Writer tests iPad keyboards under deadline fire

With my laptop laid up at the Apple store awaiting a new hard drive and my CNET deadline closing in, I had to turn to my iPad into an effective word processor. Which setup worked best?

John Lewinski
Crave freelancer John Scott Lewinski covers tech, cars, and entertainment out of Los Angeles. As a journalist, he's traveled from Daytona Beach to Cape Town, writing for more than 30 national magazines. He's also a very amateur boxer known for his surprising lack of speed and ability to absorb punishment. E-mail John.
John Lewinski
5 min read

ThinkGeek's iPad Bluetooth Keyboard doesn't "click," but the keystrokes are confident and clean. ThinkGeek

Sometimes, gadget reviewers need to turn to their test products in an emergency. I found myself in that very predicament last week when I was on deadline for CNET--just as the hard drive on my MacBook Pro decided to pack it in permanently.

Editors can't print your whining about computer glitches, and you don't get paid much for plaintive cries of "I'm working on it." So when said laptop died on me with only a couple hours left to hand in my commentary on the anniversary of John F. Kennedy's "moon speech," I had to look to my iPad to get the piece written and turned over to the news desk.

You can get any number of word-processing programs for the iPad. For better file swap between my tablet and MacBook Pro, I turn to Pages. Though some say there are better app options, I figured Apple's native program would help me pound out several paragraphs mourning the current state of the American space program. But I can't use that pop-up virtual keyboard the iPad provides for entering text for anything more than an e-mail or a Facebook post. I've tried, and I end up with typed-up pseudo-English that resembles a code pumped out by the Nazi Enigma machine.

You've heard the cliche about an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters eventually creating all of Shakespeare's works? That simian scribble is what comes out of my iPad if I can't hear the comforting "click" of keyboard strokes.

After realizing all of that, I unpacked the five keyboards I had on hand to review and loaded them up for use in this order: the Bluetooth Laser Virtual Keyboard from ThinkGeek, Logitech Keyboard Case by Zagg for iPad 2, the Apple Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard, the Omnio Wow-Keys and the ThinkGeek Bluetooth Keyboard Case for iPad.

iPad keyboards tested on deadline (photos)

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These are hardly the only options on the market, and some of them have already been reviewed by the gadget crew here at CNET. But my personal crisis offered an excellent test as to how fast I could get these items out of the box and working with President Kennedy and the Apollo Crew waiting.

The Bluetooth Laser Virtual Keyboard from ThinkGeek: This "keyboard" is actually a monolithic canister that sits on your desk and projects a glowing simulation of a keyboard onto any flat surface. The projector also includes sensors that read where and how your fingers break into the laser field while you type, thus creating the keystrokes needed to compose words. First, the good news--it works. I was able to start my essay with this device without the potential nightmare of my index finger reaching for "a" and instead typing "mmmm" and a silent "q."

Its major drawback is the same hang-up I have with the iPad's built-in keyboard. I need the click. Also, I spent so much time looking at where my fingers were going in the laser field that it broke my concentration. Finally, its two-hour battery life per charge meant I risked running out of juice before I finished dazzling the online world with my wisdom. In the end, this is a cool product that would be fun to show off, but I needed something more "material."

Logitech Keyboard Case by Zagg for iPad 2: This aluminum-backed mini-keyboard doubles as a MacBook Pro-style case to protect the face of the iPad. But with a little charging, it easily paired up with my device via Bluetooth. The keyboard provides the tactical sensations I need to guide my fingers along. But it "connects" with the iPad physically with merely a plastic ledge where your device "hooks" into the case. In other words, your tablet is more or less hanging there while you work. It took me a couple of tries to catch that "hook," and every failed attempt bounced my iPad's face off of the keyboard.

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But I was in a rush, so we'll give the Zagg the benefit of the doubt and rate it high for the quality of its keyboard. I just needed something more physically secure to work on while my big hands banged away on the keys.

Apple Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard: The modern design of the keyboards on all Apple computing products right now is astoundingly good (in terms of finger spacing and typing design, they might be the best keyboards I've ever used). I rarely miss a keystroke on an Apple laptop or desktop keyboard. So, I was excited to Bluetooth-pair my iPad to my Apple Wireless keys and begin working. The only problem is I've owned two Apple Wireless designs, and both coughed up malfunctioning keys within weeks of purchase. On one, I have a dead "9/(" key, while the other denies me "2/@" use. They're great devices, as long as I'm not writing about Green Bay Packers great Reggie White (No. 92).

The Omnio Wow-Keys: This new player in the keyboard market was late to this desperate game--and an unlikely player in my experiment, considering I intended to use my iPad only and the Wow-Keys only works with Apple laptops, PCs, iPhones, and iPod Touches. You can either connect the Wow-Keys to your computer via USB and use it as a traditional keyboard with hot keys, or you can plug your iPhone or iPod Touch into its special slot and switch over to that device. You then begin typing directly into your iPhone as though it was a dedicated word processor. While my iPad needed to charge a bit, I switched to the Wow-Keys and put the word-processing power of my iPhone to work.

After further use since the dark day of the Kennedy deadline, I can report that the Wow-Keys works perfectly and adds new functionality to the iPhone. But, it needs a power source to run via USB, and I had no computer. So it wasn't a viable solution during my emergency tests.

ThinkGeek Bluetooth Keyboard Case for iPad: It comes in a simple white box, looking a bit like a generic package of cornflakes. But this folding leather case with built-in keyboard paired with my tablet quickly, required minimal charging, and offered the most sensitive and touch-pleasing keyboard. I can't say how long it'll last or how durable the case will be, but I delivered the finished article to my editors on time using this keyboard.

OK, so it wasn't the most scientific of gadget try-outs for Crave, but it was an honest trial by fire. Have you had any experience with these or similar devices? If so, tell us about it in the comments section.