finding great keyboards for the mini.
And as silly as it seems, this keyboard might just be even more suited for the iPhone, assuming that portable keyboards are perfectly suited for anything. It also works well enough for a standard sized iPad which I just happen to have around. And while I haven't had it for very long, I have had all manner of portable keyboards. I buy a new one with every iPad. Here are my thoughts on the Keys-to-Go, and on portable keyboards in general: (By the way, I'm back on my mini for a few paragraphs).
As keyboards go, this one types pretty well it is coated with fabric, making the whole thing spill-proof. That is a good thing, as I am getting crumbs on it from my scone right now. The key feel is rather mushy. But it is saved by the fact that the travel is shallow. So you do not have to get through a lot of deep mush.
Despite the mushy feeling, there is also enough snap to the keys so that little pressure is needed to fully activate the keys. I hate mushy keyboards. But this one has enough offsetting the mush so that it is decent, if not a pleasure to type on.
Then, there is the matter of the size. This is likely a three-quarters keyboard. It is definitely not full sized. Smaller hands should be just fine with it. Basketball players need not apply. My hands are large enough so that I definitely have to compress and slow down just a hair. But it is not so cramped that I can no longer be productive. I can get through a thousand words easily enough.
Back to the iPhone...
One of the ways they reduced the size of the keyboard Is by reducing the size of certain keys that usually appear larger on full sized keyboards such as the Delete and Return keys. The arrow keys are also in the scrunched formation that everyone hates.
But to me, the worst thing about the keyboard is the battery indicator above the Delete key. I end up hitting the battery indicator key instead of Delete more times than I would like to admit. These are not deal-breakers. The keyboard is fine for what it is. All portable keyboards have compromises. I find it easy enough to live with these.
It is also worth mentioning that this is a one-device keyboard. Though I have switched devices a few times while writing this article, it is a pain to do. This keyboard wants to be paired with only one device at a time. I have had to repair, not simply reconnect with each device switch. Perhaps that is something that can be fixed in an update. But as a multiple device person, I find it annoying. That said, it is the same limitation when using a device-specific iPad keyboard.
The right keyboard for your minimal carry
But this isn't only about the Keys-to-Go keyboard. This is about any keyboard you might want to use with an iOS device. Does any keyboard make sense with these devices? And if so, which kind?
My first choice for an iPad keyboard is one that is purpose made. That is to say, it needs to be a part of an iPad case sized specifically for the iPad in question. It needs to have some type of attached stand or connection mechanism so that the whole thing can be used in a lap.
Moreover, it helps to close up into a single, neat package so that when you pick it up, you are picking up one piece instead of two. In the case of the iPad mini, that means dealing with significantly smaller keys, making typing a bit more of a compromise than I like. Still, some companies have found a way to get it done.
Carrying one thing in hand is a lot easier than carrying two things, even if one of those things happens to be extremely lightweight. At this level, it is not about the weight. It is about convenience. If all I have to do is pick up the iPad mini in a keyboard case, that is one thing. But if I have to pick up that, plus an external keyboard, that changes the carry equation.
Carrying two things feels like just enough so that you need a carry case. And if you are going to stuff things in a carry case, you just as well grab your backpack. And if you are going to grab your backpack, you just as well carry your laptop, the best writing experience you can get.
To me, you either carry one thing in hand, or as many things as you like in a backpack. Doing anything else feels more like a stunt than a productivity power move. And this is why I started thinking about using this keyboard with the iPhone (as I am currently doing right now).
Your smartphone is already a part of your minimal carry. You're not going anywhere without your smartphone. You probably don't even walk your dog without your smartphone. You already have the pocket situation worked out. You throw it in a front or back pocket. And if you don't mind living dangerously, maybe a shirt pocket. But one way or the other, it is coming with you.
So grabbing a lightweight keyboard is a one-item carry. that might make all the difference. Suddenly, you have a screen larger than dedicated, electric typewriters. But it is still a lot smaller than the smallest iPad. Screen size is certainly a factor. But if your vision is excellent, it may well be sufficient.
Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella once quipped that an iPhone loaded with all the Microsoft productivity apps is an iPhone Pro. He may have been onto something. It has nothing to do with Microsoft's Office suite. There were plenty of productivity apps on, and specifically made for the iPhone long before Microsoft got there.
But it is hard to contemplate traditional productivity software without a lot of typing. We need a good keyboard to be productive in the way those apps are intended. The iPhone didn't need the Office suite to go pro. It just needed the right keyboard. Keys-to-Go might just be that keyboard.
