With Microsoft Office coming to the iPad, I decided it's time to offer an updated assessment of that controversial topic: can tablets be as good at content creation as they are for content consumption?
Tablets get a bad rap when it comes to content creation, and in my experience, the reputation is deserved to a degree. But I don't think that we're done developing tablets or tablet software, and one device I bought last year has opened my eyes to what's possible: the $70 Kensington KeyFolio, which builds a compact keyboard into an iPad stand that serves double duty as a case.
Without it or one of the other iPad keyboard choices, I'm inclined to agree with the folks who deride tablets as a productivity tool. The sensation of airy responsiveness that so astounded me when I first used iPhones and iPads years ago to play games is just not there when it's time to write letters or edit photos. A complicated user interface is tricky to design for blunt fingers, and on-screen keyboards drastically shrink the usable screen area even as they fail to match the tactile feedback of physical keyboards. You can get compose emails, edit video, mix music tracks, and crunch numbers in a spreadsheet, sure, but when I have a PC at hand, there's no question I'd pick it over my iPad for getting work done.
Things change dramatically with the iPad slotted into the Kensington keyboard case It's still not up to the PC standard, but it works well enough that it fades into the background as I write stories for CNET. (I'm writing this piece right now on my iPad.) That's high praise: so many devices never quite get out of my way and let me do what I need to do. It's not that designers want them to be obtrusive; it's just that there are limits to what's possible. Voice dictation, on-screen smartphone keyboards, gesture controls -- they all have their place, but they're still fundamentally too clumsy.
The KeyFolio has a microfiber interior that cleans your screen when it's folded up flat and that props up the iPad in a convenient position for typing and using the touch screen otherwise. You can use it on your lap, but only just barely: to keep the iPad propped up enough and not slip down my knees, my hands were uncomfortably close to my belly when using the keyboard. The iPad is smaller than a conventional laptop, though, so even though the arrangement is pretty deep, you should do OK on airplanes as long as you can get the seat-back tray to fold down. (I use the earlier KeyFolio Expert, but there are many newer models from Kensington, not to mention options from rivals.)
When you're trying to get work done, you really benefit from an iPad with a faster processor. iOS's multitasking shortcomings are on display when I'm working, too: switching among apps is pokey on my third-generation iPad. I have too many apps open -- Google Drive, a browser, Gmail, and Apple Pages, for example -- I have to wait for the apps have to reload when I switch among them.
Another beef: the KeyFolio's key response can be too twitchy. I often suffered two spaces in a row when typing, and multiple letters, too, though less often. This seemed to be software specific to a degree; it happened in Google Docs but not as much in Apple Pages, for example. Eventually I gave up trying to deal with the spacebar problem and just used search and replace to wipe them out. (Some kind of cloud connection, be it Google Drive or iCloud or an Office 365 subscription, is really necessary for tablet productivity work.)
The keyboard itself has a very nice touch -- much nicer than many laptop and external keyboards I've used, and that's saying something. I don't mind stabbing at the screen to reposition a cursor, though I find the keyboard controls easier for selecting blocks of text than the touch-screen copy and paste mechanism.
And I have to sing Kensington's praises for including a right-delete key, not just a backspace. Right-delete is extremely useful for those of us who handle a lot of text.
The biggest usability problem for me is that the right-hand shift key is very small and right next to the up arrow. I sometimes navigated my cursor to the wrong area instead of capitalizing a letter. Indeed, the control keys can be a bit touchy to use since they're so small. After more usage, I'm sure one gets more accustomed to their location, but you want to be careful.
A row of control keys across the top is useful for global control of the iPad -- volume, brightness, fast forward and rewind, lock. A home key is convenient since a double tap will let you cycle among apps. And a find key will launch iOS 7's search tool.
The keyboard, which connects easily using Bluetooth, charges with a Micro USB port.
Getting a keyboard for a tablet certainly isn't necessary if you already have a PC. But it can be a worthwhile idea if you need to share devices among family members, plan to travel light, or are postponing your PC upgrade because you just blew your budget on a tablet instead.
It's not going to be my go-to gadget when it's time to crank out the text, but it's good enough to confirm my belief that despite Microsoft's fumblings with Windows 8, the tablet and the PC are on a path of convergence.