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Hands on with TyPad: A keyboardified iPad case

The iPad doesn't need a keyboard--but having one around can be useful. A new case called the TyPad serves as both case and keyboard. Does it work?

Josh Lowensohn/CNET

I like to go naked. And I'm not talking clothes--but with gadgets.

I've never been a big fan of cases for anything, be it my cell phone or a computer. As a result, things can get dinged up or completely destroyed when dropped, but so far I've been pretty lucky. That's why I'm perplexed by my enjoyment of something called the TyPad. It's a gadget case, but one with a few tricks up its sleeve, that's making me seriously consider covering up--my iPad at least.

The $129 TyPad is a leather case for the iPad that's got a built-in Bluetooth keyboard. When your iPad has been inserted into its open top flap, the setup resembles a clamshell computer. In fact, during the last week of my testing it, people were frequently coming up to ask what kind of computer I was using--not realizing what they saw was just a case. Their next questions were usually where can it be purchased and how much does it cost.

The keyboard that's built into the case feels about the same as those silicone, roll-up USB keyboards that can be had for around $15 to $20. In this case, though, it's got a built-in lithium ion battery that keeps it juiced up without leeching any power from your iPad's battery, or taking up the device's 30-pin connector. You are, however, required to carry around a USB-to-Micro-USB adapter if you wish to charge the keyboard on the go, since that's the only plug on the device.

The keyboard packs a rated standby time of 100 days and 90 hours of typing. When the battery gets down to about an hour, it will begin blinking to let you know. There's also an on/off switch you can toggle to prevent draining the battery when you're not using the keyboard.

Typing on the TyPad's keyboard is a satisfactory experience, though it's a far cry from using a proper laptop or even Apple's iPad keyboard accessory, which is built like a standard desktop keyboard. Once you get used to the feel of the keys and their placement, though, it's easy to fly through e-mail replies or a proper, multiparagraph document.

Where you can get tripped up, though, is that some of the shortcuts found on the iPad's digital keyboard don't come along for the analog ride. For instance, hitting the space bar twice will give you two spaces, unlike when you do it on the iPad and a period gets added. The TyPad also won't autocapitalize letters right after a period, which the iPad does when you're typing onscreen. This takes a little getting used to.

While I found the keyboard buttons and placement to be fine, several of the people I showed it to--friends and colleagues--all found a deal killer: there's no right shift key. This was never a problem for me since I stick to the left one almost exclusively, but for them, it was the cause of great frustration.

Robert Lotz, the TyPad's designer, explained to me in a phone interview last week that the lack of that right shift key can be blamed on the diminutive size. "For our next generation we're already working on that. And for future versions of this product that will support other tablets that are out there." Some of those will include RIM's PlayBook, Samsung's Galaxy Tab, and Best Buy's upcoming Rocketfish tablet, Lotz said.

From the side
The TyPad from the side, at its primary angle. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Another deal killer might be that you cannot lock your device into any one particular position. The screen rests on the keyboard section rather insecurely on a rounded wedge. When put up in clamshell mode, the screen sits up just fine, but if you want to adjust it beyond that, you're limited to a very small number of alternate angles on a textured section of the keyboard itself.

This limitation can be especially frustrating when trying to use the TyPad on your lap, as I found while writing a big chunk of this story from a seat waiting at the airport. The whole unit tends to bob around with each keystroke, and this resulted in my iPad either tipping back, or flopping down onto the keyboard a number of times. You also are unable to push it back far enough to be looking at the screen from a 45-degree angle, a position good for movie watching.

TyPad on a plane
The TyPad being used on an airplane seat-back tray. With the Bluetooth off, of course. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Where the TyPad manages to work out quite well, though, is on airplanes--but only as a stand. On a short-hop flight I took last weekend, the TyPad performed beautifully while on the seat-back tray. Even with a few unexpected bumps, the screen stayed where it was supposed to, and did not flop over when the guy in front of me pushed back to take a nap. Worth noting though, is that you can't use the keyboard, since it transmits a signal--a big no-no for portable electronic devices on planes.

So, faults aside, the overall experience of using the TyPad is positive. While the iPad can be used in full without a keyboard, if you ever plan to take it out as a work machine, this is a package that will protect it, and give your typing a boost--that is, as long as you have a flat, stable surface nearby.

Is it worth the $129 sticker price? That's the hard question to answer. If you do the math of finding a leather folio case, and buying Apple's Bluetooth keyboard, you'll no doubt save a little money and get something that's lighter to carry when you don't care about having a keyboard. It's the fact that you're getting both in one package that makes the TyPad appealing.

Updated at 9 p.m. PDT to add note about not using the Bluetooth features of the TyPad on airplanes.