Now, I'm writing in Word on the iPhone…
At the moment, the whole setup is in my lap, as if I were on the buss, in a car, or sitting about on a park bench. There are a lot of accessibility implications for each of the setups I am using. I might detail them in another post. For now, just note that Word is working out very well on the iPhone paired with Keys-to-Go.
With this setup, this is the first time I can honestly consider getting work done on my iPhone. There is definitely something freeing about that possibility. I could just leave the house carrying nothing extra besides this keyboard, and not suffer from FOMO.
As a writer, one of my greatest fears is that I will be out and about and I get an assignment I didn’t count on. Also, I might just get a bug to write something that I will have to put off till later. By that time, I will have forgotten what it was I wanted to write. Being able to work in the moment makes all the difference.
Who is it for?
Back on my laptop, in desktop mode…
Personally, I think a proper laptop is the best mobile companion you can have for productivity (as defined by typing a lot of words and all the bits and pieces necessary for publishing to the web. Traditional productivity almost always starts with lots of words on a screen. A laptop is purpose-built for this task.
Everything else has to be retrofitted for the job. The iPad has to be fitted with a keyboard, the best of which are not made by the same company. No one would buy a laptop sans-keyboard, then add a third-party keyboard after the fact. But that is exactly what we have to do with iPads.
They are all imperfect solutions due to their very nature. Because of this, I suggest that portable keyboards are only for those people who don’t have a laptop they can conveniently take with them. Compared to that, a portable keyboard solution will always be subpar.
While I do it for the most part, even I don’t like to carry the laptop everytime I leave the house. Sometimes, I just want to travel light. And that does not include a backpack. If I know I have some writing to do, and time to do it, I will always choose the laptop. But what about those times when I don’t have any particular writing to do, but just want to have something on hand just in case?
If you find yourself in this situation a lot, then you might choose a portable keyboard plus iDevice solution. But there lies the rub. Almost any solution you choose will be almost as cumbersome as carrying a laptop. Once you have to put your items in a bag, you might as well grab the laptop.
If you don’t have a laptop, but need something for your mobile computing, this is where portable keyboards shine. I say get a 9.7” iPad Pro, the Keys-to-Go, and a small laptop sleeve to put in all in, and you have yourself a very nice portable kit. Frankly, the mini 4 works just as well, and is a fine, full iPad. It actually costs more than the entry-level iPad. The iPad mini is for real.
You can travel even lighter and skip the bag just by pairing the keyboard to your iPhone and carrying it sans-bag. I still think the combination of smartphone plus full keyboard looks ridiculous. It looks like you couldn’t afford the thing you really wanted, but had to settle.
But I was surprised at just how well that combination does in a pinch. The iPhone is a powerful computer in its own rights. It has all the productivity apps you could want. And with the right keyboard attached, you can unlock all that power. During the course of this article, I used Ulysses and Word on the iPhone, and Ulysses on the iPad mini 4, and Ulysses on the laptop. Word is free to use on screens smaller than 10”.
I find the iPad mini has a very usable screen size for writing. It is the smallest screen I can use and still feel like I am having a full writing experience. But the iPhone works well enough so that you don’t have to feel stressed over the possibility of being left without a proper tool if you happen to need one.
Using the iPhone as a productivity tool is not about pulling a stunt. It is about making the most out of what you already have at hand. A small keyboard companion that you can grab and go may just be all you need if you don’t have an iPad, and don’t want to buy a whole mobile setup.
Conclusion: Everything’s a computer
Bottom line: everything you have with a screen on it is a computer. You just as well get the most out of those devices you already carry. If you don’t already have a laptop, you probably don’t need one. My laptop is my only truck computer. If I didn’t want to take it with me, my iPhone plus Keys-to-Go would probably be sufficient.
As it happens, I am in love with the iPad mini 4. So despite the duplication of effort, I will probably carry it with me some of the time, leaving my laptop at home. I originally bought the iPad as an all about the house computer. But it is hard to put down. So why should I?
All I am saying is that whatever configuration of devices you have, there is a chance that at least one of them will be greatly enhance by pairing it with a portable keyboard. Screen size is no longer the determining factor. Everything is a computer. And sometimes, everything could use touch-typeable keys.
At the very least, you should probably have one for your daily carry bag. That way, if your laptop runs out of juice, you have a backup solution that will enable you to pick up and keep right on going without missing a beat.